It’s hard to imagine how hard it was for Cissy Houston to write this book.
Cissy Houston is the mother of the late Whitney Houston, the extraordinarily talented but deeply troubled singer who died in a bathtub in a Beverly Hills hotel just over a year ago. Her death followed long years of drug abuse. An autopsy report called it an accidental drowning, and listed cocaine use and heart disease as contributing factors.
Whitney was 48 and trying to make a comeback when she died.
Moms love their daughters, and Cissy Houston is no exception. It would not have been surprising if her book had been nothing but a whitewash – one of those tomes that remembers only the good times, pretends the bad times never happened and uses up half its pages blasting away at all the people who criticized or made unkind observations about her daughter.
That would have been the easier way out. Cissy Houston, courageously, takes a different path.
She writes with great love for her daughter – whom she always refers to by her childhood nickname of “Nippy” – and tremendous admiration and pride for her musical accomplishments. But she also tells the honest, heartbreaking story of a great career devastated by drugs and bad choices.
At times, Cissy puts part of the blame on herself, wishing she had done a better job of communicating with her daughter and finding ways to help her with her problems.
“I don’t know, maybe some of that was my fault,” Cissy writes. “I was touchy about certain things, and quick to tell her … Nippy was complicated, and she could be fragile. She always preferred to hide her bad news, rather than tell me and hear what I had to say about it. Nobody likes to have their mama angry … Maybe she was a little afraid to talk to me, afraid that I would snap at her.”
If you, as a Whitney Houston fan, were shocked and disheartened by her drugged-out appearances in the 2005 “reality show” she made with her then-husband Bobby Brown, you can only imagine how bad that show made her mother feel.
A deeply religious, no-nonsense woman, Cissy Houston says she tried for years to get her daughter off drugs. She once moved in with her for months, trying to keep her on the right path. After that failed, she went to Whitney’s Atlanta mansion in early 2005 with sheriff’s deputies and a court order, forcing Whitney to enter a drug rehabilitation program.
“I’m not going to lose you … I’m not going to stand by and watch this happen. I want my daughter back!” Cissy yelled at her emaciated, confused-looking daughter.
“She just stood there looking at me. The light had gone out of her eyes,” Cissy writes. “[This] was the worst I’d ever felt in my life.”
At first enraged at her mother, Whitney eventually put some effort into rehab and, for awhile at least, stopped using drugs.
But later, cocaine took over her life again, and it all ended tragically in that Beverly Hills hotel bathtub last year.
“Remembering Whitney” is a sad and moving story that will not easily be forgotten. Cissy Houston’s ordeal, unfortunately, is one endured by tens of thousands of parents all over America every day. Drug abuse is a very real and growing epidemic in this country.
What makes the story so sad is remembering what a brilliant performer Whitney was. Sign on to youtube.com sometime and check out her performances from the mid-1980s, when she became a star. She was absolutely gorgeous, with a sweet, bubbly personality. She was a fine actress and superb dancer. But her real talent was her soaring, deeply expressive voice. A one-in-a-million voice, like a young Aretha Franklin.
Whitney sold more than 170 million records and videos, making her one of the most successful recording artists of all time.
“You finally found the greatest singer I’ve ever heard in my life,” singer Tony Bennett told recording industry executive Clive Davis after hearing Whitney for the first time.
Whitney grew up in Newark, N.J., in a musical family that had deep roots in the church. Like her mom, she learned to sing in a gospel choir.
Even if she hadn’t raised a world-famous daughter, Cissy’s story would be fairly interesting in itself. She too was a child prodigy in the music world. She and several family members performed all over the eastern United States in a very popular gospel group called the Drinkard Singers.
As a young performer, she met, romanced and nearly married the brilliant soul singer, Sam Cooke.
Later, Cissy became one of the most successful backup singers in the recording industry. The list of people she performed with includes Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Donny Hathaway, Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan, the J. Geils Band and David Bowie. As one of the Sweet Inspirations, she traveled with Elvis for months at a time.
Cissy’s lilting vocal in Franklin’s ballad “Ain’t No Way” is one of the prettiest backup vocals ever recorded in popular music. She also has a niece who is a pretty good singer – one Dionne Warwick.
Cissy was thrilled when her little “Nippy,” the talented girl who emulated Michael Jackson, told her that she too wanted to be a performer.
Cissy and her husband, John Houston, considered themselves strict parents, but Whitney and her two brothers all strayed into the world of drugs. But Whitney was totally devoted to becoming a star, and it appeared to her mother that drug use was only an occasional vice. Whitney always seemed to have it under control.
That began to change in 1992, after Whitney married Bobby Brown, a troubled singer who’d had substance abuse problems and a number of scrapes with the law. Cissy confesses that she’s never been a fan of Brown’s music, and especially his classless hit song, “Humpin’ Around.”
But Cissy stops short of heaping all the blame on Brown for her daughter’s demise. She repeatedly states in the book that she feels Brown is, at heart, a decent man. She writes that she is convinced he really did love Whitney, even though she reports that he once spit at her and may have physically abused her.
What upsets Cissy about Brown is that he never did anything to help his wife get off drugs when her life was careening out of control.
“[Unlike] a lot of people, I don’t blame Bobby for introducing Nippy to drugs, or for the things that ended up happening to her,” Cissy writes. “At the same time, I don’t believe he did much to help her. He had his own demons to fight, and spent his fair share of time going to court-ordered rehab and trying to stay straight.”
Cissy writes with great pride of watching her daughter sing the “Star Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl, at her starring movie role in “The Bodyguard” with Kevin Costner, and of other highlights of Whitney’s career. And she writes with great sorrow of watching her haggard, drugged-out daughter losing her vocal chops and struggling to perform in her later years.
The last time she saw her daughter alive was the day after Christmas, 2011. They spent the day in a New York City hotel, laughing and talking about old times. At one point, Cissy sat on a couch and her famous daughter laid her head in her mom’s lap.
“I stroked my baby’s hair, and we just talked and talked,” Cissy writes. “It was the most beautiful Christmas gift I could have had.”
They talked on the phone a few times after that.
Ten weeks later, Cissy buried her daughter.
Now 79, Cissy has taken some criticism for writing this book. Whitney’s only child, daughter Bobby Kristina Houston Brown, has issued a statement disassociating herself from the book, saying she will not read it. She tweeted that she considers the book a form of “disrespect” for her mother.
There’s no doubt Cissy will make some money from this book, and some will condemn her for that, too.
But I would say this – take the time to actually read “Remembering Whitney” before you condemn this woman. A mother’s love – tough love, perhaps – shines through on every page.
By Cissy Houston with Lisa Dickey
297 pages, $27.99
Dan Herbeck is a veteran News reporter and student of American popular music.