True Believer

For the 60-member youth choir at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., the threat of fire and brimstone pales in comparison to the wrath of Cissy Houston. “Don’t be talking, chewing gum or acting crazy!” Houston bellows, as she sends her charges marching upstairs from the basement for Sunday morning service. Houston’s superstar daughter, Whitney, who sang in her mother’s choir as a teenager, has heard this tune before. “She don’t take no mess,” Whitney says of Cissy’s brand of tough love. “She’s very demanding, but she gave me the outline of what it takes to be the best.”

Now Mom is passing that outline along to the rest of us. In her recently published autobiography How Sweet the Sound: My Life with God and Gospel, Houston, 64, with cowriter Jonathan Singer, recounts her personal and professional peaks and valleys, from her early years singing gospel with her family in Newark to her ’60s stint as a background vocalist for such pop icons as her niece Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley. “I wanted to talk about my life and my experiences with God,” she says. “It’s important that my children and grandchildren know whence they came and that there was quality.”

Of that there should be no doubt. Houston has reaped her share of awards, including her first Grammy last year for her 1996 gospel album Face to Face. “She’s worthy of any accolade thrown her way,” says singer Luther Vandross, a close friend. “I think she could have made a wonderful opera singer. Her voice is amazing.” Her soprano soared on such landmark recordings as Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” (1967) and Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” (1969). But by the end of the ’60s, tired of being on the road and away from her then-husband, John, and their children (Gary, now 40, Michael, 36, and Whitney, who turns 35 Aug. 9), Houston lightened her workload. “I think she felt in some way she was neglecting us,” says Whitney. “She could have branched out and done whatever she wanted to do, but she wanted to take care of her family.”

Family has always come first for Houston, the youngest of eight children born to Nitch Drinkard, a Newark factory worker, and wife Delia, a homemaker. She learned what it was like to grow up with just one parent after Delia suffered her first stroke when Houston was almost 5 and died three years later of a cerebral hemorrhage. “That was devastating,” says Houston, whose father died of stomach cancer when she was 18. “I didn’t know what death meant. And nobody really said anything about it. All I knew is I wouldn’t see my mother anymore.”

Houston found solace in music. By that time, she was performing with her sister Anne and brothers Nicky and Larry as the Drinkard Singers. But she didn’t really connect with the gospel itself until age 14, when she had a spiritual awakening while listening to “Count Your Blessings” in church. “I started realizing what I was singing about,” she says. “I found God for myself and felt Him in my own heart.”

By the time she was 23, Houston, then pregnant with Gary (and separated from her first husband after two years of marriage), was working at the RCA factory in Harrison, N.J., while gigging with the Drinkard Singers alongside such gospel greats as Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward. While singing on a TV show the following year, she met John Houston, an Army serviceman and confessed “gospel groupie” whom she married in 1959. Secular background work for the Drifters and Dionne Warwick followed, and Houston finally quit her day job, figuring she could earn in two days of session singing what she made in one week of putting together cathode-ray tubes for television sets.

In 1963 she and three other singers formed a backup group that became known as the Sweet Inspirations and performed around the country with various headliners. Despite their touring success, Houston longed for the comforts of home. “I don’t know if the road was really for me,” she says. “My surroundings have to be a certain status or else I’m miserable. Some of those hotel rooms get on my nerves.”

The racism that was prevalent in the South in the ’60s made touring even more of a challenge, but Houston was. up to it. “When we used to travel through the South,” she says, “I acted just like I was home, like a fool, I guess. I would go into a diner and say, ‘I would like such and such.’ They would say, ‘You from up North?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I am,’ and they would give me what I wanted. I guess God was with me.” By 1967 the Sweet Inspirations were spicing up a string of soon-to-be classics, including Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” and Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.” Recording the latter was a memorable professional experience. “Van Morrison was a very strange person,” she says. “Not particularly friendly, kind of shy and withdrawn. But when he started getting in front of that mike and singing, it was great.”

The Sweet Inspirations worked similar magic on both their peers and the public. Shortly after the studio turn with Morrison, Elvis Presley invited the quartet to sing backup during his now-legendary series of Las Vegas concerts. After those shows, Houston says, “we would jam with him for an hour, singing gospel. He really loved it, had a feel for it and was tickled to have four ‘church sisters’ backing him up.” As a token of his gratitude, Presley (whom Houston’s husband affectionately called Elvis Pretzel) presented Houston with a bracelet engraved on the outside with her real name and on the inside with his pet name for her: Squirrelly. That same year, Houston and her singing partners scored their own Top 20 hit with the tune “Sweet Inspiration” and watched their reputation soar. Cissy, in particular, “was a terrific singer,” says Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder of Atlantic Records. “She has wonderful pitch and was always performing at her top level.”

Talent clearly runs in the family. Houston’s son Gary also works as a background vocalist and Michael as a songwriter, while Whitney has become one of the world’s biggest pop stars. “When she said she wanted to sing, it wasn’t anything I wanted her to do,” says Houston. “But I knew I had to be there to coach her in the dangers of this business.” That remains a full-time gig. “I try to help her cope with it,” says Houston of the media hoopla surrounding Whitney’s turbulent marriage to singer Bobby Brown. “It’s hurting her, and it’s hurting me.”

But the beat must go on. Although she doesn’t stray too far from her three-bedroom condo in Fort Lee, N.J., Houston is as busy as ever. Last year she released her second solo gospel CD on the House of Blues label, and she sings backup on Luther Vandross’s forthcoming album I Know. Unfortunately, Houston’s romantic life lately has not been as charmed as her professional one. In the late ’70s, after John had a massive heart attack and a subsequent bypass, Houston felt her husband had changed, and the couple drifted apart. They separated in 1980 and divorced in 1993. “He’s remarried now,” Houston says. “We don’t see a lot of each other anymore. We used to see a great deal of each other. We’re all right. We speak. That’s something.”

Although the unattached grandmother of six (including Bobbi Kristina, 5, Whitney’s daughter with Bobby Brown) is between relationships, Houston hasn’t given up on finding Mr. Right. But he’d better be prepared for a party of three. “God said, ‘And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world,’ ” Houston says. “That tells me He’ll go anywhere I take Him.”

Jeremy Helligar

Sue Miller in Newark

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