Whitney Houston Honored 10 Years After Her Death with PEOPLE Special Edition

How the pop icon influenced a generation of stars from Alicia Keys to Beyonce to Adele

whitney houston

That voice. There's no way to capture the full magic of Whitney Houston, of her talent, of what she meant to so many people. "I always wanted to sound like Whitney Houston," Adele has said. "I remember being 17 in front of mirrors, singing along to 'I Wanna Dance with Somebody' with my hair spray in my hand." Same for another fan in Texas. "I, like every singer, always wanted to be just like her," Beyoncé told Essence. "She is our queen, and she opened doors and provided a blueprint for all of us."

Ten years after Houston's shocking death at age 48, PEOPLE is celebrating her life and unmatched career in a new special edition. The photo-filled issue goes back to Houston's New Jersey childhood, from early solos in the church choir, to accompanying her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, on-stage in Carnegie Hall at age 15, to becoming a global superstar and six-time Grammy Award winner.

In a mere seven years, from 1985 to 1992, Houston sold a remarkable 26 million albums in the United States alone, racked up ten No. 1 Hot 100 singles, and starred in a film, The Bodyguard, that grossed more than $400 million. "Her unprecedented success brought Black women into the absolute highest reaches of the music industry's pantheon," said Alicia Keys when she inducted Houston into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2020.

Whitney Houston
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Yet when Houston was first introduced to the world by Arista Records founder Clive Davis on The Merv Griffin Show in 1983, she looked like anything but a transformative pop culture force. She appeared nervous, clasping her hands as she sang, her voice a whisper. Whitney was just 19 when she performed "Home," a song from the musical The Wiz. She was dressed in a puff-sleeved purple top and a floor-length black skirt, looking like she had just been dropped off from the prom.

But as the number built to a crescendo and the former choirgirl loosened up, out came that voice — a sound that could move souls. The world witnessed the birth of a superstar. "You won't forget that name," Griffin declared over the din of the studio applause. "Whitney Houston."

Released in 1985, Houston's self-titled studio album set a record for the highest-selling debut by a solo artist, spending 14 weeks atop the U.S. charts. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, MTV was newly influential, and Houston's love-conquers-all ballads came as sweet music to the ears of both pop fans and MTV executives—who were getting heat for oversexed video imagery and for under-representing Black artists. "You Give Good Love," "Saving All My Love for You," "Greatest Love of All" and the infectious "How Will I Know" lit up the airwaves. Her follow-up Whitney, released in 1987, debuted at No. 1 in Billboard and was just as massive. The sophomore set launched four consecutive No. 1 singles ("I Wanna Dance with Somebody [Who Loves Me]," "Didn't We Almost Have It All," "So Emotional" and "Where Do Broken Hearts Go"), pushing global sales to 17 million.

"Here I come with the right skin, the right voice, the right style, the right everything," Houston said in 1987, looking back at her surreal run. "A little girl makes the crossover, and vooom! It's a little easier for the others."

But Houston herself would not always have an easy time of it. She had a troubled marriage to singer Bobby Brown, with whom she had a daughter, Bobbi Kristina. And for years Houston struggled with drug addiction. Later in her life, she attempted to put her career back on track, but the toll on her health had also meant a toll on her legendary voice. Still, she loved to sing — and despite losing some top notes, that voice could yet thrill. At a Feb. 9, 2012 party for her friend R&B vocalist Kelly Price, Houston grabbed the mic for an impromptu duet of a hymn, "Jesus Loves Me," with Price. Recalled one partygoer, "The audience melted."

Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown. Lester Cohen/WireImage

"I saw nothing other than somebody who was happy, who was moving forward, who was having a good time," Price told Today of their time on stage. "Her daughter was there with her. She was dancing, she was smiling, she was singing." Less than 48 hours later, a member of Houston's entourage discovered her submerged unconscious in the bathtub of her room in the Beverly Hilton Hotel. EMTs attempted to revive her, but to no avail. She died on Feb. 11, 2012.

"Her music will live forever," said Keys at the Rock Hall of Fame. "That music, that everlasting voice, is her final, generous gift to us."

PEOPLE's Whitney Houston: The Timeless Star's Life & Legacy is available now at Amazon and wherever magazines are sold.

Related Articles