Whitney Houston will be remembered as one of the most successful acts in pop’s history, selling more than 170m records. Unfortunately she will also be remembered for her downfall. On Saturday the singer, 48, was found dead in a Beverly Hills hotel. The cause was not immediately apparent but speculation has inevitably centred on her struggle with drug addiction, which wrecked her career and her voice.

It was sadly ironic that she died as the music industry massed in LA for its annual awards ceremony, the Grammys, which she was due to attend on Sunday night. For Houston was brought up as black American pop royalty. Her mother, who survives her, was the celebrated soul singer Cissy Houston, who made her name in the family gospel band the Drinkard Sisters. Dionne Warwick was Whitney’s first cousin. Aretha Franklin was her godmother – “Auntie Ree” to the young girl. Music surrounded Houston from the earliest age.

Born in 1963 in Newark, New Jersey, Houston made her debut at 11 singing the spiritual “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” in a Baptist church. In her teens she worked as a fashion model and session singer. Clive Davis of Arista Records talent-spotted her and signed her to a solo deal. The album Whitney Houston followed in 1985. Davis’s faith was rewarded. It went on to sell more than 13m copies, the most ever for a female debut.

Houston’s talent was to translate her powerful, gospel-trained voice into the smooth idiom of 1980s pop-soul. She was promoted as “The Voice”, a singer blessed with a remarkable five-octave range. That was record-label kidology, such a range being almost impossible. Yet she gave it credence with her versatility and vocal muscle. Hers was a dramatic style of singing, at times melodramatic. It gave emotional force to a style of pop whose production values were growing increasingly synthesiser-based and mechanical.

For the next decade Houston’s run of hits continued. Her 1987 album Whitney entered the US charts at number one; its wonderfully breezy single “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” went on to become a 1980s standard, as redolent of its era as shoulder pads and big hair. In 1992 she made the film The Bodyguard with Kevin Costner, to which she also contributed a cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”. In Houston’s hands the country song was turned into an enormous power ballad, sung with magnificent extravagance. It was the best-selling single in pop’s history, spending 14 weeks at number one in the US.

Houston’s career hit its peak in 1992. But the year also set the stage for her downfall. She married Bobby Brown, a singer in the R&B group New Edition. The pair had a daughter together, but the marriage, which ended in 2006, proved a disaster. Brown is blamed for introducing Houston to drugs. She continued to be a big recording star,

selling 7m copies of the soundtrack to her 1995 film Waiting to Exhale, but a reputation for unreliability began to stick, with cancelled concerts and erratic public appearances.

In 2001 she renewed her contract with Arista for $100m, the largest record deal ever. It made her one of the richest women in pop, but proved a bad bet for the label. In the next decade the extent of Houston’s addiction to crack cocaine became clear. A comeback tour in 2010 was a travesty. Houston’s voice was ruined; fans booed and walked out. Her decline was all the more shocking for its contrast with the wholesome, sunny singer of her 1980s heyday.

She is survived by her daughter, Bobbi Kristina

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