The last time Cissy Houston saw her daughter Whitney Houston alive was Christmas 2011, less than two months before her death. “She promised me she was coming home,” recalled the mother of the superstar singer. “And then she came home in a box,” she added. The revealed recollection drew shudders from the packed audience gathered last month to honor Dr. Cissy Houston at the 4th annual Women of Excellence in the Arts program, hosted by New York City’s Riverside Theatre.
This event recognizing the significant contributions of various African American women in the arts, focused solely this year on the Grammy award-winning soul and gospel singer Dr. Cissy Houston. The recipient of two honorary doctorate degrees, Houston is also the author, with writer Lisa Dickey, of the New York Times bestselling book Remembering Whitney: My Story of Love, Loss, and the Night the Music Stopped.
The evening program, introduced by the executive director of the Riverside Theatre, Robin Bell-Stevens, and moderated by the award-winning television news anchor Lori Stokes, gave Houston a rare opportunity to discuss the book as well as her life and career. Houston also commented candidly about her daughter Whitney’s very public rise and fall. “I wanted a daughter, I taught her what I knew about music, and she went her own way,” said Houston, also the mother of two sons and grandmother of six. Houston said she realized her daughter was gifted when Whitney performed her first church solo at about age 11, singing in a way she was taught by her mother, using the music to tell a story.
Early on as a young performer Houston recalled that Whitney’s singing style was ridiculed by some in the media — “they called her ‘whitey’ ” — when she appeared on the program Soul Train, but “Clive Davis couldn’t have made Whitney a star without her talent,” added Houston, bolstered by audience applause. Speaking about later years, Houston said Whitney was warned about the pitfalls and perils of fame, remarking that “the in-crowd always gets you in trouble.” When the moderator asked Cissy Houston if Whitney surrounded herself with the right people, she flatly responded, “No.” “All of my kids were bright and I taught my kids everything they needed to know,” said Houston. “But whatever decisions they made, were their decisions, not mine,” she added.
About her daughter’s personal life Houston said “she married someone who really wasn’t the one for her,” and dismissed speculation over Whitney’s relationship with a woman, but noted “I don’t have anything against gay people.” Houston expressed relief that Whitney “did get help” in the form of an intervention and rehabilitation when heavy drug use threatened to overpower her. And when the moderator inquired if the media did the right thing by covering that aspect of Whitney’s life, Cissy Houston responded, “Maybe I didn’t want to know anything about it, but what else could the media do?” When asked what similarities mother and daughter share, “We sing,” declared Houston, laughing. “I’m very much my own woman and so was she,” she added. “Mommy, all I ever really wanted to do is sing,” Houston recalled Whitney telling her when she was younger. “But things happen in peoples’ lives that they can’t deal with,” added Houston.
A brief Q&A preceded the evening’s closing award presentation of a framed original painting, as well as a musical tribute of “The Greatest Love of All” with vocalist Clarissa Sinceno and bassist Mimi Jones. Graciously accepting an extended standing ovation, Houston thanked the audience for the love and support that eased her loss. She closed the evening with faith-filled words: “Put God first and trust God. That is what has brought me all the way. And teach children so they can learn something better than what they’re doing,” she added.