Born Emily Drinkard, 1933, Newark, NJ; married to Nitch (a Newark factory worker; died 1951) and Delia (a homemaker, died 1941), youngest of eight siblings; married first husband, 1954, one child (singer Gary, born, 1958); separated from first husband; married second husband, John, 1959; two children (songwriter Michael, born, 1962, and singer Whitney, born August 9, 1963, in Newark, NJ); separated from John in 1980, divorced in 1993. Addresses: Record company--House of Blues Music, 8439 Sunset Boulevard, Suite 404, West Hollywood, CA 90069.

Her stardom and commercial success may have far eclipsed that of her mother, but Whitney Houston isn't the only musical talent of note in her family. Having made a name for herself as a gifted singer of gospel, blues, and pop in a career that spanned more than 30 years, Whitney's mother Cissy can hardly be considered a slouch. From television and radio to theater and commercials, from gospel to secular, from backing vocals to solo work, Cissy's career has been long, rich, and varied.

The youngest of the eight children born to factory worker Nitch and homemaker Delia Drinkard, Cissy Houston started singing as a child. As a five-year-old, she began singing with siblings Anne, Nicky, and Larry in the family gospel act the Drinkard Singers in her hometown of Newark, New Jersey. Houston and nieces Dee Dee and Dionne Warwick who were also Drinkard Singers for a time later sang backing vocals for the likes of Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke, among others.

From 1965 to 1970, Houston was the lead vocalist for the pop group Sweet Inspirations, which she formed with Sylvia Sherwell, Myrna Smith, and Estelle Brown. The group performed on hundreds of songs for other artists, including Neil Diamond, Aretha Franklin, and Elvis Presley before recording on its own. In 1968, the group released its only two albums Sweet Inspirations and What the World Needs Now is Love and earned a top 20 hit and a Grammy nomination with the single "Sweet Inspiration." Houston soon left for a solo career, however, while her former bandmates continued as backup vocalists for other artists.

On her own Houston became the first singer to record "Midnight Train to Georgia," which later became a huge hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips. Houston teamed with Warwick again, joining her tour as one of three backing vocalists. She worked with Connie Francis and Nina Simone, as well, and recorded the songs "Think It Over" and "Tomorrow" from the hit musical Annie.

For a time, Houston scaled back her musical schedule to raise her three children Gary, Michael, and Whitney and spend more time with then-husband John. She returned to a more full-time music career in the late 1970s, when she released the albums Cissy Houston in 1977, Warning Danger in 1979, and 1980's Step Aside for a Lady.

Besides her solo efforts, Houston also continued to lend her talents to other musicians. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, she was probably most visible as a backing vocalist, working on Aretha Franklin's Aretha, Love All the Hurt Away, and Jump to It, and Chaka Khan's Chaka. She recorded backup vocals for Luther Vandross' Never Too Much and For Always, For Love, as well as his 1991 album Power of Love. She also joined forces with Chuck Jackson for 1992's I'll Take Care of You, which raised funds for the Rhythm 'N' Blues Foundation. "She's worthy of any accolade thrown her way," Vandross told People in 1998. "I think she could have made a wonderful opera singer. Her voice is amazing."

Her life was the subject of a Public Broadcasting Service television program in 1988. Entitled Cissy Houston: Sweet Inspiration, the show featured her in sessions with artists including David Bowie, Vandross, and Warwick and demonstrated her impact on the music industry. She also brought her music to the public via nightclub performances, which earned her a good deal of critical praise. She was one of the performers on the 1989 television special The Songwriters Hall of Fame 20th Anniversary: The Magic is Music, joining a varied lineup that included Michael Bolton, Crystal Gayle, Patti LaBelle, k.d. lang, and Tommy Tune.

Houston encouraged her daughter's singing early on and took her on tour and to recording sessions. Houston also lent her backing vocals to the hits "How Will I Know" and "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)" from Whitney's first two albums.

1996's Face to Face on the House of Blues label came after Houston took a fairly lengthy hiatus from recording. The album marked a return to her gospel roots, and featured a 30-member Newark, New Jersey choir. Houston has a long history with Newark's New Hope Baptist Church choir, serving for periods as its music and choir director and hosting the weekly church radio broadcast. "I'm very proud of this album," she told Jet in 1996. "I did not want to go into a studio with music I wasn't in love with. I have so much to say through gospel songs, and I believe I write much better gospel lyrics and music than pop." Fellow music industry personnel apparently agreed, as Houston won her first Grammy award for the album.

Houston also contributed to the gospel soundtrack for the 1997 film The Preacher's Wife, in which Whitney starred. In a review of the album in People, the elder Houston was praised as one of the veteran singers who "[blew] Whitney away with their authority . . . [and] tempt you to seek out their albums for the gospel truth." Houston released a second solo gospel album on House of Blues in 1997.

In 1998 Houston shared her life story with How Sweet the Sound: My Life with God and Gospel, an autobiography she wrote with Jonathan Singer. The book chronicled her life and faith, including tragedies such as the death of her mother when she was only eight and the loss of her father to cancer when she was 18. Those expecting a gossipy tell-all were likely to be disappointed, however. As Houston told Jetin 1998, "I know people are so interested to know what you did on the road with this one and that one. I didn't want to write that because whatever I did on the road, I've forgotten ... I think it's lousy that people write about people who they worked with . I did not want to do that. I said if I can write about my gospel and my faith and my experiences, then I would consider [writing a memoir]. So that's how this book came about."

Houston may never match her daughter Whitney in terms of fame, but the elder Houston seemed pleased with her career and the religious beliefs she instilled in her children. "A lot of things I've done have come late in life, and it's like a whole new career starting up," she told Jet in 1998. "I don't have any regrets about the way I planned and lived my life . I am very proud of what I've become."

by K. Michelle Moran

Cissy Houston's Career

Started singing with the family gospel group the Drinkard Singers in Newark, 1938; formed group Sweet Inspirations in 1960s (members alternately included Sylvia Sherwell, Myrna Smith, Estelle Brown, and nieces Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick); sang backup with Sweet Inspirations for Atlantic, Muscle Shoals, and New York Records; recorded two albums with Sweet Inspirations before leaving to pursue a solo career; backup singer for Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, among others; has recorded with Luther Vandross, David Bowie, and daughter Whitney Houston; subject of a 1988 Public Broadcasting Service program, Cissy Houston: Sweet Inspiration; performed on the 1989 television special, The Songwriters Hall of Fame 20th Anniversary: The Magic is Music; signed with House of Blues label and released gospel albumFace to Face, 1996; published autobiography, How Sweet the Sound: My Life With God and Gospel, 1998.

Cissy Houston's Awards

Grammy Award, 1997, for Face to Face.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 12 years ago

Thank you Mrs. Houston for your contribution to music, especially gospel and for your gift to us all; Whitney. Much love to you and your family.

almost 14 years ago

I love ms houston because she is very inspirational.....

almost 16 years ago

I am blessed every time I play "FAce To Face". What an anointing! Praise God for Cissy Houston. Cissy, we are sisters in the Lord and I have shares your music with many folks. I was in Alaske in the Arctic Circle for almost 3 years (2203-2006), and played your music to a hungry audence every Sunday on my radio program. Now I play it for all my friends in North Carolina. Thank you Cissy for being obedient to your calling and returning to your roots of gospel.