She may be best known for her soulful ballads and upbeat pop tunes, but gospel music was Whitney Houston’s first musical love. The singer developed her powerful voice in the church and told MTV in 1997 that the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, where her funeral will be held on Saturday , was her family’s “second home.”
“My root is gospel. My root is not R&B; my root is gospel music,” Houston said in a 1990 interview featured in Wednesday night’s MTV special “Whitney Houston: In Her Own Words.” “And gospel is not something that you can categorize. It’s not black, it’s not white; it comes from the soul. It is a feeling that comes from the soul.”
Houston learned to sing from her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, who, along with her cousin Dionne Warwick and godmother Aretha Franklin, was a notable figure in gospel music in the 1960s and ’70s. As a child, Houston joined the New Hope church’s junior choir, where her talent was quickly rewarded with solos, the first of which was reportedly the hymn “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”
“Wherever I go, it doesn’t matter, I always tell the world of the love that I have for God and Jesus,” Houston told MTV of her faith.
She even admitted that she had reservations about being a pop singer rather than a gospel one, but concluded that she was able to bring God’s word to a broader audience as a superstar. “He said, ’I chose you to be mass,’ ” Houston said in 1997. “I chose you to take that voice I gave you and to spread it around because I know you’ll always think about me. And no matter how far you go, or no matter where you go, I’ll be knocking at your door, saying, ’Whitney, remember me?’ ”
Houston returned to her first musical love in 1996 when she recorded six gospel songs with the Georgia Mass Choir for the soundtrack to “The Preacher’s Wife.” One of the tracks, “I Believe in You and Me,” was a top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. The record, which Houston also produced, went on to become the best-selling gospel album of all time.
“We all can be angels,” Houston told MTV. “It doesn’t have to be somebody dropping down from the sky and just appearing.” There’s no doubt that the faith Houston was raised with is now comforting her friends and family in the wake of her tragic death. Gospel music will play a large role in the celebration of Houston’s life this weekend in Newark, with Grammy-winning gospel singer and longtime family friend Marvin Winans providing the eulogy at her funeral and Franklin singing at the service.
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