Whitney Houston and Robyn Crawford: An Incomplete Biography
Author: Evelyn White
April 21, 2015
Truth to tell, the golden, Grammy-winning era of Whitney Houston never rang my bell. During the 1980s ascent of the singer I was instead charmed by such outlier artists as The Weather Girls (“It’s Raining Men”) and Gwen Guthrie (“Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But the Rent”).
Granted, Houston had pipes. But I routinely found her early repertoire–as orchestrated by her mentor Clive Davis–overwrought, showy and undermined by an irksome (to my ear) Casio keyboard vibe.
Her signature “I Will Always Love You” has been pummeled by a parade of American Idol contestants. My world won’t crumble if I never hear it again.
Still, I’ll forever groove to Houston’s soulful interpretation of songs such as “The Boss” (performed during live shows in the late ’90s) and “I’m Every Woman.” She delivered a killer cover of the latter Chaka Khan hit which is included on the soundtrack for The Bodyguard, her 1992 debut film. Ironically, Houston’s success in the movie sparked the downward spiral that would end, twenty years later, with her drug-related death in a hotel bathtub. Houston had spoken numerous times about the rising pressures she faced (exhausting concert tours, gossip, groupies), in the aftermath of the blockbuster film and its chart-topping soundtrack.
In a widely watched 2009 interview, she told Oprah Winfrey that her previously recreational drug use escalated into addiction after The Bodyguard. “I wasn’t happy by that point in time,” she said. “I was losing myself.”
It’s not lost on me that Houston’s descent also dovetailed with her marriage, in July 1992 to Bobby Brown, and with the birth of the couple’s only child, Bobbi Kristina, eight months later.
Fast forward and Bobbi Kristina, 22, remains in a medically induced coma after being moved from an Atlanta hospital to a long-term acute care facility. In an eerie echo of her mother’s exit, she was found face-down and unresponsive, in a bathtub at her home in late January.
Set against the recent three year anniversary of Houston’s death and the plight of Bobbi Kristina, I can’t help but wonder how circumstances might have evolved had the singer made different life choices. In a website post shortly after Houston’s passing, New Yorker writer Hilton Als referenced the singer’s former assistant, Robyn Crawford, and the romance that the women were long rumored to have shared.
A college basketball star, Crawford dropped out of school, in the 1980s, to join the singer’s management team.
“As Houston’s fame increased,” Als wrote, “and [as] she was sanctified by marriage, she drove a wedge between the world she and Crawford inhabited together, becoming a martyr to heterosexuality.”
In his recent book, God’s Other Children: A London Memoir, Vernal W. Scott praised Crawford for the role she played in arranging Houston’s attendance, as a surprise speaker, at a 1991 AIDS rally that he organized. Houston was then in England for a concert tour.
Black and openly gay, Scott later sent a thank you note to Houston. He dispatched a separate copy to Crawford whom, he writes, he admired as “the wind beneath [the singer’s] wings.”
“I reflected upon my meeting with Robyn and Whitney, and especially the chemistry of love that was clearly there between the two women,” Scott writes. “I said that [Whitney’s] sexuality was nobody’s business […] but that I had a need to let her know that there was nothing to be ashamed of.”
Readers can take what they will from one photograph that Scott also includes in the book. The image shows a beaming Crawford and Houston together just as they had arrived at the AIDS event. Houston is clad in jeans and a black leather motorcycle jacket. Standing protectively beside the singer, Crawford is resplendent in a suit jacket, shirt, and tie, looking for all the world as if she had just stepped off the cover of GQ.
Curated by celebrity photographer Randee St. Nicholas, the coffee table book Whitney: Tribute to an Icon (2012) showcases 130 images of the singer taken by twenty-two photographers over three decades. In her acknowledgements, St. Nicholas gives a shout-out to Crawford for her “heart and unwavering integrity.”
However, throughout her life, Houston denied a sexual liaison with Crawford with whom she first shared an apartment and later her sprawling New Jersey estate.
In a 1996 interview with Katie Couric, Houston said: “I brought [Robyn] into this madness. She’s been my friend for years. [But] lesbian and gay I’m not. Two titles I can’t claim.”
Still, in an apparent move to court her legions of LGBTQ fans, Houston agreed to a May 2000 cover story in Out magazine. The piece is noteworthy for the mixed messages that the singer (in full diva mode) puts forth.
“If I was gay, I would be proud to tell you. But I’m not a lesbian, darling [.…] Not gay, not all that bullshit. I don’t want to hear that. It’s over. It’s done.”
By the end of the year Crawford had officially ended her fifteen year alliance with the singer. In a tribute posted on the Esquire’s website on the day Houston died, she said, “When people left her or were told to leave, they could never believe that Whitney would never call them–but she never did […] I think that if she admitted any feeling of sadness or weakness she would crumble [….] She could not pick up the phone.”
She added, “I have never spoken about her until now. And she knew I wouldn’t. She was a loyal friend, and she knew I was never going to be disloyal to her. I was never going to betray her.”
To be sure, “The Voice” bankrolled scores of people who failed her by commission or omission.
As with Scott’s memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life (2012) by Clive Davis stands among a crop of narratives published since Houston’s death that offer food for thought on the singer’s roller coaster career. In his book, Davis, 83, came out as bisexual and revealed that all of his lovers, since 1990, have been male.
That is to say: Houston had been deflecting rumors about her “gay secrets” (as one tabloid headline screamed) for several years while Davis, twice divorced, started bedding men.
There is no evidence that the music mogul ever offered Houston (“his girl, his great discovery,” as Crawford told Esquire) any substantive guidance on a topic about which speculation never ceased.
He devotes less than a paragraph to the matter in his 586-page book, merely noting that Houston found whispers about her close relationship with Crawford “disturbing.”
In an online comment about Soundtrack, a writer observed: “It would seem that Mr. Davis was an important component of keeping Ms. Houston (along with her family members) in the closet for the sake of her career.”
Indeed, FBI records show that in 1992 Houston’s father, John, authorized the payment of “hush money” to a person who had threatened to divulge damning information about her sex life.
John Houston was then president of Nippy, Inc., Whitney Houston’s management company, so-called after the singer’s nickname, which reportedly came from a rascally comic strip character.
In Remembering Whitney: My Story of Love, Loss, and the Night the Music Stopped (2013), Cissy Houston delivers a bittersweet tale in which she acknowledges that she first learned from Robyn Crawford about her daughter’s drug dependency.
She writes, “One afternoon in the late 1980s, Robyn came to visit me [.…] She told me that Nippy was using drugs, which was news to me [….] Nobody had the courage to come tell me that Nippy was getting into something that was bad for her–nobody except Robyn. I always respected Robyn for that.”
Still, Cissy proceeds to trash talk the woman who, as she also notes in her book, made a clandestine trip to inspect an exclusive drug rehab clinic that her daughter ultimately refused to attend.
“I had a bad feeling about that child from the first time I saw her,” she writes. “There was something about the way [Robyn] carried herself, a kind of arrogance, that I didn’t like [….] As I would later learn, she was also gay [.…] I felt like Robyn could influence Nippy [….] I didn’t want her to lead my daughter to places that I didn’t think were good for her.”
Reflecting the sentiments of many, Vernal Scott responded directly to Houston in God’s Other Children, “Whitney’s divergence from her authentic self ultimately robbed her of her voice, life, and one true love, Robyn [.…] So Cissy, I hope that you will one day overcome your homophobia […] and give Robyn the credit and appreciation she deserves.”
Call it a subliminal Sister Sledge moment, for Houston also features, in her book, an image bearing the caption “I love this family picture.”
The photo depicts Whitney Houston lounging poolside, circa 1998, amidst a group of women in Monte Carlo. A smiling Crawford is among those in the entourage.
The Grammy award-winning producer of several Houston songs including “How Will I Know” and the woefully underplayed “Lover for Life,” Narada Michael Walden gives major props to Crawford in his book Whitney Houston: The Voice, The Music, The Inspiration (2012).
Indeed, he credits his success with Houston to Crawford’s steadfast presence in the recording studio. “Robyn protected Whitney,” Walden writes. “She was the true bodyguard [….] Robyn covered a lot of bases for Whitney in a really sweet, really sharp, really efficient, and really focused manner [.…] Without exception, the only people in the studio when Whitney recorded her vocals were my engineer, Robyn, and myself.”
Walden writes that Crawford was quick to respond when he suggested that the women travel to a secluded spot in Hawaii after he one day noticed “dark clouds had appeared to engulf” Houston’s spirit.
“Robyn made all the arrangements and she and Whitney enjoyed a ten-day stay at the resort,” Walden writes. “When they returned, Robyn told me, ‘It was the best thing that could have happened. All she did was rest. I’d bring her meals to the room and let her relax and look at the ocean.’”
The author of numerous unauthorized pop biographies, Mark Bego presents titillating fare in Whitney Houston!: The Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall of the Woman Whose Voice Inspired a Generation (2012).
In one passage about Houston’s wedding to Bobby Brown he notes that Crawford, shimmering in purple (Houston’s favorite color) stood as maid of honor. Still, Houston’s father worried that Crawford, purportedly heart-broken, might misbehave during the lavish affair.
“John Houston was so afraid that Robyn was going to […] disrupt the wedding that he hired bodyguards just to watch [her] at the ceremony,” Bego writes, quoting an unnamed source.
A long-time friend of Whitney Houston, gospel artist BeBe Winans composed an original song that he performed at the nuptials. In his book, The Whitney I Knew (2012), Winans writes that he had reservations about the singer’s marriage to Brown, noting “every person lives a double life to some degree.”
“For Whitney, even when things between her and Bobby got out of hand […] there was within her a switch that did not allow her to quit [.…] She stayed because she wanted to silence the naysayers.”
Clearly, the spate of “easy reading” books about Whitney Houston underscores the need for a rigorous examination of the singer’s extraordinary life.
In addition to her recording achievements, Houston was the first major artist to perform in South Africa after the fall of apartheid. In undertaking the massive November 1994 project, the singer fulfilled a personal promise to Nelson Mandela who, earlier that year, had been voted the first black president of the country. Houston’s political activism (often on the down low) warrants investigation.
Worthy models for a Houston biography can be found in works such as Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone by Nadine Cohodas; Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro by Michele Kort; and Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn by David Hajdu.
The Whitney Houston/Robyn Crawford liaison also highlights the importance of narratives that explore love, loyalty and loss between black women. A rich sampling includes: Ruby by Rosa Guy; The Serpent’s Gift by Helen Elaine Lee; Sula by Toni Morrison; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; and The House You Pass On The Way by Jacqueline Woodson.
The Houston and Crawford story speaks to the power of black female love (intimate or platonic) and the heights such unions can scale. In the absence of meddling family and pop music industry forces, my bet is that Nippy and Crawford would still be steadfast compatriots.
As for Houston, her final album (I Look to You) features “Like I Never Left,” a haunting song for which she claimed a writing credit. In part, the lyrics read:
Did you ever wish that you could take back something that you did in your past/If it wasn’t for me I know what we had was definitely gonna last.
I admit that we say some things we don’t mean when we’re mad/But I’ve realized that I’ve been foolish, I never should have turned my back.
Cuz it’s a cold world when you’re out there all alone/So many times that I wanted to just pick up the phone/And tell you ooh baby, baby I miss your lovin’ so/I ain’t holdin’ back no more, your girl is comin’ home.
(And I want you to love me) Like I never left.
My heart goes out to Bobby Brown as he copes with the catastrophe that has befallen his daughter. But part of me is hard pressed to believe that he was the inspiration for Houston’s swan song.