Many Whitney Houston fans never thought this day would come. Robyn Crawford, the singer’s friend, assistant, and long-rumored lover has broken her silence. As if that silence were a dam, the words pour out with a palpable fervor in Crawford’s new memoir A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston. This is a generous, loving book that has more insight on Houston’s career—the ride, the fall—than any other single source that I’ve encountered (it wipes the floor with the 2017 documentary Can I Be Me? and the 2018 one Whitney). Some 40 years in the making, A Song for You is unequivocally worth the wait.
The pre-release press on Crawford’s book has mostly focused on her revelation that she and Houston indeed had a romantic sexual relationship. Whispers of this virtually spanned Houston’s entire career—Crawford was a visible fixture in Houston’s public comings and goings, which set people and especially the tabloids talking—but absolute confirmation has a way of commanding attention. For the record, Crawford writes that she and Houston were intimate for about two years. It started soon after they met during the summer of 1980 working at the East Orange Community Development center. Crawford was 19; Houston would turn 17 that August. “As long as we were together, I was down for whatever,” writes Crawford, conjuring the halcyon of her young love.
In 1982, while Houston was cultivating her career in music, the singer halted the romantic aspect of her relationship with Crawford “because it would make our journey even more difficult.” They were both religious and feared damnation. They’d previously discussed Houston’s potential challenge of launching a career while in a relationship with another woman during the intolerant early ’80s. “The love I felt for Nippy was real and effortless, filled with so much feeling that when we talked about ending the physical part of our relationship, it didn’t feel I was losing that much,” writes Crawford. She remained Houston’s best friend and eventually something akin to a manager. I’ve seen “executive assistant” used to describe Crawford’s role in Houston’s career, though the label-averse Crawford writes straightforwardly about her function: “If she didn’t want you there, you weren’t getting in, at least not through me.”
“Stick with me, I’ll take you around the world,” Houston told Crawford. And she did. A Song for You documents the inner workings of Houston’s career through the ’90s. It is undeniably juicy. Beyond the details of Houston’s intimacy with Crawford, there are descriptions of Eddie Murphy’s (often tepid) courting of Houston as well as the early days of Houston’s relationship with Bobby Brown. The narrative is caked in cocaine and pervaded by the sweet smell of marijuana. Crawford indulged in both alongside Houston, who told her friend that she first tried coke at age 14. It soon became clear that Houston had a problem, but A Song for You shrewdly describes the fun of getting high with Houston and going on adventures. With a sense of responsibility and nuance, Crawford examines the enjoyment she and her friend took in doing drugs in order to illustrate how they’d later become such a problem, particularly for Houston. For a time, it all seemed so innocent.
Beyond the dish people expect from such a tell-all is an exquisite portrait of the fiercely private woman beyond the public commodity that was frequently referred to as The Voice. Houston, in Crawford’s rendering, was alternately girlish (“Nippy would ask us to pick up coloring books and crayons for her, a relaxing pastime she enjoyed whenever she had free time”), stubborn (“She never wanted to find the time to sit down and prep for interviews”), and insecure (after Murphy rebuffed her attempt to hang out one night, Houston cried “Why don’t they like me?”). Her contentious relationship with the press came to a head, Crawford writes, after a 1990 profile by Roger Friedman came saturated in innuendo regarding the nature of Houston and Crawford’s relationship, despite the preceding interview’s leaving little indication that it would go there. “They will never, ever get anything from me again,” Houston swore. She didn’t clam up entirely, per se, but she regularly expressed what she did to Oprah Winfrey during the promotion of 1995's Waiting to Exhale: “My life is none of your business.”
She’s right, but that never stopped us from wondering, and Crawford humanely shares insight while paying tribute to a lost life. “I believe it is my duty to honor my friend and to clarify the many inaccuracies about myself and about who Whitney was. I feel compelled to remind people of her greatness, to lift her remarkable legacy,” writes Crawford in her introduction. “The Whitney I know was bighearted, determined, unselfish, private, hilarious, and confident in her gifts.”
A Song for You is a memoir in the classic sense of the word—though the definition has changed over the years, “memoir” traditionally has been used to describe a nonfiction narrative about a person in which “the writer is, as a character, essentially negative, or at least neutral,” according to scholar Richard Coe. (This definition of memoir contrasts with “autobiography,” in which the writer is the main character.) A Song for You certainly does center on Crawford’s life at times (especially heartbreaking are her descriptions of her mother and brother both dying of AIDS), but this is foremost a book about Whitney Houston. As such, Crawford is honoring her own legacy, as well, illustrating a dynamic in which she stood in the shadows to help Houston shine in the spotlight. She was, as this book attests, the wind beneath Houston’s wings. It’s hardly a surprise, midway through, when Crawford writes about watching Beaches with Houston. Both of them bawled, and then they watched it again and bawled some more. They saw themselves.
Crawford was by Houston’s side during the singer’s golden era, so she has the authority to write about things that Houston may not have wanted to discuss in public for seeming vulnerable. Crawford describes Houston’s experiences with racism while attending the predominantly white Mount St. Dominic Academy (she was called the n-word at a sleepover, and disinvited from singing at her Italian American friend’s wedding by that friend’s parents for being black) and in the music industry. Regarding Houston’s being booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards over the perception that her music wasn’t black enough, Crawford writes, “She didn’t like it, of course, but contrary to popular belief, being insulted at the Soul Train Awards did not knock Whitney too hard. However, she wasn’t entirely able to dismiss those fools. It was clear that she was at a point in her career where some changes needed to be made.” Houston’s record company felt that the art for her self-titled debut looked “too black”; when powers that be at Arista ordered her to get a weave, she cried.
Houston’s artistry is also examined closely: For her ability to nail a vocal take on the first try, she came to be known in the industry as “One-Take Houston.” Houston would make sure to go home from the studio with a rough mix of whatever she had worked on so that she could study it and make suggestions to the producers on which adlibs to keep and which takes to use. Also included is a great image of Houston unveiling “Love Will Save the Day,” which she cut with John “Jellybean” Benitez, at New York’s legendary downtown club the Paradise Garage. Additionally, Crawford claims that Houston’s sensational 1991 rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was not lip-synced as frequently reported ( since I found a quote from around that time in which Houston seems to admit that it was, perhaps it is true that Houston was singing live while her backing track was what the audience heard). Crawford seems to refute the idea that Houston’s cousin Dee Dee Warwick molested her as a child, as claimed in the Whitney documentary. (On Monday’s episode of Today, Crawford explicitly stated that Houston never told her about such abuse, and, “If there was any truth to that, I would know about it.”)
Crawford’s willingness to implicate herself in Houston’s substance abuse is disarming. She does not paint herself as an angel, though her fierce loyalty to Houston is underscored repeatedly. This tracks, based on previous accounts of others—Crawford is largely seen as one of the only people that was entirely in Houston’s corner. It may not be a coincidence that Crawford’s departure from Houston’s camp in 2000, after Bobby Brown screamed at her for buying Houston’s would-be collaborator George Michael a gift on Houston’s behalf, preceded the rockiest decade of Houston’s life and untimely death in 2012.
Crawford’s outspoken detractors have largely been Houston’s own family members. “I didn’t particularly like her,” Houston’s mother Cissy Houston told Oprah Winfrey in a 2013 interview. “She just spoke too much. Disrespectful sometimes like she had something over Nippy and I didn’t like that at all.” In Kevin Macdonald’s 2018 estate-authorized documentary Whitney, Houston’s half-brother Gary Houston (né Garland) referred to Crawford as “an opportunist,” “a nobody,” “evil,” and “wicked.” Both Cissy and Gary seemed to have problems with Crawford’s sexuality and the possibility that she had a romantic relationship with Whitney. Cissy told Winfrey that she “absolutely” would have bothered her if Whitney were gay, and Gary said of Crawford in Whitney, “I knew she was a lesbian… I knew what she was.”
Crawford pulls no punches when describing the way Houston’s family members treated her and the singer. She depicts Gary and Houston’s brother Michael as career freeloaders, having raided Houston’s stash and savings from her work as a model when she was still a teenager. “Gary was in trouble from the moment the tour started and was always lurking around, spewing negative energy, and then he would suddenly disappear,” writes Crawford of Houston’s first global trek, The Greatest Love Tour (dubbed by some who were there as “The Greatest Drug Tour”). Cissy, whom Crawford called “Big Cuda,” is portrayed as an overbearing stage mom who thought nothing of embarrassing her daughter (“Cissy came out to the front porch. She held up a feminine product and hollered, ‘Don’t forget your douche bag.’”). She writes that Cissy was “beside herself” over the fact that Crawford remained a fixture in Houston’s life and career despite all the gay rumors. Crawford also writes of a time in London when she went out and was not immediately reachable by Houston, who needed her help. When Crawford returned, she writes, Cissy Houston slapped her across the face. Additionally, Crawford describes a rumor printed by The National Enquirer that Houston’s father John Houston paid Kevin Ammons, ex of Whitney’s former publicist, $6,000 to break Crawford’s kneecaps. In a subsequent interview, Crawford writes, Gary claimed that they just wanted to scare her.
As A Song for You surges to its tragic climax, it becomes harder to endure. Bobby Brown is portrayed as having exacerbated the already chaotic life of Houston. “I noticed that Nip started using drugs a lot more when Bobby was around,” writes Crawford. She says that when Houston and Brown returned from their honeymoon in 1992, Houston had a three-inch scar on her face, which she blamed on a shattered glass that she had thrown at a wall. “Couples argue all the time, and it’s never a big deal,” Crawford recalls Houston saying. “Except when it’s me.”
In line with the prevailing narrative, Crawford’s account has Houston ceding control of her life as her tumultuous relationship with Brown raged on through the ’90s and aughts. “All Kristina ever wanted was to have her mom’s attention one-on-one, and the majority of the time that just didn’t happen,” writes Crawford of Houston and Brown’s daughter Bobbi-Kristina, who was in such bad shape after her mother’s death that she showed up to Gary’s wife’s Pat’s front door “mouth bleeding, teeth missing, the hood of her car smashed in.” Details like these and Houston’s retreating from public life for her own private hell of drug dependency still pack a punch, now almost eight years after Houston’s death. After such bright lights—of the stage, of the paparazzi’s flashbulbs, of Houston’s megawatt smile—there followed extreme darkness. Whitney Houston was a miracle of an artist whose narrative somehow managed to be even more unbelievable than her very existence. Crawford writes that early on in Houston’s career, at the start of every concert, she’d tell the crowd, “I’ll make you a deal. You give me some of you and I’ll give you all of me.” There’s, of course, plenty she kept to herself. In helping us make sense of it with compassion and clarity, Crawford has provided a crucial public service in her lovely, loving book. We almost had it all—here’s a little bit more.
A Song for You is out today, November 12.