Whitney Houston was born in what was then a middle-income neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, the second child of Army serviceman and entertainment executive John Russell Houston, Jr. (September 13, 1920 – February 2, 2003), and gospel singer Cissy Houston. She was of African American, Native American and Dutch descent. Her mother, along with cousins Dionne Warwick and Dee Dee Warwick, godmother Darlene Love and honorary aunt Aretha Franklin were all notable figures in the gospel, rhythm and blues, pop, and soul genres. She met her honorary aunt at age 8, or 9, when her mother took her to a recording studio. Houston was raised a Baptist, but was also exposed to the Pentecostal church. After the 1967 Newark riots, the family moved to a middle-class area in East Orange, New Jersey, when she was four.
At the age of 11, Houston began to follow in her mother's footsteps and started performing as a soloist in the junior gospel choir at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, where she also learned to play the piano. Her first solo performance in the church was "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah". When Houston was a teenager, she attended Mount Saint Dominic Academy, a Catholic girls' high school in Caldwell, New Jersey, where she met her best friend Robyn Crawford, whom she described as the "sister she never had". While Houston was still in school, her mother continued to teach her how to sing. In addition to her mother, Franklin, and Warwick, Houston was also exposed to the music of Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, and Roberta Flack, most of whom would have an impact on her as a singer and performer.
Houston spent some of her teenage years touring nightclubs where her mother Cissy was performing, and she would occasionally get on stage and perform with her. In 1977, at age 14, she became a backup singer on the Michael Zager Band's single "Life's a Party". In 1978, at age 15, Houston sang background vocals on Chaka Khan's hit single "I'm Every Woman", a song she would later turn into a larger hit for herself on her monster-selling The Bodyguard soundtrack album. She also sang back-up on albums by Lou Rawls and Jermaine Jackson.
In the early 1980s, Houston started working as a fashion model after a photographer saw her at Carnegie Hall singing with her mother. She appeared in Seventeen and became one of the first women of color to grace the cover of the magazine. She was also featured in layouts in the pages of Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Young Miss, and appeared in a Canada Dry soft drink TV commercial. Her striking looks and girl-next-door charm made her one of the most sought after teen models of that time. While modeling, she continued her burgeoning recording career by working with producers Michael Beinhorn, Bill Laswell and Martin Bisi on an album they were spearheading called One Down, which was credited to the group Material. For that project, Houston contributed the ballad "Memories", a cover of a song by Hugh Hopper of Soft Machine. Robert Christgau of The Village Voice called her contribution "one of the most gorgeous ballads you've ever heard". She also appeared as a lead vocalist on one track on a Paul Jabara album, entitled Paul Jabara and Friends, released by Columbia Records in 1983.