Fallen star banks on disc 'I Look to You'

Whitney Houston’s recent appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which devoted the first two episodes of its new season to what might be the biggest survivor story of 2009, managed to shed some light on the singer’s infamous retreat from the spotlight, including a tumultuous marriage, corrosive drug abuse and, ultimately, the calming effect of motherhood.

The jury’s still out on what verdict this court of public opinion rendered, but judging from sales of Houston’s latest LP, “I Look to You,” her first disc of new material in seven years, whatever fall from grace she suffered has been partially cushioned by followers who have stuck with her through thick and thin.

The album hit No. 1 out of the gate — the first Houston disc to hold that spot since 1987’s “Whitney” — with sales of just over 305,000 units, a figure sure to be bolstered by two hours of deep Oprah catharsis.

Although “I Look to You” was largely penned by market-tested hitmakers like R. Kelly, Diane Warren and David Foster, the mood and emotions sound highly personal. Songs like “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” and “Like I Never Left” could be construed as addressing her loyal fanbase as much as a lover.

The singer’s label, Arista, not to mention her producer and mentor Clive Davis, have lavished Houston with the kind of attention and promotion reserved for legends.

“She’s in the tradition of Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Streisand,” Davis told Variety. “There are just a handful who are the voices of all time.”

Houston’s road to redemption began in earnest at Davis’ annual pre-Grammy bash in February, where the Sony exec — a legend himself — staged the first phase of the singer’s comeback by having her perform in front of a star-packed audience. Between Davis’ bash and listening sessions of the new recording in New York, L.A. and London in July, Houston could not have custom-ordered a brighter constellation of star support.

“She’s in great form and the music’s there,” says Scott Seviour, sr. VP marketing and artist development for the RCA Music Group, which oversees Epic. Adds Davis: “She’s in a class by herself.”

IN A NUTSHELL

Job title: Singer

Role models: “Cissy Houston, Dionne Warwick, Lena Horne, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin — all the women of soul who paved the way for me.”

Career mantra: “Always keep the faith.”

Leisure pursuits: “Spending time with my daughter.”

Philanthropic passions: American Cancer Society, Children’s Diabetes Foundation

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