Born Emily Drinkard in Newark, New Jersey, to Nitcholas and Delia Mae Drinkard (née McCaskill), she was the eighth child; older siblings were brothers William, Hansom, Nicky, and Larry, and sisters Lee, Marie, and Anne. Houston's father Nitcholas Drinkard was born to Susan Bell (called Delia) Drinkard (née Fuller), ofDutch and African-American descent. His father John Drinkard, Jr., was of Native American descent. The Drinkards had owned a substantial amount of farmlandin Blakely, Georgia, during a time when it was unusual for blacks to own large portions of land. The asset was gradually depleted as they sold small portions of the land over time, to resolve the continued legal troubles of a close relative.
After Houston's three oldest siblings were born, the family relocated to New Jersey during the Second Great Migration. Her parents emphasized the children getting educated and being involved in the church, and her father encouraged Houston and her siblings to sing. In 1938, five-year-old Cissy's mother Delia suffered a stroke and died of cerebral hemorrhage three years later.
In 1959, she married John Russell Houston, Jr., a Newark City administrator and entertainment executive.The couple had a son Michael Houston, who became a songwriter, and a daughter, Whitney Houston, who became an R&B/pop singer . Aretha Franklin was an honorary aunt of Houston's daughter.
In the 1990s, Houston's daughter Whitney began to struggle with drug addiction. Houston staged several interventions to get her daughter into rehabilitation andRECOVERY programs. On one occasion she obtained a court order and the assistance of two sheriffs to intervene, persuading her daughter to undertake treatment at Hope For Women Residential & Therapeutic Services in Atlanta, Georgia. Her daughter cycled throughRECOVERY, relapse and rehabilitation programs. On February 11, 2012, Whitney Houston died at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles. After her daughter's death, in an interview with the New Jersey TV station WWOR, Houston expressed her distaste of the media's coverage of related events: "The media are awful. People have come from here and there, [and they] don't know what they're talking about," she said. "People I haven't seen in 20 years … Here they come, [they] think they know everything, but that's not true. But God has his way of taking care of all of it, and I'm glad I know that. They really chopped on her, chopped on her … kept, kept, kept."  Houston has six grandchildren, and nine great grandchildren, which included granddaughter Bobbi Kristina Brown (d. July 26, 2015), daughter of Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston.
Houston's singing career began in 1938 when she joined her sister Anne and brothers Larry and Nicky in the gospel singing group the Drinkard Four. Lee (who would later become the mother of singers Dee Dee and Dionne Warwick), later joined the group along with Ann Moss and Marie Epps, and the group was renamed The Drinkard Singers. Houston and the Drinkard Singers regularly performed at New Hope Baptist Church and later recorded a live album forRCA called A Joyful Noise.
In 1969, they were hired to sing backing vocals for Elvis Presley in Las Vegas on his return to live performances during July and August 1969. Presley often introduced them at shows by saying, "They really live up to their name ladies & gentleman, The Sweet Inspirations!"  Many of these performances can be heard on the All Shook Up and Live In Las Vegas live records.
Performing with Elvis Presley was Houston's final gig with The Sweet Inspirations. As her children were growing bigger, she decided to stop touring and focus on her career as a recording artist.
In 1969, Houston signed a recording contract with Commonwealth United Records and recorded her solo debut Presenting Cissy Houston which was released in 1970. It contained several well received singles, including covers of "I'll Be There" and "Be My Baby", both of which made the R&B charts.
In 1977, Houston was signed by Private Stock Records, working with arranger/producer Michael Zager on three albums. The second included her big discohit "Think It Over", which climbed to #32 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1979. She represented USA at the World Popular Song Festival in 1979 with a track called "You're the Fire", landing second place and winning the "Most Outstanding Performance Award". This also appeared on her 1980 disco-flavored album,Step Aside for a Lady, again produced by Zager, but released on Columbia Records (on EMI in the United Kingdom).
In addition to her work as choirmaster at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, NJ, Cissy performed frequently at clubs in NYC including Mikell's, Sweetwaters, Seventh Avenue South, and Fat Tuesday from the late 1970s through the 1980s.
Whitney Houston, her daughter and backup singer, increasingly sang solos with Cissy's band, including the Barbra Streisand hit "Evergreen". They would collaborate on Ain't No Way (originally a Cissy Houston and Aretha Franklin vehicle), on which Cissy sang "Cissy" and Whitney "Aretha".
Whitney's "coming-out" performance took place at Sweetwaters, whereupon she was signed by Clive Davis for Arista Records.
In 1985, the small UK independent label Glitter released a single, "With You I Could Have It All" and "Whatcha Gonna Do About Our Love". The 12-inch single featured both a ballad and a dance version of the song.
The same year she contributed one song to the gospel soundtrack album for the film The Preacher's Wife, which starred her daughter Whitney Houston.
In 1998, she won her second Grammy for her album He Leadeth Me.
She has also continued to record infrequent secular material and in 1987, Houston and her daughter Whitney recorded a duet titled "I Know Him So Well", a cover of the original by Barbara Dickson and Elaine Paige from the Broadway show, Chess. This song also became a single in early 1989 as the 6th and last single release (in selected European countries) from Whitney's album Whitney. In 1992 she teamed up with Chuck Jackson for an album of solo and duet recordings entitled I'll Take Care of You.
In 2006, she recorded the song "Family First" with niece Dionne Warwick and daughter Whitney Houston for the soundtrack to the movie Daddy's Little Girls.
In 2010, Cissy attended the third annualBET Honors with her daughter Whitney, who received the entertainment award.