She performed four songs: "Million Dollar Bill" and "I Look to You" from her new album, as well as classics "My Love Is Your Love" and "I'm Every Woman."
The most honored female artist of all time, Whitney Houston is the only artist ever to have seven consecutive multiplatinum albums, beating out even the Beatles.
The crowd at Central Park's Rumsey Playfield was full of devoted fans, many of whom waited hours in the blazing sun for her performance -- and years for her comeback.
Fans enthusiastically sang along with the band during the sound check, and chants of "Whitney, Whitney" rang out before she came onstage.
"I've been waiting for this since her greatest hits album [in 2000]," one fan said.
Another fan said Houston knew how to work the crowd and get people excited, calling her "a diva in the best sense of the word."
Many commented on the heat and waved themselves with custom-made Whitney Houston hand fans. The fans were distributed before the concert for free, but some people offered to buy them from other audience members as souvenirs.
Houston, 44, thanked the crowd for coming and replied to shouts of "I love you, Whitney" by saying "I love you more." She blew kisses to the audience and seemed to have fun throughout the concert.
She kicked off with "Million Dollar Bill," a single from her new album written by fellow multiple Grammy award winner Alicia Keys.
Keys has described Houston as her idol and inspiration.
"She was just kind of chosen to have a voice that would speak to people," Keys told "GMA" earlier this year.
Whitney Houston Comeback Inspired by Family, Fans
Keys grew up listening to Houston and said the star "has been with me since I was a young girl and has shown me what it feels like to dream.
"I feel really excited for her and, as a fan of hers, I feel very excited for us," she added. "I feel that she really is ready to come into the world and show us what we've been missing."
The crowd in Central Park agreed.
"I'm so emotionally drained after that performance," one fan said after the first song.
Houston chatted with "Good Morning America" anchors Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts and said the crowd's reaction was overwhelming and that her fans' "prayers mean so much to me."
The star recently sat down for an interview with Oprah Winfrey set to air Monday, Sept. 14, and she said on "GMA" that she's come a long way since her 2002 sit-down with Diane Sawyer.
"Don't be worried anymore," she told Sawyer. "If you know God don't be worried."
She added that she got through the difficult times with the help of "my faith and the love and support of my fans, which I do have. The support of friends, people who really care about you in the good and the bad."
Houston followed up "Million Dollar Bill" with an impromptu performance of "My Love Is Your Love." She was joined onstage by her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who sang along and asked the crowd to clap their hands.
Houston has said that her 16-year-old daughter was part of the inspiration for her new album.
Before beginning her third song, Houston thanked her mother, soul and gospel singer Cissy Houston, who was in the audience, along with other family members.
"I owe this to my mother," she said, before launching into an emotional rendition of "I Look to You," the title track of her new album, which was released Monday.
Whitney Houston: Central Park Concert Seven Years in the Making
Houston was joined by Sawyer and Roberts for her encore -- fan favorite "I'm Every Woman."
The crowd loved every minute of the performance. "It's like a dream come true," one fan said. "I can die happy."
Legendary music producer Clive Davis remembers Houston as the young girl who first gave us her remarkable sound, made famous in songs such as "The Greatest Love of All" and "I Will Always Love You."
Just the name Whitney Houston brings to mind that voice: the musical range, the enormous range of emotion, and a kind of power that can make a perfect arrow out of just one note.
"The time that I first saw her singing in her mother's act in a club called Sweetwater's right here in Manhattan ... it was such a stunning impact," Davis told Sawyer earlier this year. "To hear this young girl breathe such fire into this song. I mean, it really sent the proverbial tingles up my spine."
Houston's first single, "You Give Good Love," went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Then came a string of No 1 hits -- seven in all -- breaking the record set by the Beatles.
And now, more than seven years since her fans last heard from Houston, she has released a new album.
The man who discovered her says he wants to show that Houston "still stands for the best of songwriting, the best of singing -- and we know the public wants it."
"You won't forget it after you hear it," Davis said, calling the album a labor of love for all involved. "There is a song on this album which is called 'I Didn't Know My Own Strength' and it really speaks for Whitney. She tumbled but she didn't crumble."
Kevin Costner, her co-star from the 1992 film "The Bodyguard," told "GMA" earlier this year that we'll be glad she's back.
"I knew this day was coming for her," he said.
CLICK HERE to visit Whitney Houston's official Web site for more information about her new album.