That antiquated Phone-Mate answering machine of mine had hosted some illustrious voices in its time, but none bigger than Whitney Houston’s.
One afternoon in October of 1998 she was calling me from somewhere back east, instructed to do so by her record company for an interview in support of her fourth album, “My Love Is Your Love.”
Emotionally, she sounded happy and up; physically, she was sniffing and coughing, the result of a nagging cold she said wouldn’t leave her alone. “You know, I think you can catch stuff over the phone,” she theorized, laughing impishly. “So maybe we shouldn’t do this interview.”
Some entertainers handle interviews better than others. Once I learned that Whitney generally hated them, I always kept my questions to the work at hand. But here Whitney was, asking ME the questions.
“Do you like reggae? If you like reggae, you’re gonna love the title song.” Cough. “Wyclef did it and it’s got a little reggae thing going on.” Cough, cough.
Silently, I marveled at the ease and pleasant authority with which Whitney chatted, and relished the surreal, privileged place in which, once again, I’d found myself: in the presence of celebrity, all shiny and celebrated, knowing that, more than a decade earlier, she was but a mere mortal hoping that something good would come of her toils. It’s always a fascinating experience, watching that tedious metamorphosis from mere mortal to a god. It’s akin to observing a caterpillar become a butterfly.
Whitney, however, might have skipped the caterpillar part altogether. The closest she appeared to being one in my presence was in 1983 during an intimate, invitation-only showcase that then-Arista Records president Clive Davis pitched in both New York and Los Angeles, inviting select producers and songwriters on each coast to see and hear Whitney sing so that they might write songs for her debut album.
Several journalists were also invited. I’d never heard of 20 year-old Whitney Houston, but I figured the showcase happened early enough–5 PM–and the tiny, jazzy Vine Street Bar And Grill, where it was held, was exactly one block from my Black Beat magazine office at Sunset and Vine. I’d walk there. But mainly I went because I was hungry. Surely there’d be some grub there.
It was a small crowd–maybe fifty people, including Davis, Whitney’s parents Cissy and John Houston, Whitney’s cousin Dionne Warwick, legendary Motown producer Lamont Dozier, fledgling Solar Records songwriter/producer Leon Sylvers and songwriter Michael Masser. I remember thinking that if mama were alive she’d have been tickled to know I was in a room with Houston family friend, actress/singer Leslie Uggams, whom we used to watch every Saturday night on the ’60s variety show, “Sing Along With Mitch.”
Aside from Sylvers, producer of such L.A. acts as Shalamar, the Whispers and Dynasty, the room was notably devoid of some of the hipper producers of the day. This was the early ’80s–in black music, funk bands such as the Commodores and Midnight Star were sharing the charts with the likes of post-disco dance divas. Either those kinds of producers weren’t invited, or as was whispered, they simply didn’t bother showing up.
Despite nagging legend, Clive Davis didn’t discover Whitney; it was Arista exec Gerry Griffith who came across Cissy and Whitney’s act in a New York club. Griffith actually had to cajole his boss into checking them out.
However, to his credit, Clive, in introducing his new find to the room, used all the same bold adjectives he uses in describing Whitney’s talent today. He basically told us he was about to roll out the Second Coming, the best singer he’d ever heard in his life. And then, amidst polite applause, out came this skinny young lady in something simple, long and floral that left her arms bare, Whitney’s smart poise resembling that of a child looking to be seen as an adult.
This was before the wigs and sequin and the savvy attitude. Her brown hair was closely cropped, complimented with a flower on the right side. Backed by a jazz trio of piano, bass and drums, Whitney performed material like “My Funny Valentine” and “Here’s That Rainy Day.” Maybe not those actual songs, but stuff like it. Smoky Room jazzed up pop.
Throughout her performance, I kept an eye on Whitney’s parents, Warwick and Uggams across the room, beaming proudly and hanging on to every note as if they were at a school recital, clapping louder after each number than anyone else.
And indeed, Whitney was good, but not a big deal to me. She sang maybe four songs and then it was over. At the time I was thinking the music charts are dominated by funk and danceable R&B, Clive. A young Jackson 5 knock off called New Edition, including a kid named Bobby Brown, was taking off. Good luck with this. I attacked the buffet of chicken wings, salad and Swiss and cheddar cheese cubes on toothpicks and eased on down the road.
Even after Whitney’s first album was released in 1985, it took about a year for its breakthrough single, “You Give Good Love,” to catch fire in America. I recall interviewing her at the Le Parc Hotel in West Hollywood. What stuck out was how guarded she was. I attempted to lighten the mood by telling her that she made Jermaine Jackson work to keep up with her powerful vocal during their duet, “Take Good Care Of My Heart.” She smiled politely but didn’t answer.
I began pondering all this–how quickly into her career I became a believer; about what a certified monster she’d morphed into; how, after she’d grown into her massive celebrity, I’d see her somewhere and she’d wink and call me “baby” or “sweetie”–all these things went through my mind early evening February 11th, as I sat in my car in the parking lot of a supermarket a few blocks from where I’d first seen her perform, and listened to a careful, almost apologetic phone message informing me that Whitney Houston was dead. While I was out running errands, “Nippy,” as she was affectionately called by her parents, was leaving the planet.
I listened to the message twice–tried desperately to hear a chink in its armor–before calling others. When a famous black American dies, especially entertainers, black Americans, particularly those of a certain age, deal with it differently than the rest of the world. We immediately Beat the Drum–get on the phone, email, text, put a message in a bottle. It’s personal.
The habit is a throwback to a time in this country when popular black entertainers and professional athletes carried both the honor and the burden of being our main source of collective, cultural pride; we weren’t allowed to be much else.
Before Barack Obama, the unqualified, crossover success of a handful of black entertainers and political and social leaders represented the only hope we could truly count on. Whitney Houston was birthed from that era. No matter her assorted woe, no matter whether you knew her personally, Whitney Houston is family.
When people characterize the talent of Whitney Houston, they say that she can sing. They speak of her incredible voice. However, what made Whitney more than just a great singer with a big voice is something rare among even the most talented vocalists: intuition. It’s that uncanny ability to somehow just know what to put on a song, how much of it to put there and when.
Granted, Whitney had an advantage–she learned to sing at the feet of both godmother Aretha Franklin, the embodiment of modern American soul, and cousin Dionne, whose musical legend was built interpreting the often complex, certainly sophisticated but decidedly pop melodies of Burt Bacharach. Amalgamate those supreme influences of pop and soul–not to mention the training that comes in singing gospel in church from childhood–and you’ve got Whitney Houston.
Prince said it best. Once, when speaking of his musical abilities, he said, “I can do what Sting can do, but Sting can’t do what I do.” Now, no doubt, Prince has a huge personality. But what he said is true for himself and for many genuine black talents.
Whitney’s show-stopping gift was in her mastery at stylistically venturing from Fifth Avenue to the suburbs and then to the ‘hood, all in one pop song. She routinely did this in nearly every one of her biggest hits and she did it intuitively. This is the irresistible, boundary-crashing appeal of her talent.
Long before she left us, Whitney Houston, like Aretha Franklin, was already one of the most influential pop singers of all time. Don’t take my word for it. Simply turn on your radio. Or watch any season of “American Idol.”
However, emulation is one thing; sheer intuitive genius is another entirely. And that is the reason why there may never be another talent like hers again.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]