The pitiful death of Whitney Houston in a Beverly Hills hotel room should not overshadow the talent that took the R&B world by storm in 1985. Billboard's Bud Scoppa documented her discovery and her rise to fame in December 1986——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
Once in a blue moon, a new artist emerges who simply takes over, in utterly decisive and undeniable fashion. So it was with Whitney Houston — signed at nineteen, unleashed at twenty-one, a superstar at twenty-two. She has it all — artistry, presence, beauty, style, substance, naturalness - and you can't miss it. Whitney Houston is huge, and she can back it up for miles.
What a coup: Houston's self-titles debut album has smoothly become Whitney Houston's Greatest Hits, with a full half-dozen bell-ringers and steadily spectacular sales. It's a perennial, a standard, a classic, a Tapestry — yup, among the recordings of female vocalists, only Carole King's magnum opus has sold more units... ever. And Whitney's a multimedia phenom: she's all over the tube, her lovely face adorns the covers of countless magazines, her concerts sell out in nanoseconds, she provides Diet Coke with a classic Coke-bottle shape. Hell, she's the Boss of CHR, an automatic movie star, America's sweetheart - her future's so bright she's gotta wear shades. Don't look any further — the girl is it.
In retrospect, Whitney Houston's superstardom seems so inevitable that her career appears to have been preordained. Surely it was all on tracks: She was meant to break big, and her record was meant to be on Arista, where her unfettered brilliance and Clive Davis' legendary savvy would elegantly entwine into a marriage as regal as that of Chuck & Di. (Clive & Whitney...ahh, the smell of it).
As it turns out though, the Whitney Houston phenomenon was set into motion not by the gods, nor even by Clive Davis himself, but by a hard-working low-profile guy named Gerry Griffith, whose efforts as an Arista A&R man serve to remind us what the acronym A&R stands for: artist(s) and repertoire. According to Griffith, the making of Whitney Houston was virtually the pop equivalent of a De Mille extravaganza — epic and expensive. A quick glance at the extensive credits indicates that this album did not come fast; a close reading of the inside story reveals that it didn't come easy, either.
Griffith got his first look at Houston back in 1980, quite by accident.
He and Richard smith, Arista's chief of black A&R, were at New York's Bottom Line in an official capacity, to meet and greet GRP/Arista flautist Dave Valentin, who was headlining. Through some quirk of fate, they arrived early enough to catch opener Cissy Houston, who brought her seventeen year-old daughter onstage for a solo turn. Smith and Griffith were stunned — along with the rest of the crowd — by the prodigious vocal talent of the youngster. "You should sign her," Smith told Griffith. But the A&R man wasn't convinced. "As good as she is," he told his companion, "there's still something lacking. She isn't quite ripe yet."
Two years later, Griffith got a call from a friend. Had he ever heard of Whitney Houston? She asked him. He remembered her name immediately from the show he'd seen and said so. "You better move fast," she cautioned. "She's negotiating with Elektra for a deal." The news shook him up. "I said, 'Uh-oh - I better check this out,'" he recalls. As it turned out, Houston was performing that very weekend at another New York club, Seventh Avenue South. Griffith called Houston's manager, Gene Harvey, and had his name put on the guest list.
"So I went down, and I was completely floored," Griffith says now. "She was mesmerizing. I couldn't believe she had grown so much in that two-year period. She went from a teenager to a woman. She had a mature look, her voice was more mature, she had obvious star quality. It took no genius to see it — all you had to do was just see her and you knew. I'll never forget, she sang the song 'Tomorrow' from [the musical] Annie, and it was a showstopper. After I got up off the floor, I just knew that I had to bring her to the label."
To insiders, Arista's A&R sector has more in common with a monarchy than a business; signing power is all but exclusively in Davis' hands, and he prides himself on his acumen in identifying future stars. Thus, Griffith's initial task involved persuading his boss that Whitney Houston was a viable signing. Faced with this challenge, Arista A&R staffers generally proceed with great caution. But Griffith wasn't about to pussyfoot around in this case — Houston was Something Else, and Elektra was too close for comfort.
"So the very next day I went in to see Clive," Griffith continues. "And you know how it was — you always had to ask for things. But this time I just walked in and said 'Look — I'm showcasing somebody for you who I think is a phenomenal talent. But I need a week to prepare.' He says, 'Fine Let me know when you're ready'. He's matter-of-fact about things like that, which is understandable, because I had no idea. I set up a showcase at Top Cat Studio in downtown New York, and her current musical director put the musicians together and rehearsed them for a week. She was doing a lot of Stephanie Mills-type material at the time, and she did a couple of other standards. I asked her to make 'Tomorrow' the finale of her showcase."
When all was ready, Davis limoed down to Top Cat for what, as far as he knew, would be yet another instantly forgettable audition. But not even true believer Griffith was prepared for what transpired then.
"I mean, I knew she was good, but she just put on a magnificent performance at the showcase. Aside from the natural talent and the great looks, the lady has got guts," Griffith marvels, reflecting on all the talented performers he's seen wilt under Davis' imperious gaze. "She's never folded under pressure. And when you put all three of those things together, you can do it!"
Needless to say, Davis was immediately won over, and he fought off Elektra to sign the nineteen-year-old wunderkind. But this was no time for congratulations — they had an album to make. Where would the songs come from, and who would produce it? Just as important, what demographic sector constituted Whitney Houston's target audience? One thing was obvious: The young singer wasn't going to break off songs from Annie or The Wiz. Although Davis had the utmost confidence in his ability to find hit songs and place them in the appropriate contexts, he rarely signs artists on vocal ability alone; there are simply too many variables. But this lady was simply too good to pass up. The Whitney Houston project would have to be done from scratch, and the principals needed to agree on a direction. "Where do we go from here?" David asked, only half-rhetorically. "We don't really have any idea how to present her." His approach, according to Griffith, involved trying to come up with the best possible material, regardless of style; same with producers. "She's a general-market artist, obviously, but my [initial] approach was to give her a black base," Griffith admits. Davis was right on track, but some solicitation was necessary.
"Clive had the idea of showcasing her on the West Coast for writers and producers, because we were really having trouble finding material for her," Griffith says of the situation in 1982-83. "We couldn't seem to come up with any interesting combinations [of songs and producers]. So we showcased her with a live band at the Vine Street Bar & Grill in front of artists, producers, songwriters, publishers, other record company executives — everyone was there. And we didn't get one decent song out of the whole thing, although everyone was flabbergasted. So we went back to the drawing board.
"Interestingly enough, a lot of major producers passed on her. I used to tell producers, 'Lemme tell you somethin' man - this is the next Diana Ross.' Whitney and I even met with Michael Omartian at one time, and that didn't turn out because of a problem with his scheduling. I know Omartian probably looks back now and says, "Omigod — I wish I'd altered my schedule!"
If songwriters, producers and publishers had known then what they know now — that Houston would leave Ross and everyone else in the dust — David and Griffith would've been buried under an avalanche of cassettes and phone messages. But one writer/producer — Kashif — was paying attention. He called Griffith and casually told the frustrated A&R man, "I think I have a song for you." So Griffith and Houston drove to the New Jersey studio where Kashif was working to check it out.
"There was a demo of it," Griffith recalls, "but LaLa [Cope, the writer] wanted to do it live. So we stood around the piano while LaLa sang 'You Give Good Love'. And I said, 'That's the song — that's what I've been looking for.' It was the kind of tune that had the emotion that she could get into and sing her heart out. And they had another tune called 'Thinking About You.' So we recorded those and they turned out great."
That first acceptable song would become Houston's initial hit single, one that would establish her simultaneously in the R&B and pop arenas. And soon after the LaLa/Kashif icebreaker, Griffith picked up 'Someone For Me' from Warner Bros. Music. When Davis put together the song sequence for the album, he led with these three tunes.
As the project began to crystallize, Houston's potential as a mass-appeal artist became increasingly apparent, which pleased Davis, inasmuch as mainstream pop was the record mogul's prime area of expertise — his absolute passion, in fact. In matters of taste, Davis is a sophisticated middlebrow who adores swelling strings and sentimental refrains; sitting judgmentally in the studio for high volume listening session, he'll drop his guard, close his eyes and visibly swell when the modulation kicks in. David has memorized the formulas and insists on their application in the straight pop context; even Aretha is not immune to his edicts. So, with Houston identified as a mainstreamer, David found himself in the need of a certified popmeister to whip up some ballads. Enter Michael Masser.
Griffith: "Michael had been bugging [fellow A&R man] Michael Barackman and me about all these songs he had, and Masser never demos anything — he plays the stuff on a piano, and it's always a real dramatic situation. So we all thought Masser should be involved, and Clive worked on most of the Masser portion of the album. Clive was real tough on him and kept pushing him to come up with something great."
Davis got exactly what he wanted out of Masser: three classically structured, highly charged units of high melodrama, each one a full-bore "Clive ballad" from muted intro to modulated climax. These songs — 'Greatest Love Of All', 'Hold Me' (both co-written with the late Linda Creed and 'All At Once' (a collaboration with Jeffrey Osborne) — are the emotional linchpins of the album, along with a re-roasted chestnut Masser had written in the mid-'70s for Marilyn McCoo: the Nyro-esque 'Saving All My Love For You'. The pure pop was now firmly in place.
Meanwhile, back on the West Coast, Jermaine Jackson was brought into the Houston picture. "I mentioned to Clive that I thought Jermaine should do a duet with Whitney," Griffith recalls. "He said, 'You find the song and we'll do it' — 'cause at the time we weren't gonna do a duet with her. So I was sitting in the Arista L.A office one time, and Linda Blum [then at Arista Music, now at Chappell] walks in and says, 'I got a great song you gotta hear.' I said 'Put it on.' After eight bars I knew it was a hit. It was called 'Don't Look Any Further.' I played it for Clive — he loved it. We sent it over to Jermaine, who said okay. We recorded the song and it was a smash — and the performances were marvellous. We were thinking about releasing it as the first single; Clive's thinking was that it could launch both their careers at the same time. And it would have had a very strong black base. We found out through the grapevine that Dennis Lambert, who wrote it, had already cut the song with Dennis Edwards! Arista music didn't actually have the copyright; it was one of those spec deals. O-k-a-a-a-y...so we had to drop it. Jermaine came up with another tune, 'Take Good Care Of My Heart,' a beautiful song, so we eventually cut that. In the meantime, 'Don't Look Any Further' was a #1 R&B record for Edwards. Our version would've been a crossover version, because it had more of a pop appeal."
It boggles the mind to contemplate how big Whitney Houston might've been with the inclusion of the smash that got away — past Tapestry, perhaps? At any rate, Jackson wound up producing three tracks, dueting on two of them. The project was just one potential single away from being complete. It came from the most conventional of sources — a big publishing company — but in a rather unconventional way.
"I was in Brenda Andrews' office at Almo/Irving in Los Angeles, which is my town for finding songs," Griffith says. "I told her we needed one more song for the project — a pop/R&B kind of young-dance thing — and she played me seven or eight songs, none of which I felt were right. Then she said, 'Oh, by the way, we just signed these two writers from San Francisco - lemme play this for ya.' It was 'How Will I Know.' I played it for Clive - he loved it. Now we had to find a producer, and I thought Narada Michael Walden would probably be the best guy to do it; he had this special thing he could put into it. He actually cut the track in San Fransisco, flew to L.A. to work with Mike Barbiero and lead vocals on and mixed the damn thing - he had the record done in about a week and a half."
So after nearly three years of false starts, brainstorms, song demos, cross country flights, missed opportunities and baroque machinations, Whitney Houston finally had her album - and Clive Davis had his most gratifying triumph. Griffith, meanwhile, wound up as A&R VP of Manhattan Records (which has had a banner year on the R&B charts). He's proud of the contribution he made to the Houston project, but he's quick to acknowledge the efforts of other key people:
"I can't speak for [promotional men] Donny Iennor and Richard Smith, who had to break the record. They did a great job. They went out there and sold this record, man. But to be honest with you, it really took Clive's perseverance and his ability to make things happen for her. I mean, he really made this record happen."
Wait a minute. Haven't we forgotten somebody? Oh yeah, that's right - Whitney Houston! "She's a delightful, talented lady," Griffith confirms, "and she's gonna be around for a long time."
Good point, Gerry. Actually when you come right down to it, Clive couldn't have done it without her.
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- Whitney Houston
- Clive Davis