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
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
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
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," Griffiths 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
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 Griffiths 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."
David 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 Nyroesque "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 marvelous. 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
"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.
Bud Scoppa toiled as an
L.A. based Arista A&R man from 1978 to 1983. He's now a freelance journalist and the
editor of Music Connection magazine.
Billboard: Artist Of
Billboard Inside Tracks, December 1986
The Long Road To Overnight Stardom - By Bud Scoppa