Essence, Dec 1990.
The soul of Whitney
Author: Joy Duckett Cain

Full Text COPYRIGHT Essence Communications Inc. 1990

The Soul of Whitney

When I walked through Whitney Houston's front door and came face to face with a giant photograph of Marilyn Monroe, I felt as though my innermost suspicions of Houston were about to be validated: She would be plastic and phony, a sister in serious need of a personality transplant. She probably possessed the emotional depth of a teaspoon and the IQ to match. I mean, Marilyn Monroe? Oh my god. This was going to be worse than I thought.

It must be tough being Whitney. Perhaps more than any other contemporary superstar, she is in the strange position of having great mass popularity without eliciting great passion, of being liked but not particularly loved, especially in the Black community. Yeah, we buy her records, but do we buy her act? Last year's audience at the Soul Train Music Awards booed at the mere mention of her name. If that's any indication, some of us don't buy it. She just doesn't move us the way Aretha did, the way Anita does. I looked at
Marilyn Monroe, took a deep breath and braced myself for the standard celebrity star trip. What I got instead surprised me: Houston was thoughtful, frank, even humble at times. I liked her.

Wearing a white headband, a simple white shirt, cotton pants and sneakers, she cussed occasionally and put a hurtin' on a plate of barbecued chicken. She was, as her family and friends told me she would be, very down-to-earth. She was real. And she answered all questions, including The Biggie: No, says Houston, she is not gay.

"Robyn [Crawford, Whitney's executive assistant] is my oldest and dearest friend," she says. "People used to say we were gay when we went in East Orange [New Jersey] because when you saw Robyn you saw me, and when you saw me you saw Robyn. We were that tight, you know? So this thing has kind of followed us. And half the time we'd say, `F_ _ _it, if they think we're gay, let' em think we're gay.'" But as Houston's fame grew and the rumors intensified, that cavalier attitude gave way to hurt and confusion. Their friendship, which began when Whitney was 16, was nearly destroyed.

"It got to be a pain in the ass," Houston says. "No matter how much you try not to let them bother you, [rumors] do bother you. So we just said, `Hey if this is what's gonna happen, then let's not be friends anymore.' But that wasn't the answer, either. After a while you start thinking, We're friends. I love you, you love me. Why should we do this because of what people say and what they think? She was here before and I know she'd be here if my career ended tomorrow.

Houston surrounds herself with people she trusts: Her father, John, is president and CEO of her three corporations; her brother Gary sings backup for her; another brother, Michael, is her assistant road manager; and Robyn coordinates her schedule and makes sure that things run smoothly. She's fired most of them at least ten times (except for her father, whom she's only fired once) for what she laughingly recalls as insubordination. About the only person she hasn't fired is the one who doesn't work for her - her mother, singer Cissy Houston. "My mother used to tell me, `If you ever get too big for your britches, just remember who God is. He's bigger than you and bigger than me.'"

Houston lives in a modern five-bedroom house that looks like any other affluent suburban house in Morris County, New Jersey. She has a live-in staff of three. Behind the house is a huge stretch of land and an Olympic-size pool with a Jacuzzi on the side. The tennis court is a few feet away from the pool and up a few stairs. Even with all this, the house has a comfortable, lived-in feel to it. In the living areas there are no gold records or awards in sight, except for the framed US and Ebony magazine covers (one of Whitney and her
mother, one of Whitney and her father) that sit on a mantle. You or I could live there, if, of course, we had the $11 million to buy the place. "I love show business, but I don't live it," she says.

But head downstairs toward her 32-track recording studio, and all thoughts of normalcy disappear. A display case overflows with awards. Houston points to a 1988 People's Choice Award and a 1990 award from the United Negro College Fund as her favorites. And lining the walls are gold, platinum, double-platinum and triple-platinum albums - it is truly amazing, even to Whitney. "What freaks me out," she says, shaking her head, "is it's just two albums."

Those albums, Whitney Houston (which sold 13 million copies, making it the best-selling debut in history) and Whitney, had massive white appeal. Because of that, some Blacks feel Houston's sound is not Black enough. "Black? Black - that bothers me," says Houston. "What's Black? I've been trying to figure this out since I've been in the business." She pauses. "I don't know how to sing Black - and I don't know how to sing white, either. I know how to sing. Music is not a color to me. It's an art." While conceding that she doesn't let loose on records the way she does in concert, Houston is still miffed when fans come up to her after a show and say, `I didn't know you could sing like that.' "I say, `Well, why didn't you? I mean, can't you feel my heart on the record? Can't you feel my soul?'"

Soul. That's precisely the issue. "Whitney had the [chance] to reintroduce soul music 'cause she is a soul child," says former Billboard Black music editor Nelson George, author of The Death of Rhythm and Blues. "When she really cuts loose, she's got this great soulfulness, but she was marketed as a pop product."

Houston doesn't deny that, but she doesn't apologize for it, either. It is, she stresses, show business. When she was 18 she was ready for the business, and Clive Davis, president of Arista Records, was ready for her. Davis is credited with breathing new life into Dionne Warwick's and Aretha Franklin's careers. Now he would steer Houston to mainstream music. It was a business decision to let that happen.

Suddenly Houston belts out a gospel-sounding, gut-busting phrase, then stops. "That's nice," she says. "I love that mess. But does it make a record and does it have worldwide appeal? And what happens after that? Longevity - that's what it's all about. If you're gonna have a long career, there's a certain way to do it, and I did it that way. I'm not ashamed of it."

Houston tries her best to live as normal a life as possible, often going to restaurants and amusement parks, even the mall, without security. The mall? "I time it. I don't go on the weekend. I go during the week when I know there aren't a lot of people," she says. "I don't go to the mall to be famous, I go to shop," she laughs. After all, she is a Jersey girl.

At 27, Houston's desire to have children is strong. Sure, she has dated Eddie Murphy and Bobby Brown, but that serious "till-death-do-you-part love thing" just hasn't happened. "Either I'm gonna marry and have kids or have kids and get married," she says. "I want to love and to be loved. There's a mother in me that's dying to come out."

Houston grew up in a middle-class section of East Orange with her parents (Cissy and John, then a Newark city administrator) and two older brothers. Although her parents separated when she was a teenager, in some respects Whitney's life was rather ordinary: She brought home stray animals, occasionally cut classes, and smoked in the bathroom of the private Catholic girls' school she attended. At times she drove her mother crazy. "She thought she knew it all," Cissy recalls affectionately. "[When she was] 16, I thought
she wasn't gonna make 17, 'cause I might kill her."

She was a Daddy's girl. "I used to give her flowers," says John. Whitney adds, "He was Mom's support when she was on tour." (Cissy sang backup for Aretha, Dionne and Elvis Presley and was a member of the Sweet Inspirations).

In other respects, however, Houston's childhood was the stuff musical dreams are made of. Dionne Warwick is a first cousin, Aretha ("Auntie Ree") Franklin a family friend. But it wasn't until Whitney got her first solo at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark that she knew music would be her destiny too.

"I was so afraid, so scared, that I closed my eyes and just began to sing," Whitney recalls of her first solo at around age 12. "When I opened my eyes, it was like the Holy Spirit had come to the church. People were just shoutin' and happy and praising God. I started thinking then, If this is what I can do with what You've given me, then I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna take it all the way. I'm gonna be a singer." Warwick says, "With her looks and talent, she had all the credentials. Her success was something that was supposed to happen. And like all of us in the family, Whitney was singing from the moment she came out [of the womb]."

Houston began singing in front of audiences as a backup for her mother in the New York City area. After one performance at Carnegie Hall, a photographer said that Houston would make a great model and suggested that she check out Click, a new modeling agency. She did and went on (first with Click, then with Wilhelmina) to appear in Vogue and on the cover of Seventeen. She liked the people, the traveling and the money but disliked the endless primping and prepping. "Too fussy for me," she says of her modeling days. "You stand there in front of the camera and just grin."

Now she's talking Hollywood. It looks as if her first movie will be with Kevin Costner, who pushed a disinterested studio to hire her. Although it's been reported that Houston will appear in a movie version of Terry McMillan's novel Disappearing Acts, Houston says that's far from a closed deal. She did a few screen tests last summer - "6:30 a.m. calls!" she exclaims, "Man, that 6:30 jam wore me out!"

Houston's biggest soft spot is for children, and through the recently formed Whitney Houston Foundation for Children, she wants to tackle illiteracy. "When you can't read, you don't understand. That worries me about people in America, especially our people," she says.

A few months ago, I watched Houston lay down some tracks for her new album, I'm Your Baby Tonight, in a Manhattan recording studio. While listening to the tape with her producer and engineer, she was loose, animated, joking - an everyday kind of woman. But when it was time to record, when it was just her and the mike and the music, a transformation occurred. She opened her mouth to sing, and, well, let's just say there wasn't nary a thing phony about it. Her style and her songs may be pop, but in my mind there's no question about the depth of her soul.

Joy Duckett Cain is the Parenting editor at Essence.


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