Cissy Houston...

[The Jersey Journal Interview/Report]

Houston's Calling

Songstress abides by traditional gospel, mum on Whitney

Tuesday, August 29, 2006
By Jeff Theodore
The Jersey Journal

Through the years, Cissy Houston has been in the presence of some great entertainers. She has sung backup for people like Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross and her cousin, Dionne Warwick.

She even gave birth to a great one, multi-platinum multiple Grammy-winning Whitney Houston.

But don't sleep on Cissy Houston. She's a great one, too, all on her own merits.

As minister of music for New Hope Baptist Church in Newark for many years, Houston has built a long-standing reputation as one of traditional gospel music's most dependable voices.

Last Friday, she appeared as the featured act at Jersey City's Summer Gospel Explosion, a very successful outing that drew more than 800 gospel fans to the Martin Luther King Plaza.

Before Houston took the stage, I got a chance to have a sit down one-on-one interview. During the 15-minute session, I tried in vain to toss in a few inquiries about Whitney. It was going OK until Cissy's assistant pulled the plug on me. More on that, later.

Looking stylish in a fuchsia colored pantsuit and shoes to match, Houston leaned back in a swivel chair at St. Michael's Methodist Church, located next door to the MLK Plaza. Her face bore no expression as she dabbed her nose with a tissue.

I asked if she had a cold.

"Don't know," she answered, wryly. "Might be the air in here."

After exchanging pleasantries, I plunged right into a line of questions about Houston's gospel career. In recent years, she hasn't recorded an album. Inquiring minds wanted to know why? Two of her previous albums have been Grammy winners.

"I would love to do another album, but I need a contract," she revealed.

Wait a minute.  No contract?  Somebody get Sony or Arista on the phone.  I'm sure Gospel fans would cry foul over such a disservice.

No disrespect to songbirds like Yolanda Adams and Ce Ce Winans, who sing today's popular new fangled style of gospel music, but they likely wouldn't be where they are if traditional singers like Houston hadn't paved the way.

While Houston expressed no criticism of gospel's new sound, she said she doesn't want people to abandon traditional sounds from back in the day.

"I know that God don't change," she said, her voice rising like a fervent Baptist preacher. "So, I don't see why we need to change. I try to figure it out but sometimes it's very difficult. We shouldn't forget about from whence we came."

In that regard, Houston got her musical start singing with her brothers and sisters at church. As a member of the Sweet Inspirations, she would go on to achieve success singing backup for legendary artists like Aretha and the King himself: Elvis.

"He was great, a mega-star," she recalled about Elvis. "He always treated me well."

As the minister of music at New Hope, Houston used to oversee all the church's choirs. Although she has cut back some, she said she hasn't grown weary of the rigors of choir work.

"I could use more lead singers. You sing lead?," she asked me in a deadpan manner.

I smiled and moved on to the portion of the interview that I knew could get touchy: What's up with Whitney?

First of all, let's be clear. I'm not some rumor monger trying to get the cheap juicy goods on Whitney Houston. In fact, since her "Bodyguard" days, anyone close to me would tell you that I've been a Whitney fanatic. To this very day, I remain a Whitney fanatic.

But, as any reporter worth his or her salt would do, I threw my probing questions out there. In my first inquiry-- a softball question, really┬ŚI asked Houston whether she foresaw her daughter's career as an internationally known superstar.

"I really never gave a thought to it," she responded. "She went out and fulfilled her own dreams."

At that point, Houston's assistant, Diane Whitt, entered the room.

When I asked Houston whether she believes Whitney's career can bounce back amid the controversy surrounding her, Whitt shot me down faster than a Thanksgiving Day turkey.

"No sir! No sir! This is an interview about Cissy Houston, not Whitney," Whitt said.

"Uh, well...what about one more question on Whitney?," I stuttered, feeling as if my mother had caught me stealing from the cookie jar.

"No sir!," Whitt insisted. She softened up later.

Ironically, during that whole exchange, Cissy Houston didn't say anything.

After the mini-uproar, I smoothed things over by asking Houston what does she see in her future.

Upon hearing this, a smile broke across the face of the 70-something grandmother. Then, out came a belly-busting laugh.

"Well," she said, suppressing her laugh. "I hope to live."

During her appearance at the concert, Houston put any doubts about the strength of her voice to rest. Crooning traditional gospel classics, such as "Deep River," she riled up the crowd, eliciting amens and ┬񓩮�g, Ms. Houston!' outbursts.

"My name is Cissy Houston," she told the audience. "Just another human being, a mother, and a Christian woman. I'm here to sing Christian songs. So, if you expect me to do anything else, then you're at the wrong place."

But concertgoers knew they were in the right place. They looked on as one of the last survivors in traditional gospel did her part to keep the music's spirit alive.



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