Whitney Houston: Remembering the Early Performing Days

I’m not going to dwell on the recent and mainly unhappy past of Whitney Houston, but rather I’ll focus on the brilliant start to her career.

If you knew 70’s dance music, you probably didn’t know that a 14 year old Whitney sung on a now obscure Michael Zager Band song called “Life’s a Party”.  You may know that she did contribute backing vocals a year later on Chaka Khan’s seminal “I’m Every Woman”, which Whitney herself later turned into an even bigger hit.  The first lead vocal by Whitney appears on avant funk band Material’s One Down album from 1982, but it’s on a tender ballad called “Memories”, which was very unlike Material’s other songs.  Listen below to the pure vocal.

She then did lead vocals on the late Paul Jabara’s 1983 “Eternal Love” from the Paul Jabara & Friends album (also recorded by Stephanie Mills), and performed that song in concert a number of times in the 80’s.  The first charted hit with Whitney billed was Teddy Pendergrass’ 1983 song “Hold Me”.    It reached #46 on the Billboard Hot 100, a rather plain introduction to the world if you ask me.  Our introduction to Whitney solo, from her debut self-titled album, was “You Give Good Love”.  And it got to #3.  But what followed, starting with “Savin’ All My Love For You”, were 7 consecutive number one songs, and the rest is simple history.

Shortly before her debut album was released, RCA Records Canada hosted an intimate industry-only party at Club Blue Note in Toronto.  I had been publishing my own magazine called Vinyl Performance with my partner-in-crime James Rogers, and got invited to attend by the RCA rep.  None of my music aficionado friends was available to attend at short notice, so Peter Russell was my lucky ‘plus one’.  Whitney performed about five or six songs from the album, singing live to backing tracks.  I remember “Thinking About You”, featuring Jermaine Jackson, sounding really good and like a possible hit (I think it ended up as a ‘B side’), along with my still-favourite “How Will I Know”.  After her set, I got to meet Whitney briefly.  We greeted and she put her arm around my upper back and asked “Would you have a picture with me?”  I have that photo somewhere, I must have hid it good when I last moved house.  She was cute, warm, and bubbly, and brimming with talent.

In lieu of that photo, as my memory of Whitney from 1985, I found the original RCA Records Canada press kit.  What follows is the text (rather than a scanned in copy).  Click right here to see the cover photo of that press kit.

There is in every decade one young performer whose inevitable rise to stardom is predicted by everyone with whom that artist comes in contact. In the 1980’s, that performer is Whitney Houston.

Stephen Holden in the New York TIMES said “She is a talent with tremendous potential”.  The VILLAGE VOICE first enthused “She has the looks, the voice and style of Lena Horne when she was that age.  Star Material. Sensational word-of-mouth has been going around about Whitney Houston.”  Later, they described her as “a chic-looking young Billie Holiday with a gorgeous vibrato.  She has a big voice, the kind that makes you laugh and weep at the same time.”

Nelson George in BILLBOARD Magazine labeled her “a thrilling young singer who performs beautifully.  Whitney has the pedigree and style to be a major vocalist.”

And that’s some pedigree!  Her mother, Cissy Houston, has been one of the most well-regarded singers in R&B for more than twenty years and Dionne Warwick is her first cousin.  Whitney has been in the studio as a background singer since she was twelve years old and recently has been featured as a backup vocalist on LP’s by Chaka Khan, Lou Rawls, The Neville Brothers and soloed on “Eternal Love” from Paul Jabara’s LP.  On Material’s “One Down” album, she did a solo called “Memories”, which Bob Christgau in the VILLAGE VOICE called, “one of the most gorgeous ballads you’ve ever heard.”  When she was 15 years old she toured Japan with her mother, Cissy Houston.  Whitney’s style, in part, echoes her mother’s gospel-rooted soulful delivery but contains a cool, pop quality all her own.

Even with the family exposure and the instant success that she has had both as a Wilhelmina fashion model and a singer, her controlled self-assurance is amazing in a nineteen year-old.

And yet, “amazing” is a comfortable fit for Whitney.  She has appeared on the cover of SEVENTEEN Magazine and appeared in GLAMOUR, COSMOPOLITAN and YOUNG MISS.  She has done national television commercials.  At a time when almost no new artists are being signed to record companies, Whitney has just been given a contract with Arista Records by its president, Clive Davis, one of the most highly regarded judges of talent in the music business.  In Arista’s own words, it was “an agreement that represents a major commitment to the young artist.  Her signing was one of the most eagerly sought at Arista in recent years.”

What is she like as a person?  She will tell you, emphatically, that her first love is singing and that above all else that is what she wants to be doing the rest of her life.  Whitney, whose “greatest influences, besides my own family, were Aretha, Natalie Cole, Donny Hathaway, and Quincy Jones,” wants to travel and perform all over the world.  Somehow, in the midst of all this, she’d also like to work toward a college education.  What’s more, she probably will.

Warm, observant, careful, ambitious, a charming balance of reserve and fun – Whitney sees singing, modeling and acting as her job.  She likes it, but she can take the glamour in stride and is only too aware of the pitfalls along the way – after all, you might say it’s the family business.

Published in: on February 11, 2012 at 11:48 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Spot on with this write-up, I seriously think this site needs far more attention. I’ll probably be returning to read more, thanks for the information!

    • Thank you for the kind comment, particularly about this post 🙂


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