Whitney Houston was a young woman who was blessed with looks, youth, drive, opportunity and one of the great voices of the 20th century. About 25 years ago, she dropped her debut release on Arista Records and it quickly became apparent that nothing would be quite the same for her (or us) ever again. She burst on the stage with a flourish and amidst a marketplace that was dominated by MTV-supported success, she cut through it all with a sweetly angelic voice and a virginal persona, and smashed with “Saving All My Love For You.”
One executive had the vision that projected the thin former model as a worldwide diamond-level success, A&R legend, Gerry Griffith. He discovered her and signed her to the label and then as a result of corporate politics, had the credit for his discovery given to others. What follows is his tale of how he found the great Whitney Houston. Oh yeah, her new CD “I Look To You,” her first new studio collection in a decade, debuted at No. 1 and currently sits at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 200 Chart.
Most people in the music business see an A&R executive as someone endowed with special powers who is able to pull talented artists out of the water like fish on a line. Yes, it does happen, but timing and luck play a larger part in the discovery of the truly gifted artist. Sometimes you drop into a club and there they are, on stage singing or playing their heads off. Or sometimes, you might find yourself surprised by a tape or CD. And other times, the phone rings. In the case of Whitney Houston, two of the above happened to me.
Richard Smith, head of R&B promotion at Arista Records and I were attending a performance of one of our artists, GRP/Arista jazz man, Dave Valentine. He was playing in Greenwich Village at the legendary nightspot, The Bottom Line. Sweet Inspiration, Cissy Houston was the opening act. Because an A&R executive is constantly looking for hits, I would drop in from time to time on music publisher Love Zager to scout new song material for Arista artists. I knew Cissy through this. The set began, and Cissy was as captivating as ever, the audience enjoyed every moment. After about three or four songs, Cissy’s beautiful, wiry 15 year old daughter stepped out to sing; I had never seen or heard her sing before. After a song or two, Richard poked me in my side and said, “Man, you should sign that girl.”
My response was, “Yeah, for such a young singer she’s really good, and as professional as she is, I don’t feel she needs a bit more seasoning.“ Or something to that effect. Richard was pissed with my response, but that’s normal for record promotion guys, so I let it go and continued to enjoy the show.
Close to a year later, I received a call from my friend Fran who was not in the music business. She asked if I knew Whitney Houston. I said yes and related the Bottom Line story. Fran thought that I’d better make some fast moves because she had recently seen Whitney perform at a private party for two wealthy lady friends who wanted to secure a recording deal and manage the beautiful young artist and model. She suggested to her friends that they should consider Arista Records, and wondered if I would meet with them. I agreed even though the ladies had no prior management experience. Additionally, I knew that Whitney had management but they were prepared to buy her out of her existing management deal.
What I heard next from Fran freaked me out! Bruce Lundvall, who was then President of Elektra Records was interested in signing her. I thought that I had blown it and that I should have listened to Richard. I also thought that if my boss Clive Davis found out that he’d be pissed. Crazy shit like that was going through my mind. In the A&R game, we don’t get many chances to sign the special ones.
As a courtesy I met with the two ladies, made no promises, thanked them and split. “So, OK, now what?” I asked myself. The answer: call Deidre O’Hara at the publishing company for Whitney’s manager’s telephone numbers. Got it. I called Gene Harvey, introduced myself, and in a joyful accepting voice Gene said, “Arista, oh yeah, Clive Davis.”
I accepted what all Arista executives have had to tolerate: the fact that the boss always upstaged us. I asked if I could see Whitney perform again before they made a decision about a label for her. Gene said no decision had been made, and that she was performing on the upcoming weekend with Cissy at Seventh Ave South. Thanking Jesus and thinking I needed a drink, I left with a smile.
Seventh Avenue South was a cool small bar owned by the Brecker Brothers and was appropriately named since it was located on the southern edge of the West Village on 7th avenue. It was around the corner from the best dance club in New York, The Paradise Garage.
THE SWEET INSPIRATION
I didn’t have time to meet Whitney before the performance, so I chilled with a Heineken and a smoke before the show started. While the band assembled, Whitney, her brother Gary and the other background singers took their place on stage. Since the previous time that I’d seen her, she had matured and seemed taller. The band began to play and Cissy appeared to the audiences’ applause…little did I know that history was in the making.
Cissy sang three or four songs, then Whitney stepped out for her contribution, which was stunning, especially her version of “Home,” the Stephanie Mills hit. I was totally amazed how she had grown vocally and stylistically. Whitney had the natural ability to take a song and recreate it with the vocal prowess and command that I hadn’t heard since a young Aretha. She was powerful, present, fearless, yet so young and innocent.
I met with her after the show and told her how amazed I was at her stage presence and vocal talent, and that I wanted to set up a showcase for Clive. Now you must understand, that growing up the music I was exposed to was Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday. Included among the artists I had worked with were Aretha, Dionne, Phyllis Hymen, Jennifer Holiday, and Minnie Riperton. This young lady had the potential to join this illustrious crew. OK, so now it was time to get Clive on board.
The next day, I boldly walked into his office and asked for a meeting. I sat down and told him that I heard an amazingly talented young singer that we must sign and that I wanted to showcase her for him within a week. He said “OK, set it up.” Damn, that was easy!
Using Cissy’s band and background singers, we rehearsed for five days. At around 6:30 or 7:00 the night of the showcase, I went to Clive’s office to take him to the gig, and to my surprise he asked me if we could move the audition to another time since he had a difficult day and thought it best if he didn’t attend this night. I was silently pissed, but I refused to back down and calmly explained that Whitney had worked very hard to give him a great thirty minute show that promised to be lively. Clive acquiesced, and we took the elevator down to 57th Street where his car was waiting. It was a fifteen minute drive to the rehearsal space on 35th and 8th Avenue.
It was a funky joint on the sixth floor, that was used by many well known bands and performers. We walked in and were met enthusiastically by Gene Harvey, Cissy came over to say hello to Clive, and after basic pleasantries we all sat down. Showtime!
ARISTA FOUNDER CLIVE DAVIS, A YOUNG DIVA & THE AUTHOR
Whitney approached the mike. She was young, beautiful and confident. Confidence: that professional quality she had learned from a very young age singing in the church, at private affairs, and on the road…for those of us who had experienced her glorious gifts, we were nervous yet joyful. Young Whitney had that “wow” factor that keeps you on the edge of your seat anticipating the first downbeat. She choose all the songs, but I insisted that she close the set with “Home.” Clive was cool, showing little emotion during the performance until the last song. I had worked with him for almost three years, and I had a natural feel for what made him pay attention…the big melodious ballads with strong hooks. I also knew that her version of “Home” would get his attention. After the show, he expressed how impressed he was to Whitney, and said we would talk at the office tomorrow and let them know his thoughts. Clive left and we all congratulated Whitney on a great performance. Cissy and Gene were both very confident she would get the deal…me too.
I met with Clive the following day, and to my surprise he was not impressed enough to sign her. What the hell went wrong? Whitney gave a killer professional performance. I refused to let this lady get away from us, so I continued to explain that if we don’t do this Bruce Lundvall would sign her in a moment once he finds out about the showcase. Well nothing worked until Clive took a few of his friends to another of Cissy’s shows where his friends told him that he was crazy not to sign this talent. So we did sign her, but to a three song development deal with our option for a complete album once the three songs were accepted…now I went to work looking for producers and song material… So why didn’t Bruce sign her when he had the chance?
to be continued…..