I wasn’t quite 25 years old yet, but I was deeply in the mix of the New York music community when her first single dropped. I was promoting records to NY Urban powerhouse 98.7 Kiss-FM and the historically important WBLS-FM. They were cool records by unknowns named LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. Dangerous bits of rebellion concocted by a NYU student named Rick Rubin. I spent time in a world below 14th Street in Manhattan-an area of town that was affectionately referred to as Downtown. I was pioneering.
I’d grown up on a steady diet of Soul, Funk, Jazz/Funk, Fusion, Jazz, New Wave, Rock, Pop and Black Dance records that bubbled up from the underground. MTV held sway over what really jumped off, and I thought that I’d understood where they were coming from. Prince had just broken through on the strength of his 1999 and Purple Rain records; Michael Jackson had completed a two-year reign of terror riding the video releases from Thriller into the stratosphere; Nile Rodgers’ production chops had set it off for David Bowie, Duran Duran and Madonna. Run/DMC was poised to make history and bring Hip Hop to the suburbs, and a thin, ex-model from New Jersey sang a ballad that lit up Black Radio called “You Give Good Love”.
Because of how and where I spent my time, I was positioned to dislike Whitney Houston’s music immensely. Her sound was corporate Black Pop, and to my ears, not quite as soulful as that of Luther Vandross. Corporate Black Pop was the soundtrack for the empires that were being built inside the halls of the major labels in the ’80s. In those days, I was an advocate for Hip Hop and that made me and my collaborators uninvited guests to the party that major label Black Music departments and Black Radio were having with one another. Hip Hop was relegated to a network of mix show jocks, clubs and local video shows like, New York’s Video Music Box and New York Hot Tracks. We worked on the margins.
I’d heard a good deal of slick Black Pop and I wasn’t opposed to it on principle, I was opposed to it because it presented an obstacle to my growth. But, there was something a little different about Whitney; she had a pure instrument and a sweetness that had undeniable appeal. By the time MTV added the video for Saving All My Love For You, I was in; the cute young girl from Jersey got me. I wasn’t alone, her innocent interpretation of a chick on the side who wants it all, connected in a massive way. We should have known then that there was a darker side to it all.
The drugs, the erratic behavior, domestic discord, ill advised interviews and unkempt and disheveled appearances have all been documented elsewhere, and we won’t be going into any of that here. The voice, perhaps the greatest voice that America produced in the post civil rights era lives on. Predictably, iTunes is shifting downloads of her Greatest Hits package like President Obama sang a medley of them on the stage of the Apollo.
I met her a couple of times, hung out at several of her recording sessions and attended her wedding reception. 19 1/2 years ago, on that scorching day in July, she was hotter than the month itself. Her greatest triumph, simultaneously starring in The Bodyguard, and the monstrous single from the soundtrack, I Will Always Love You, engulfed her in an aura of success that was felt on a worldwide basis.. She was young, regal, radiant and the undisputed queen of pop. It seemed like she would live forever.
Shouts to Gerry Griffith, Pam Lewis Rudden, Nelson George, Dr, Jeckyl, John Leland and Tony Anderson.