The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: The Making – and the Stellar Ascent – of Whitney Houston
The pitiful death of Whitney Houston in a Beverly Hills hotel room should not overshadow the talent that took the R&B world by storm in 1985. Billboard's Bud Scoppa documented her discovery and her rise to fame in December 1986——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
Once in a blue moon, a new artist emerges who simply takes over, in utterly decisive and undeniable fashion. So it was with Whitney Houston — signed at nineteen, unleashed at twenty-one, a superstar at twenty-two. She has it all — artistry, presence, beauty, style, substance, naturalness - and you can't miss it. Whitney Houston is huge, and she can back it up for miles.
What a coup: Houston's self-titles debut album has smoothly become Whitney Houston's Greatest Hits, with a full half-dozen bell-ringers and steadily spectacular sales. It's a perennial, a standard, a classic, a Tapestry — yup, among the recordings of female vocalists, only Carole King's magnum opus has sold more units... ever. And Whitney's a multimedia phenom: she's all over the tube, her lovely face adorns the covers of countless magazines, her concerts sell out in nanoseconds, she provides Diet Coke with a classic Coke-bottle shape. Hell, she's the Boss of CHR, an automatic movie star, America's sweetheart - her future's so bright she's gotta wear shades. Don't look any further — the girl is it.
In retrospect, Whitney Houston's superstardom seems so inevitable that her career appears to have been preordained. Surely it was all on tracks: She was meant to break big, and her record was meant to be on Arista, where her unfettered brilliance and Clive Davis' legendary savvy would elegantly entwine into a marriage as regal as that of Chuck & Di. (Clive & Whitney...ahh, the smell of it).
As it turns out though, the Whitney Houston phenomenon was set into motion not by the gods, nor even by Clive Davis himself, but by a hard-working low-profile guy named Gerry Griffith, whose efforts as an Arista A&R man serve to remind us what the acronym A&R stands for: artist(s) and repertoire. According to Griffith, the making of Whitney Houston was virtually the pop equivalent of a De Mille extravaganza — epic and expensive. A quick glance at the extensive credits indicates that this album did not come fast; a close reading of the inside story reveals that it didn't come easy, either.
Griffith got his first look at Houston back in 1980, quite by accident.
He and Richard smith, Arista's chief of black A&R, were at New York's Bottom Line in an official capacity, to meet and greet GRP/Arista flautist Dave Valentin, who was headlining. Through some quirk of fate, they arrived early enough to catch opener Cissy Houston, who brought her seventeen year-old daughter onstage for a solo turn. Smith and Griffith were stunned — along with the rest of the crowd — by the prodigious vocal talent of the youngster. "You should sign her," Smith told Griffith. But the A&R man wasn't convinced. "As good as she is," he told his companion, "there's still something lacking. She isn't quite ripe yet."