Philly reflects on Houston’s legacy

Whitney Houston performs at the 2004 World Music Awards at the Thomas and Mack Arena in Las Vegas. — AP PHOTO/ERIC JAMISON

In the span of 27 years, Whitney Houston became an international superstar in the worlds of both music and motion pictures, amassing global album sales of more than 120 million copies, and a film box office total of more than a half billion dollars.

Through her mother, R&B/gospel singer Cissy Houston, her cousin, acclaimed vocalist Dionne Warwick, and the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin as her godmother, Houston was exposed to music since birth. As a member of the New Hope Baptist Junior Choir in Newark, NJ, Houston developed into a soloist by the age of 11. Cissy Houston’s career helped provide Whitney with invaluable vocal training. Houston was singing backup for artists like Chaka Khan and Lou Rawls while in her mid-teens, frequently appearing with Cissy in concert and local New York clubs.

While she also began pursuing a career in modeling (gracing the cover of magazines such as “Glamour” and “Seventeen”), her musical ambitions received a boost when she recorded “Hold Me,” a 1984 duet with Teddy Pendergrass, in Philadelphia. The song was released as the then-unknown first single on her self-titled debut album “Whitney Houston” and was also released on Pendergrass’ “Love Language” LP.

“The first time we really heard Whitney Houston was with Philadelphia’s own Teddy Pendergrass,” said Radio One’s 107.9 WRNB host Dyana Williams. “And at that time in Teddy’s career, he was already a mega star, so to have this new artist with this enchanting voice, team up with our superstar was pretty exciting. I distinctly remember hearing her for the first time — it was an amazing duet, one that has resulted in a classic as time has progressed.”

Clive Davis, legendary former president of Arista Records, signed Houston to the label, and her debut album released in 1985 boasted a string of hits. Philadelphian Linda Creed and composer Michael Masser co-wrote “The Greatest Love of All” for the 1977 Muhammad Ali biopic The Greatest; in the spring of 1986, the song was a hit for George Benson, but topped the charts when Houston got hold of it. The album went on to sell over 22 million copies worldwide, becoming the biggest-selling debut album by a solo artist in history.

“Linda Creed wrote with a guy Michael Masser, a noted producer of some of the songs on her second album (“Whitney”),” recalled Philadelphia-based recording engineer Joe Tarsia. “He was so fastidious about vocals and so forth and made her sing reels and reels and reels of tapes of the same song. He would make her do a full reel of 24 tracks of the first verse, and then repeat and do the second chorus over and over and over again and really drove her. She was a good sport about it, but it was a very trying experience. It was her second album, and she was still sort of a newcomer and put up with it and worked like a champ. Only because it was such an issue; we never saw anybody put a vocalist through the rigors that Michael Masser did with her, of all people because she was so talented she could probably knock it off in one take. Everybody works differently.”

Tarsia recalled that a very young Houston had accompanied her mother (an in-demand session singer) to Philly when Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff cut a record for Atlantic Records with Houston’s group “Sweet Inspirations” in 1969. “The success of Sigma in New York City all came about because people wanted to follow what was happening in Philly with Gamble, Huff and Thom Bell. It was really their success that made my studio in New York a success, and it brought people like Whitney and Clive Davis to the studio.”

On April 29, 1985, a 21-year-old Houston made her national television debut on “The Merv Griffin Show” to sing a cover of “Home” from “The Wiz.” At the time, Davis praised the new talent, telling the legendary Philadelphia talk show host: “There was Lena Horne. There is Dionne Warwick. But if the mantle is to pass to somebody ... who’s elegant, who’s sensuous, who’s innocent, who’s got an incredible range of talent, but guts and soul at the same time, it will be Whitney Houston in my opinion. It’s her natural charm. You either got it or you don’t have it. She’s got it.”

The Jersey girl ruled as pop music’s queen until her majestic voice and regal image were ravaged by drug use, erratic behavior and a tumultuous marriage to singer Bobby Brown. However, her early career was nurtured here in the Delaware Valley.

“She had strong Philly ties,” noted Williams.

 

Contact staff writer Bobbi Booker at (215) 893-5749 or bbooker@phillytrib.com.

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