Monday, May 20, 2024

Whitney–Don’t Call It a Comeback…

September 2, 2009 by  
Filed under Entertainment, News, Weekly Columns

( As I write this, I haven’t heard “I Look To You,” Whitney Houston’s new CD. Perhaps I’ll get around to it. Maybe I’ll hear a piece of a song on television; or a melody will waft out of the car next to me while I’m sitting on a light. Or maybe someone will insist I just gotta hear a particular track. It doesn’t really matter to me how I hear Houston’s new one or, frankly, if I hear it at all.

Don’t misunderstand. I dig Whitney Houston. When I say it doesn’t matter to me, I’m not saying she cannot possibly have something truly interesting to offer on her new collection. She is, after all, Whitney Houston who, in the span of the initial three of just six albums total and “The Bodyguard” movie soundtrack, became a global superstar and one of the biggest selling artists of all time.

However, I’m not going to be like some of the talking heads I’ve heard on TV in the days leading up to the CD’s release, who offer such insight as, “Well, it’s going to be hard for her to come back.” Or the brilliant assessment that “Pop music has changed since the last time she had music out.” Or the marvelously astute observation that “She’s not hitting those notes like she used to.”

While we’re at it, let’s take a penetrating look at a middle-aged Michael Jordan’s capacity for stopping midair or Muhammad Ali’s ability to once again sting like a bee as we speculate endlessly whether a 50 year-old Michael Jackson could have rivaled the supernatural performances of his 30 year-old self. I mean, I used to have hair. Time changes everything, people.

That said, at the risk of sounding like one who constantly speaks of the good ol’ days, I’ve already heard the Whitney I want to hear.

I remember when the legend was invented. Then-Arista Records head Clive Davis shaped and fashioned Houston’s career, but he didn’t “discover” her for the label. That seldom acknowledged honor goes to Gerry Griffith, an Arista executive who caught Houston performing with her mother, session singer Cissy Houston, in a Manhattan nightclub. Griffith had to actually push Davis to go check Houston out for himself.

However, after he signed her, Davis went to work in typical idol-making fashion, designing Houston’s every career move. In 1983 he hosted a small, early evening Houston showcase at Hollywood’s tiny Vine Street Bar and Grill, a block away from the L.A. office of Black Beat, the fanzine I edited back then. Davis had done the same thing in Manhattan, for the purpose of wooing producers and writers to work on Houston’s debut album.

Among the tight Vine Street room of Houston family and friends, including mama Houston, Whitney’s cousin Dionne Warwick and actress Leslie Uggams, was a peculiar mix of possible producers, including ’60s Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier and producer/songwriter Leon Sylvers, who’d been hot with Shalamar and the Whispers.

After Davis’ “This girl is going to be a star” introduction, Houston, backed by a trio on piano, bass and drums, performed a brief set of pop-jazz standards. With her short, sandy-colored afro, sheer cocktail dress and smoky-room poise and patter, the lanky 20 year-old Houston resembled a child playing grown up. She was good, but not spectacular. I would have dared anyone leaving the place to say they’d just witnessed a future superstar.

Likewise, “Whitney Houston,” her 1985 debut album, featured an unlikely collection of writers/producers, including Narada Michael Walden, Jermaine Jackson and Michael Masser. The LP got off to a slow start on the charts and at retail.

It took the ballad single, “You Give Good Love,” produced by Kashif and co-written by the producer with singer/songwriter La La, to jump-start things. The rest is a stunning chapter in pop music history to which critics now rather ridiculously compare Houston’s latest work.

Which is kinda like gazing at your old high school yearbook photo and lamenting that you no longer look that way, when the reality is that, for better or worse, things change. Granted, not all the alterations in Houston’s mighty voice have occurred at the hand of mere time and maturity: Whenever the by then superstar Houston was in L.A., one of her associates would hit my usually reliable joy merchant, buying up ALL the pot, damn it, leaving the rest of us clients high, dry and pissed.

Regardless, Houston’s once truly remarkable instrument–like the work of Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross–forever epitomizes the ingenious, entrancing amalgamation of gospel-tinged infliction and vanilla sensibility that artfully defines modern pop singing.

Those who go on about the proverbial “comeback” of influential superstars apparently have no idea just how hard the initial “come” can be. For the wide-eyed prodigal talent, a successful launch–finding the right songs and producers, developing effective publicity and promotion campaigns, etc.–can be challenging, fun, intriguing and rewarding. Then it becomes a job. And eventually, for some, an albatross.

But you can’t make a comeback if you never left. If you’re the genius likes of, say, Aretha (Houston’s god mom), Paul McCartney or Stevie, you’ve long ago shaped pop culture’s audio blueprint, carving your name on the Milky Way in the process. If you’re Jimi Hendrix, pretty much all that’s left to do is move on to the Next Level, if you know what I mean. When your stupefyingly brilliant moments forever alter how the world hears the soundtrack of everyday life, sometimes your best follow-up is to do nothing.

Which is difficult to do when practically everybody and their mother is doing you: last I checked, most of the female pop and R&B singers of the last two decades, from Mariah Carey to Alicia Keys to Kelly Clarkson to Carrie Underwood and practically every other girl singer to take the “American Idol” stage, were still hard at work emulating Whitney Houston’s iconic licks and tone. Still.

Call it her first new music in four years. Call it About Time. Call it whatever you want–except a comeback. Because one way or another, Whitney’s been here all along.

Written By Steven Ivory

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