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I'm Your Baby Tonight

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Houston Touches Her R&B Base With New Album hide

NEW YORK--Can an artist who has sold millions of records and earned critical acclaim still wind up with an image problem?

Just ask Whitney Houston.

As her new album, "I'm Your Baby Tonight," rides high on the charts, Houston and her record company have had to overcome a perception of Houston, especially among R&B consumers, as a pop princess who had abandoned her gospel/R&B roots. That concern has quietly influenced the making and marketing of Houston's latest release.

While Houston maintains that as a singer she has never made an effort to cater to any particular audience, she's made it clear in recent weeks that R&B radio and retail promotions were crucial "because I want them to know they are important to me--I can't do without them."

"I'm Your Baby Tonight" rocketed to the No. 1 position on the Top R&B Albums chart, where it reigned for three weeks in December. It took seven weeks for the album to reach its peak pop notch of No. 3, and it has been certified double-platinum.

By contrast, her 1987 album, "Whitney Houston," peaked at No. 2 on the R&B albums chart but debuted--and held--at No. 1 on the Top Pop Albums chart.

So how did Houston get an image problem?

Many of the same R&B fans who made her 1985 debut, "Whitney Houston," a multiplatinum smash seemed alienated by the pop/dance glitz of "Whitney." Tracks like "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)," "Didn't We Almost Have It All," "So Emotional," and "Where Do Broken Hearts Go?," which helped establish Houston as pop's reigning female vocalist, eroded her R&B credibility.

Suddenly Houston--who appeared in every consumer magazine--was pop America's sweetheart. The black community, however, reacted as if it had been snubbed. Many grumbled that Houston had sold out, lost her musical roots, and crossed over--never to cross back.

In a telling moment at the 1990 Soul Train Music Awards, the mention of Houston's name drew boos from a mostly African-American audience.

Through an intensive marketing and promotion campaign, Arista has re-established Houston as an R&B artist first. And the A&R strategy of bringing in new R&B-oriented collaborators for "I'm Your Baby Tonight" didn't hurt. R&B hit-makers L.A. & Babyface produced five songs, including the first single and title track. Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder each wrote and produced one track, and previous Houston producers Narada Michael Walden and Michael Masser also contributed.

"The album has gone 2 million U.S., and over 3 million worldwide in just seven weeks," says Clive Davis, president of Arista Records. "When you realize that we have just come with our second single, we're thrilled. What is unusual and very gratifying is the urban and R&B response to Whitney with the No. 1 slot on the chart, and that 'All The Man That I Need' has tremendous across-the-board reception."

The second single, a ballad, is off to a faster start at pop radio, and was bulleted last week at No. 2 on the Hot 100 and No. 5 on the R&B chart.

The marketing campaign for Houston, spearheaded by former urban promotion VP Tony Anderson and former national urban promotion director Connie Johnson, began with the release of the single "I'm Your Baby Tonight." Kirk Bonin, Arista's VP of urban sales and marketing, says, "We targeted the single in the first four weeks of release and geared it toward black consumer press and black radio."

Major meet-the-artist receptions for black radio and retailers were held in both New York and Los Angeles, says Bonin, and consumers and retailers were wooed in a special retail promotion.

"Though Whitney made no in-store appearances, we gave away roughly 150 pairs of tickets to a forthcoming tour through vouchers. This was done at mom-and-pop retailers and some key chains that do strong R&B business. We went deep into the community," he says.

Promotional packages on Houston were made up exclusively for black radio and print media, says Bonin. And while Houston's single was serviced to pop radio, the artist gave few mainstream media interviews until later in the campaign. Houston appeared twice on "The Arsenio Hall Show," still perceived as the hippest of TV's late-night outlets. Still to come is her worldwide tour, beginning with a European jaunt in late April (presuming the Persian Gulf conflict doesn't further hamper international travel), followed by U.S. dates beginning in May. Urban radio and retail tie-ins are planned.

While she has been eager to embrace her R&B base, Houston has been angered by attempts by the press to label her, racially or musically.

"That is me," she says of the current album. "It's been the real Whitney all along. This album was not a real effort to bring me back anywhere. It really does something to me when they say my songs aren't black enough. I sang, and I arranged a lot of stuff that I did. Black people have no barriers--we can do anything.

"Did I recapture my R&B base? The base is something that is always there. I've always considered that my people have always stood by me, everywhere I go," she says.

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