Perfect Planning Makes Whitney No. 1 Again hide
Any performer who has a successful first album is going to be hard-pressed the next time around. But what happened with Whitney Houston was incredible.
Her debut record was the biggest of all time: It sold 14 million copies worldwide, launched three consecutive No. 1 hits and established her as a bonafide phenomenon.
So what does she do for an encore? How about releasing a second album that enters the charts at No. 1?
That's what "Whitney," her second album, did late last month, thumbing its nose at the sophomore jinx to become only the fifth record in history--and the first by a woman--to accomplish that feat (the others were Elton John's "Captain Fantastic" and "Rock of the Westies" in 1975, Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life" in 1976 and Bruce Springsteen's "Live/1975-85" last year).
To date, "Whitney" has sold almost six million copies around the world. It's an achievement that was no accident. As Houston's debut album was still rolling out of record stores, she and her record company, managers and producers began planning "Whitney" in February of 1986, polishing and refining it until they felt it had the commercial potential to match and perhaps exceed "Whitney Houston."
"I'm dealing with it the same as I dealt with my first one," the 23- year-old singer explained as the album was being finished. "I'm taking my time, picking and choosing carefully, making sure it's absolutely perfect. "I believe that if the formula works, that's what you stick with. Why switch from a million-selling arrangement and go out and hire Joe Smith or somebody else?"
But just because Houston and her management took the same approach with "Whitney" doesn't mean they were after the exact same results.
"This album was important to capture what we call a late teen audience --17 to 20 or so," explained Eugene Harvey, 45, who manages Houston's career with partner Seymour Flics, 59. "We wanted to try to get material that was stronger melodically and lyrically, and at the same time get more up-tempo material. The first album was sort of ballad-heavy."
Those around Houston figure the album's chart-topping first single, "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)," has taken care of that. In short, all the grooming and preparation has paid off.
Not that Houston and her managers and record company were starting with completely raw material.
Houston is the daughter of singer Cissy Houston and the niece of Dionne Warwick, who was making hits for years before Whitney was born. Around the Houston home, Aretha Franklin was known as "Auntie Ree." Houston's father, John, who is separated from Cissy, manages her business affairs.
Houston started singing at age 8, debuting with "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" with the Newark New Hope Baptist Church Choir. By the time she was 13, she had decided to become a professional singer; that's when Mom got into the act.
"She took me into the studio," Houston remembered, "and we did some jingles and background sessions." Those included commercials for Steak 'n' Ale restaurants and Bounce anti-static cloths, as well as sessions for Chaka Khan, Lou Rawls and the Neville Brothers. Cissy even took her daughter--who also was doing quite well as a model--on the road with her, though she shielded her from signing a recording contract until she finished high school in 1981.
Clive Davis of Arista recognized Houston's potential, and that's where the polishing process began. "Clive knew what he wanted," Houston said. "It was all carefully done. We wanted the right producers and the right songs--for both albums."
Production received as much careful attention as the selection process. "I'd take my Walkman to bed with me every night and listen to every breath, every word, every nuance," said Narada Michael Walden, the Kalamazoo, Mich., native who produced "How Will I Know" from the first album and most of the tracks on "Whitney." "The bottom line is to make an album people like."
And people liked Houston for a simple reason. In the video- and glitz- dominated pop world, she simply sang, flexing her three-octave voice. "She's amazing in that way," said producer Walden. "She can breathe such life into a song, really make it stand up strong. You should hear them when we get them; they're really demo quality, really raw."
"I think it was time for singing to come back again," Houston explained. "People wanted to listen again and hear good words and good melodies. They wanted to feel what somebody was saying rather than what the beat was."
Timing, in other words. And timing also became a factor with "Whitney"; the album was delayed for the rare reason that the first record was still doing well.
"We were originally talking about a fall of '86 release," Flics said. "But she was still getting such heavy airplay that we knew we had to let it rest a bit. So we talked about the end of the year. And the first album was still going too strong! So we knew we'd have to wait until spring."
Harvey and Flics lined up appearances on the American Music Awards and the Grammy Awards telecasts. "That gave us a combined audience of over 60 million," Harvey explained, a nice little kick during the fading days of "Whitney Houston."
Now that their handiwork has turned "Whitney" into a massive hit, the eyes of all concerned are turned toward the future. Specifically, toward TV and films. It's likely that Houston will ease into those areas with as much care and craft as she has in music.
"What we're looking for," Harvey explained, "is something in which she could sing and be of quality. Most important is the quality--like everything else she's done."