With Dionne, Cissy and Aretha in the family, how can Whitney Houston fail? hide
Her cousin is Dionne Warwick. Her mother, Cissy Houston, was a founding member of soul trio Sweet Inspirations, and she's always called longtime family friend Aretha Franklin "Aunt Ree."
So it's not all that odd that Whitney Houston decided at age 12 that she wanted to make music her career too. Ten years later, Houston's self-titled debut album has just passed the million-seller mark, and a single, "Saving All My Love for You," is in the Top 20.
And Houston, it turns out, isn't all that surprised.
"I always had the feeling my singing career would work out," acknowledges the singer, whose first major headlining tour includes an appearance Wednesday at Park West. "Oh, yeah, I just knew it. But I was in no rush at all to begin recording.
"If you want to be an overnight success that's gone tomorrow, that's one thing. But if you're planning on (career) longevity, then you have to prepare yourself for that, which was what I did. I took my time. I learned. I was groomed--I groomed myself and I was groomed by my mother and father. I waited."
Meanwhile, Houston continued singing in the choir of the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., where her mother is minister of music.
"Gospel is where I started," says Houston, who grew up listening to "everything from Stevie (Wonder) to (John) Coltrane" and cites Franklin as a favorite vocalist. "I started out singing in church, and I would say that gospel music was my greatest influence. It taught me a lot about singing."
"It gave me emotion and spiritual things, and it helped me to know what I was singing about, because in gospel music the words mean everything. Now, whatever I sing, whether it's gospel or pop or R&B, I feel it."
It was a job as a back-up singer and later soloist in her mother's nightclub act, however, that brought Houston her first recording offers.
"I got a lot of them, but I was young and still in high school," she says, "and my parents (Houston's father is a city planning administrator in Newark) thought that it was best for me to finish that, and then do the other things later, after I graduated."
While biding her time musically, Houston began working as a model, appearing in Glamour, Seventeen, Young Miss and Cosmopolitan magazines. How did she break into that business?
"I was in the right place at the right time," says Houston, who describes her modeling image as "young, kind of innocent, but sexy" and who is still under contract to a top modeling agency.
"My mom and I were in New York and a young man walked over to me and said that I should go to a modeling agency that was upstairs from where we were, that they were looking for someone like me and that I would be good."
"I was a little suspicious," acknowledges Houston, who was 16 at the time. "But my mom was with me, and I said, 'What the heck, let's go see about this. If he wasn't telling us the truth, we can just leave.' But it turned out that the modeling agency was looking for someone and I signed with them."
After graduating from high school in 1981, Houston began working as a background vocalist, appearing on albums by Lou Rawls, Chaka Khan, Paul Jabara, the Neville Brothers and Material. Last year, she dueted with Teddy Pendergrass on a single, "Hold Me," and shared lead vocals with Jermaine Jackson on a song on his solo album.
Earlier this year, she released her own solo debut album, which features duets with Jackson and Pendergrass and includes songs produced by Jackson, soul singer Kashif, songwriter Michael Masser and jazz/rock/disco artist Narada Michael Walden.
"You Give Good Love," the single debut from the album, was a top black music hit before it crossed over to the pop charts--and brought Houston a bit of notoriety when it turned up among several songs cited by advice columnist Ann Landers as having suggestive titles.
"She chose a few songs out of the Top 40 that she thought had suggestive titles as far as she was concerned, and it was one of them," says Houston, who didn't write any of the songs on her debut album. "I don't think that the title is suggestive at all. It didn't say anything but 'you give good love,' and it didn't say anything in the song that was sexual or outrageous. I think that Miss Landers just looked at the title and didn't view the song itself."
Houston, who describes herself as a religious person, says that she hasn't given much thought to the current controversy over questionable lyrics. "The songs that I sing don't fall into that category, so I don't think about it at all," she says. "But I believe that music does influence people. It's a universal thing. Everybody listens to music and knows about it. I think that the lyrics can have a lot to do with influencing whoever you're singing to.
"I think that as far as children are concerned, parents should have control over what they listen to. If they don't want them to listen to records that are very sexual or explicit or outrageous, they should have control over that situation. As for adults, they're going to buy whatever kind of music they want to hear, so if they buy music with explicit lyrics, they must like it."
In the video for her hit single, "Saving All My Love for You," Houston takes the role of a woman who's saving all of her love for a married man whose family clearly takes precedence over the cupcake he's seeing on the side. The video, it turns out, in no way mirrors real life as far as Houston is concerned.
"I could never see myself in that position," she says. "I wouldn't just take whatever someone wants to give to me, especially if I am giving a lot to him but not getting that much back. I could never find myself in that situation, but someone else might. The video tells a story but it's by no means my story."
The singer, who still lives in New Jersey, describes herself as "a very relaxed person. I don't go out and party and all that kind of stuff. I go to the beach, I play tennis, I swim, I listen to music. And I'm going to be starting a second album very soon."
For now, though, there is her first headlining tour to think about.
"I always enjoy performing, so it doesn't matter to me whether I'm the opening act or the headliner," maintains Houston. "But it will be fun to get to do a whole 60-minute show."