When Whitney Houston passed away on Feb. 11 in Beverly Hills, Calif at the age of 48, she left behind a classic body of work that included seven mullti-platinum albums that showcased her powerhouse vocals. Here, Billboard got in touch with many of the music executives and artists who worked behind the scenes with Houston and who shared their fondest memories of the late great late-singer.
"I was there [at Arista] for the complete launch of the first two Whitney Houston albums. When Clive asked me to join the company in `82, one of the things he wanted to let me know was that he had signed this young girl. There were no records made yet. The records were just starting at that particular time. I was already close with [Whitney Houston's producer] Narada Michael Walden, so I knew a lot of what was going on….
It's just so sad to think that on Tuesday Feb. 14, on Valentines Day, it was 27 years ago, that we sent every program director's wife in R&B radio and pop radio and all the other different formats, a red rose and a picture sleeve, 7-inch single of "You Give Good Love." I remember it like was yesterday.
Obviously we wanted to cater to R&B radio first, which is exactly the reason we put `You Give Good Love' out. We always knew those four were going to be the singles. I remember the sequence exactly because we had some internal discussions that were heavy and fun. But it was: "You Give Good Love" and "Saving All My Love For You" and then "How Will I Know," which really exploded her to the white audience, and then "Greatest Love of All" which went through the roof and ended up with us selling 10 million albums. Really a universal record on every level
I don't think in those days anybody really knew what they had. But I'll tell you when I knew what we had…
From when I started out as young as I did in the 1970s, we had hits. [Ienner's career began working with his brother, Jimmy, in CAM-USA, a publishing, production and management company that worked with the likes of Grand Funk Railroad, the Raspberries, Eric Carmen, the Bay City Rollers, Lighthouse and others]. And there's nothing wrong with having those hit records.
But for the first time - and luckily I've had it happen to me many, many times since - but the first time that an artist ever transcended the songs was Whitney Houston.
She was so much bigger than the records. Those eyes and those lips and that face and that voice … everything about her was real. There wasn't one word on the first two albums, that I had the pleasure of working intimately with, that I didn't believe what she was saying."
-- Don Ienner, founder and president of IMO Entertainment; former chairman and CEO of Sony Music Label Group and Columbia Records; former executive VP/GM of Arista Records.
"I was there from the beginning. I actually brought her to Clive. I first saw her at the Bottom Line. [On July 23, 1981, Houston performed as part of a set by her mother Cissy Houston at this long-time Greenwich Village showcase club, on a bill headlined by Arista artist Dave Valetin]. Richard Smith, who was the head of black promotion at Arista, and I were sitting together. She was incredible. For a young girl to step out and sing that way….
"You have to realize that I grew up listening to music from the 40s and the 50s and I was nurtured [in the music of] singers like Dinah Washington and Nina Simone. Then I went to Columbia Records and who was at Columbia then? Minnie Ripperton, Deniece Williams, Patti Labelle…. The list goes on and on. Coming to Arista, with the artists we had, whether it was Aretha Franklin or Dionne Warwick, it was very comfortable for me. I was nurtured in that kind of environment. So when Whitney comes along, I get it.
"Bruce Lundvall was the first to record her. [Lundvall became president of CBS Records in 1976, moved to Elektra Records in 1982, created Manhattan Records in 1984 and today is president/CEO of the Blue Note Label Group. Houston is credited as lead vocalist on the Michael Zager Band's disco album "Life's A Party" released by Columbia in 1978, as a backup vocalist on Chaka Khan's hit "I'm Every Woman," released the same year by Warner Bros., and as vocalist on the single "Memories" recorded by Material in 1982 on the Celluloid label].
"I think it was a year and a half [after the Bottom Line show], someone called me, a friend who's not even in the music business and said, `Did you hear Whitney is signing with Elektra Records?' I freaked. Oh my God! It was my old boss [at Columbia] Bruce Lundvall. If anybody can hear a voice, it's Bruce. So here I am in competition with Bruce.
"Well, I came to Clive and said, I want to showcase this young girl for you, I need a budget. I wasn't fooling around because I knew Bruce was breathing down our necks. So we rehearsed for a week at Top Cat Studios in New York, off 8th Avenue at 38th Street.
"There were two songs that I asked her to sing, one was `Home,' the Stephanie Mills song [from the soundtrack of `The Wiz.'] `Home' was also the song that Whitney later did on "The Merve Griffin Show" [on June 23, 1983]. Their phones exploded. I remember someone saying they'd never had that kind of response before.
"Everybody in the music industry knows this [history of how Houston came to Arista]. The public doesn't know this but the public doesn't care who signed her. Let me tell you something, the expertise and financing Clive put behind her, believe me, that's what made it happen."
-- Gerry Griffith, former VP of A&R at Arista Records
"Whitney was the soundtrack to Arista's history. She was only 18 years old but she'd sung for years in the church and in clubs with her mother. She was beautiful but unpretentious. She quietly knew she had a great voice-how could she not-but when she recorded her first album, she constantly wondered whether the album would ever be released. The recording took two years and the release was often postponed, as Clive [Davis] wanted to record "one more single." Her contract was a very complicated form, but it was a complicated singles deal. The theory was, "Well, she's going to have to have a hit single, so there's going to have to be a series of singles, and we want to make sure it's not [just] one single." It was only fitting-and a testament to her greatness-that, after the three preceding, massively successful singles took her debut album to the unforeseen 4 million copies, her biggest single from that album was "The Greatest Love of All," a song she'd been singing with her mother for years, and that she essentially sang live in the studio.
If allowed to pick a second memory, I'd recount briefly the story behind "I Will Always Love You." The record that is now such a beloved signature is a rough mix that people said required adjustments and has a 40-second a cappella intro that people said radio would refuse to play. As was so often the case with Whitney, the powerful emotion of her vocal eliminated all of those stock comments and produced a record that will outlive us all.
I thought of something else that tells a lot about Whitney and about the Whitney-Arista relationship. Take a look inside the booklet for her Greatest Hits album. The final "thank you" is to "Richard 'Dickie" Harris" who was Arista's ninth floor receptionist during the 1980s before he sadly passed away at a far too early age. Whitney always talked to Dickie when she stopped by the offices and he was enormously supportive of her. Twenty years later she had not forgotten.....
I doubt that anyone whoever worked at Arista has stopped crying."
-Roy Lott, former executive VP/GM of Arista
"When I first heard Whitney sing, it was like falling in love for the first time. Whitney has changed the world of music forever. Simply put, Whitney has the best voice I ever heard. Her beauty and her grace will never be replaced! God bless Whitney and all she gave to the World."
-- Michael Masser, Songwriter and producer, worked on three of her number one hits: "The Greatest Love of All", "Saving All My Love" and "Didn't We Almost Have it All".
"She's the best singer I've ever worked with. When she sang, the song would be sung better than you ever imagined it in your head when you were writing it. She took it so far beyond what you could imagine-mind-blowing. Every singer out there-Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, Celine, Jennifer Hudson-every great voice of our times owes a debt to Whitney Houston. They were all little girls singing into their hair brushes, and what they were trying to learn were her runs and how she sang. It sounded effortless, and it was not. With Whitney everything had a purpose. There were no wasted or false notes. Everything she sang, she gave it everything. Her voice was not only an incredible technical instrument beyond anything, but it had heart and soul. That combination is what made it so great. But when you have everything-and when you had it on her level . . . her gift was amazing. It's such a terrible, terrible loss. It's a loss for listeners, and my heart goes out to her family."
-Diane Warren, songwriter
"I was her first publicist. Before the release of her debut, she spent a lot of her downtime in my office, between modeling and recording. She'd have a sandwich, sometimes take a nap, or we we'd chat. Those are my sweet memories. And when Whitney won her first Grammy, I was among the Arista people she thanked. I was watching from backstage."_
-Melani Rogers, former VP of publicity at Arista Records
"She was anointed, for sure. Behind the curtain, all the machinery was being cranked up for her debut, all the fanfare that was possible back when record labels had money to lavish on marketing. But the Whitney Houston I met at Arista . . . seemed shy and reserved, a stunning young woman who didn't take extraordinary measures to be stunning . . . She'd be plopped on the sofa in an office near mine, chatting with her publicist, and I'd stop in to say a quick "hi," which had to be quick because, let's face facts, she rattled me a little. She hadn't even made her album yet, but everyone knew what was coming around the corner, even if it ended up exceeding what anyone in his or her right mind might have predicted . . . Let other people write about the years of preposterous fame and the string of hit singles and so forth . . . I sat in Grammy audiences and watched Whitney bask in that adoring glow, grab her moments, everything still in front of her, the future limitless. She seemed literally golden. But I also saw the teenager just hanging out on Arista's sixth floor, and the loss of that girl breaks my heart."
-Mitchell Cohen, former publicist and VP at Arista Records. Excerpted from his blog, Emscee.com
"We worked through so many projects together. Being head of creative [for Arista Records] I oversaw all the album covers and all of her marketing and imaging, and I was so fond of her. It was a wonderful relationship. She was just a warm-hearted and respectful person who loved her team. I can't stress that enough; she loved the Arista people. She was approachable. To us, who were there from the beginning, she was just Whitney. One of my favorite stories is [when] she came in one day -- I think it was for "The Bodyguard" -- and I brought her around my department; I took her by the hand and I walked her into each person's office. And each person fell off the chair because she was there. And I said to her, `How does it feel to be the person who built this company? Because she really did at that time. She just laughed said, " C'mon…" She just walked into everyone's office and said hello, and thanks for everything. It's just what a wonderful person she was, that people don't know.
"We did a [photo] shoot at her house in New Jersey for `My Love Is Your Love' [in 1999] and one of the pictures was the "Ultimate" album cover. Neighbors came out from the surrounding houses to say hello and she was so gracious in talking to them and playing with their kids. I just watched and thought, she's just really a good person."
--Ken Levy, former senior VP of creative services, Arista Records
Whitney Houston was a peerless phenomenon whose career went beyond simply "crossing over," but erased divisions between R&B and pop, black and white, young and old. She had a global appeal that was previously unprecedented for African-American women in pop culture, and she opened the door for everyone from Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige to Toni Braxton and Jennifer Hudson. Whitney's impact on the music business extends far beyond her phenomenal sales and iconic status. I've worked with countless artists-including En Vogue, Tamia and Brandy-who readily acknowledge owing their success to the boundaries that Whitney shattered, and there's no doubt that her talent will continue to inspire generations to come. We've lost yet another who transcended time, style, culture, age and race. I will miss her deeply. But I also know that she'll endure as a paragon of true artistry and gifted ability.
-Sylvia Rhone, music executive
"Whitney was Whitney. What you saw, heard and felt was what you got. Naturally sweet and pure. No additives. None! Never a diva. Friendly, warm and generous. This is Whitney. May she find the rest and peace she deserves."
-- Rose Marino, former executive assistant to Clive Davis at Arista Records
"When we did events-like Clive Davis' pre-Grammy party and they would arrive together-it didn't get any bigger or better than that. You knew she was a superstar and that Clive was the man behind the magic. You also could see and feel how much Clive loved Whitney. My heart breaks for Clive."
-Sid McCain, EMI Label Services VP of label acquisitions and development; former director of publicity at Arista Records
"Our common thread-beyond Newark, N.J., is the church. Our place was performing in the church. So that natural bond, when she came in the studio, it was never a 'session.' I had so much fun with her in the studio. I don't even remember when we had time to record 1998's 'My Love Is Your Love,' or how it became a hit. I was nervous, after [Jerry Duplessis and I] wrote the song, because Clive Davis was telling me, 'You know, we need this song for Whitney.' I just wrote the lyrics just as honest as they can be. 'If tomorrow is Judgement Day/And I'm standing on the front line/And the Lord asked me what I did with my life/I will say I spent it with you.' When I look back at those lyrics now . . . she's just going to be embedded in my heart forever."
-Wyclef Jean, artist/songwriter/producer