A&R legend, Gerry Griffith has returned to post another guest blog for us. This time he completes the tale of how he discovered and signed Whitney Houston and found the first hits that would propel her to a career that has seen her sell nearly 200 million recordings.
As I look back, I can recall a time before we signed Whitney Houston to a full contract, and Bruce Lundvall still wanted to bring the young diva to Elektra. I would drop in to see her perform with Cissy at the New York soul food cabaret Sweetwaters, and there he was sitting in the room…we would always gesture with a smile and wave. I’d worked with Bruce during his tenure as the president of Columbia Records. He’d promoted me to West Coast Product Manager, and later into the A&R ranks in Los Angeles.
My first project as Product Manager was Weather Report’s “Heavy Weather,“ and my first A&R assignment was to work with of one his artist signings, Bill Withers on his “Menagerie” album. Bill’s “Lovely Day” came from that album. Bruce had also worked for Clive Davis at Columbia in the 70’s as VP of Marketing. So now I’m the protégé in competition with one of my mentors… interesting times.
Bruce never got the chance to sign Whitney because from what I understood, the Chairman of Elektra “was not in to her.” But Bruce does have the distinction of releasing two tracks with her before we released a single recording on Arista; the song “Memories” with Archie Shepp on Bill Laswell’s 1982 Material LP, and with Teddy Pendergrass on his1984 duet “Hold Me,” on the ”Love Language” LP (with Arista‘s permission).Over the two years since signing with us, she was maturing into a star, as was evident on “Hold Me,” but we were recording big hits too.
Clive appeared on the nationally televised Merv Griffin show and introduced Whitney to the country. According to their producer, her appearance generated more positive letters and phone calls than any other artist in the show’s history! Unfortunately, this didn’t lead to creating interest from any A-list producers we approached. So Clive had the idea to showcase Whitney and her aunt Dionne Warwick in Los Angeles, where we would invite the top west coast songwriters and producers to see them perform. Our effort did not lead to one great song or interested producer, so we returned to NY and continued our search.
The Pendergrass hit duet “Hold Me’ was produced by Michael Masser. He’d had previous successes with headliners; George Benson, Peabo Bryson, and Diana Ross. Clive hired him for the project, and I brought in our new artist producer Kashif who was coming off his top 10 solo hit, and Evelyn King’s “Love Come Down” to write and produce. Jermaine Jackson had recently signed to the label and immediately asked to produce Whitney. Three talented producers, three interesting stories.
In the course of looking for song material, I got a call from producer Dennis Lambert. At the time, Dennis was a hit maker with diverse productions like; Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy, The Four Tops “Ain’t No Woman Like The One I Got,” and all of Tavares‘ hits. He wanted me to hear a song for Whitney’s project that he’d co-written with Siedah Garrett and Franne Golde. We met and I absolutely loved the song. I convinced Clive to have Jermaine produce and sing the duet with our budding star.
We completed the track and Clive loved it, but there was a problem. A few weeks after the basic production was completed, an apologetic Dennis called me to explain that he had to pull the tune from the project. He was producing (former Temptations lead singer) Dennis Edwards at Motown, and since our album was not slated for release any time soon, (Motown founder) Berry Gordy needed an immediate first single on Edwards. If you haven’t guessed by now, the song was ”Don’t Look Any Further.” We were devastated. Jermaine replaced the duet with a beautiful ballad “Take Good Care of My Heart.”
The next song came from my friend Brenda Andrews at Almo-Irving Publishing. The company signed two British writers Merrill and Rubicam, who wrote a song “How Will I Know.” Great song, now who could produce it? I was introduced to Narada Michael Walden by Angie Bofill at the time he worked on her Arista/GRP Records album “Something About You” in 1981. I had always loved his aggressive production style and attitude, he was producing Aretha’s Franklin‘s, “Freeway of Love” at the time for us. Taking time from Aretha, we had him produce “How Will I Know” for Whitney. Looking back, it seems the Columbia Records connection was at work again. Narada was the drummer for the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Weather Report’s “Black Market” LP, two of my all time favorite bands, and Clive, Bruce and I were all with Columbia Records when these records were released.
Masser was creating pure love in the studio with his songs, especially “Saving All My Love for You,” and “Greatest Love of All.” He was perfect for Whitney. My good friend Kenneth Reynolds, who was an Arista product manager at the time, recently reminded me that the first mix of the song Masser delivered was so soulful that one would think Aretha was singing, and Clive announced at our staff meeting when he heard it, that it was “too black.” I really wish I had kept that mix!
Kashif bought Jackie Robinson’s home in Stamford Connecticut and built a studio there. One day while we were listening to songs, Kashif asked one of his writers LaLa Cope to sit and play a song she wrote titled “You Give Good Love.” The memory of this moment still resonates within my soul…the song was perfect for the project. A few weeks later at the final vocal session, Whitney aced the lead vocal in one take, we were speechless…this was to be my final contribution to her debut album.
I resigned from Arista in September 1984. Lundvall had formed a new label, Manhattan Records, with EMI America. He asked me to join him as head of A&R. It seems both of us needed greener pastures, and a fresh start.
During a trip to Los Angeles Bruce asked me to join him at Bobby Colomby’s house to hear a new artist named Richard Marks perform. Bobby was our west coast representative. When Richard ended his set, Bruce walked over to the piano, praised the performance and asked him to join the label. Traveling back to the office, I asked Bruce if I could A&R the project, he said yes…
WHITNEY, THE AUTHOR DISPLAYING THE ART OF GENTLE PERSUASION & DIONNE WARWICKE
From the time Whitney Houston released “I Look To You“, many of my colleagues have asked my opinion of the songs and performances on her new album. It’s been difficult not to read the many reviews, so after listening to the record and viewing the much anticipated Oprah and Good Morning America appearances, I now have a refreshed opinion of our world renowned superstar, not her music. The question (for me) is not whether the vocals are as remarkable as her past performances, if the song selection is brilliant, if the production values are fresh, or even if she will sell millions of albums.
The song “I Love” is her courageous triumph over odds that would stop most of us in our tracks. I choose to celebrate Whitney’s strength to walk into a studio, stand in front of the microphone and sing. For her to make music in the face of all the negative criticism that has haunted her over the years, to cast out the demons and sing her song, that’s what I honor. No matter how many albums she sells, my stand for Whitney is that we all realize that this human being is still the most celebrated vocalist in the world, or should I say the boldest and most celebrated vocalist in the world? The lady sings, and that is what matters.