Whitney Houston’s start as a music icon began at an early age, when she would accompany her mother, gospel legend Cissy Houston, at their church as a member of the New Hope Baptist Junior Choir in Newark, New Jersey. While in her mid-teens, the younger Houston was singing backup for artists like Chaka Khan and Lou Rawls and frequently appearing with her mother in concert and local New York clubs.
It was at the famed Seventh Avenue South jazz club, owned by the Brecker Brothers, that Arista A&R director Gerry Griffith first witnessed Houston’s vocal talent in 1983.
“After her performance, I was completely blown away,” recalled Griffith. “I hadn’t seen an artist like her since Aretha. Her command of her voice. She was comfortable, at 16 years old, at being on the stage. She had a presence at that age, something that she has developed since the first time I saw her. I was just knocked out by this young, beautiful — she was actually a model at that time — and the command of her voice and the song and the lyric. It was just amazing.”
Impressed, Griffith asked his boss, legendary Arista Records founder Clive Davis, to listen to the young singer. Initially, Griffith said, Davis was not affected.
“I had worked at Columbia Record for 10 years prior to this and had worked with so many great female vocalists, like Minnie Riperton, and so I had that knack for hearing the right thing. So I immediately the next day went to my boss, who happened to be Clive Davis, and said, ‘I want to showcase a new artist for you.’ He said, ‘Who is it?’ and I explained. He had no idea who she was at the time. Later, after we had rehearsed for about five days at the time, Clive came down. She performed, and he didn’t quite get it. I had to put my salesman hat on, and we convinced him to take a shot. So he said, ‘Let’s do three songs with her like a demo,’ and the next thing you know, we signed her.”
Houston signed with Arista, and two years later, in 1985, her first album, “Whitney Houston,” was released, producing a string of hits, including, “The Greatest Love of All.” The album went on to sell over 22 million copies worldwide, becoming the biggest-selling debut album by a solo artist in history. Eventually, Houston’s discography would consist of seven studio albums, four compilations, and three soundtrack albums, as well as 53 singles.
“I just watched her grow,” Griffith marveled. “I will never forget the time when I was watching the Super Bowl (in 1991), and she came on and sang (“The Star-Stangled Banner”). I have never in my life — and never in my life since — heard a performance that was so over the top and powerful and captivating. It still captivates me whenever I look at it.”
“I had no doubt that she would be an artist for the world.” he said. “I knew it. It was just one of those things. Because at the time, I was working with Aretha Franklin (and) Dionne Warwick and had worked with artists in the past like Minnie Riperton, so it was one of those things where I knew she was a star. Everything that she was successful with, I was very comfortable with it because that’s who she was.”
Over the span of nearly three decades, Houston became an international superstar, amassing global album sales …..