Houston already had a father, but in Davis, she found a protective and overly doting show-business father figure. Known equally for his love of an across-the-board pop song and his considerable ego (later, industry execs would joke that Davis thought the CD was named after him), Davis had started as a lawyer for Columbia Records before becoming head of the label in 1967, where he signed Santana, Janis Joplin and many others. After being ousted in 1973, he launched his own company, Arista, in 1975.
The 50-year-old Davis, who was three decades older than Houston, treated his signing like newfound royalty. "He talked about Whitney the way he talked about Janis Joplin," says former Arista creative-services director Ken Levy. "He was from the world of great singers. He's enchanted by powerful voices." From the start, Davis was viewed fondly by Houston and her family; the fact that he'd worked with Warwick and Franklin at Arista played in his favor. They believed in Davis so much that they asked for a rare key-man clause in Whitney's contract: If Davis left Arista, she could leave as well.
Davis took his time with Houston: Over the course of more than two years, he and his team sifted through material, arranging showcases with her for songwriters and spending close to $400,000 on the album, a huge sum. More than the heads of most labels, Davis approved all the song choices. "Clive would gather material and send her a cassette of songs," says Lott. "And 95 percent of the time she would say, 'That sounds great.'" Houston seemed happy to let Davis take control, since she had crossover dreams herself. "She was always looking to impact as many people as possible," says Lott. "She wanted to be a major artist." She began wearing wigs onstage and in videos - her choice, according to Lott.
During those early days, Houston enchanted everyone who encountered her. After the L.A. session for "Saving All My Love for You," "we were all fawning over her," recalls pianist Robbie Buchanan. "Nathan East, who was playing bass, asked her to marry him. She just blushed." At the session for "How Will I Know," producer Walden remembers the skinny Houston walking into a New York studio with Cissy and nailing the vocals. "When it was done, she leaned back in the chair in the control room like an old veteran," says Walden. "She loved her voice."
Her debut album, Whitney Houston, released in March 1985, was a textbook crossover success. Arista released "You Give Good Love" to R&B stations. When it caught on, three other singles followed: "Saving All My Love for You," "How Will I Know" and "The Greatest Love of All." All hit Number One on the pop charts."Gospel was the basis of her gift," Griffith says. "You put pop on top of it, and boom."
As Houston's second album got under way, the pressure was on. Houston was developing signs of the forcefulness she'd come to exhibit later. This time, the same musicians who worked on her debut rarely saw her. "She got more assertive," says keyboardist Preston Glass. "On the first album, she was very gracious and spent time talking with us. On the second album, when she came in to do her vocals, she said, T don't want anyone around except the producer and engineer.' Later I'd have to ask Nara-da,'How'd it go?'"
Walden, who did most of the tracks on Whitney, noticed a change in Houston as well. "After a first album, most acts have a sophomore jinx, and I said to her, Are you nervous?'" Walden says. "She said, 'No. If they loved me the first time, they'll love me now.' I was really taken aback by her confidence. But she was right."
Whitney, released in 1987, repeated the first album's formula of bouncy pop R&B ("So Emotional," "I Wanna Dance With Somebody [Who Loves Me]") and mass-appeal ballads ("Didn't We Almost Have It All," "Where Do Broken Hearts Go") - all four of which went to Number One on the pop charts. Men were attracted to her, and young women related to her mix of heartbreak and empowerment. "I first saw her in the 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody' video,'" says Christina Aguilera. "I was instantly drawn. She represented a female who was strong and had a strong voice, and that appealed to me as a young girl." Some of the pressures of being America's new pop princess began to chafe. Offstage, she would sneak away and smoke cigarettes. And she expressed a desire to branch out musically. "She was smarter than people took her for," says Steven Saporta, executive producer of some of her early videos. "She wanted to discover her gospel roots early on, and more themed music. At that time, Linda Ronstadt had done a Mexican record, and I remember we talked about it and how interesting it was."
Some of this filtered up to Davis: "After the second album, she came to me and said, 'Everyone's telling me I should write songs. Is this wise?'" he recalls. "She saw that Madonna and Janet Jackson were co-writing. I said, 'Look, you're from the tradition of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra, whose genius is in their voice and the meaning they find in songs.'"
A turning point seemed to arrive in 1989, when Houston was nominated for Best R&B/Urban Contemporary Single by a Female at that year's Soul Train Awards. Seated up front, Davis and Houston listened as the announcement of her name was greeted with scattered boos. The two looked at each other with baffled expressions. Crossover success had come at a price: For critics in the African-American community, Houston – or, as some called her, "Whitey Houston" – wasn't black enough. The criticisms seem silly now, but at the time they stung deeply. "She would look at us and say, 'What do they mean I'm not black enough? I've been in the church my whole life,'" recalls Don Ienner, who had been general manager of Arista. "It was horrible and undeserved. That might have haunted her the rest of her life."
Houston and Davis sought to make her image and her sound more soulful on her third album, I'm Your Baby Tonight, using producers like LA Reid and Babyface. "We shot the cover under the Brooklyn Bridge with her on a motorcycle," says Levy. To everyone's surprise, she even rode the bike around the set of the shoot. "Privately, she was rebellious," says a source who worked with her at the time. "She was, 'Oh, yeah? I'm so much cooler than people think.' But she couldn't really say that. It used to flip her out when the urban world would get in her face and say she sang like a white girl. The next time I saw her, she started talking a little more street." That side of Houston became more prominent, thanks to a new man in her life.
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