Whitney Houston climbs out of her black stretch limo and strides into the hilltop headquarters of Philadelphia’s WUSL at 4:40 p.m., right on time for her fourth live radio interview since 2 that afternoon, her 250th since June. Sporting a loose-fitting brown leather jacket, pegged jeans and dark glasses, a garland of black curls framing her delicately featured face, the rangy 5’8″ former model personifies casual elegance: a 22-year-old Nefertiti who carries herself with frightening self-assurance.
Deejay Jeff Wyatt rises from his control board to greet Whitney. “You know, I coulda been a rich man if I accepted all the bribes from the guys wanting to be in this room today,” he wisecracks. The corners of her mouth hardly form a smile. This is a woman quite accustomed to—though still embarrassed by—male adoration. During the 15-minute interview interspersed with her hits Saving All My Love For You, Thinking About You and Hold Me (a duet with Teddy Pendergrass), they will touch on the manifestations of her meteoric rise this year: dates on three network talk shows, recorded duets with Pendergrass and Jermaine Jackson, appearances on Gimme a Break and Silver Spoons, and her self-titled debut LP, which has sold more than 2.5 million copies. Her sold-out Carnegie Hall performances last month attracted Eddie Murphy, Daryl Hannah, comic Howie Mandel, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, among others. Even New York Mayor Ed Koch showed up to see what all the fuss was about. (He got booed by some in the crowd, and the singer who once wanted to be a teacher told them that wasn’t nice.)
After posing for pictures with radio station brass, Whitney heads for the hotel, digging into a brown-bag dinner of deli sandwiches, barbecue chips and soft drinks. With Whitney due to perform at Philly’s Tower Theater in less than three hours, there’s no time for a classier repast. A typical day in the life of this rising star.
For her father, John Houston, 56, who has come along for the limo ride, this is history repeating itself. Whitney’s mother is Cissy Houston, 52, founder of the Sweet Inspirations, the pop-gospel quartet that arranged and sang backup vocals for Aretha Franklin and others during the ’60s; Dionne Warwick is Whitney’s first cousin.
“You can’t remember the first time you were in a recording studio, because your mother was pregnant with you,” says John, laughing at the memory. Cissy spent the summer of 1963 in Atlantic Records’ New York studio before delivering her daughter in August.
“Yeah,” answers Whitney, the youngest of three. “Mommy said the producers were real jittery, but she just told ’em to quit worrying and get on with it.”
In 1968 when Cissy cracked the Top 20 with her group’s single, Sweet Inspiration, Whitney, then 5, was there to witness that and countless other recording sessions, her shoulder-length braids bobbing in time to some of the most whoopin’, scoldin’ harmonizing ever heard. (“Still nobody to beat those Sweet Inspirations,” beams John.) “I’d have all kinds of conversations with Aretha and Wilson [Pickett],” Whitney says. “I just remember being in an atmosphere of total creativity.”
While absorbing pop and soul harmonies by osmosis at the studio, Whitney was getting vigorous gospel training in the choir at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., where her mother still hosts Sunday radio broadcasts. (Her father is executive secretary of the city’s Central Planning Board.)
Gradually, Whitney began taking her musical education into her own hands. “I’d hear all this hollerin’ and screamin’ down in the basement,” says John. “Whitney’d be down there with one of Cissy’s microphones singing along with Chaka Khan and Aretha records. I knew her mother was training her, but I wasn’t paying much attention. One day Cissy said, ‘Your baby is soloing in church for the first time this Sunday. Be there.’ What I heard that day was the voice of a young woman coming from the throat of a 12-year-old child. It blew my mind.”
The die was cast. Whitney worked to combine the energy and power of her mother with the pop sensibilities of her favorite singer, Aretha Franklin. “When I heard Aretha, I could feel her emotional delivery so clearly. It came from down deep within,” says Whitney. “That’s what I wanted to do.”
By 1978 she was sharing the spotlight with her mother at New York cabarets. The critics compared Whitney to the young Lena Home. Luther Vandross wanted to produce her as a solo artist when she was 15, but her parents said later for that. “I wanted her to finish school first, because I knew if she got started in the business, there’d be no stopping her,” Cissy explained a few days after the Philly radio interview.
In 1980 Whitney’s life took an unexpected turn when a modeling agency scout spotted her near Carnegie Hall and signed her almost immediately. Soon her photos were appearing in the pages of Seventeen, Glamour and Cosmo. Pretty heady stuff for a senior at Mount St. Dominic Academy, a parochial school in Caldwell, N.J. Sometimes Whitney would take up to two weeks off from school to shoot on location. Sister Barbara Moore, her principal, was concerned. “I had to take schoolwork with me and finish it by the time I got back,” says Whitney.
Even before graduating in 1981, she began doing backup vocals for Chaka Khan, Lou Rawls and the Neville Brothers. Three years later Arista Records signed her, and her career exploded. “Whitney is an industry,” personal manager Eugene Harvey chortles. “The phone never stops ringing.”
According to Whitney’s own calculations, it’ll be another 10 years before she can seriously consider raising a family. And as far as love interests go, “I don’t have the kind of time it takes to nurture a relationship the way I’d like to right now, and I’d never attempt to jump into one unless I had that time. Besides, I’d always be worried about what he was thinking when I was gone.” In the meantime she draws a protective circle of family around her. Her older brother Gary, 28, and cousin Felicia Moss, 22, are backup vocalists in her band. Brother Michael, 24, is her constant companion on the road.
For her mid-November concert at Carnegie Hall, her six-piece group is dressed in black tuxedos. Except for the synthesizers and other elaborate musical gadgetry, they look more like a society band than a pop-soul group. Whitney is clad in an eye-popping low-cut number. “Let’s make a deal,” she tells her audience, “you give me some of yourselves, and I’ll give you all of me.” More than a few young men melt into their seats.
Her 90-minute set is a mix of pop, soul, gospel and romantic ballads in which she engages in vocal sparring matches with Gary. A high point of the evening occurs when Cissy mounts the stage and sings You Are My Dream to her little girl. Another is Whitney’s cover of I Am Changing, from the show Dreamgirls. Halfway through the tune Whitney pauses for a dramatic few moments, back arched, face uplifted, eyes tightly closed. She gathers her full force for a gospel-inspired progression of notes that pulls her 2,800 admirers to their feet. “Sing it, Whitney, honey,” screams one ecstatic fan. “Sing us the truth.”