Surprised, but not surprising, was my reaction to the news of R&B superstar Whitney Houston’s passing yesterday. Her death came one day before the 54th GRAMMY Awards presentation tonight – a small shortfall mirroring larger shortcomings that unfortunately defined the last decade of her life.
Houston sold 200 million+ albums and singles in her career, and is cited by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most-awarded female act of all time. With untouchable numbers like this to her credit, it was all the more mystifying to watch Houston fall into the trap of celebrity caution.
How could someone with such a massively moving voice and charmed life fall apart so completely?
Apparently, it happens. The pressure of that kind of fame sounds like it’s a lot to deal with. You never know if you should feel sorry for someone like Whitney Houston or not – shouldn’t her mountain of wealth have offset the demons of drug addiction and bad company that accompanied it?
All of us still climbing upward like to think we’d do better in that position. Most of us will never truly know.
New York City Start
While the global influence of Houston’s voice spanned cultures and generations, its worth noting that the time of her rise was all-NYC. Born to a musically adept family in Newark, NJ, in 1963, Houston won all of her early victories just across the Hudson River.
The legendary Clive Davis had everything to do with launching her to international stardom from the NYC offices of his Arista Records hitquarters, but there were even earlier collaborations here with underground producers Ben Dover, Bill Laswell, and Martin Bisi. Did a teenage Houston descend into Bisi’s recording cave in Brooklyn’s industrial Gowanus section, to record vocals for Material’s One Down album? There’s something surreal about thinking that she did.
In Session, In NYC
From there, as Houston’s massive career arc accelerated, she undoubtedly took a fleet of New York City studios, producers, and engineers with her – not to mention the multitude of local restaurants, caterers, and limo services — that would have also directly benefited from the presence of the diva and her entourage.
Throughout the making of her seven studio albums, Houston was a regular client of big-time NYC recording mainstays in the 1980’s and 1990’s, from The Power Station (now Avatar) to The Hit Factory – the latter of which was where she recorded her megasmash “I Will Always Love You” for 1992’s The Bodyguard soundtrack. As recently as 2009 she was still booking sessions in NYC, working at midtown’s KMA Studios on her final record I Look to You.
Gone at only 48, it’s heartbreaking to think what other recorded art awaited from Whitney Houston, recording artist. What if she had kept that wide-ranging mezzo-soprano intact? How many more magic moments awaited for her legions of listeners – but only after being born in the New York City studios which she frequented?
It’s not just the economic impact that the studio world mourns when a superstar is silenced. For the producers and engineers present when an elite talent records a breakthrough moment – one they know will be heard by hundreds of millions of ears – these must be breathtaking experiences.
Whitney Houston gave a lucky club of NYC audio professionals just such a high. No matter how the rest of us remember her, those fortunate few will always love her for that.
– David Weiss