At first glance, the story of Whitney Houston's success looks familiar: A new artist becomes phenomenally popular, sells millions of records and becomes a media sensation. We've seen it happen in recent years with Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna.
But Houston, 22, daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston, stands apart from those flashy, rock-oriented hotshots. Houston is a traditional vocalist, blending familiar elements of pop, R&B; and adult contemporary music. You might even say she's a bit old-fashioned. Three of her first four singles have been ballads, and one, the Grammy-winning "Saving All My Love for You," probably could have been a hit in the '30s.
Yet Houston is the hottest artist of the year in pop music. Her debut album has been No. 1 on the national sales chart for 12 weeks, and has topped the 5-million mark in U.S. sales. It has spun off four smash singles, the last three of which reached No. 1.
How did a traditional singer like Houston become a pop phenomenon?
Manager Gene Harvey and industry veteran Clive Davis, the president of her record company, Arista, suggest that Houston's current success is based both on carefully plotted strategy and on blind luck.
It also owes a lot to the fact that the record industry has long tended to ignore traditional vocalists in search of the Next Big Thing. It never occurred to many in the industry that a traditional vocalist might just be the Next Big Thing.
The most important element in Houston's success story is time. Houston was given the time to develop, both personally and professionally, before she was thrust into the limelight.
Houston signed a management deal with Harvey in September, 1981, a few weeks after she turned 18, but didn't sign a record deal until April, 1983. And Arista Records didn't release her debut album until March, 1985.
"The most important thing was for Whitney to continue to develop as an artist in an unhurried, unpressured way," explained Harvey. "When she had just turned 18, two major labels wanted to sign her, but I felt it was too early. I didn't want her to have to deal with those kinds of pressures at that point."
Harvey's plan was to have Houston develop her studio technique through background vocal sessions and a few jingles, and to develop confidence in front of the camera by doing commercials. At the same time, she pursued her modeling career, took acting and dancing lessons and performed as a background vocalist in her mother's show.
When Harvey was satisfied that Houston was ready for a record deal, he staged a series of showcases in New York. Offers came in from Epic, Elektra and Arista. Harvey said he signed with Arista because of Davis' reputation for "picking hits."
Still, there was no rush to make the album. "It was a matter of searching for the right material and producers," Harvey said. "It was Clive's philosophy and ours that we not push this girl out there right away. We decided to wait and do the best job that we could, and if it took a little longer, so be it."
The delay turned out to be fortuitous. Between 1981 and 1985, the commercial prospects for black pop music improved immeasurably, thanks to the success of albums by Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Prince and Tina Turner.
"It worked out great," said Harvey, "because pop radio became more accepting of black music. As Whitney debuted, all the circumstances were there."
It was apparent from the start that Davis took a special interest in Houston's career. He brought her with him on Merv Griffin's TV show soon after he signed her. He also had her sing when he threw a party for Jermaine Jackson during the Jackson's Victory Tour and at Arista's 10th-anniversary celebration.
The label chief also arranged for top producers and songwriters to see Houston perform at Sweetwater's, a New York club, and at the Vine St. Bar & Grill here. The extent of Davis' involvement is reflected in the fact that he's listed as executive producer on Houston's album. In fact, it's written into Houston's contract that Davis will personally select the songs and producers for her albums.
Arista's high hopes for Houston were apparent from the start to readers of Billboard, the music industry trade magazine. In a three-month span when the album was first released, Arista placed three full-page ads promoting the singer.
The copy was unrestrained. The first ad rhapsodized: "The power. The emotion. The magnetism. The kind of talent that's going to blow you away." The third reprinted excerpts from favorable reviews, including People's rave: "It will take an act of Congress to keep this woman from becoming a megastar."
All three ads ran before Houston had cracked the Top 50 with her album or first single. But later, Arista let the success of the records speak for itself.
Said Davis, "From a marketing point of view, we kept things very low-key, knowing there's a potential backlash in how the public and critics can eat up artists after a certain amount of commercial success."
Radio format politics played the key role in determining the sequence of Houston's first three singles--a sequence that is widely credited with boosting the album's sales to the multi-platinum level.
For the first single, Arista bypassed three subsequent No. 1 pop hits to release "You Give Good Love," an R&B-oriented; ballad produced by Kashif.
"We wanted to establish her in the black marketplace first," explained Davis. "Otherwise, you can fall between cracks, where Top 40 won't play you and R&B; won't consider you their own. . . . We felt that 'You Give Good Love' would be at the very least a major black hit, though we didn't think that it would cross over (to the pop market) as strongly as it did. When it did cross over with such velocity (it reached No. 3 on the pop chart), that gave us great encouragement."
Arista next wooed adult-contemporary listeners with the torchy ballad "Saving All My Love for You" and then went after the dance crowd with the up-tempo "How Will I Know"--the video of which landed Houston on MTV for the first time last Christmas Day.
If that was all part of the master plan, the selection of the fourth single definitely wasn't. Arista never intended to release "Greatest Love of All," the philosophical ballad that has become the biggest hit from the album. In fact, the label was so sure that it wouldn't be releasing the song as a single that it stuck it on the B-side of "You Give Good Love" (see related story, Page 90).
The big challenge facing Houston now is to follow this success. "Everybody knows the pitfalls," Davis said. "You can get set up for a big fall. But it's less of a concern when you've got a talent such as Whitney's, which isn't based on fad or trend, but just great singing of strong material."
Still, he's not taking any chances. To help prevent overexposure, he's not releasing any more singles from the album. And Houston's second album won't be released until September at the earliest.
The main lesson of Houston's blockbuster success is that there's a much bigger market for mainstream pop music than most observers had thought--including the central character in this story.
"Before we signed with Arista," Harvey recalled, "Whitney asked me one day, 'Do you really think that somebody with a nice voice singing nice songs can still sell records today?' She said it very innocently and out-of-the-blue. I said, 'Oh yeah!' "