In the new book The Whitney I Knew gospel singer BeBe Winans tells the story of his friendship with Whitney Houston. The book arrived just before the release of Houston's final movie, Sparkle, which opens this Friday in theaters.
The following excerpt comes from Chapter 3: Bloodlines, Elvis, and Her Eternal Fan.
Whatever you want to call it, this much I know: God placed Whitney into a musical family, a legendary one. Her mom, Cissy, possessed a powerful voice in her own right and formed the Drinkard Singers, a gospel group in which her sister, Lee Drinkard, sang as well. Lee was the mother of Dee Dee and Dionne Warwick. Cissy also formed the Sweet Inspirations, who then sang backup for the likes of Elvis Presley, Van Morrison (“Brown-Eyed Girl”), and Aretha Franklin. Talk about a bloodline!
To top it off, Aretha Franklin—or “Aunt Ree,” as Whitney called her—was Whitney’s godmother. That’s no dumb luck, my friends! It was the soulful singing of Aretha that Whitney sought to emulate as a young girl. Aretha Franklin has always been known to possess that quality that allows her to communicate on a very personallevel with her music. That’s why we call her the “Queen of Soul.”
But the woman has gospel in her veins.
In 2012, she’ll be inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
And her 1972 album Amazing Grace is still one of the best-selling gospel records of all time. If you haven’t heard Aretha’s version of the title song, well, listen to it. If you’re lost, you’ll be found.
When you consider Whitney’s bloodline and influences, the path she took was no surprise. She was a thoroughbred singer, mentored by some of the great gospel singers of a generation—arguably of the past century. I think it was the mentors in her life that kept Whitney from spiraling early on, like so many young entertainers do. It was also these mentors who modeled a life in music—what that meant, the joys that came with it, the responsibility of having talent. The women in her life not only showed her how to sing, they showed her how to be a singer.
It didn’t hurt either that her mother and father maintained a firm rein on the household. It was because of their guidance that Whitney was able to benefit from a simple and rich upbringing—the same kind of life I know she wants for her own daughter. Whitney received several contract offers when she was a teenager. But Cissy and John, her father, made it clear that she was to finish high school before she started down the entertainment path. They only signed with Clive Davis after they vetted him thoroughly.
It’s easy, sometimes, to look back on our childhood and resent things. And some of us have good cause for that. But Whitney was not only blessed with a voice, she was blessed with family and close friends who supported her and loved her enough to tell her no when she needed to hear it. We don’t like rules very much. But rules and standards empower us. They instill confidence—a confidence that comes from knowing someone cares enough to do what is needed and right for you. That’s what Whitney had. And that’s what I heard during that cab ride. A young voice but confident; a young singer who knew who she was; a voice searching for the pool of passion deep within that song.
In the commemorative Whitney edition of Life magazine, Dolly Parton reminisced about the time she praised Whitney for her performance of Dolly’s song, “I Will Always Love You,” on The Bodyguard soundtrack. At the time, Whitney received the compliment with grace, but she also, in her humility, deflected it. Dolly insisted then, and still insists, that no one else could have done what Whitney did to that song. How true. I call that the Whitney effect. But Whitney would probably tell you it had something to do with the Aretha effect.
Whitney had the uncanny ability to not only draw from that “Aretha well of soul” deep inside her, but she was able to revitalize a song—making it totally her own. Dolly’s version of that single was just fine, by her own admission. Whitney’s version broke sales records that still stand today.
Whitney knew where that thing came from. She said as much when I asked her what church she attended the first time I met her. Her smiling answer gave her up.
Some things are so clearly given by God. When you hear someone like Whitney sing, it might be easy to say, “Well, look who her mother was; look at her relatives. They were all so talented.” I think that’s true. But it’s more too.
It was the church in her. The gospel passion fused into pop.
When you combine that with one of the greatest voices of all time, what do you get? That’s not only family heritage or good mentoring, it’s heaven’s gifting.
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