“You’ve either got it or you don’t have it,” Clive Davis told Merv Griffin on June 23, 1983, as the record executive introduced the then-19-year-old Whitney Houston to the TV host and to the world. “She’s got it.”
Just weeks earlier, Davis had signed the preternaturally talented vocalist to Arista Records, and he and Houston remained inextricably bonded henceforth, from her record-breaking success to her untimely death in 2012 at the age of 48.
With Houston, the numbers speak for themselves. She debuted with two of the best-selling albums ever, 1985’s Whitney Houston and 1987’s Whitney, which spawned seven consecutive Hot 100 toppers. Her 1992 soundtrack for “The Bodyguard” was even more successful, and netted Houston the Grammy for Album of the Year – one of six Grammys she received in her career, along with 25 nominations. All three albums have been certified Diamond by the RIAA, making Houston the only Black artist to notch three Diamond-certified albums. According to the RIAA, she’s the 19th best-selling artist ever, outpacing the likes of Van Halen, U2 and Bob Dylan.
Houston enjoyed similar success on the road, grossing $67.3 million and selling 1.66 million tickets, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports. Just a month after she turned 24, Houston sold out Madison Square Garden twice over, grossing $859,095 in September 1987. In July 1993, she grossed $1.49 million across five sold-out nights at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.
On May 29, 1997, Houston logged the highest single-show gross of her career, bringing in $1.63 million and selling 29,118 tickets at Honolulu’s Aloha Stadium.
Houston rarely toured in the ‘00s, but even as her health deteriorated, she remained a live draw. In 2010, she grossed $36.3 million touring Australia and Europe, landing her at No. 35 on Pollstar’s Year End Top 50 Worldwide Concert Tours chart.
All the while, Davis remained a key figure in Houston’s personal and professional life, guiding her career and attempting to help her when she began to struggle with the substance abuse that ultimately led to her decline.
On the eve of her Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, Davis – himself inducted into the Hall as a recipient of the Ahmet Ertegun Award in 2000 – connected with Pollstar to discuss Houston’s life and enduring legacy.
POLLSTAR: Tell me about the first time you saw Whitney perform.
CLIVE DAVIS: She was singing background in her mother [Cissy Houston]’s act, we’re talking the year 1983, [at] a club called Sweetwater’s in New York. She stepped out of doing backgrounds, and she did two solos. One was “Home,” from the Broadway show “The Wiz,” and the other was “The Greatest Love of All.” I was shocked at that, because I had commissioned that song for a soundtrack that I had done about eight years earlier, right as Arista was beginning. We had the soundtrack to the [biopic about the] life of Muhammad Ali called “The Greatest,” and Michael Masser [and] Linda Creed wrote that song. I had that as one of the earliest records by George Benson on Arista. I heard her doing it, and she really just affected me deeply, because she found more meaning in that song than perhaps even the composers knew was there when they wrote it. It just knocked me out.
She had this amazing early success: Grammys, the charts, record sales. Did you expect such early success from her? In the late ‘80s, what was the mood like about her success?
First, let me say this to you. I’m from the school of doubt. In other words, don’t come with overconfidence, don’t come with any kind of expectation. Work as hard as you can to come up with the best that you can. My byword with her over those first two albums, I would always say, “Do you understand how unusual, how historic [these] things [are]? Are you pinching yourself?” She was extremely hardworking, her work ethic was exemplary. And she would always say, “I’m pinching myself,” because, no, you don’t expect that kind of thing at any time. I’ve been blessed from Joplin to Aerosmith, Billy [Joel], whatever – you sign an artist that you believe has unique or exceptional talent. But that first album sold 22 million copies. The second album sold 23 million copies. So, it was historic, it was mind-blowing, and remains so to this day.
What set her apart as a live performer?
She was fabulous. It’s like when I told you earlier that she found more meaning in “The Greatest Love of All” than I had ever heard before, and I had the original record commissioned. Her ability to probe a lyric, to soar when needed, to bring out new meaning, extra meaning, soulful meaning. First of all, the instrument was so incredible. Whitney’s voice is just incredible and she was a natural genius in vocal reading. She loved music, was constantly immersed in it, always listened to everybody else’s record, was hip to it. There are two [other] artists in that class, only, historically in my opinion. One is Aretha, the other is Streisand. All three were vocal geniuses and had a tremendous natural gift for their own original interpretation and delivery that will always be peerless.
As somebody who knew her talent and her potential so intimately, how hard was it for you to observe her decline later in her life?
It was incredibly painful. The most was probably at Madison Square Garden during a Michael Jackson concert [in September 2001], where I had not seen her for a year. And she was a skeleton. It was shocking and very painful to deal with.
Almost a decade after her passing, she still has this huge cultural presence. There’s documentaries, her hologram tour, you’re co-producing a biopic about her. Why do you think she continues to resonate culturally?
Because she impacted the world with her music. So many of her recordings are classics. The impact of hearing her, seeing her, needing and wanting to hear more of her, there are very few [artists] that remain in the public, affecting the public the way that Whitney does. I don’t use the term “vocal genius” lightly. She was one of a kind. She was the real deal. Everybody in the industry who wrote songs, who produces songs, who were other singers – she inspired and still inspires so many other singers. You go to Monica, you go to Brandy, you go to Jennifer Hudson, you go to any of the great singers of today, they all were influenced by Whitney, inspired by Whitney. So that does keep and should keep her talent alive and continue to impact and resonate.
Whitney’s not the first artist you’ve worked with to make it to the Rock Hall, but how significant it to you that she’s being inducted?
It’s major, and fully deserved by her, because she did inspire artists of all [genres], whether it be urban artists, whether it be pop artists, whether it be rock artists. When I was dealing with Carlos Santana, with [his 1999] Supernatural album, Whitney [had just released] her first studio album in eight years, after three movies. Carlos and I reunited with Supernatural, and he won all the Grammys that year. It was he and Whitney who were riding above everybody. Every time I was with him, him knowing that I had also been so closely involved with Whitney and the My Love Is Your Love album [released in 1998], [he] was constantly expressing his incredible discovery and enjoyment and amazement at Whitney’s talent and music. It is a unique award, a treasured award. It’s very personally gratifying to see Whitney recognized like this. You don’t take anything for granted in life; the fact that she’s getting inducted is very, very special.
What did you learn from working with Whitney? What impact did she have on you and how you saw the industry and music and art?
It remains one of the thrills of my lifetime. It wasn’t that I just signed her. It wasn’t that I just was the head of the record company for which she had all that success. I was her creative collaborator. It was just Whitney and me sitting down, after my A&R staff and I had gone through hundreds and hundreds of songs for almost each album. She and I shared a very special relationship. I knew that she uniquely trusted me. And I was just amazed as to how her talents soared. There are artists who have hit records and then there are those that you know are making history – and that was Whitney. I know that she made history.
What’s something the public might not know about about Whitney?
Her musical artistry has never been explained. For example, [she hadn’t done] a major studio album in eight years, when it came to the My Love Is Your Love album. She, one night, was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel where I was staying. She knew that that was my second home; I live in New York. She came to visit me at about 11:30 at night. We were extended family – she came in a nightgown and bathrobe. She said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I just got home from dinner. I’m listening to a little music.” She said, “Have you been gathering any songs for this album?” I said, “You know, today, one song came in, and it’s the first song that came in.” I played it once. She said, “Let’s play it again.” I played it a second time and then a third time. I could, with my equipment, put on the demo and bring up the track [for her to record a demo]. And she did. In that take of “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay,” I mean, her ability to instinctively interpret – that was vocal genius in operation, and seeing it and marveling at it and seeing her on top of her game, dancing through the bungalow, singing and finding new meaning instantly in the record will be something that I will never forget.