The whole world was shocked by the death of Whitney Houston, but few people were as shocked as Gerry Griffith. Gerry didn’t just know Whitney…he’s the reason you know her.
The former Arista Records A&R rep came across Houston when she was just a teenager singing in a smoky club in New York City. The rest should have been history, but that history was tinged with a quiet storm of controversy.
It was Arista head honcho Clive Davis (whose signees include Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, and Puff Daddy), and not Griffin, who became known as Whitney’s musical mentor and the genius behind her discovery. While Griffith languished in the shadows, many behind-the-scenes players heralded him as one of the most important—and overlooked—A&Rs in the industry.
Griffith has since moved away from the glare of the music industry and is currently penning a book about his career—holding key positions through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s at Motown Records, Philadelphia International Records, and Columbia Records, where he became the first African-American product manager. Complex caught up with the legendary label exec to get the scoop about who really discovered Whitney Houston and Griffith’s true views on his former boss Clive Davis.
Interview by Linda Hobbs (@linnyloveslin)
How was Whitney’s funeral?
They had a 70-voice choir—I counted to make sure I got that number right. And they rocked the place before the funeral started. Oh my God, that was amazing. Let me tell you, I feel like joining the church. [Laughs.]
It was rousing. Everybody was standing. You had to be there. It was pretty calm. Everybody was sad, but it wasn’t obvious, you know? For me the sadness started when I saw the coffin. When I first saw the coffin…all the emotions started coming out then.
At Whitney's funeral, they had a 70-voice choir—I counted to make sure I got that number right. And they rocked the place before the funeral started. Oh my God, that was amazing. Let me tell you, I feel like joining the church. [Laughs.]
Before you went you said, “It’s going to be very interesting seeing a lot of people I haven’t seen in a long time.” Did you see a lot of people you knew?
Oh my God! I even saw my old girlfriend. And I saw about 12 of my buddies from Arista, Diane Warren was sitting in front of us, Clive’s old secretary Rose…
Did you get a chance to talk to Whitney’s family at all?
I didn’t see Bobbi [Kristina], but Cissy—she was so inundated with people standing around her and stuff, and she was trying to eat. So I just put my head down and waved at her and she said, “Hey!” I figured I’d just call her later when everything died down.
How did you feel about Clive Davis’s speech?
I had no feelings. It’s a typical Clive speech. You know, you could see how corporate he is. That’s the kind of guy he is.
There’s been a lot of discussion about who saw Whitney Houston first and who discovered her. I understand that you’re the one who brought Whitney Houston to Clive Davis at Arista. But wasn’t she involved with Elektra Records first?
The Elektra thing came about because before we had signed Whitney, Elektra Records was trying to sign her also. But the problem at Elektra was that they were cutting back on their roster. And because of that there was one guy, who was actually the first person ever to record her, on a song called “Memories” by the group Material.
It was actually put out about two years before we signed her. I never even heard the song until after we signed her. So we weren’t really the first to record her. We’re actually the second, because once we had signed her, we did the “Hold Me” song with Teddy.
How did you first find out about Whitney?
Two years before [Arista Records] signed her, I went to see one of our own artists that was performing at the Bottom Line in New York. And the head of promotions at my label, Richard Smith, and I were sitting at the same table and had no idea that Cissy Houston was being backed up by her son and daughter—her daughter obviously being Whitney.
Three or four songs into the show, Whitney stepped out and she sang about two or three songs. Afterwards Richard said to me, “Man, you should really sign this girl!” and I was like, “She’s really special, but she’s awfully young and I just don’t think she’s ready.”
A friend of mine who is not even in the music industry called me and asked if I knew who Whitney Houston was, and I said, “Yeah… why?” He said, “Well, she’s signing with Elektra,” and I said, “Oh no!”
So one and half years went by and I heard through the grapevine that she was being signed to Elektra. A friend of mine who is not even in the music industry called me and asked if I knew who Whitney Houston was, and I said, “Yeah… why?” He said, “Well, she’s signing with Elektra,” and I said, “Oh no!”
So I called Whitney’s manager, Gene Harvey, and Gene said, “Well, we’re talking to them but we haven’t signed yet, so why don’t you come down and see her at Seventh Avenue South this weekend?” That’s a club in New York. So that was the second time I saw her perform. And I had already knew the family, I knew Cissy before then because I would always see her at her manager’s office.
She knew me and I knew her so it was an easy introduction. And I was like, “Look, I really want to present Whitney to Clive so let’s see what happens,” and she said, “Fine.” So the next day I went into Clive’s office and said, “I’m going to showcase a great, beautiful female artist for you and I need a budget.”
He had no idea who she was. He said, “Fine, what do you need?” and I told him and I put the showcase together. We rehearsed for roughly a week, and showcased her for Clive and that’s the way the whole thing came about and that’s why I say I didn’t actually discover her, but that I saw her in a club and the rest is history.
How old was she at the time?