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?
Was she familiar with Clive Davis?
Oh, everybody knew Clive Davis…
Some kids are sheltered.
I’ve never had anyone ask me that. I’m assuming she knew [who Clive was], and if not I’m sure Cissy told her who he was.
So Cissy never came to you and said, “Hey, my daughter can sing…”?
No, it’s never happened.
When you first brought Whitney to Clive, was Clive was like, “Oh yeah, we got to have her” or did you have to sell her?
Clive’s focus was really always pop music. He’d use the word 'cross over.' He always looks towards the biggest markets because that’s his job. He’s in business to make money. To make money, you break new stars and you have to get them on the radio.
He liked her, but we only offered her a three-song deal. He wasn’t totally sure until… Well, his line is that he discovered her at Sweet Waters. And I’m not taking anything away from him, but what he meant by that was that before we had signed her…
I think that was the time where he totally realized how prodigious of a talent she could be. He saw the future with her that night. He didn’t get it that much until he saw her at Sweet Waters, I’ll put it that way. And at that point, we offered her a two-album deal.
Was it hard for her at that age to deal with the business side of the industry?
No. She had the experience of her mother. She had that strength to cope with the madness.
So you worked with her on her self-titled debut?
Oh yeah. I gave her two of her biggest songs: “You Give Good Love” and “How Will I Know?”
Is it true that the songs “Saving All My Love For You” and “Greatest Love of All”… Clive Davis thought those songs were “too black”?
[Laughs.] Oh boy…let’s say this: Clive’s focus was really always pop music. He’d use the word “cross over.” He always looks towards the biggest markets because that’s his job. He’s in business to make money.
To make money, you break new stars and you have to get them on the radio, and you can’t get a black artist on pop radio until you had a huge hit at R&B radio at that time. Today it’s totally different. But at that time, you had to really prove yourself as an artist on black radio before you crossed over.
Were you in agreement with that opinion regarding those two songs?
No, absolutely not. But that was common with Clive, everybody knew that.
Whitney did start to get criticized by blacks for what they felt were pop songs…
Why do you think that is? I mean, I just told you what it was like, what do you think? Clive’s in business to make money. And Clive was very focused on crossing artists over to pop radio.
Clive and Whitney seemed to have a very close relationship. Do you think it was a genuine relationship, or just strictly business?
It’s always business. It’s kind of like you with your boss, you know? It’s always business. Everybody’s in it to make money. Real simple.
You knew Cissy. Did you ever hear about her not wanting Whitney in the business?
Oh yeah. It’s a crappy business. If you had a daughter would you want your daughter to be in this?
Okay. I wouldn’t want mine in there either. My oldest daughter wanted to come in, I wouldn’t let her come in. About three or four months ago, she said, “Dad I am so happy that you didn’t bring me into this business.” I brought my nephew in from Chicago to work in L.A. as a product manager for a while, and within like a year they fired him.
It’s a crappy business. If you had a daughter would you want your daughter to be in this? I wouldn't want mine in there. My oldest daughter wanted to come in, I wouldn't let her come in. About three or four months ago, she said, 'Dad I am so happy that you didn't bring me into this business.'
I felt so bad. The guy fired him, you know? And it’s like, all I had to do was beat him up, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t beat the guy up, cause then I would lose my job. But I scared him to death, that’s for sure.
People think I’m a nice guy, which I am, but I came from the Southside of Chicago. But you got to be gritty in the business, you can’t be nice guy. There’s got to be another side there, you got to be tough. It’s a tough business. Especially when we were coming up.
You’re being for real, you’re not joking…
Oh no, I’m not joking. I’m being for real. Ask some of your friends who know people who’s been in the business around the 70s or 80s, they’ll tell you.
After all you have done, at what point did you start to hear people say, “Clive Davis discovered Whitney Houston”?
When she started having success. There’s an article in Cosmopolitan, which probably came out maybe two years after she had her success—hey were the first to break it down where the writer said specifically, “I understand that Gerry Griffith brought her to you. And let’s clarify this whole thing.” Clive finally broke down and said, “He did.”
That was early in the game, so it’s been going on for years. And everybody in the industry knows what it’s like… That’s just the way he is. Like any other head of a label, I mean there’s stories about other heads of labels who are a certain way, you know? I mean, that’s just the way he is.
Whitney is one of the biggest vocalists who’s ever walked the face of the earth…
Did that hurt you?
No, it upset me. Yeah. That’s why I left the company.
How did you tell Clive?
I told him that I had already negotiated a contract with EMI Manhattan Records. And he obviously was like…shocked.
Oh yeah, he was shocked. He took his glasses off and looked at me and said, “What’s the problem?” and I said…I mean, I wasn’t ready to tell him what the real problem was, but I think he knew so I didn’t have to say it to him, because everybody else at the company knew—that he was taking credit for everything. So I didn’t have to really say it to him.
So did you guys ever…
Clive took his glasses off and looked at me and said, “What’s the problem?” … I wasn’t ready to tell him what the real problem was, but I think he knew so I didn’t have to say it to him, because everybody else at the company knew—that he was taking credit for everything.
He actually rehired me four or five years later.
Yeah. I came back as the Vice-President of Black Music.
So I’m assuming you guys were still talking, still friends?
Well I wouldn’t call corporate relationships friendships, but yeah we still had respect for each other. I mean this man, he’s the most incredible marketing man, he’s brilliant. He’s absolutely the best marketing person in the business. But I have the utmost respect for Clive. I mean, look at Whitney’s career.
I just want to be clear about the whole Clive thing, there’s no hard feelings between us and you know…we all have our own ways of living our lives and doing things in our lives. He has his way and I have mine. Many times when you work for a person it doesn’t work out, and it didn’t, for the two times I worked with him but I saw him at the Arista reunion not too long ago and we’re cool.
When you first left Arista, did you break the news to Whitney when you got ready to leave?
Yeah, I called her up.
Was she hurt?
I mean, yeah, she was upset. But I mean, I told her that I would be around.
Sometimes artists get attached to label people they work with.
Yeah, well, I gave her a big record for The Bodyguard when I came back to Arista. I found the song, “Run to You.” Carol Ware called me up one day and said, “You got to hear this song.” So I actually went to the studio and heard it.
I fell in love with it and I went back to Clive and said, “This is a smash.” He said, “Okay,” he liked it too. I gave it to David Foster and Foster turned it into a monster. And later it was also co-nominated for an Academy Award.
How did you find out about Whitney’s death?
I felt badly that [Whitney's body was] still upstairs and they were downstairs drinking and [partying]. As a matter of fact I was speaking to a publicist friend out in L.A. and he said the same, he said, “How could he have done that?” ...But with Clive, the show goes on.
I think I saw it online. And then I turned the TV on and then I went directly on Facebook and a lot of people didn’t even know about it. And then my phone started ringing off the hook.
Many people had an opinion about Clive going on with the Pre-Grammy Party. How do you feel about that?
I personally would have not. I felt badly that she’s still upstairs and they were downstairs drinking and [partying]. As a matter of fact I was speaking to a publicist friend out in L.A. earlier today and he said the same, he said, “How could he have done that?” and he actually worked at Arista, so he and I know Clive quite well. But with Clive, the show goes on. That’s just the way he operates.
Were you invited to the party?
Oh no, he stopped inviting me I forget when. It doesn’t bother me, business is business. But you don’t get angry, you just go, “Oh, that’s Clive.” But Whitney was the greatest singer in the world. All you had to do was look at the “Star Spangled Banner” performance, that’s all you have to look at. Not the videos…that live performance [at the 1991 Super Bowl] really spelled out how powerful, how talented, how fearless, Whitney Houston was.
I mean, there will never be another voice like that, ever. I mean, I love Adele, I get almost the same feeling, but that? No. And believe me, I’ve been in the presence of all the greats. I’ve seen them all. I mean, I’ve worked with Patti [Labelle], Sly Stone was always a favorite, Nancy Wilson, Nina Simone, Roberta [Flack]…the list goes on, but I don’t think there’ll ever be another Whitney Houston.