"Bobby and I are having marital problems," Houston acknowledges without anxiety, "and that's all I want to say about it." She's sittting not too far from an antique slot machine, and near it, there's a framed photo of her and Brown looking very '80s--Bobby with tracks cut into his hair, Whitney in a longish auburn Afro. Doing what appears to be the electric slide, they look incredibly happy. "We will work our problems out," she says simply. "Not we and the world."
Raised a Baptist, Whitney Houston sang publicly for the first time in the name of the Lord. She goes back to him for everything and because of everything. "Let the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart be acceptable in your sight, Lord, teach me how to pray" is what she sang, as an introduction to the congregation going into "Our Father." She was about seven.
"I live by his graceful eye," she says matter-of-factly. "It's by his mercy that I'm here. I am not perfect. I am not beyond anybody else. I am a child of God." All thanks are to him, all credit goes to him. At first, to her, it's not even worth delving into the idea that she's sold more records than she can count. "That don't mean nothing," she says with a dismissive wave of the hand. But then she backs up. "That's kind of shallow to say, 'It doesn't mean anything,' because it does mean something. Nobody just said 'Whitney here's your No. 1 record,' and then, 'Here's another, here's another.'
"Here's seven in a row, I say, like I need to remind her how she ruled the mid-'80s.
"Right. I was determined. But I didn't know I was going to get all that. That just happened to be-- people get joy from what I do. This is the gravy. My aunts told me, 'You put him before you, all things are possible.' I have tried the ways of my Savior."
But what she has not tried to be--and what some black people and most pop critics want her to be- -is a "soul singer." You hear not shouting from Whitney. There is little flailing about. Whitney was 22 when she scored her first No. 1 hit, "Saving All My Love for You." And with chart toppers like 1988's "So Emotional" and "Where Do Broken Hearts Go," she proved what she mostly is: profoundly and mega-successfully pop, as in popular. Whitney appeals to almost everybody. Even after participating in the selling of more that 70 million units worldwide, to some people, she is still "just" a beautiful woman with an astounding voice--still not enough, apparently, to be cool.
Jerry Wexler, legendary music man and cofounder of Atlantic Records is famous for having produced Aretha Franklin's and Ray Charles's best sessions. He's also the man who helped formalize the Sweet Inspirations--the group that includes Whitney's mother, Cissy Houston--who backed up Elvis Presley, among others. He says he's getting down to brass tacks when he makes the following observations from his Long Island home in Easthamptons: "Whitney's enunciation and diction are perfectly in step with all the great pop singers. Aretha Franklin and Cissy Houston have R&B bases, but Whitney is pop based--with just enough soul to make it interesting and exotic."
To get a handle on what Wexler's not quite saying, think of pop as the code word for "white" and soul as the code word for "black." Truth is, some people are suspicious of African-American women like Whitney, who display a refinement not qualified by adjective like "fierce" or "fly." If she doesn't symbolize for blacks and whites what whites supposedly are not, folks want to complain that she isn't "real." It's like, there must be some sort of wildness in there somewhere.