Foto by tgw, New York City, Feb. 2012
Two Fabulous Women Musicians From Similar Backgrounds Led Down Two Different Paths
On hearing of Whitney Houston (her real name, by the way) leaving reality in the Beverly Hills Hotel--in the bathtub they are now saying--I confess to softening my semi-always-hard heart enough to feel kind of sorry for her--but then on the other hand, no I don't feel sorry for her. I understand her and how the phoniness of that life can be totally deconstructing. A phoniness (a staged life) she was forced into by her mother and her famous aunts and her godmother--can you imagine being young and Black and beautiful, born with a gifted voice, born into a gospel song situation with a mother singing in a gospel group and eventually bringing you into the group and then you were famous on the Black gospel circuit and then your mother crossed over and had a couple of secular hits--sin paying better than righteousness--and soon you are sucked into the artificial (civilized) spotlite by your mother, your famous aunts, and last of all the Queen of Soul as your godmother? And Whitney started off first as a gospel star, then she became a model, becoming one of the top models in the world before hitting it big time in the Pop Music World when old White Daddy Clive Davis came along and turned her into the biggest ever female music star ever--Whitney sold closed to 200 million albums--she had a constant flowing of Top Ten hits--and she got into acting--The Body Guard--and she got more Grammies than any woman ever--I mean you talk about the TOP OF THE WORLD--Whitney Houston was there. But at what a price. Though Whitney kept her right name, the only time she was ever real was when she was a baby and coming awake to the world. The real Whitney Houston was the one that was crying on the inside; that was lonely on the inside; all that in spite of the fame and the attention and attracting the hottest male stars of the time--and then picking the wrong one--Bobby Brown! And by then, folks, it was too late for Whitney. "Come on, baby, you know you dig this shit...you know you even sing better when you high, mama." I can hear old Bobby doing that to vulnerable Whitney--and Whitney Houston had that look of vulnerability in her beautiful but sad face most of her adult life--check it out, but oh what a voice she had, and what control she had, and reach, and she had the face and body to go with it and the fine clothes and then that Hollywood existence--and Whitney's head started getting twisted and Bobby got bored fucking her and started playing around on her, leaving her home scared, lonely, unloved, and knocked down loaded.
I once was interviewed by a girlie magazine's entertainment editor--it was a good interview and I was quite proud of it, even though it was in a man-boy jack-off magazine--anyway, in the interview--it was held over steaks at this very good Manhattan steak house--this guy, on finding out I was from West Texas and grew up out there among the originators of White Rock 'n Roll, asked why I had ended up in New York City singing with a downtown Manhattan cult band, as we were called, and not living like a rock star out in Vegas or Hollywood? And my answer was, "Roberto, if I'd a gotten famous back when I was young, you know, worth a million bucks by the time I was 21, I'd be dead now--you wouldn't be talkin' to me--I be like Elvis, found dead with my head in the toilet--probably in a motel or hotel room."
The musicians I grew up with and the most famous musicians of the day who produced all our music in some capacity got high either before or while they were performing. Before drugs became so readily available, the boys in the bands and especially the bandleaders were all heavy drinkers. My first job as a pianist was in a Dallas midtown club--in the club's piano bar where the piano was up on a stage behind and above the bar--my pay was all the beer I could drink while I was playing plus a case of long-neck Buds at the end of the gig. Many a night after the gig my brother would drive by to pick me up (I was staying with him) and he'd find me standing slumped against the club's front wall half-passed-out and then once in his car smelling like a brewery, though, he got used to it as I kept him supplied with beer for a long time--I worked that gig a couple of weeks--10 days of work, 10 cases of beer--240 bottles of Bud for my brother's fridge.
Later as a jazz pianist in New Mexico and on a road tour I did from Texas over to California, all us musicians had ways of obtaining pot (by the bales) or for a while tabs of LSD, plus we all still got free drinks during the gigs, most of which were in bars or lounges (I drank CC and 7s then). Plus some of the famous cats from around that area when they came back home brought high-grade horse (heroin) with them and thus introduced us to stronger drugs. On one gig, I was introduced to hash by this woman who had been living in Guatemala and knew how to make hash and she later also introduced me to opium-laced hash and smoking opium pills in a real opium pipe my brother had sent back from China when he was stationed over there in WWII--and what a woman she was, too, a musician follower--musicians turned her on so she turned them on in return. And on our days off--dark Mondays--we'd all get together and get high and drunk and eat fabulous meals and party hearty and listen to records all day.
So I can feel sorry for Whitney Houston, though I don't really feel that sorry for her. Though it is such a shame she sold her soul to the conjure devil and the musician's main devil appeared to haunt-corrupt her way all her famous life--remember the Lesbian tapes the London hotel dude claimed he had, Whitney in bed with a babe doing the double-backed beast in hard-rockin' rhythm?
So we say goodbye to Whitney "Lucky It Seemed, But Not So Lucky After All" Houston.
And a Woman Still Very Much Alive
Just before I heard that Whitney had died, I had had a wonderful LIFE experience via television--a good thing that can happen on television--but it was a Black folks tribute to Valerie Simpson and honoring Nick Ashford, who died just this last year, and let me tell you, people, I was taken by surprise. [You can watch a video of the show on the PBS Website.] I never was a fan of Ashford and Simpson. I just wasn't into that style of music--their music evolving out of their experience as song producers for Barry Gordy at Motown. And though I respected the Motown stars and their sounds, I was then nose-in-the-air into Jazz and Blues. Though I had known Valerie Simpson from noticing her as a back-up singer on a jazz album I had--I can't remember the album, though Lou Rawls pops into my head when I think about it, but I truly do remember her debut album, "Valerie Simpson"--and like I was into (and had the hots for) Melba Moore at the time because of her cuteness and the way she pitched a tune, I soon felt the same way about Valerie, all before I'd ever heard of Nick Ashford or knew they were openly married and then a songwriting team (they wrote "Let's Go Get Stoned" for Ray Charles, a tune I used to do in my show without realizing they had written it).
My first surprise was not related to the music but to how Valerie looks now--she's very what we used to call "squatty-roo" now--short and dumpy--and she used to have such a pure sweet-pretty face--but anyway--Jeez, it's hard to believe Nick Ashford was 70 when he died (born in 1941), which means Valerie ain't no spring you-know-what anymore--in fact she must be in her sixties--but let me tell you, folks--what a genuine person she proved herself to be on this television show. Wow.
And then Patti Austin came out--again I was surprised because Patti, who was a cute cute young lady in her heyday and who is still gorgeous of face, has bloomed out into a BIG MAMA type of woman--and Patti Austin did "You're All I Need to Get By," and, let me tell you, the woman can still sing--beautiful voice--and she nailed "You're All I Need to Get By" down "solid as a rock." And the back-up singers and the band were top-flight in a big-league professional way. Then Patti gave the stage up to two singers I had never heard of, Kindred, the Family Soul, a neo-soul group (I can't keep up with all the new genres) from Philadelphia, actually a married couple, Fatin Dantzler and Aja Graydon--Aja one of the biggest women I've ever seen--tall and a whole lot of woman--and they sang their asses off for Valerie--but then, the THANG happened: Valerie hit the stage on her own, first doing her famous solo routine where she sings a capella about how she doesn't need a keyboard, or guitar, or drums, she don't need nobody to sing her song--and Valerie showed 'em all how it's done. Her voice is still strong and her stage presence is the max--she totally dominated the performers--blew Patti and Fatin and Aja away--then going over to the piano and proving herself a fine pianist and accompanied herself with a medley of their songs--with the band eventually coming behind her and she closed the show with a truly magnificent performance--the music totally in her--another musician from out of the church setting, gospel music filled with the spirit of the ancient music that came to America with her forebears and gave Americans one of the most unique evolutionary continuums of musics ever, from Early Jazz (New Orleans), to Blues, to Swing, to R and B (Jump), to Rock 'n Roll, to Hip Hop, and to the classical aspect of it, Jazz. And Black gospel music came directly out of a Blues man, Georgia Tom, who went to Chicago and became Thomas Dorsey, and Valerie Simpson carries those feelings (instincts) and knowledges (practices) with her and expels her music through her singing and playing and performing so powerfully and naturally--and that's the problem with a mechanistically generated music like has taken over our music today--it's so mechanistically produced nowadays--our music production and recording companies global marketplace greed cats who have turned our music into virtual reality engineered "perfect" music beds and Pro-Tooled young men and women singers to the point whether they can sing in pitch or not doesn't matter because that pitch can be synthesized to put the worst of human voices into sync, pitched perfectly, to where weak-voiced White chicks and phony-voiced males can sound like they know perfect pitch and they have good ears--you catch my drift, I hope. Valerie Simpson coming up through the church doesn't need her voice Pro-Tooled. Her voice is natural, untampered with, and thereby so pure and easily manipulated by her musical brain, manipulated to where she knows her range and the places where she's strong, plus she's a damn good piano player (like Aretha Franklin). Well, to make this ramble shorter, I've got a whole new perspective on Valerie Simpson and the same old same old perspective on what brought Whitney Houston down. The comparison is so obvious. Both women learned their music in church. Both women met their future partners in the business. Valerie lucked out and got a real musician and talent in Nick Ashford while poor Whitney fucked up and hooked up with Bobby Brown who knows little or nothing about natural musical talent, his jive all Pro-Tooled and recorded "to perfection" in billion-dollar studios by studio engineers.
for The Daily Growler