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The Life and Legacy of Whitney Houston

February 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Whitney Houston, the superstar known for turning gospel and soul into pop music gold, was found dead over the weekend in her Los Angeles hotel room. She was 48. Jeffrey Brown and songwriter Gordon Chambers discuss her life and legacy, including some recent struggles that drew public concern.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, our remembrance of singer Whitney Houston.

From the release of her first album in 1985, Whitney Houston was a superstar, turning a background in gospel and soul into pop music gold, first artist to chart seven consecutive number-one hits, eventually selling more than 170 million albums, singles and videos worldwide. She won hundreds of awards, including six Grammys, and turned to acting, starring in films, including “The Bodyguard.”

More recently, it was the struggles in Houston’s life that drew attention, a turbulent relationship with her husband, singer Bobby Brown, and battles with drug addiction.

At last night’s Grammy Awards, though, performers paid tribute to her music-making and her soaring voice, as in the song “The Greatest Love of All.”

Whitney Houston was found dead in a Los Angeles hotel this weekend. The cause of her death is not yet determined. She was 48 years old.

And we’re joined now by Gordon Chambers, a Grammy Award-winning singer, producer and songwriter. He worked with Whitney Houston on a number of songs and albums.

What a Stradivarius was to a violin was what [Whitney Houston] brought to a microphone, the best voice of the 20th century.Gordon Chambers, singer-songwriter

Gordon Chambers, welcome.

I mentioned this melding of gospel, soul and pop music. What do you think it was that set her apart?

GORDON CHAMBERS, songwriter-musician: It was the clarity of the tone of her voice, the precision of her pitch.

You know, you never forgot that she was of the gospel tradition, but when she sang, she could sing a melody so clearly and so precise, that she could make a song a copyright. She had — what a Stradivarius was to a violin was what she brought to a microphone, the best voice of the 20th century.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m sorry. You said what?

GORDON CHAMBERS: Easily, hands down, the finest, purest tone of a singer in the 20th century, in my estimation.

JEFFREY BROWN: And she came from this very rich musical background, her mother, Cissy Houston, Aretha Franklin, a godmother, Dionne Warwick, a cousin.

GORDON CHAMBERS: Yes.

And, you know, there’s even more singers that are in her background. I mean, Cissy was a member of a wonderful group called the Sweet Inspirations. And Cissy’s brothers and sisters made up a group called the Drinkard Singers.

So, the Houston legacy of singing goes back for two generations even before Whitney in Newark, New Jersey. These are fabulous, fabulous, soulful singers in the gospel tradition.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you worked with her. What was that like?

GORDON CHAMBERS: I worked with her.

I produced songs on two of her albums, “Just Whitney,” and one on a song on her Christmas album, “One Wish.” And Whitney is really funny and really warm, really will somebody who comes in a room and introduces herself to everyone in the room.

I asked her to say — if she wouldn’t mind saying hello to my parents. She spoke to them for about 20 minutes on the phone. She’s a very warm, very radiant person.

And as much of a star as she is on TV, she has that same quality, star quality even when she walks in a room and there’s two, three people. She lights up a room and the room lights up to her. She’s funny, charismatic. We laughed a lot, but we got our work done. And she treated me with absolute respect.

When I got to the studio the first time, I said, “Whitney, I have waited for this moment for a long time.”

And she said, “No, Gordon Chambers, I have waited for this moment for a long time” — very real, very warm.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in spite of that, and despite so much success, the tragic personal life in later years, what can you tell us about that?

GORDON CHAMBERS: You know, I can just say that Whitney is human and, like all of God’s children, she was flawed.

But she never lost her faith. You know, there’s many times we sat together and I could tell that she was under pressure, and so was I. And we prayed together. So, in our instances of being together, what I remember was somebody who was turning to God, turning to a higher being, who — in times of turmoil or times of turbulence, just as I do.

And that’s part of what the glue of our friendship. So, I remember a woman who was seeking a higher being. I remember when she went to Israel. She was always connected to her faith and never lost that. And I do believe that she’s in heaven because she never lost her relationship with God.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what of her legacy or her impact, her influence on other singers? Where do you see it today?

GORDON CHAMBERS: Well, I’ll tell you her influence on me.

When I was actually producing her Christmas song, she — there was a note I wanted her to hit in the bridge and to take it a little bit more to church, take it a little higher.

And she looked at me and she said, “Gordon, I think you want to do what I do, baby. I think you want to do what I do.”

And I said, “What do you mean by that?”

She said, “I think you want to sing, and, if you want to sing, that you should go for it.”

And, really, sure enough, sure enough, that was the kick that I needed. And I came to New York from Atlanta and began recording the first of my three solo albums, the first album, “Introducing Gordon Chambers,” which is an album that she loved. I’m now on my third album, “Sincere.”

So, I wouldn’t be the singer that I am if she — not for her inspiration. Many, many singers, many of the younger singers — Kelly Rowland was on the red carpet at the Grammys saying that the first time she ever met Whitney Houston, Whitney Houston was singing to her a Destiny’s Child song.

So she gave so much inspiration. On Thursday night, the night before the Grammys, she went to support Kelly Price at a pre-Grammy party. So, I think that she gave a lot of encouragement. The girls that were in “Sparkle” with her said that she was very maternal, very warm.

And I think that she set the bar high, but in her interactions with other vocalists, she knew how to get down low and make you feel like you were a colleague.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

GORDON CHAMBERS: And I think that’s her legacy.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Gordon Chambers on the life and music of Whitney Houston, thanks so much.

GORDON CHAMBERS: Thank you.