journalist Eugene Holley, Jr., from his hometown of Wilmington, DE, called to commiserate on the tragic passing of Whitney Houston at 48. his take was that “you get out of Newark as quickly as you can; she waited too long.”

while still a record company exec Barbara Harris remembered telling Whitney’s dad, John, that his then-very young daughter was a real talent. he concurred. Harris called Houston’s life and death “a terrible tragedy indeed.”

a friend and a fellow jazz traveler a retired air-traffic controller from Boston left a massage asking, “Is it true? i just can’t believe it.”

Gospel and blues singer/percussionist and cable tv host Fran McIntyre (Mrs. Smith) praised her as an actress. “she should have pursued that part of her career more,” McIntyre said.

such was Whitney’s reach. she was a product of her environment both good and evil. Newark, NJ was and is a hotbed for blues and Gospel singing, organ groups and proud church-goers. it is also home to America’s #1 jazz radio station, WBGO. classical WQXR is also there. but then there are the Streets, among the highest crime-ridden.

Whitney’s mother, Gospel-singer and sometimes back-up folkie Cissy protected her, bringing Whitney with her when Cissy played in New York and elsewhere. once-upon-a-time in the 1980s i frequented a room on the Upper West Side of Manhattan called Sweetwater’s. good food for your soul, musically as well as gastronomically. it was a side of the music which Down Beat, for whom i worked, and Billboard for whom i strung, did not cover much.

Sweetwater’s drew from the deep talent pool that is the Apple.  Cissy was already quietly a legendary singer but there were others who stopped by either as sitters-in or hired hands, all r & b and the then fledgling “soul.” vocalists and vocal groups to be sure, but instrumentalists as well. i saw Gloria’s Gaynor and Lynn and Donna Summer during comebacks. local talent were showcased but established stars such as George Benson popped in. their budget was small but there was a warm “come on in” atmosphere. you never knew with whom you might be sharing ribs on any given night. Sweetwater’s in the Bronx is the successor room.

one weekend Cissy was booked and she brought along this gangly youngster girl-in-a boy’s-body. Whitney was all legs but once the light hit her she was all pro. this teenager belted Gospel and the blues from her soul reaching deep down. gave us the chills from one so young. we cheered. once her cousin Dionne Warwick sat in with the family. another time her Godmother Aretha Franklin stopped by. i believe she played the piano.

“fame kills the mind, the spirit and (eventually) the body,”McIntyre concluded.

as for the patrons at Sweetwater’s we just knew that this Houston chile was destined for stardom; she exuded confidence to go along with that powerful rangy yet controlled instrument. what a shameful loss.

-© arnold jay smith

February 2012



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