Photographer Bette Marshall was in the audience at one of Cissy Houston’s performances in New York, on a night when the gospel singer ceded the stage to a young backup singer. After the girl finished her evocative solo, Houston introduced the singer to the crowd: her daughter, a pre-fame Whitney Houston.
Marshall recognized that the younger Houston was on the precipice of a monumental career, and after the performance told the Houston family that she was interested in documenting her in that moment. The photographer headed to the Houston family home in New Jersey and shot her first portraits of the singer.
In February, Marshall is releasing a collection of those early photographs in her book “Young Whitney,” an intimate portrait of the pop icon who passed away nearly 10 years ago on Feb. 11, 2012. Marshall pays tribute to the singer through photos and personal essays — in the below book excerpt, she recounts being invited to photograph Houston on the set of her “Greatest Love of All” music video shoot at the Apollo Theater in New York.
SESSION ELEVEN: “Greatest Love of All Video” Shoot, 1986:
The Whitney I had photographed as a teenager taking her first tentative steps in the music industry had in three short years become a full-fledged superstar. Once she signed with Arista, the entire star-making apparatus had gone into full effect.
In 1985, Whitney exploded onto the music scene. Her self-titled debut album “Whitney Houston” went on to spend 14 weeks at the top of the Billboard chart and spawned three No. 1 hits: “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know” and “Greatest Love of All.”
I was invited to make pictures on the set of the “Greatest Love of All” video that was filming at the Apollo Theater. This would be my first opportunity to photograph Whitney the superstar.
There was something so fitting about the Apollo as the backdrop for Whitney’s video at this stage in her career, as other greats—Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday among them—had also graced the Apollo stage early in their careers. From the outside, the Apollo Theater in Harlem looks like an ordinary building with a movie theater marquee. But inside, its hallowed halls and its grandness enrapture you.
As I entered, I noticed that the house was virtually empty except for the flurry of activity around the stage. I started to walk down the aisle, marveling at the plush, red-velvet seats and golden ornamental décor, when Cissy spotted me and waved me to the stage area.
Cissy makes an appearance in the video, playing—who else—Whitney’s mother. The video, with its semi-biographical, art-imitating-life element, was, I thought, an apt tribute to Cissy. She had, after all, been instrumental in honing her daughter’s tremendous talents and also helped orchestrate her rise to fame.
The earlier scenes had already been filmed. These vignettes showed Whitney remembering herself as a schoolgirl with her mother; then strolling backstage in a hip black leather jacket and gold-fringed gloves; then putting on her makeup and singing into the mirror. Almost every frame makes full use of Whitney’s still very young beauty.
Cissy showed me where to stand on one side of the stage to maximize my vantage point for the photographs I was about to take. Then, Whitney emerged on stage for the in-performance part of the shoot. Just as in the finished video, she walked in wearing a beaded white dress singing “Greatest Love of All.” And as in the video, light seemed to emanate from her.
How she looked when she walked out that day remains one of the looks most associated with Whitney Houston. I had difficulty reconciling the woman in front of me with the Whitney I knew and had photographed as a teenager. With her upswept hair and elegant bearing, there was a sophistication to Whitney and a newfound sexiness, courtesy of the prominent slit in her dress showing off one of her long legs. She still had that brilliant smile and incredible voice, but the extraordinary glamour she now radiated was something new.
The photos I took that afternoon reveal a young woman at the zenith of her beauty, power and talent. Whitney’s transformation from a shy teenager to the stunning singer before my eyes was astonishing.
Whitney spotted me, and her smile of recognition provided a momentary flash of the girl I knew. She came up to me and hugged me, same as always. We chatted briefly before she was whisked back to set, saying, “Now I have to be Whitney Houston.”
What a ride it had been, I thought, since that fateful night at Sweetwater’s. I had been given my first glimpse into this new world—Whitney’s World—but I missed the personal connection that made my earlier sessions with her so memorable. Whitney was now a full-fledged star. I would never again be able to recapture the intimacy of our early sessions—whether at home or in church, at auditions or in the recording studio. It was the last time I photographed her.
Excerpted from “Young Whitney” by Bette Marshall. The book, published by Cinergistik, will be available exclusively at the Grammy Museum Store.
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