Readers Write In #48: Clive’s Angels: Whitney and Phyllis, united in tragedy

Posted on September 5, 2018

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I usually do not find biographical documentaries about celebrities very interesting to watch. I mean fairly contemporary figures here as opposed to long dead legends who offer fertile ground for historians. They have a tendency to tell us what we already know or, at least, can find out with not much effort and veer to the politically correct, if not an overly eulogising, line.

Except when there’s tragedy at hand. Like an artist or a sportsperson taken away too soon. Partly, let’s face it, tragedy appeals to the voyeur within us. But it also offers us a reminder not to go believing all the time that celebrities are entitled pricks. Tragedy brutally lifts the veil of positive affirmations and fake smiles to reveal deep unhappiness. In learning that somebody who apparently had it all couldn’t find what they were looking for, perhaps the gulf between a great talent and lesser mortals feels reduced and we relate to the star as a human being with very human problems.

Whitney Houston, once a reigning pop diva, died of (drug induced) accidental drowning in 2012. She was 48. Her sudden death stunned millions worldwide, more so because she had disappeared from the limelight for quite some time. When, briefly in 2009, she made the news again, it had been for all the wrong reasons, for a disastrous tour that had some fans demanding a refund of their exorbitantly priced tickets.

Hence, when filmmaker Nick Broomfield decided to make a documentary on Whitney Houston, there was apprehension that he was going to dig up dirt and further sully a singer who had already fallen from grace some. Instead, he uncovered a tale of tragedy, of a feisty and independent woman who wanted to be free to pursue her less than unambiguous sexual preferences but was thwarted by record companies as well as her religious mother. Who wanted to lead a normal life but needed to record albums and tour the world to feed a family of dependents who, excuse the impertinence, leeched off her.

Who wished to freely embrace her blackness through her music but who was always forced to veer towards the ‘whiter’ adult contemporary market by Arista Records hitmaker Clive Davis. Aptly enough, the documentary, released in 2017, is titled Whitney: Can I Be Me. Broomfield’s sensitive and sympathetic film revealed to the audience an African-American Karen Carpenter. Wildly popular and loved beyond all imagination but deeply unhappy and, yes, unable to be herself. Our love as eager listeners may have put her at the top of the world, but she felt an acute lack of oxygen up there.

Oh, by the way, who’s Clive Davis? Davis is a legendary hitmaker who, first as president of CBS Records and later as founder of Arista Records, signed on Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, Dionne Warwick, Alicia Keys, Air Supply, among many other acts and artists that went on to achieve superstardom. Including, of course, Whitney Houston, who was one of the golden geese of the man with the Midas touch. As alluded to above, however, in his pursuit of record breaking commercial success, Davis could exert suffocating control on his charges and force them to surrender their own creative impulses in favour of his mostly sound judgment of what music would sell well. Houston, upon being signed onto Arista in 1983, delivered seven consecutive Billboard no.1 singles. She also delivered vocals on the soundtrack of the film Bodyguard (in which she essayed the lead role) which happens to be the fifth bestselling album of all time. Yeah.

But before Whitney, there was another woman, one you may well have not heard of. Phyllis Hyman, the elder of Clive’s angels. Like Whitney Houston, Hyman too was an African American singer. She too was signed on by Arista, indeed by Clive Davis. She too died in her forties (suicide by drug overdose, in her case). And that’s where the similarities end.

The fame that was heaped on Houston in proportions well beyond what she herself desired was denied forever to Hyman. Appropriately enough, then, her tale of tragedy was chronicled in the TV series Unsung.

Hyman may not have been famous, but she was not unsuccessful. She had three top 10 singles on the R&B charts with one of them, Don’t Wanna Change The World, hitting no.1 on the R&B charts and also breaking into the Billboard Top 100. So here’s the thing: Hyman was not successful enough for Davis’ ambitions. He didn’t want albums that only nudged 500,000 copies tops. He wanted to go multiplatinum, millions of copies in other words. In his urgency to attain this, he stepped on Hyman’s own artistic choices, leading to an unhappy professional relationship. When Arista dropped her in 1985, her downward spiral began in full earnest and her multiple comebacks from the dark were ultimately not enough to save her. This, even though the biggest hit for her career, Don’t Wanna Change The World, would come well after the end of her Arista days.

And so, two women who were both of African American descent, were beautiful and flamboyant and, most importantly, were both gifted singers with angelic voices, were united in death. One may have been hard up and the other may have been rolling in wealth but death stripped away the illusion of difference and revealed the common thread of unhappiness running through the lives of both.

The two also poured heart and soul into the many songs they left behind, songs which have already outlived the death of those who voiced them. Having waxed eloquent thus far, I must confess that I have never been a huge fan of Houston while undoubtedly respecting her enormous talent and it was more the story of tragedy (in the life of one so successful) itself that intrigued me. In the case of Hyman, though, I related intuitively to her muse from the first time I heard Living All Alone. However, I will conclude the article by recalling, instead, her 1978 single Somewhere In My Lifetime produced by the legendary songwriter Barry Manilow. As her rich contralto evokes Karen Carpenter with melismas that bring Stevie Wonder to mind and a soaring high register finish that could have been the prototype for many a Whitney Houston power ballad, we can either ponder over what could have been…or cherish that which she left behind whilst living out her troubled existence.

(by Madan Mohan, recreational tennis hack in the early morning, chartered accountant by day and wannabe writer by night.)