Cissy Houston: More Than Just Whitney's Mom

Cissy Houston
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GAB Archive/Redferns

Bobby Bonds and Ken Griffey, Sr. were great baseball players, but not as great as their sons (Barry and Ken, Jr., in case you’ve forgotten). You figure the kids must have learned something from their fathers, but even a childhood full of lessons can only be so effective – each of the sons had a ton of natural ability, and were able to take those lessons and go further with them than either father could have imagined going.

There are musical equivalents of this analogy. Take Cissy Houston (born Sept. 30, 1933), mother of Whitney. Cissy was a member of The Sweet Inspirations, who sang backup for Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley. She had a lengthy solo career, both in gospel and secular soul music. She also sang with some of the greatest performers of all time, on songs we consider classics. Yes, her daughter was a force of nature, a generational talent, with one of the greatest voices ever to be projected into a microphone. But even Whitney Houston had to learn from someone. Perhaps some of these songs helped guide her.

The Sweet Inspirations, “Crying in the Rain”: This Carole King co-write was a big hit for The Everly Brothers in 1962, but not even the great Everlys could do what Houston and the Sweet Inspirations did with the tune, bringing a gospel flavor to it and amping up the soul quotient in the process. If anything, the track is too short; it would have been great to let the group vamp on the song for even another minute.

“Think It Over”: This disco track was one of Houston’s biggest solo cuts, hitting the Top 40 on the R&B singles chart in 1979. While Houston sounds a little contained by the arrangement, she wrings the “you done me wrong” lyrics for all they’re worth, particularly late in the song.

“You Make Me Feel Brand New” (with Chuck Jackson): In 1992, the same year Roberta Flack had a minor hit with this Stylistics classic, Houston and Chuck Jackson likewise covered it, to wonderful effect, on their album of duets, I’ll Take Care of You. It’s a very affecting version, slower than the original, with two big, brilliant voices putting everything into the track.

J. Geils Band, “Angel in Blue”: The saddest song on the Boston-based rock band’s biggest album (1981’s Freeze Frame) featured Houston’s distinctive background vocals late in the song, both in harmony with singer Peter Wolf and wordlessly testifying in the fadeout.

“I Know Him So Well” (with Whitney Houston): Mother and daughter collaborate on this room-filling duet, originally from the ‘80s musical Chess and released on Whitney's sophomore album. It’s a barn burner.


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