For Houston, Newark Gospel is Where it all Began
City's religious musical tradition nurtured a crossover superstar.
On a slew of chart-topping songs, from dance tunes to romance ballads, Whitney Houston showcased her beautiful voice with its clarity and impressive range that effortlessly jumped from one note to another.
But though she made her name as a pop songstress before her untimely death, Houston was reared in the traditions of gospel music. And Newark, where she was born, has long been a mecca for the musical genre.
"Newark for more than a generation was arguably the capital of the gospel world," said Clement Price, Rutgers University professor and noted historian.
The history of gospel in Newark includes numerous performance groups a well as the city's own homegrown label, the famous Savoy Records, which recorded early bebop jazz music and then gospel, Price said.
Gospel concerts are still a draw in Newark, which hosted McDonald's Gospelfest last year at the Prudential Center.
Churches, though, are the big incubator of local talent, Price said.
"The city then and now had a constellation of black Protestant churches," Price added. "AME (African Methodist Episcopal) and Baptist—especially Baptist, where gospel music is the musical cornerstone of the church."
Houston started singing publicly at the New Hope Baptist Church as a member of the junior gospel choir. It helped that her mother is gospel star Cissy Houston, who, according to many news reports, tutored Houston on her singing at their East Orange home.
"Whitney Houston is deeply indebted to the gospel music tradition of Newark and East Orange," Price said. "R&B crossover artists are very indebted to their gospel roots."
If she had stayed in the gospel music genre, Houston probably would not have had such a high profile as she did as a pop and R&B star, Price said.
"If a gospel musician has the ambition and desire to be a crossover artist, they have to move beyond gospel music," Price said. "It [gospel] doesn't tap into the marketplace as R&B."
"Her decision to be a crossover pop star was a conscious decision to reach a wider range of consumers," he added.
But going from gospel to pop has been an issue in African-American culture, Price said. He referred to Sam Cooke, the famous soul singer, who made the controversial move of going from gospel to R&B and soul in the 1950s.
Houston's move was an instant success when she first burst into the scene, yet there are still strains of gospel in her songs and singing style.
"One would have to be a gospel music purist to not acknowledge that gospel music and blues and club music all kind of gelled and came together in pop music," Price said.