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When music executive Steven Abdul Khan Brown was making his way to the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, he was blown away by the beautiful sound he heard as he walked closer to the parish.
One of those voices? A teenage Whitney Houston.
“That’s scary — whoa,” he thought, recalling the moment more than 40 years later in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “Why haven’t I ever been here before?”
Khan Brown, also a Newark native who had been working with Kool & the Gang and Phyllis Hyman, was encouraged to check out the talented musicians at New Hope, where Cissy Houston worked as minister of music. Khan Brown met the matriarch and a big-voiced Whitney, who blew him away as soon as she began singing.
“Lord, I’ve died and went to heaven,” Khan Brown recalls of her performance. “I thought my ears were going through something. She started hitting notes. People were laying on the floor and caught up in the spirit. I’m still in a state of shock.”
He knew he had to record with the promising star and with Cissy’s blessing he booked studio time. Khan Brown listened to some demos Whitney recorded, but he says they weren’t the right songs: “The stuff they put on Whitney back in the day, it was funny. They cut her wrong. They gave her the wrong material.”
What she needed to record was gospel music, Khan Brown thought. In February 1981 he and 17-year-old Whitney recorded three songs — “He Can Use Me,” “Testimony” and “I Found a Wonderful Way” — and four decades later the tracks are being released on the late singer’s gospel album I Go to the Rock: The Gospel Music of Whitney Houston, out on Friday. It includes 14 songs, including six never-before-released tracks.
Khan Brown says the songs they recorded, which he produced and co-wrote with his godmother, gospel songwriter Ann Lendy Lewis, helped Whitney land her first record deal. Her self-titled debut was released in 1985, featuring the hits “Saving All My Love for You,” “Greatest Love of All,” “How Will I Know” and “You Give Good Love,” and the rest is history.
“Three gospel songs started the riot,” he says. “That’s what got us through the door. And I’ll never forget it. It was all because of gospel music.”
In the studio Khan Brown says he, Whitney and Lewis created a “gospel jam session” to make sure the energy felt right so the songs would come out perfect. Sitting at the piano and playing chords, he uttered the words “I’m going to let my God use me,” which caught Whitney’s attention.
“Nippy said, ‘He can use me,’” Khan Brown recalls. “She’s the type of person you could sit with her and start writing and tell her words, and Nippy could grab it. She’s like a sponge. She could grab the spirit and take it away from you and run with it.”
“We were having church in the basement,” he continues. “And once you get caught up in the spirit, there is no stopping.”
Khan Brown says “the spirit took over” when they recorded the gospel funk-flavored “Testimony,” which he called a personal song he created to “tell the world about Whitney Houston and how good God’s been to us.”
Whitney’s new posthumous album also features three other unreleased tracks: Live covers of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Edwin Hawkins’ “This Day,” both recorded at VH1 Honors in 1995 and a live medley of the religious songs “He” and “I Believe,” recorded in 1990 at the Yokohama Arena in Japan.
“She had the ability to take a song and almost make you forget that it was covered by someone else,” says Emmy-winning musician Rickey Minor, who worked as Whitney’s musical director for the live unreleased songs on the new album. “I think that she poured her heart into everything she sang. And she felt each word.”
Minor continues, “And this is a quote from her, ‘I need a melody and I need a story to sing about. I can’t just get up there and, ‘Boo, bap, de bap bop bop,’ I need to have something because then if I can connect to it, then I can share that connection with others. But if it’s a story that I can’t identify with, there’s no story at all.'” And I think that she learned how to pick what felt right for her, and I think that was another part of her magic.”
TV producer Ken Ehrlich gets emotional as he rewatches videos of Whitney singing her heart out during the 1995 VH1 Honors special, which he produced along with dozens of other Whitney performances.
“I can’t watch it. It’s too much,” says Ehrlich, a nine-time Emmy nominee and producer of the Grammy Awards from 1980 to 2020. “She was wonderful and she was wonderful to work with. She had this kind of magical aura about her. You always felt that she appreciated you as much as you appreciated her. That’s not the case with a lot of people we all work with. Everything she did was powerful.”
“She grew up in the church and she never lost that. And that was such a part of who she was,” he continues.
I Go to the Rock: The Gospel Music of Whitney Houston also includes previously heard tracks like “I Go to the Rock,” “Joy,” “I Love the Lord,” “Hold On, Help Is on the Way” and “Joy to the World” from the Preacher’s Wife soundtrack; “Jesus Loves Me” from the Bodyguard soundtrack; “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” from the Sparkle soundtrack; and “I Look to You,” the title track from Whitney’s final studio album released in 2009.
The album — being released by Gaither Music Group, Arista/Legacy Recordings and Whitney’s estate — is paired with a TV documentary of the same name. CeCe Winans will host the special, which will air Friday at 8 p.m. ET on UPtv and AspireTV.
“Do you like gospel music,” Whitney asks in the recording of “He/I Believe,” which closes the new album. “Oh, that’s good. That’s great.”
“Sometimes the church gets all up in me, I can’t help myself,” Whitney says in the middle of her performance of “This Day.”
“If you’re unholy and unsanctified, when Whitney got finished, you were saved,” Khan Brown says. “I call Whitney the healer.”
“She left some healing music for the world,” he continues. ”And what is that? A No. 1 specialty of gospel music.”
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