Bette Marshall had the good professional instinct to spend several months shooting strikingly young Whitney Houston in 1982, shortly before she signed the Arista Records contract that would eventually launch her astounding career. She captures memories and never-before-seen outtakes of a talented teenager with a voice for the ages.
Whitney was then a lively, lovely 17-year-old daughter of gospel and soul singer Cissy Houston with big dreams; a fact alluded by Marshall, now a photographer with Getty Images, which owns FOTO, “There have been only a couple of times in my life when I knew I was seeing somebody who was going to be a star.” Her story is aptly captured in the documentary “Whitney,” which explores the tragic arc of the late singer’s life
You are certain to relish Marshall’s iconic early photos with some memories from the photographer herself and never-before-seen outtakes of the legend Whitney Houston.
Bette Marshall’s husband was Paul Marshall, a renowned music-industry lawyer who would go on to play a pivotal role in Whitney’s early career. In 1981, he was invited to a Manhattan club date of Cissy Houston’s with the hopes that he’d help get auditions for her daughter. Bette, a former actress who was building her photography career, came along. As Bette tells it, “At one point, Cissy said, ‘I’m going to introduce one of my backup singers.’ She introduces this beautiful girl who stands up and sings ‘Tomorrow’ from ‘Annie.'” Bette describes the moment in her memoir-in-progress like this: “Beautiful young Whitney stepped forward and sang ‘Tomorrow’ with the clarity, strength, and soaring gospel embellishments unmatched by anybody but the Whitney the world came to know. The audience was on its feet, cheering.”
MOTHER AND DAUGHTER
Bette saw an opening. “Her dad [John Houston] was standing there after she performed, and I just took it upon myself to say, ‘I’d like to take some pictures of your daughter,'” she remembers. Her idea was a simple one: a day-in-the-life portrait of an artist on the verge. The Houstons agreed to let her follow the family to some recording sessions and auditions the next year and to visit their home in East Orange, New Jersey. Above is one of the shots from that session, of Cissy and Whitney at the family’s kitchen table. “It caught a moment that was real, that captured the relationship between them,” she tells FOTO. “Whitney was obviously very close to her mother, and her mother was both her support and [the person] who taught her to sing.”
Bette’s son Robert Neal Marshall was then a 22-year-old film student at New York University and would often work with his mother as a photo assistant. By the time the house session came along, both of the Marshalls had spent time with the Houstons, so the family was comfortable with them. “Whitney had done some modeling, and she’d sung in church from the time she was a little girl, so she was at ease and wasn’t nervous,” says Bette. “But also, she wasn’t performing for me…. My goal is always to have people feel like they can be themselves in front of the camera and try to catch moments that are not posed or frozen-looking.” (Above, from left: Whitney’s brother, Michael Houston, Cissy, Whitney, John, and brother Gary Garland.)
In this shot, Whitney smokes a cigarette in the kitchen. Bette doesn’t remember asking if her parents minded, “but this was also the ’80s before anyone told you how bad it was for you.”
Bette also shared some of the outtakes from her files with FOTO. None of these has ever been published, though she’s quick to note that there’s a reason for that: “I have pictures that are much stronger.” Here, Whitney and Bette’s son Robert talk in the kitchen.
“She was game for the whole thing,” says Bette. “But she was also new enough at it that I think she and the family were kind of intrigued that someone was doing this. Because it made her feel like a star — which she wasn’t yet.”
Whitney hung out in her bedroom, which featured a poster of her mother and a smaller photo of her cousin, singer Dionne Warwick. While Bette set up the shots, Whitney chatted with Robert, who was closer to her age. They quickly fell into a conversation about their plans for the future. “We talked about dreams of what could be, and then she’d talk about the kind of house that she’d want and things like that,” Robert tells FOTO. What struck both Marshalls was that, while many teenagers have wild fantasies, Whitney’s actually seemed likely to happen. “I got the impression from certain comments I had overheard from her mom that Whitney was very independent, even early on,” remembers Robert. “I’m sure for her, it was a question of how, not if.” Several years later, after Houston was already a superstar, Bette and Paul Marshall visited her at her mansion in Mendham, NJ. “It wasn’t a pipe dream,” says Bette. “She’d realized her fantasy house in a very short time.”
At a certain point in the day, it was time for one of Whitney’s favorite soap operas “All My Children,” so she sprawled on the living-room floor to watch. In 10 years time, Whitney would start acting herself, with a starring role in the 1992 Kevin Costner thriller “The Bodyguard.” Her soundtrack for the movie is still one of the best-selling albums of all time, and her soaring cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” spent a then-unprecedented 14 weeks at No. 1.
WHITNEY AND CISSY IN THE STUDIO
Whitney is among the backup singers for her mother in a 1982 recording session.
Bette also photographed Whitney singing at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, NJ. New Hope was a special place for the Houston family, and Whitney had been singing there since she was a child. Years later, it was also the site of her final farewell: Her funeral services were held there in 2012.
After the home session, Bette photographed Whitney at a label audition for Bruce Lundvall, then president of Elektra Records. Wearing a decidedly unglamorous, blousy dress, Whitney again sang “Tomorrow” with a backing musician. Robert Marshall was there, too, in the back of the performance space and he realized at a certain point that Whitney seemed to be singing directly to him. Afterwards, Robert says Whitney came up to him. “She said to me, ‘I’m so glad that you were there, because you were one of the few faces in the room that I recognized. I was so nervous, and it just gave me somebody to focus on,'” he remembers. “I will carry that with me forever in light of what eventually happened.”
CLIVE DAVIS’ INTRODUCTION
Clive Davis, then head of Arista Records, introduces a still-unknown Whitney at a New York concert in 1984. Whitney signed her first recording contract with Arista, and Davis famously groomed her for pop stardom. They succeeded beyond all measure: Her first album “Whitney Houston” debuted in 1985 and eventually became a massive hit, going multi-platinum and yielding No. 1 singles “Saving All My Love,” “How Will I Know,” and “Greatest Love of All.”
WHITNEY AND JERMAINE JACKSON
Whitney sings a duet with Jermaine Jackson at that same concert. He’d later contribute to several tracks on her debut album — singing with her on “Nobody Loves Me Like You Do” and “Take Good Care of My Heart,” and producing “Someone for Me.”
While Bette remembers that some of her photos (like this one) eventually were picked up in magazines, she had some trouble placing them at first. She spoke to a contact at Newsweek, for instance. “I was telling somebody there that I was taking pictures of this girl who was going to be a star, maybe they’d like to get in from the beginning,” she says. “And they said, ‘Nah, it’s too soon. Nobody knows who she is.'”
Bette kept in touch with Whitney after the release of her first album in 1985, and the sudden fame that followed. The last time she photographed her was during the production of the video for her hit “Greatest Love of All” in the mid-1980s (above). She and Paul attended Whitney’s 1992 wedding to Bobby Brown, and they saw her once more at an industry event later on. After the mid-1990s, though, the brief connection they’d shared was over. Bette went on to a successful career as a photographer: She’s captured many celebrities over the years, from KISS to Tim McGraw to LL Cool J, and developed a particular knack for photographing classical musicians. She lives and works in Florida, while Robert Neal Marshall is a filmmaker and actor living in Washington, D.C.; Paul Marshall passed away 2012.
Like many people, Bette heard reports over the years about Whitney’s struggles with drugs. But she was as stunned as the rest of the world by her death in 2012 at age 48. In the aftermath, the pictures from her long-ago photo sessions were published widely and were featured in a televised Grammy tribute. The question they evoked was always the same: How could such a talent be gone? A recent New York Times piece on Whitney’s career reminds us, “Attrition is not what you hear in her greatest vocal performances. It’s life. It’s joy. It’s artistry the likes of which we may never hear again.” (Above: Bette’s portrait of Whitney from 1982.)
Both Bette and Robert Marshall point to this photo as one of their enduring favorites. Bette took it during one of those 1982 recording sessions when Whitney was singing backup for Cissy. “When it was Cissy’s turn to sing, [Whitney] wasn’t trying to overpower her,” says Bette. “But there was a moment there when they all just looked at her, like, ‘Look at the voice coming out of her.'” Robert thinks you can see the whole story in Whitney’s joyful face. “She was this bright, engaging, amazing young lady who had the whole world ahead of her. The story was not written yet,” he says. “And no one knew what those chapters would be.”
Bette Marshall, currently a resident of South Florida, has been a portrait photographer with a studio in New York for over 25 years. Her portraits of actors, musicians, artists and corporate leaders have appeared in many international publications, as well as CD Covers and Annual Reports.
Born in Chicago, photography is Bette’s second career. She first pursued acting and has two Broadway shows to her credit, as well as a brief tenure on the soap opera The Secret Storm.
Bette’s photography has been exhibited in group shows at Nikon House and the Neikrug Gallery in New York and is represented in the Permanent Collection of the Brooklyn Museum.
She recently presented her images in a lecture, “Portrait of a Photographer” at the Ft. Lauderdale Museum of Art, and is now teaching photography at Fat Village Center for the Arts.