Whitney (before we knew her)
Looking at their wedding album from 1985, Randi and Alan Biren of Sudbury chuckle over the fashions of the time.
“Can we crop out that ’80s perm? Because that was not my best look,’’ says Randi with a laugh. But on this recent rainy February afternoon it is not Randi’s curly locks that draw the eye, it’s the young woman standing next to the blushing bride and her beaming groom: Whitney Houston.
Houston, 22 at the time and just beginning her ascent to superstardom after the release of a debut album that would go on to sell more than 12 million copies, sang “Evergreen’’ at Randi and Alan Biren’s wedding at the Westin hotel in Copley Place.
“People at the wedding were like, ‘Oh, she’s a singer?’ But they didn’t realize she was that singer until maybe after the wedding,’’ says Randi. “It was a lovely gesture and something she didn’t have to do.’’
That gesture is among many cherished moments with Houston that the couple share from the time when their lives intersected with the singer, who died last month at 49.
Houston came into Randi’s life when her cousin Dionne Warwick came to Biren’s father, Danny Gittelman, and asked if he would be interested in managing the budding singer. He was. In an e-mail, Gittelman, 87, and retired now in East Providence, says he believes Warwick came to him because she knew he was a “straight shooter.’’
Randi Biren met Whitney Houston in 1979 when she was 17 and Houston 16. She saw her friend for the last time in 1999 at a Houston concert at the Citi Wang Theatre (then the Wang Theatre) in Boston.
Strewn about the coffee table in the Birens’ living room are mementos of those 20 years: gold and platinum albums given as gifts; photos of the Gittelmans and Birens with Houston; an invitation to Houston’s wedding to Bobby Brown; a flyer from a breast cancer fund-raiser Randi helped organize, and to which Houston donated for auction the dress she wore in the video for “The Greatest Love of All’’; and, of course, the wedding album. (The Birens’ wedding video includes footage of the performance, but they have guarded it closely, despite dozens of media requests.)
Gittelman had been vice chairman of Pickwick International, a record label and distribution company. After he sold it, Randi says her dad decided to “retire for a minute.’’ But the music business called him back and he got into concert promotion, including shows with Sarah Vaughan, the Commodores, the Pointer Sisters, and fatefully, Warwick, who helped shepherd Houston’s career alongside the singer’s mother, gospel vocalist Cissy, and father, John.
“I do remember many get-togethers,’’ says Randi, detailing trips to the Houstons’ New Jersey home and dinners at her house in Fall River with her father, mother Sheila, and older brother Steve, who would go on to work for Houston for more than 10 years as part of his father’s team.
“It was really important for Cissy and John to feel very comfortable with my father. They may not have achieved the level of success that their daughter did, but they were so smart and they were so protective, and they were not about to let anybody be any part of her life if they didn’t feel really comfortable,’’ she says.
For the next few years, Gittelman invested in Houston, providing her with elocution, modeling, and acting lessons, as well as dental work, for all of which Houston was appreciative.
“She was so respectful of my father and everything he said, or my brother said, it was never a question,’’ says Randi. Chimes in husband Alan, who got to know Houston during his and Randi’s courtship and marriage, “She was never a diva. Never.’’
Gittelman recalls his first impression of Houston as “warm and personable, almost as if she didn’t know how talented she was.’’
He would also send Houston and his daughter on retail therapy expeditions in New York. “We used to have fun shopping together. Later, my mom would buy a lot of her dresses at Cache in Copley Place. We bonded over Saks, that’s what it was,’’ says Randi with a laugh. (Although Houston was prone to occasional outbursts of singing, Randi never dared raise her voice alongside. “I would avoid that at all costs,’’ she says with a laugh.)
“She was a normal, 16-year-old girl, who was completely without airs, very shy, and she had a nice sense of humor,’’ says Randi.
She believes her father encouraged her to get to know Houston because “he thought Whitney and I would be able to relate and connect, and he would be able to get my feelings on her: if she was committed; if she really felt this was something she really wanted to do. I can remember there were many times I said to her, ‘Are you sure that you’re ready for losing all your privacy and the ability to walk down the street and be in the background?’ And she was aware of everything that was going to come with the territory. I think, maybe, he couldn’t have discussed that with her; but he felt that maybe I could. Because the last thing he wanted to do was do something with her because her parents wanted her to do it. He wanted her to do it because she wanted to do it.’’
And she did. Although Houston had sung often with her mother and several other musicians, it was Gittelman who arranged the nightclub showcase at Sweetwater’s in New York that led to her introduction to the man who would be her greatest champion and mentor, record mogul Clive Davis. As Davis nurtured the artistic side of Houston’s career, Gittelman continued to look after Houston’s business until the 1992 release of “The Bodyguard,’’ at which point her father, John, took over the reins. (Gittelman even inserted a “key man’’ clause in Houston’s contract that stated if Davis ever left Arista, Houston would be free to do the same.)
When asked why we rarely if ever hear his name in the Whitney Houston story, Gittelman responds simply: “I never felt, nor do I feel that I deserved any special recognition. I was asked to do a job and I did it. I know what I did for Whitney. My family and friends know what I did for Whitney, but most importantly, Whitney knows what I contributed to her career. That really is all the credit I need. I have always been very low-key in my business life, and this was no different.’’
Of course, Randi’s prediction about the loss of privacy came true. As Whitney’s fame exploded, Randi and Alan and the Gittelman family watched her entourage grow from her mother to a crew of 25 people. They recall a trip to Atlantic City in 1989 or 1990 during which Houston was constantly stopped by a stream of fans at the casino.
“You knew, at that point, this was going to be something big,’’ says Alan. (Randi adds with a laugh, “It was around this period in my life when I remember thinking our lives couldn’t be more different.’’)
Examining the picture of her family and Houston from backstage at the Wang Theatre in 1999, Randi’s voice gets softer. “I think this was the last time I saw her. And you know . . . just very different lives. My last connection with her was great. I think it was more of a function of I didn’t really know what was going on in her life, but obviously there was a lot going on in her life, and I don’t think she could really sustain relationships that were outside of her circle.’’
Even with the speculation surrounding Houston’s death in her Beverly Hills hotel room on Feb. 11 and the impending toxicology report, Randi, whose favorite Houston song is “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,’’ is not worried about the singer’s legacy.
“I don’t think she could be any more damaged in the public than she is already. People have made up their mind. Unfortunately, we live in a society where everything’s caught on tape. The pictures - whether it’s a rag magazine or ‘Entertainment Tonight’ - they’re out there, so I really don’t think the toxicology report is going to shed any more light or make a difference. She will eventually be remembered for her amazing voice as opposed to the sad turn that her life took. I really do think her voice will stand for one of the greatest singers of all time.’’
One of the last public images of Houston stays with Randi. “You know something? Even the last pictures of her coming out of that club in California, [shortly] before she died? There’s a shot of her signing an autograph. I never knew her not to be kind to her fans; her fans still really did mean a lot to her. She still felt her fans did deserve part of her. She did give up part of herself for them and till the end, she honored that.’’
Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.