Before she became a pop superstar, Whitney Houston was known as “Nippy,” daughter of gospel artist Emily “Cissy” Drinkard Houston and member of the choir at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey. Like Aretha Franklin—the only vocalist Rolling Stone ranks above her on its current list of the 200 greatest singers of all time—Houston honed her chops singing church songs. I Go to the Rock: The Gospel Music of Whitney Houston, which includes a CD and a companion DVD of a recent TV documentary, is the first effort to gather together her modest but moving gospel oeuvre.
Dominating the collection are sacred selections Houston contributed to soundtracks (The Preacher’s Wife, The Bodyguard, Sparkle) or sang at award shows and other special events. These tracks have long been available on other CD releases or on YouTube, often in the form of performance clips from shows such as VH1 Honors. But I Go to the Rock showcases three previously unavailable gospel tracks Houston recorded as a teenager—not yet a gleam in the eye of Clive Davis and Arista Records.
When Houston bites into “Testimony” and “I Found a Wonderful Way,” two of the three unearthed cuts, she’s essentially indistinguishable from the greater body of Newark church wreckers. On the other hand, her delivery on the slow-burning “He Can Use Me” is devastating. It removes all doubt, if there ever were any, that she was poised to be the voice of a generation.
Also like Franklin, Houston neither abandoned the church nor its music. She frequently incorporated a set of hymns and gospel songs into her stadium concerts. One is “I Love the Lord,” an incandescent interpretation of an 18th-century hymn arranged in the 1970s by Richard Smallwood and featured in the 1996 movie The Preacher’s Wife. Houston seemed most at peace singing the Lord’s music; when I hear these recordings, I’m struck by the lilt in her voice, which feels more genuine and less studied and technical than on her pop songs. It’s raw, pure expression.
I Go to the Rock doesn’t include every one of Houston’s gospel moments—her appearance on BeBe and CeCe Winans’s 1988 track “Hold Up the Light,” for example, is absent—but the collection is a splendid remembrance of a divine talent who should have turned 60 this August.
Whitney Houston’s I Go to the Rock: The Gospel Music of Whitney Houston (Arista/Legacy/Gaither Music Group) is available via the artist’s website.