Rock and Roll Book Club: 'A Song for You: My Life With Whitney Houston'

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Robyn Crawford's 'A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston.'
Robyn Crawford's 'A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

From the time she left college until she was 40, Robyn Crawford had one job, working for one company: Nippy Inc. "Nippy" was Whitney Houston's nickname since childhood, and the company was the business that handled her affairs as one of the biggest music stars of her generation. Crawford was her assistant.

Of course, she was also much more than that. Precisely what more, and how more, and when more, has been the subject of speculation since the beginning of Houston's career. Whitney, the fascinating 2018 documentary that unpacked much of the complexity behind Houston's pristine (until it wasn't) image, made clear that Crawford was a crucial person in the star's life, but Crawford declined to be interviewed for that film and thus remained an enigma.

With her new memoir A Song for You, Crawford finally tells her story. She makes clear that it was sometimes painful and difficult for her to do so: she's now happily married to a woman named Lisa, with two children, and returning to the intense days of her work with Houston meant carving out a lot of head space. In the end, it seems, the process was beneficial for the author...and for us, the fans.

Crawford met Houston when the future star was 17, the author two years older. It was the summer of 1980, and both young women were running youth activities at a community center in their shared hometown of East Orange, New Jersey. They quickly developed an intense friendship that became, for a time, sexual. Crawford describes the dynamic that LGBT kids have experienced from the beginning of time: the two could be open about being inseparable best friends, but had to hide the physical side of their relationship.

As Houston was, Crawford is bisexual. Her experiences with homophobia didn't just concern her own life and romantic relationships: her uncle was gay, and so was her brother. Her father loved his brother and son, but couldn't accept their homosexuality. In a chapter called "Four-Letter Word," Crawford describes how her brother died of AIDS even as their mother learned that she had the disease as well.

The early chapters of A Song for You are movingly similar to much of Tegan and Sara's recent memoir High School. Despite the very different settings, both stories find gifted teenage girls enjoying the ecstasy of first love while facing the challenges and confusion of same-sex attraction in a homophobic society; both touch on the draw and the drag of drugs; and both are about musicians discovering their promise and power.

For Houston, that meant coming of age in the church, as the daughter of pop gospel great Cissy Houston. In one of the book's most moving passages, Crawford describes what that meant to she and "Nip."

Our relationship remained between us, although we both believed God was there, too. If you're a believer, God had to have been there. We safely hid it from everybody else; it was our secret, but we couldn't hide from Him — or whomever God is. Despite our understanding of what religion might say about our love, neither of us expressed any guilt or judgment; we were immersed in getting to know each other. That's what was important.

Many have assumed that their sexual relationship continued on a non-exclusive basis throughout Houston's career, but Crawford has the real story. In early 1983, Houston signed to Arista Records and handed Crawford a blue Bible. "You know what we shared," said Houston, telling Crawford they had to end their physical relationship. "You know how I feel about you and we will always have that. If people find out, they'll never leave us alone."

The brutal irony, of course, is that people never left them alone anyway. Both Houston and Crawford faced questions about their relationship that continued through Houston's life and, for Crawford, have never ended. After Houston married Bobby Brown, she told him about her past with Crawford and his jealous rage exacerbated the growing rift that resulted in Crawford leaving Nippy Inc. in 2000, a dozen years before Houston's death.

Throughout the '80s and '90s, though, Crawford was at Houston's right hand as her career soared. A Song for You describes the understandable challenges of working for your former lover: Crawford was devastated when Houston, with whom she shared an apartment, took up with Jermaine Jackson. Houston would continue to be jealous as well, but not when Crawford dated men, only when she became close to women. Crawford was the only woman Houston would ever love romantically, and it seems she thought that emotional exclusivity might remain reciprocal.

Throughout all of this, Houston's dazzling career turned her into a music icon. Crawford was there for so many unforgettable moments. There was Houston's 1983 Merv Griffin Show appearance, where her mother thought the band needed to pick it up and so started conducting them herself. There were Houston's first solo recordings, with the already-seasoned singer nailing the lead to "How Will I Know" in one take. (She would record her backing vocals first, we learn: in single, double, or even triple as needed.)

Crawford's lap was there for Houston to lay her head in after being told that she needed to get a weave for the tour supporting her debut album, in part because the dignified cover photo looked "too black." As the documentary illuminated, Houston remained caught between two worlds when it came to race: for her sophomore album, she posed with her natural hair, only to be criticized by members of the black community because her skin appeared lighter in the studio portrait.

Crawford was there when Houston toured as support for Luther Vandross, sneaking out into the audience after the opening set to catch as much of the headliner as she could before being recognized by fans. She was there shopping with Houston in malls; on one occasion, Houston brushed aside veteran employees who only ran over when a younger clerk recognized her, making sure her fan got the sale commission.

Houston was often publicly gracious toward Crawford, thanking her in liner notes and at award ceremonies, but Crawford was understandably pained by Houston's increasingly vigorous denials under continued questioning about her rumored bisexuality. "Whose business is it if you're gay or like dogs?" Houston told Time magazine, wounding her friend with the offensive intimation that homosexuality was akin to bestiality.

Crawford was there for Houston's meeting with Michael Jackson; the two women jumped on the Neverland trampoline and winced at a roomful of dolls that a housekeeper said were prone to walk around at night. She was there for Houston's "Star-Spangled Banner" at the 1991 Super Bowl, perhaps the all-time most acclaimed performance of our national anthem — and it was Crawford who suggested that Houston take the field in a white track suit. "How was it?" asked Houston when she finished.

"You killed it," replied Crawford.

Crawford was there to answer the phone time and again, over the course of a decade, as Kevin Costner tried to talk Houston into doing The Bodyguard. When she finally accepted, Crawford could see why Costner related to Houston and knew the star had to be her. "They were both self-made church kids with dreams," writes Crawford.

And then...there was Bobby. The documentary shows the defiant spirit that Houston brought to her last two decades, especially her last ten years as her life and career spiraled downwards, so it's giving Bobby Brown too much credit to say he was the cause of her fall, but Houston's involvement with the singer whose fame briefly rose to meet hers seemed to fan the flames of a longtime weakness for chemical abuse, and systematically stripped her life of the people who might have stemmed the tide.

A Song for You has a lot of painful stories about those years, with Houston pulled thin among the demanding members of her family and increasingly strung out on a range of substances, leaving little for her friends and her daughter, who tragically died just three years after Houston herself.

Crawford and Houston shared a few more moments of connection after the author quit the business of Nippy, but they were increasingly far between. Without looking away from the pain, A Song for You celebrates the good years. In a revealing passage, Crawford and Houston go to see the 1988 weeper Beaches.

It sounded like the perfect movie for us, and I found myself remembering the early days of loading a cooler and boom box on a luggage cart on our trips down the shore. But more than that, as adults, levelheaded Hillary Whitney (Barbara Hershey) and feisty singer/actress C.C. Bloom (Bette Midler) reminded Nippy and me of our own bond. Through romantic relationships, breakups, and their own conflicts, the characters in Beaches always found their way back to each other, and Nippy and I assumed it would always be the same with us.

The book is named after a Temptations song the two friends used to listen to at the first apartment they shared. Crawford said she'd love to hear Houston sing the song, but Houston responded, "I haven't lived enough to sing it." Finally, on an aircraft carrier in 1991 during a performance for the troops, Crawford got to hear Houston sing it.

"I've acted out my life on stages with ten thousand people watching," go the lyrics, "but we're alone, yeah, and I'm singing this song for you."

Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

Jan. 29: Acid for the Children by Flea

Feb. 5: The Beatles A to Zed: An Alphabetical Mystery Tour by Peter Asher

Feb. 12: Time is Tight: My Life, Note by Note by Booker T. Jones

Feb. 19: London, Reign Over Me: How England's Capital Built Classic Rock by Stephen Tow

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