Remembering Life On The Road With Whitney Houston

Feb 13, 2012
Originally published on February 13, 2012 3:28 pm

Grammy-winning pop diva Whitney Houston died Saturday at 48. Her voice inspired generations of musicians, and her death in a Beverly Hills hotel on the eve of the 2012 Grammy Awards triggered an outpouring of grief.

Michael Baker became Houston's drummer in the early 1990s, and went on to become her musical director. A close friend of Houston's for the last 18 years of her life, he says he remembers traveling on tours with crews of 80 to 100 people, and says it was almost like a big family.

"Whitney knew the back-line people, she knew the people that were in the back doing the back-of-the-stage work, she knew the people that were rigging, she knew who the stage managers were," Baker tells NPR's Neal Conan.

Matthew Garrison, who played bass for Houston on her final tour in 2009 and 2010, says that everyone was important to the singer.

"I was just amazed by, I would say, her insight into the actual process of preparing the music," Garrison says. He says he remembers a particular rehearsal where she was able to identify — out of a group of five or six singers — who was singing one wrong note.

"It was such an amazing thing that she could basically hone in, in the middle of this big band playing," Garrison says. "There were strings, there was the bass and the drums and the guitars, and she picked out this one little note."

During that final tour in support of her 2009 album I Look to You, Houston struggled to hit high notes and stay on key. Baker said her vocal struggles were similar to a sports injury.

"She gave it 100 percent every single night," Baker says. "She never once said, 'Hey, look guys, I can't sing tonight.' My job at that point was to do everything in my ability to help her get through the shows."

Garrison has been surrounded by music for most of his life. His father, Jimmy Garrison, played bass for jazz musician John Coltrane. He said that touring with Houston taught him important lessons about life on the road.

"What I've taken away from the experience is dealing with human relationships and how to handle that process," Garrison says. "What we did was we took care of each other."

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

The death of Whitney Houston on Saturday triggered an outpouring of grief and an examination of her life. More than anyone, before or since, Houston took her gospel roots to phenomenal success in R&B and pop music. She dominated the pop charts in the '80s and '90s and inspired a generation of stars: Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Hudson, among many others. As she got older, though, her life became tabloid fodder for her rocky relationship with Bobby Brown, her stint on reality TV, her drug abuse, and now her death.

So we want to hear from you, especially singers and performers: What should we learn from the life of Whitney Houston? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Michael Baker was Whitney Houston's musical director for nearly two decades and toured the world with her, and he joins us by Skype from Los Angeles today. Thanks for joining us. We're sorry for your loss.

MICHAEL BAKER: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you very much.

CONAN: I know you started working with Whitney in 1994. And, well, seemed like a force of nature back then.

BAKER: Well, you know, when I started with Whitney, I started off as her drummer. I was called by a friend, a good friend named Rickey Minor, who was then the music director. He called me and he said, come check it out. Come check out the show, and I did. And I was chosen from among about five other drummers. And I started off as her drummer.

CONAN: And what was it - you're just a member of the band back then but...

BAKER: I'm just a member of the band, right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Just a member of the band. But as - clearly as you came to work much more closely with her.

BAKER: Yeah. I, you know, over a period of years of working just as her drummer, I had the opportunity to, kind of, sit back and watch the goings on of the production, watching things going on backstage, watching the computer operator and watching the, you know, just watching Rickey, what he was doing and how he ran the band and all that sort of thing. And later on, he - a few years down the road, he asked me to become music director, and I gladly turned him down.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BAKER: I turned him down and said, no, I'm not a music director. That's not what I'm good at. And he said, Michael, think about it for a couple of weeks, and I'm going to call you back. And he called me back after a couple of weeks, and he said, well, have you thought about that music directing job with Whitney? And I said, yeah, I think I'll try it. I've never done anything like that before, and I'm - so I'll give it a whirl. And that's how it started with me as a music director.

CONAN: These are enormous productions, these...

BAKER: Right.

CONAN: ...big arena shows and that sort of thing. So these are very complicated, logistically and technically.

BAKER: Yes, they are.

CONAN: But one thing in particular, you've got to work with a star. We read of her being a diva. What was she like to, well, work with?

BAKER: Well, I tell you, I'm sad that under these circumstances I have to have - do an interview about her. Obviously, these terrible circumstances for, you know, her family first and also for me and all the friends and all the people who used to work with her and played with her, the musicians and also the fans out there in the world. It's a terrible, terrible time. But it's also a great time for, you know, I would like to be the one to - at least one of the people to dispel some of the rumors that people, you know, think about her because she was not necessarily a diva, so to speak, or in a negative sense.

She was not like that. She was a very, very giving and loving person. And I don't say that to protect her reputation. I'm saying that as a person who have worked with her for 18 years. And I can – I'll tell you who Whitney was. I remember one time I - we were in Japan, and I wasn't music director at the time. And we were in Japan, we're playing at the Tokyo Dome and she's standing in front of a crowd of about 40,000 people, and I started playing the wrong song on the drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BAKER: And the music director looks up at me, and I'm on an eight-foot riser and I can't tell what he's saying. He's saying - he's telling me it's the wrong song. And I go in again and start playing the wrong song again. And that's - so this is the second time, and then Whitney is standing out there in front and she's - you know, she's standing out there beautiful in a gown and she's doing, you know, and then I started off again, and everybody's telling me it's the wrong song and I keep going into the wrong the song, so that's the third time. And then she looks around at me and she looks up at the stage and she said, you play them drums good, boy. She said, you play those drums.

And, you know, she - that's who she was. She just smiled at me and she said, you go ahead and play. And it was like she never ever said one thing about it after the show. She never said, hey, Michael, you came in with the wrong song or anything. She was a true pro. She was not insecure about her own singing ability. She was not insecure about herself as far as performance, being on that stage, and she liked you to play. And she was not, you know, she was not a wind-up doll, you know? She was definitely the real deal. And we all had a lot of fun playing with her, always.

CONAN: Let me bring another voice into the conversation. Matthew Garrison played bass for Whitney Houston in her 2009 tour. His father, Jimmy Garrison, played bass for John Coltrane. He joins us now from our...

BAKER: That's right. That's right.

CONAN: ...bureau in New York. And again, Matthew Garrison, I know you did not know her - among her intimates, but clearly we're sorry for your loss.

MATTHEW GARRISON: Oh, thank you very much. And, you know, again, actually as when I was first contacted by NPR, one of the first people I came to mind, obviously, was Mike Baker because I actually would not have been on the stage with Whitney if it hadn't been for Mike and - because he pulled me into the, you know, to this particular tour that you brought up and, you know, it's obviously, it was just very shocking information to hear about this, you know, this tragedy.

CONAN: You knew her as a musician. What was she like as a musician?

GARRISON: Well, you know, I kind of feel a little bit, you know, what Mike was saying, you know? She was just, you know, it was - unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to play with her in earlier period of her working career. But, you know, I was just amazed by - I would say her insight into the actual - the process of preparing the music. I do remember one particular rehearsal we were doing in Los Angeles, where basically she was - she managed to pick out, out of a group of five or six singers, back-up vocalists, exactly the note that was kind of not where it needed to be.

And I, you know, since I didn't really work with Whitney before, to me it was just such an amazing thing that she could basically hone in, in the middle of this big band playing, there were strings, there was the bass and, you know, the drums and guitars. And she picked out this one little note, you know, that was very - I didn't hear it, but she knew exactly what she needed to find and it was just - I thought that was an incredible sign of her professionalism and her musical insight. I mean, she was genius. That's for sure.

CONAN: This was a challenging tour, in no small part, because Whitney was having some difficulties with her voice.

GARRISON: I would say - I think Mike can get a little deeper into that.

BAKER: Well, you know, I'll tell you what. You know, I've worked with - I worked with lots of singers. I worked with, you know, even before Whitney, I'd worked with lots of singers that I had the opportunity. Whitney, like anyone else, like any other singer on the planet who sings at the velocity and sings at that kind of, you know, at that, you know, the way she sang and she sang - she worked very hard when she sang. So it wasn't like, you know, I'm just going to get up here and, you know, over a long period of years of singing like that, at that kind of level of intensity, you're going to have wear and tear on your voice.

So my job at that point was to do everything in my ability to help her get through the shows and... You know, it's just like an athlete who has a knee injury or has a hip injury or broken arm or arm injury or anything, you know, you do what you can to - if the person is still able to perform, you do what you can and - to make sure that, you know, you can have the performance that you want to get and, you know, obviously, the person is going to have some kind of, you know, problems with their injury. But it's like a sports injury.

It's just like, you know... But she gave it 100 percent every single night, you know, whether was on vocally or whether she was not on vocally. She gave it her all. She never let her audience sit out there, you know, standing out there, she never once said, hey, look guys, I can't sing tonight. She never canceled one night, you know?

CONAN: Here's an email we had from Doug, who's a singer. I had constant sore throats when I was singing professionally. I never had surgery. I sucked on, lived on lozenges. I thought of Whitney Houston, Karen Carpenter and Jerry Hadley, all dead from the stress of singing for a living, from having your instrument in your throat. And, Matthew Garrison, you're not a singer, but you do come from a musical family. As I mentioned, your dad played with John Coltrane. And I wonder, had he given you any lessons about how to live your life on the road and the difficulties of being on tour all the time?

GARRISON: Actually not. He died quite young himself. He died at the age of 42, so which is pretty shocking to me. But I had to learn it myself, and I think some of the things that I've come away with and my experiences working on, you know, in terms of traveling and, you know, the stresses of - primarily the stress of travelling. It's one of the tougher parts. But I think, more than anything, it's really what I've taken away from the experiences dealing with human relationships. And how to handle that process has really been the, you know, the core of my lesson, that, you know, in terms of doing all this work in all the traveling. So I wonder if Mike had some insight on that, I'd be kind of curious.

CONAN: Mike.

BAKER: I mean - yeah, I mean, you know, you might refresh my memory about the question again, but...

CONAN: About the difficulties of living life on the road and...

BAKER: Yeah, yeah. And well, you know, with the big tour like ours...

GARRISON: Yeah, it was huge.

BAKER: ...and Matthew can tell you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BAKER: You know, we travel with upwards about 80 people, maybe a hundred people.

GARRISON: Yeah.

BAKER: And what we have is - we have like these different pockets of people that their job is specifically, you know, you have the tour management, then you'll have the people on the tour, then you'll have the band, then you'll only have, you know, the riggers and people do the stage and get everything. And it's almost like a big family.

A lot of times we tried to hire a lot of the same people that we've known on past tours, because we understand their work and a large part of it has to do with Whitney. I mean, the very core of it has to do with the fact that, you know, Whitney - we know Whitney knew the backline people. She knew the people that were in the back, doing the back of the stage work. She knew that people that were rigging. She knew that - she knew who her stage managing were.

GARRISON: Yeah, everybody had importance.

BAKER: Everybody had importance to her. She knew who the monitor guy was. And she remembered people's names, and she was really, really sharp, really sharp person. So, you know, what we did is we took care of each other, basically. You know, when you're on the road, you got people up in there. You know - you're traveling with these people for years and so it's not like not the first tour. It's a long time we're traveling altogether, and we take care of each other. And we - and even with the new people that arrived, like with Matt, you know? You know, Matt is treated like one of her family.

GARRISON: Yeah, like (unintelligible)...

BAKER: When he get out of the tours, he's like, you know, one of the family, you're one of us. You know, we're all, you know, and it's like life on the road. It's a different kind in the world. And I'm glad...

GARRISON: Yeah, (unintelligible) humans have to learn how to deal with each other.

BAKER: But also with Whitney's tour, it was a very family-oriented tour, you know, lots of kids, lots of babies, lots of children. You know, her mother would travel with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And of course, Cissy was a great singer herself.

BAKER: You know, Cissy would sing with - yes. And then Cissy is traveling with us, and Cissy would always come to me and say, you know, you guys weren't hitting it tonight or...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BAKER: ...you guys really sounded really great tonight. You know, they - and I always took that very - I always took it very seriously because it was Cissy Houston. So I was always afraid when Cissy would come around me 'cause I was wondering if we played too loud for Whitney or if we...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BAKER: ...if we did something that wasn't right, she'll let you know about it, so...

CONAN: Michael Baker, thanks very much for your time today.

BAKER: Yeah. No problem. Not at all.

CONAN: Michael Baker, Whitney...

GARRISON: We'll talk soon, Mike.

CONAN: ...Houston's musical director. And saying goodbye to him also, Matthew Garrison, bass player, who played on Whitney Houston's final world tour. He was at our bureau in New York. Thank you very much for your time.

GARRISON: Thank you.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we can't remember Whitney Houston without listening to her sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE THE LORD")

WHITNEY HOUSTON: (Singing) I love the Lord. He heard my cry. And pitied every groan, long as I, I live. And troubles rise, I hasten to his throne. Oh, I love the Lord...

CONAN: Whitney Houston, backed by the Georgia Mass Choir on the soundtrack of the 1996 film, "The Preacher's Wife." This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.