When Cissy Houston was signed to Private Stock Records in 1977 to record the first of two albums just reissued by the Cherry Pop label, her C.V. spoke for itself. Music practically ran in the veins of the vocalist born Emily Drinkard in Newark, New Jersey, 1933. Cissy first made her mark as a member of The Drinkard Singers, the group said to have recorded the very first major-label gospel album (1959’s A Joyful Noise, on RCA Victor). Among Cissy’s fellow Drinkard Singers was her sister Lee Warrick, mother of Marie Dionne and Delia Mae “Dee Dee” Warrick – later Warwick. During the same period her niece Dionne was pursuing solo fame at Scepter Records, Cissy was getting ready to give birth to a baby girl she would christen Whitney and also forming the in-demand session group The Sweet Inspirations with Dee Dee among its initial members. The Sweet Inspirations sang with Elvis Presley, Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin and countless others, and also recorded a string of well-received solo albums for Atlantic Records.
But Cissy had her eyes on solo stardom, and eventually departed the ranks of the Sweet Inspirations. She headlined the just-reissued Presenting Cissy Houston (and was first to record Jim Weatherly’s “Midnight Train to Georgia”) in 1970, but continued to sing with a diverse array of artists. That’s Cissy cooing on Bette Midler’s “Do You Want to Dance” and taking the lead on Burt Bacharach’s “One Less Bell to Answer.” So Houston wasn’t exactly sitting on her laurels when she signed to Larry Uttal’s Private Stock label, where she remained for two albums. Cherry Pop has brought both back to CD – 1977’s Cissy Houston and 1978’s Think It Over – the latter in an expanded edition.
To produce Cissy Houston, with its eponymous title signifying a new beginning for the singer, Private Stock turned to Jersey boy Michael Zager. At Private Stock, Zager would front a disco band and score a hit with “Let’s All Chant.” But Cissy Houston steered clear of dancefloor beats in favor of a tasteful, pop-soul approach. Houston applied her powerful and versatile voice to nine selections arranged and conducted by Zager to emphasize her gospel background and emotive style. A surprising highlight is the album’s opening track, one of the very first recordings of Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin’s “Tomorrow.” The song was introduced in the musical Annie, which opened on Broadway on April 21, 1977 following a pre-Broadway tryout at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House. Cissy Houston was released the very next month, in May, affording those who hadn’t yet seen the musical a chance to learn the optimistic credo that tomorrow “is only a day away.” The rendition is straightforward, but as expected, there’s some choice vocalizing from Houston that adds a mature dimension to the future standard.
Considerably more familiar by 1977 were a pair of songs plucked from the recent past: Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Your Song” and Bobby Russell and Bobby Scott’s “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” (a hit for The Hollies). These choices weren’t even slightly radical; both tunes had crossed over from the Top 40 to be covered by artists such as Andy Williams. But backing choir The Voices of Hope adds gospel flair to “Your Song,” while “He Ain’t Heavy” also allows Houston to soar, sanctified-style.
On the earlier Presenting Cissy Houston, the singer tackled her niece Dionne’s songbook with Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself,” turning the ballad into an up-tempo groove. Here, she takes “Make It Easy on Yourself” – first recorded as a demo by Dionne but released first by Jerry Butler, in 1962 – and slows it down considerably. Houston digs deep into David’s pained words, embellishing many with dramatic, swooping runs, or melisma. Listening to this track, it’s evident to see just how much of an influence Cissy had on her daughter Whitney. (The physical resemblance between Cissy and Whitney circa her own debut album is also clear on the cover photograph of Cissy Houston, while photos in the booklet to follow-up Think It Over nicely show the Houston-Warrick family similarity.)
The album is rounded out by a few original cuts. Zager and Aram Schefrin’s funky, saucy “Morning Much Better” (“I like it in the morning…the morning’s much better!”) has a bit of the lyrical flavor of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s delicious “Just a Little Lovin’,” and is Houston at her earthiest. (Schefrin was a member of the band Ten Wheel Drive with Zager.) The album’s first single, “Love is Something That Leads You” by Zager and Barbara Soehner, is smooth, deliciously catchy R&B. Its B-side, the upbeat “It Never Really Ended,” answers the question “What happens when you go back to an old love affair hoping that the feeling will still be there?”
After the jump, we’ll revisit Think It Over! Plus, we have full track listings and order links for both titles!
Though a textbook example of grade-A soul, Cissy Houston only met with minor success; “Love is Something That Leads You” charted at No. 97 R&B, and “Tomorrow” fared only slightly better at No. 74. So Houston and Zager went back to the drawing board. This time, the covers were out in favor of original material penned by the returning producer-arranger-conductor Zager and a host of collaborators. But more significantly, Think It Over represented a major change of style. Released in June 1978, it finally embraced disco with its storming title track, among other songs.
Cissy was rewarded with a Top 5 Dance hit with “Think It Over,” six minutes of sexy disco directed at an unfaithful lover. Zager surrounded his diva with slashing strings and punchy horns, perfect to support the drama inherent in her emotional voice. Houston’s control is evident here. Though her voice could be as big and powerful as her daughter’s, it had more grit to it, and her approach was often subtler. It was written by Zager, Houston and Alvin Fields, the same team behind “Warning – Danger.” Cissy’s vocals are more raw and unrestrained on the disco explosion of “Warning,” with its burbling dance break and tight backing vocals. Whitney is among the backing singers on both tracks, and appears on most of the album. Zager also employed her on his 1979 Life’s a Party album.
Both the up-tempo “Love Don’t Hurt People,” written by Ron and Steve Netsky, and the sultry “Sometimes” by Zager, Houston and Fields, betray the influence of sleek Philadelphia soul…and the sound fit Houston like a glove! In 1980, Zager would actually take over production duties of Philly hitmakers The Spinners from Thom Bell and continue their success streak with “Workin’ My Way Back to You/Forgive Me, Girl.”
Doug Frank and Doug James teamed with Cissy to pen “Somebody Should Have Told Me” (“…I should have stayed away from you!”), another brassy disco workout with Cissy in the throes of realizing that “we’re losing the love that we once used to share.” But even with the song’s “faded dreams,” Houston has innate strength in her voice. Frank and James were also responsible for a very different song – a ballad, in fact – that would find its greatest success not with Houston but with her niece Dionne Warwick. “After You,” with its vivid refrain of “After you, who could there be?” was introduced on Think It Over. Affecting but never maudlin, it’s beautifully and vulnerably sung by a soul-searching Houston, with an occasional trill in her voice. In 1979, Barry Manilow arranged the song for Dionne Warwick’s Arista debut (recently reissued by Big Break Records), altering it slightly to fit both his style and Dionne’s. It was then gorgeously orchestrated by Gene Page to create one of the highlights on the Dionne album and a Top 10 AC single. Aunt Cissy wasn’t forgotten, though. Warwick and Manilow included “Out of My Hands,” which she co-wrote, on the platinum selling LP.
In the same vein as “After You” is Zager and Fields’ “I Just Want to Be with You,” a romantic ballad with impassioned, gospel-flecked vocals from an occasionally-raspy Houston. Considerably breezier is the same team’s tropical “Umbrella Love,” with a light, airy arrangement that Jimmy Buffett might appreciate and an atypically soft, sweet lead. Doug Frank stepped in for Zager to co-write “I Won’t Be the One” with Fields and Houston; guest vocalist Donny Harper joins Houston on the album-closing track.
Cherry Pop’s new reissue expands Think It Over with extended disco mixes of “Warning – Danger,” “Think It Over,” “Somebody Should Have Told Me” and “An Umbrella Song.” “Think It Over,” b/w “An Umbrella Song,” earned Houston a new audience when the single reached No. 5 Dance/No. 32 R&B, and it nearly made the Hot 100 with its No. 106 placement on the pop chart. Soon after the album’s release, however, Private Stock Records threw in the towel, and Houston and Zager headed to a more secure label, Columbia Records. Columbia reissued Think It Over with a new cover as Warning – Danger, utilizing the extended disco versions of many of its songs to differentiate it from its Private Stock release. Zager and Houston continued in this vein on their first original Columbia LP, 1980’s Step Aside for a Lady.
Stephen “SPAZ” Schnee has written brief liner notes for both titles, which include plenty of album and single sleeve images and photos. Wayne A. Dickson of Big Break Records has remastered Cissy Houston while Nick Robbins has handled Think It Over. Since the tragic and untimely passing of Whitney Houston, Cissy Houston has, somewhat uncomfortably, appeared on a reality television show and penned an autobiography about her daughter. Cissy Houston and Think It Over, produced for Cherry Pop by BBR’s Malcolm McKenzie, are classy examples of Houston’s art. (Various configurations had previously appeared on CD via dodgy labels credited to Cissy and Whitney, to capitalize on the latter’s fame, or infamy.) Moreover, these reissues showcase Cissy Houston simply doing what she’s always done best: singing from the heart, creating music to move the body and soul.
- Morning Much Better
- Your Song
- Love is Holding On
- He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother
- It Never Really Ended
- Make It Easy On Yourself
- Things to Do
- Love is Something That Leads You
- Think It Over
- Love Don’t Hurt People
- Somebody Should Have Told Me
- After You
- Warning – Danger
- I Just Want to Be with You
- An Umbrella Song
- I Won’t Be the One
- Warning – Danger (Extended Disco Version)
- An Umbrella Song (Extended Disco Version)
- Somebody Should Have Told Me (Extended Disco Version)
- Think It Over (Extended Disco Version)