Deborah Cox on Nailing Whitney's Classic Songs For the Lifetime Biopic


There’s no higher pressure than trying to match the Voice. So in order to sing like Whitney Houston for Lifetime’s Whitney biopic and actually pull it off, Deborah Cox had to do some acting of her own. No one can hold a torch to those crisp, godly vocals, but Cox comes awfully close with her renditions of Houston’s untouchable classics.

Even with the promising trailer, there’s still doubt about Lifetime’s ability to tell a compelling tale about Houston’s life. At the least, the vocal performances hit the mark. The movie itself, which airs this Saturday, January 17, focuses primarily on the on-and-off flames between Houston and Bobby Brown and the life they shared. Unlike Lifetime’s Aaliyah biopic, director Angela Bassett and her team had access to Houston’s music, so Cox worked closely with them to mimic several of those songs, including “I Will Always Love You” and “I’m Every Woman.”

Ahead of the biopic’s release, I spoke with Cox, who developed a friendship with Houston after Clive Davis signed her to the same label, Arista. I didn’t sing my version of “Sentimental” to her, but we did talk about what into the Whitney recording sessions and their bond as moms in the business, as well as dance music and Cox’s upcoming album, whose first single drops on Feb. 3.

So I know you got this opportunity through Angela Bassett, who’s directing the movie. Did you have any hesitation?

She was putting together the cast and working with the music supervisor, Dick Rudolph. He was the one who suggested she call me. Because Angela and I are friends, when we get together we’re not talking about each other’s projects. We support each other, we talk about our children—that’s family. So for her to ask me to come be a part of this film that’s her directorial debut, I knew that my involvement had to be at par with her level of professionalism and her ability. She expressed to me what she was trying to achieve with this film, which was show Whitney in the light that she’s supposed to be in. She’s the pinnacle of vocal ability. She’s showing her at her peak, reminding people of her legacy, her music, her voice, all the things that we fell in love with. She’s like, “This is what I’m striving to make this film about. It’s not about all that other stuff. It’s a very specific time period.” She told me the songs that were going to be in the film and as she’s telling me this, I’m going, wow, wow. I knew I had my job cut out for me, so I immediately went into beast mode.

How did you prepare?

First of all, this is my girl, my friend, this has to be right. I told her, “I got you, when’s the session?” She told me when the session was. That was literally the only weekend that I had free—because I had shows every other weekend—to record all these songs in two days.

It’s four songs, right?

It turned out to be “Greatest Love of All,” “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” “I’m Every Woman” and “I Will Always Love You.” And “Jesus Loves Me” and “Guide Me, Great Jehovah,” the two gospel songs that were acapella. I got to the studio, Dick Rudolph was there, and Travon Potts, who did the piano and stuff. It was great ’cause we got a chance to talk about what the scenes were going to reflect. It started from there. We basically talked about how the songs should be performed because it was a very specific feeling as it pertained to each scene. I immediately thought, I need to go in and re-sing the songs. But it was re-singing them with the sentiment of the scene, if that makes sense.

Right, you couldn’t see the film beforehand and then record the songs.

Exactly, so that’s why I say this thing was divinely put together with Whitney Houston’s energy and her spirit. The essence of her was all throughout this whole thing. The right team was put together to tell the story in the most truthful way. Angela would describe to me what was happening in the scene. Like with “I’m Every Woman,” [she’d say]: “She just had a baby now, she’s gotta get up and go out and perform and be this superstar, night after night after night, performing.”
Now these songs are songs that require at least a day or two of just vocals. You can’t just go in and record all these songs in these keys, sing background and lead. That’s just impossible. So for Whitney to be on stage every single night during that period promoting The Bodyguard, that’s a heck of a lot of work to do. Plus, just having a baby, the physical demands, the demands to being a wife, being a mother, all of that had to reflect.

So as she’s telling me that, I’m in the studio like, Okay, so this is not just the well-rested Whitney who’s just done vocal warm-ups or whatever. You know what you have to do to prepare to sing a song like that. I basically put myself in that mindset, which had an air of urgency to the performance. Each song, we talked through it before I went in to perform it and that helped me tremendously because it wasn’t about copying Whitney, copying her voice. It was really about expressing the essence of what Whitney was feeling in the film at that moment, trying to capture that vocally.

What about “I Will Always Love You”? That scene was pretty powerful. I’d assume that’s the toughest song vocally, especially the break in the middle.

That was Angela’s direction. I went in as a blank slate ready to just take the direction. That’s why it’s so important to have a great director with a vision that understands and knows exactly what they’re doing. Angela knew what the hell she’s doing. Because when you hear the performance and then you see the actual scene play out, it gives the whole song a whole different interpretation. And like you said, that middle part where she’s moaning and yearning and almost crying, it was portrayed like that. And it didn’t start out like that. That’s what Angela wanted to put in there. Because that was helping to tell the story, as opposed to it just being a song performed in concert.

Which song was the most challenging for you to nail?

That one.

Did singing “I Will Always Love You” have any added meaning to you?

The whole Bodyguard soundtrack was so significant in my life because I had just moved to Los Angeles. It was right around the time when Clive heard my demo, a song with myself and my husband now. We wrote a song together and it was inspired by that soundtrack. And so for me to have finally gotten my recording contract after so much work and then have the opportunity to record my own album, there were just so many great memories of that particular time. And then I got to the Grammy party and met [Whitney] for the first time once my record was done and she was just so jovial and happy and funny and sassy. That’s my first initial memory. When I think of The Bodyguard, I think of that Grammy party and when we met and the conversation.

And then after that, years later while working on my third album, The Morning After, it was at that moment when we were getting ready to do the “Same Script, Different Cast” duet together that it really cemented our relationship. Her being like a big sister, a mentor, she was the one who gave me a little insight on the business and she’d give me advice and tell me, “Don’t live for this business. Live for your family. Make sure those things remain a priority in your life. Because all of this stuff is great, but you want to make sure you have that foundation.” I always remember that, because that was at a time when I was trying to figure out whether I should work on another album or if I should go ahead and do other things and start my family. So it was just the conversations that we had around our recording session was a moment that I cherish and remember the most.

That family balance is reflected in the movie when Whitney has Bobbi Kristina and she wants to stop touring and then has to bring her on the road.

Girl, I can relate. While I was doing Aida, which is when I met Angela, we lived in the same building in New York and that’s how we met. We struck a relationship, a great, deep friendship, because we were all going through the same thing, trying to juggle it all. Angela came to see Aida and she sees Isaiah as a little six-month-old in the crib in the dressing room. I remember breastfeeding in between intermission. It’s a grind but you can’t stop opportunity and you can’t stop living, so you gotta find a way to balance and continue and grind through it all. So that part of the film just really was emotional for me ’cause I completely related and I remember having that conversation with her.

Did you have any role in picking which songs? I would’ve loved to hear “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” because I do it at karaoke all the time. Is there a song you would’ve loved to cover or you’re thinking about doing now?

Everybody’s asking me now. I didn’t have any hand in what songs were picked. They had already worked all that out. The script was already written. The songs were already chosen and worked out, so I had no part of that. It was literally go in and sing the songs. For me, it would’ve been awesome to have heard Whitney’s voice because it’s not about replacing her but merely reminding people. I don’t know if there would’ve been any other songs, particularly this movie, but one of my favorites from that soundtrack was “Run to You.” And “Saving All My Love” is actually the first song I heard was life-changing. I was like, if I have career in music that’s what I want to do.

With Whitney, compared to other biopics, it’s obviously all about the voice, which seems like added pressure. Are you feeling a nervousness?

Yeah, I mean now with social media people will just tell you straight what they’re feeling, what they’re not feeling, so it’s great. There’s pros and cons. For me, I don’t let that deter me. I don’t waver, I don’t go move in any direction but forward because I know the intent. My intention was never to try to record these songs and try to be Whitney or try to make this an album. My intent was to tell the story that’s Angela’s vision, for it to go from the page in the script into the hands of the actors to help them tell the story and to understand a very specific time in her life. So I don’t feel a way.

This is partly destiny. Because all throughout my career, we were label mates. Clive Davis was our mentor, executive producer of our albums. I had done a few shows with Whitney. Many moments in my life that were transitional, Whitney was part of—changing labels, that kind of thing. So the two of us have so much—we’ve always sort of been associated with each other. There’s always been a connection there with us from the beginning, so this is just another moment of that. It’s like that cliché one moment in time. For me, this is that one moment to really truly pay homage to her because she impacted me profoundly. I can’t even put it into words. I can only put it into song what she meant.

As far as the final film, what were you feeling when you saw it?

It brought tears to my eyes because I feel like [Long pause]… I feel like finally you’re seeing a perspective that a lot of performers don’t talk about. People see the show, but they don’t see what makes the show happen. And finally people will get a glimpse of what this woman… how fiercely driven and how fiercely she loved. Because it was out of love why she worked so hard, on her career, on her marriage, trying to make all these things work. And I feel like she deserved more support. You don’t often know when people are hurting. You know, it’s tragic. I cried after I saw it.

You mentioned the advice she gave you. How reciprocal was it? Were there moments when you had to turn the tables and talk to her?

No… it never—I had moved to Miami and she was living down here and we’d see each other occasionally and hang out at the Versace mansion. I remember dancing and Bobby and there was a closeness and a love and a fire that the two of them had and a world that no one else could penetrate so it wasn’t my place to, you know. She was, like I said, a big sister, so it just wasn’t my place.

What was it like recording “Same Song, Different Cast” with her?

It was kind of like the wow moment when Angela called me. Like, I can’t believe I’m standing toe to toe with my idol, the iconic woman with the voice. It’s like standing next to Ali or a champion, doing what you do. We’re both on our game, we’re both right in front of the microphone and it’s like toe to toe. She sings her line, I sing my line. It’s just that intimate and it was amazing. She went in and slayed. That was one thing with her. She was so professional and knew exactly what she needed to do and would go in, hit it and knock it out the park.

Did you connect with the lyrics at all? I noticed that Montell Jordan co-wrote that song. Crazy.

Yeah, Shep Crawford and Montell. It’s just amazing when a song finds you. But I gotta really give props to Clive, who made that happen. He asked me who I’d want to sing the song with as a duet with and I said Whitney obviously. And then he coordinated the whole thing and asked Whitney if she would sing the song with me and they played it for her and she loved the song and did it. Now when I think about it and I think about the lyrics: “Same script, different cast, this is a retake of my life. I was the star for many nights, but now the roles have changed. You’re the leading lady in his life. Lights, camera, now you’re on. Just remember, you’ve been warned. Enjoy it now ’cause it won’t last.” I mean, that would be the conversation: Enjoy it now, but get your family right. Make sure you are happy because all of this is just stuff. It ain’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Oh my god, I get chills thinking about that. ‘Cause I never really thought about it that way.

I wanted to ask you about your dance success because R&B and dance are all intertwined now, but you had early hits on the dance charts. Was that something that you expected and came in thinking about or did it just happen?

It’s a little bit of serendipity because I grew up listening to all different styles of music. I knew that once I got into this business, that was one of the things I was going to try to exploit. I needed to be able to express myself artistically in R&B, pop music, dance music and in jazz. Like, I’m a big lover of Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald. As an artist, I should be able to reflect that. So it kind of was serendipitous the way all the remixes happened. They ended up having a life of their own where they sort of resonated in the dance world and the gay world and around the world, where dance music is mainstream. I think sometimes music just does this thing where it becomes the language of many different settings and so that’s essentially what happened. Here in America, it was one thing. Out in Europe, it was another thing. All over the world, it was all those different sides of Deborah Cox and dance music was one of those genres that’s been really good to me. It’s taken me all over the world. And same with R&B.

What kind of sound or style are you going for now with the new music?

The direction basically is fusing the two. The new single has my soulful roots, but it’s also gonna make you dance. Soulful, feel-good music. I’m at the core a very positive and happy person. Not that I don’t have my own struggles, but I know how to deal with them so I deal with them from a positive place. I’m sort of always looking at the glass half-full. I just know that with the right perspective and working hard and attitude, you can get through anything. So that’s what’s reflective of this record and the album. It’s reflective of where I am in my life, which is just going for it in a positive way.

Can you make a part two to “We Can’t Be Friends”?

Absolutely, yeah. That one was a little bit of a surprise, the timing of it all and the way that song really resonated. When I sing that song life, you can hardly hear me singing it. They just take over the vocals, but I love those moments. I love when music does that. That’s when I feel like you really made that connection. That’s when that spirit hits.

Images via Getty/Lifetime

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