After producing some of the biggest records in history, Narada Michael Walden could easily retire off to some desert isle never to be seen again. But he continues to record, tour, mentor and share his wealth of knowledge and personal stories. His most recent role is of author—penning a wonderful memoir [Insight Editions] with Richard Busikin reflecting on his time (1984-1993) collaborating with superstar Whitney Houston. Walden produced many of the hits that skyrocketed her career: “How Will I Know,” “I WannaDance with Somebody,” “Where Do Broken Hearts Go, and more.”
Titled Whitney Houston: The Voice, The Music, The Inspiration, Walden says, “While still mourning her loss, I’m happy to recount my memories of the very honest, and vulnerable person—the real person—I was lucky to know.”
Amalgamation caught up with Walden during the recent National Association of Music Merchants Conference in Anaheim, Calif., where he was a featured speaker.
Why did you write this book and what do you hope readers walk away with?
I wrote the book because I want readers to feel continued love for Whitney Houston. She was a great person, a kind person, a wonderful person. I had a lot of quality time with her. I wanted to pass those stories along. I share how we worked behind the scenes; how things were put together. I give you access to that, as opposed to ‘we never hear these things,’ or ‘we only hear about bad things.’
I only knew the genius of Whitney! Let me use that word, again! The genius!
When you think back to what you both were creating, did you realize you were possibly contributing songs for the great American songbook— 20 to 30 years later?
We were just kids. You know it’s magic and she looked so incredible. You couldn’t take your eyes off of her. Those are powerful combinations. When you’re creating the music, you’re just making sure all of the parts are there; all of the notes are correct. That alone is all consuming. That’s where all your concentration is and if you’re happy with the outcome. You hope for these things to happen if I’m truly honest, but it’s not the focus.
You call Whitney your baby sister, a friend, but how did you separate all of that when it came time to directing and producing her?
I’ve read books about Muhammad Ali who I love. You couldn’t tell the champ to just jab more. You had to say, ‘Champ, your jab looks great today.’ With Whitney the approach was similar. If I knew she needed to slow down, well then we would just take our time; don’t push her. I couldn’t make her feel like its work. When she was okay, then I was okay. She was a God-loving woman. For her, every session was in honor of ‘My Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.’ So, that definitely kept her grounded.
You had an amazing run, especially in the 80s. I was always curious on how you were able to walk that fine line with those massive Pop-Crossover records by black artists, and the response they received at Urban radio.
It was a fine line. I knew the game so well as a producer that a black artist 90% of the time had to have a hit at black radio first. It was rare to have an artist like Lenny Kravitz, who could just go ahead and Rock out. Most black artists couldn’t really do that, like they can now. We had to make an R&B record with Rock sounding elements, so they could appeal to black people, to get a base. The company was paying me to make sure the artist could serve its black base; so it was definitely a conscious thing that had to happen. Sometimes I regretted it. I look at the success of an artist like Tracy Chapman, she is a beautiful black woman; but it wasn’t a black thing, and she was performing folk music.
During your NAAM panel, you said you are a Pop producer. Do you believe the format of your iconic records could still work today?
Absolutely! I fashioned them in such design that they are in tune, the tempos are right; so no matter where you hear them, whether on a boat in Greece, or in the ghetto in L.A., they are going to sound good. I am conscious of making a sound that would have longevity and last.
Yes, touring with Jeff is great. He’s like I am, when he goes on stage he wants to bring his very best. I like that about Jeff. I recently put my own band together, which features a young cat whose mean on the guitar named Matt Heulitt. I have a girl on bass named Angeline Saris aka Angel Funk, and she is beautiful. I have Frank Martin on keyboards, who can play all of my solo music, and fusion; he plays Whitney covers, everything. I have Nikita Germaine on vocals, and she can blow. I have a new album out with 13 songs, titled Thunder. I’ve also released an album of all instrumentals titled, Rising Sun.
The Oprah Winfrey question: What is it you really know?
I know that we are here to love and serve God. I’m here to love and serve, which means taking time to talk to you, which means time to speak on panels, write this book, and to pass along some of what I know!