Whitney Houston was very shy, says director Brian Grant

Excerpts from some of Whitney Houston's songs - courtesy Arista Records

British director Brian Grant made the music videos for two of Whitney Houston's biggest hits in the 1980s. He recalls the experience of working with the US singer as her star was on the rise.

In the infancy of the music video, Brian Grant was one of the medium's most successful directors.

He shot the likes of Queen, Tina Turner and Duran Duran, and won a Grammy award for the steamy clip that accompanied Olivia Newton John's Physical.

By 1986, he had 50 videos under his belt when a call came through from Arista Records. They wanted to know if he had time to shoot a promo for an up-and-coming US artist they had got on their books.

Her name was Whitney Houston.

"She wasn't a huge pop star at the time," Grant recalls.

"She turned up with just one person from the record company and a friend. There was no razzmatazz at all."

Choreographed by Strictly Come Dancing's Arlene Phillips, the video for How Will I Know is a typically sugary 1980s confection.

Houston is cute and bubble-permed, with a gigantic silk bow strapped to her head. She appears to be trapped in a graffiti artist's pastel nightmare, where over-excited dancers continually launch themselves at her from the edge of the frame.

"She was slightly nervous about that," says Grant.

"We had all these dancers and she'd never done anything like it before."

"We just said, 'look, this isn't serious, we just have to have as much fun as we possibly can'.

"It was a day of lots of laughter. Lots of fun."


His abiding memory is that Houston, who flew over to Wapping in London for the one-day shoot, was "very grounded, really sweet and very, very shy".

She was still at the beginning of her career - How Will I Know was the uptempo counterpart to her first US number one, Saving All My Love For You - and, says Grant, "there weren't that many expectations".

Whitney Houston in the music video for How Will I Know 1980s music videos had their own unique visual language

But one moment made him sit up and take note.

"We used to do a thing called a master close-up, where we would put Whitney in front of the camera, take half an hour to light it, then get everyone else out of the studio.

"I'd operate the camera, so it was me and Whitney 10 feet apart, almost like a still photo session.

"And the rule was she had to sing it, you couldn't just mime. So I had Whitney Houston 10 feet away singing with the sort of voice I'd never heard in my life.

"And my knees just went."

Those close up shots are probably the most natural, exuberant moments in the video. Whitney's interaction with the dancers, on the other hand, are often awkward and uncertain.

So it may have come as a surprise to Grant when Arista called back a year later and asked him to helm the video for a new song, called I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).

"Ironically," he notes, "Whitney could not dance in any way whatsoever."

Arlene Phillips choreographed the video again - and the solution was to surround the singer with top talent, and keep her own dance moves to a minimum.

"We said, 'look, they can do all the dancing, you just have to do what you do'.

"It was just a question of relaxing her. You had to make her feel she wouldn't be embarrassed and that you'd show her best side.

Whitney Houston Houston went on to sell more than 170 million records

"The best side that Whitney had was just standing up and singing - and so that's the way we approached it.

"Directing is similar to being a football manager. You take away the distractions and create a space they can shine in."

"Once she stood in front of a camera and sang, the real Whitney came alive."

Once again, the video was shot in a single day and, once again, Grant was bowled over by the singer's voice.

"It's especially impressive when you look at her frame," he points out.

"She was tall but tiny, if you know what I mean, but when she opened her mouth and sang it was mind-blowing."

The video, which won an MTV Award in 1987, was to be the pair's last collaboration. Houston went on to become a titan of US R&B, while Grant now directs TV series including Doctor Who and Clocking Off.

But, nearly 30 years later, he still gets asked about those two videos. And the news of Houston's untimely death at the age of 48 left him "absolutely shocked".

"It's very sad when it comes out of the blue like that," he says.

"With someone as special as her, it really hits home."

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