Hit Producer/Artist Narada Michael Walden Talks About His New Projects, and Recalls Working With Whitney Houston

Narada Michael Walden
Narada Michael Walden

The two most recent projects that Narada Michael Walden is excited about typify the great versatility of his four-decade career. The three-time Grammy-winning drummer, songwriter, producer, vocalist and hit recording artist spent much of 2011 holed up with his band at Tarpan Studios — the San Rafael, CA facility he has owned and operated since 1985 — recording the soon-to-be-released rock and blues album Thunder. The album was inspired in part by Walden’s recent, successful two-year tour with the Jeff Beck Band — whom he first joined forces with in the ’70s before the pop world beckoned. Walden has also just released Whitney Houston: The Voice, The Music, The Inspiration, a written memoir (with New York Times bestselling author Richard Buskin) about his glory days in the ’80s writing & producing for the late singer, who died in February 2012.

When Walden first got a call to work with Houston (whom he affectionately calls ‘Nippy,’ her family nickname, throughout the book) from Arista Records’ A&R exec Gerry Griffith in October 1984, he had no idea the part he was about to play in creating a legend. The assignment, in fact, seemed like a distraction from his sessions for ‘Freeway of Love,’ the latest hit song (and future Grammy winner for Best R&B Song) he was producing for another legend, Aretha Franklin. Soon overwhelmed with Houston’s powerhouse voice and potential, he helped create some of the biggest hits (all of which hit #1 on the Billboard pop chart) from her first two multi-platinum recordings, Whitney Houston and Whitney: ‘How Will I Know,’ ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),’ ‘Where Do Broken Hearts Go’ and ‘So Emotional.’ His later discography with the singer includes her Olympics theme ‘One Moment in Time,’ ‘All The Man That I Need’ and ‘I’m Every Woman”part of The Bodyguard soundtrack phenomenon that earned Walden a Grammy for Album of the Year.

‘Because of the struggles later in her life, Whitney’s sudden passing unfortunately inspired a lot of people to start badmouthing her,’ says Walden. ‘I decided to write the book as a loving tribute to not only her musical genius and legacy, but also to the beautiful person I came to know while working with her during those exciting times. These were moments in her life and career that a lot of her fans didn’t know about, and it felt right to talk about how those records were made and what the energy and love felt like in the studio as we were living it. I was so touched by all the grieving fans I saw outside the church where her funeral was, with their candles and handwritten notes, and I wanted to give them more insight into who she was as a person and artist.

‘While sharing this history,’ he adds, ‘it felt surreal, like, wow, these things really did happen. I didn’t realize we were making history at the time. When you make records, you’re just putting in all the love and affection you can into those special moments. Connecting on a spiritual level as well as a musical one, Whitney and I liked to call those moments where everything came together, ‘God’s hour.”

While Houston is the focus of the book, his work with her is a single milestone in Walden’s extensive career as a pop producer. His accolades during that same stretch include a Grammy for Producer of the Year (1987) and hits for Aretha Franklin & George Michael (‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),’ Jermaine Stewart (‘We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off’) and Mariah Carey (‘I Don’t Wanna Cry,’ ‘Vision of Love’), Lisa Fischer (‘How Can I Ease The Pain’), Starship (‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’) and Tevin Campbell (‘Tell Me What You Want Me To Do’). Walden’s other pop credits include Steve Winwood, Ray Charles, Wynonna, Barbra Streisand, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Natalie Cole, Eddie Murphy, Angela Bofill, Al Green, Phyllis Hyman, Tom Jones and The Temptations.

Whitney Houston & Narada Michael Walden
Whitney Houston & Narada Michael Walden

The multi-talented musician laid the foundation for his success as a pop songwriter and musician with a string of solo albums in the late ’70s and early ’80s that included his breakthrough 1979 disco influenced Awakening — whose hit single ‘I Don’t Want Nobody Else (To Dance With You)’ not only saved his career as an artist but also led to a call to produce Let Me Be Your Angel, the first of several projects he helmed for teen star Stacy Lattisaw. ‘I would have been dropped from Atlantic had I not had that disco hit,’ Walden says, ‘and once I started doing well with Stacy, the phone started ringing with offers to work with Patti Austin, Phyllis Hyman, Dionne Warwick, Aretha, you name it. Things started floating my way and while I kept doing solo albums throughout the 80s, the great artists I had the good fortune to produce during that time ensured I would become better known for that.’

While most renowned for his hit-making in the pop and R&B worlds’Billboard once honored him as one of the Top 10 producers of all time–Walden also has an impressive track record in the worlds of jazz, fusion and world music. The Kalamazoo, Michigan native has a fascinating story about how he snagged his first major gig as a drummer at the age of 19 with jazz guitar great John McLaughlin’s seminal fusion outfit Mahavishnu Orchestra — an episode that introduced him to Sri Chinmoy, the famed guru who inspired McLaughlin’s conception of the band. Walden, who took over the drums from Billy Cobham and was part of the band from 1974-76, got his spiritual name ‘Narada’ (‘Wisdom Giver’ in Sanskrit) from Chinmoy. Walden also toured with Tommy Bolin, Weather Report and Jeff Beck; his work as a performer and writer with Beck on the album Wired led to the guitar great’s first platinum-selling album.

Continuing his long history of championing new artists and giving back, his ‘Narada Michael Walden Foundation’ delivers its services through a network of non-profit organizations with proven records of success in youth education and community empowerment. The Foundation also endows scholarships for aspiring musicians and enables the stars of tomorrow by offering emerging young artists from around the world access to recording facilities, coaching and production support.

‘My goal with the artists I work with is to try to champion them and bring out their uniqueness, both in the song and their vocal,’ says Walden, whose recent endeavors include Enchanted Forest, a symphony commissioned by the Oakland Symphony, featuring four movements with Carlos Santana. ‘I’m always hungry to get to each artist’s unique personality but I also know that the song is the star, so the key is matching the individual love I’m feeling from the artist with the right material. The key to becoming a good producer lies in the details — even down to the delivery of a single note, word or syllable. Whether the track ultimately lights up or not, you have to be all about the details. (Hit producer) Arif Mardin once told me, ‘You must control the music,’ and that means getting every note where it needs to be. My approach with Whitney and others was, even if the fireworks of the song are at the end, let me get that energy down first. Then I can work on the precision in the verses and choruses the rest of the track to make sure we’ve got something that can stand the test of time.’

Jonathan Widran is a free-lance music/entertainment journalist who contributes regularly to Music Connection, Jazziz and All Music Guide. He can be reached at [email protected].