Deborah Cox: Back in the Bay with The Bodyguard

Sacramento (April 18th – 23rd) & San Jose (April 25th – 30th) | By David Helton

Twenty-five years ago, the smash film The Bodyguard – featuring superstar Whitney Houston in the leading role as the best-selling pop diva Rachel Marron – was sizzling in cineplexes all over the world.  The Bodyguard was a massive hit for producer and leading man Kevin Coster, who played former secret service agent Frank Farmer hired to protect Rachel from an unknown stalker. The film was in theaters for thirteen non-consecutive weeks.

I didn’t see it.

I hate Kevin Costner. He’s terrible in everything. Dances with Wolves swept the Oscars in 1991 and it was just fucking terrible.

Owen Gleiberman, of Entertainment Weekly reviewed the film, “To say that Houston and Costner fail to strike sparks would be putting it mildly.” He added, “The movie gives us these two self-contained celebrity icons working hard to look as if they want each other. It’s like watching two statues attempting to mate.” However, other critics praised the film, such as Roger Ebert, who gave the film three out of four stars, remarking, “The movie does contain a love story, but it’s the kind of guarded passion that grows between two people who spend a lot of time keeping their priorities straight.”

It was the fall of 1992 and I was in my sophomore year of college; I was broke, working two jobs and taking six classes. I was also desperately in love with my first boyfriend and experiencing my first real freedom living as an openly gay man. Every weekend I had was spent studying – or getting fucked up at the club, now, let’s be honest.

However, one morning after working an early morning shift waiting tables at a shitty hotel restaurant, I was driving my shitty car back to my shitty apartment when Houston’s I Will Always Love You came on the radio for the first time. By the end of the song, tears were running freely down my face. I was literally moved to tears. Whitney was singing to me; she was singing right to me. Growing up in the South, I was always a big Dolly Parton fan, but I had never dreamed that this song – that I had loved since childhood – could be delivered in this new and powerful way.

Stephen Holden of the New York Times said, “Houston transforms a plaintive country ballad into a towering pop-gospel assertion of lasting devotion to a departing lover. Her voice breaking and tensing, she treats the song as a series of emotional bursts in a steady climb toward a final full-out declamation. Along the way, her virtuosic gospel embellishments enhance the emotion and never seem merely ornamental.”

During its original release in 1974, I Will Always Love You peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, becoming one of the best selling singles of 1974.

When Parton re-recorded the song in 1982 for the soundtrack of the film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the track was issued as a single and once again charted at number one on Hot Country Songs — making her the first artist ever to earn a number one record twice with the same song.

When the 1974 recording of the song was reaching number one on the country charts, Elvis Presley indicated that he wanted to cover the song. Parton was interested until Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, told her that it was standard procedure for the songwriter to sign over half of the publishing rights to any song Elvis recorded. Parton refused. She recalls:

I said, ‘I’m really sorry,’ and I cried all night. I mean, it was like the worst thing. You know, it’s like, ‘oh, my God … Elvis Presley.’ And other people were saying, ‘you’re nuts. It’s Elvis Presley.’ …I said, ‘I can’t do that. Something in my heart says, ‘don’t do that.’ And I just didn’t do it… He didn’t record the song. Then when Whitney [Houston’s version] came out, I made enough money to buy Graceland. [Laughs]

The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack has sold over 45 million copies worldwide and is the best-selling soundtrack of all time. The album was co-executive produced by Whitney Houston and Clive Davis went on to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year and was certified 17× Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.

In 1995, a few years later, Clive Davis was also the executive producer for another rising R&B sensation, Deborah Cox. Her self-titled album was released in September 1995 and earned Cox a Juno Award for Best R&B/Soul Recording at the 1996 Juno Awards. Cox also received a nomination for Best Soul/R&B New Artist at the 1996 American Music Awards.

I was out of college in 1998 working full-time by day in the newly emerging tech world and by night, I was working as a DJ/Promoter in the booing gay club scene in San Francisco. Early one morning, dancing with friends at Club Universe in SoMa, David Harness dropped a new track by Deborah Cox. Hex Hector’s ten-minute mix of Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here and it changed my life. Going through a difficult breakup with my first boyfriend, I was a sloppy drunk gay mess, crying and dancing like a fool. Deborah was singing to me. She was singing right to me.

Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here was the lead single released from Deborah’s second studio album One Wish. It is Cox’s most successful song, peaking at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 for eight weeks, and spending a then-record fourteen weeks at number one on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. In 2017, Billboard ranked the song at number five on its “Greatest of All Time Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs” chart.

Deborah Cox is a vocal powerhouse. The remixes of her songs are gay anthems in the clubs and Deborah was cemented as a regular on the gay club circuit, performing on gay cruises, White Party and recently headlining Oakland Pride. More than that, she’s a true vocal genius. She made her Broadway debut in 2004 in the Elton John-Tim Rice musical Aida. She is on tour now with the musical The Bodyguard, which makes two Bay Area stops in Sacramento (April 18th – 23rd) and San Jose (April 25th – 30th).   It’s always pleasure to speak with the very lovely, and talented, Deborah Cox.

Let me start this off by thanking you again for headlining Oakland Pride for us last year, you were flawless – and even Lisa Lisa was thrilled to spend some time with you. Oh, I loved meeting Lisa Lisa! [Laughs] I grew up with that music. [Insert us singing ‘I Wonder if I Take you Home’] I do a lot of Prides, as you know, and I will say that Oakland Pride is truly something special.

We’re about the same age, so you’re also a child of the 80s. Yes, that was my era. I love, love, love, the music of the 80s.

Where did your love of music begin? My mother played a lot of soul music around the house when I was young. She was a music lover. I grew up hearing Aretha, Sam cook, Otis Redding. Later on when I was more exposed to pop music, I discovered George Michael and Prince and, of course, Whitney Houston.

Do you remember the first time you heard Whitney Houston? I do. It was ‘You Give Good Love’ from her first album. That song was so different from anything else on the radio at that time. I was blown away. Then, when I saw her in the video – my mind was truly blown. She was so elevated. So lovely. So beautiful.

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Whitney’s first album changed the game. It did. She ushered in a brand new sound that had so much crossover. It was pop, it was R&B and it was contemporary. My mother loved the album as much as I did. That is a tough thing for an artist to do.

You were a back up singer for Celine Dion; she’s like the Canadian Whitney, right? Oh, honey, no. [Laughs] In Canada she is Celine Dion – or simply, Celine! [Laughs] There is no comparison between these two women. Both are incredible vocal talents who are very well respected in their own rights. They are very different in soul. I was lucky to sing and tour with Celine. She taught me so much about discipline and taking care of my instrument – not speaking before shows and performances. She taught me how to maintain stamina. In this industry, it really is about longevity and in order to have that , you must be able to hit the notes.

The Bodyguard show is grueling. There are costume changes and crazy dance numbers. How are you holding up? I am good as long as I get the rest that I need between shows. If I don’t get my rest, then I have a problem.

Is it hard being away from your family on a tour that is on the road this long? It is. I do miss them. I try to see them weekly if I can, either going home for a day or so, or having them meet me in the City where I am working. Technology is amazing now for keeping in touch. We use FaceTime a lot and we text and chat often; it really helps with the separation.

Living in Miami, have you felt something different under the Trump administration and the anti-immigrant rhetoric? How are you explaining what is happening to your kids? Do you mean politically?

Yes. You travel the country with this show and you must meet all kinds of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Oh, I do. For sure. I think in Miami and all over the country I am sensing the tone that racism has raised it’s ugly head again – and people feel that things are different now that we don’t have Obamas in office anymore. My kids feel it. We live in a suburb of Miami, and especially if you are one of the few black families in a particular area, you sense a tension that maybe you didn’t sense before. I’m in Florida. It’s no secret what’s going on. You just have to find a way to deal with it again. I say ‘again’ because there was a time when this was the norm. I just encourage my kids to always be aware and not bring any more hostility to a situation. I encourage them to always think and to do the right thing.

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Deborah Cox live onstage in The Bodyguard, Musical.

I just wonder if it’s tough for you as a woman of color. In an election that went the way that it did for the reasons that it did. I looked at your tour schedule; you are bringing this show to seem deeply red areas of the country. I think we need to heal as a country. Nothing heals us more than music. Nothing brings people together like art and the theater. I need to go to these areas and I need to be visible.

True! If I lived in a red state, I think I would be really happy to see your show roll into town. It would be a breath of fresh air. I think art is often a response to social tension, and it can also serve as a relief from social tensions. I mean, The Bodyguard features an interracial couple – but it’s not a story about racial tension, it’s a love story. Race has nothing to do with what’s happening between the characters. There was a woman who I met in Memphis who said that it was refreshing for her – and powerful for her – to see a love story told like that on stage.   She was of black and Asian descent, and she thought it was empowering for her and her children to see that a story could be told and race wasn’t an issue.

Whitney Houston is Rachel Marron. She was Rachel in the film and escaping the ghost of Whitney in this production must be hard to do. What parts of Whitney do you bring to the role and what parts of Deborah are there? Essentially, it’s all me. I don’t believe in putting a caricature onstage. It wouldn’t feel genuine if I went on stage and pretended to be Whitney Houston, you know? I’m not her. It’s important for me to go into this with the sentiment that I am creating a new Rachel for the stage. That’s my ultimate goal.

I have to say that it’s time for a new Deborah Cox album. I feel like music today is all about the single and the one-hit wonders. There just aren’t any good, fully realized albums these days. Do you have another album in you? I’ve been working on this EP, which is done – it’s eight songs from the show that that are the most requested songs that people want me to sing. However, I have had my own Deborah Cox album in the works for some time now. I released one single, but then I made some changes to the record. I have had to change out some people on the team and that has delayed the project. Of course, once I got this opportunity, to do The Bodyguard, I had to step back from working on the record. But, yes! I have more to give. I have more to say.

Do you like to write? Do you find yourself writing in the shower or in the car or out mowing the lawn. Are you always creating? Mowing the lawn?! [Laughs] I love to be creative. However, with everything else that I am doing at the moment, writing becomes a chore. I can’t do anything when it starts to feel like a chore. That’s when I step back from it. Does that make sense? When I have time to myself and I’m feeling peaceful, that’s when I do my best work.

When I first heard you, I was going out to the gay clubs in the 90s. And your tracks were anthems. In fact, I didn’t know that they were all originally ballads. I totally thought they were written as dance songs. [Laughs] That’s so funny! I actually hear that a lot. I was getting a lot of club play so it makes sense.

Then I became a fan and heard the original songs. It was sort of refreshing to hear them as ballads. However, I know that when you perform for Prides and for the big gay events, they want the high-energy dance versions. But sometimes, do you ever dream of laying on a piano in an evening gown in Las Vegas and doing a really intimate lounge show? Oh, boy! From your mouth to God’s ears. [Laughs] Yes, that is something that I have wanted to do for many years. My first love is voice and piano — and it would be a dream to just strip it all down to basics. You have just reconfirmed that for me.

Back to basics… An evening with Deborah Cox. You in a small lounge, a beautiful dress and a single spotlight, a baby grand piano – no smoke machines, no laser beams. All the men would have their shirts on. Seriously, I would go see that show. Oh, yes, honey! Me too! [Laughs] I would love that! Just serving it up old school for a night. Yeah. That would be a dream come true for me. Let’s make that happen! [Laughs]

> See Deborah Cox in The Bodyguard, The Musical in Sacramento (April 18th – 23rd) and in San Jose (April 25th – 30th).  Click on the ad below for tickets!


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