Despite my youthful love of Vandross & O’Neal, it was the kaleidoscopic burst of colour and energy of the “How Will I Know” video, rather than the balladry of “Saving All My Love For You” that first turned my 15 year old ear to Whitney.
It was originally written for Janet Jackson’s “Control” album but when Janet’s team passed on the song Arista records supremo Clive Davis snapped it up as the perfect pop foil for the ballads he had lined up for the debut of the artists he’d snapped up two years previously.
Co writer Rubicam Shannon recalls “It wasn’t right for that (Control), but then our publishing company played it for Gerry Griffith when he was in Los Angeles gathering material for the unknown Whitney Houston. He loved it, sent it to Clive (Davis), and Clive said, ‘We must have it.’ And we said, ‘”
From the vantage point over 25 years later, having watched her voice and health deteriorate though self-abuse it’s difficult to remember the sheer vibrancy and vocal power of Whitney, especially during the quick turnaround of her Whitney Houston and Whitney albums.
Just listen to that voice on this clean vocal track of “How Will I Know“… stunning.
Listen to Hint’s tribute remix of “How Will I know?”
The second album “Whitney” was bigger still, despite the monster “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” originally being derided as “How Will I Know part II“.
She made what I think was her TOTP debut performing the song and there’s a facinating look at the making of the album on the “Soul Culture” website.
“On ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ I brought in the handclaps and things that really make the song swing for everyone,” says producer Narada Michael Walden. “I brought out the 808 bass drums, which were brand new at that time to bring in some more flavor for the record. I had to think about how to make the sound unique and how it was going to work with a hit chorus. I also had to think about how it was going to hit on the dance floors in New York, Detroit and Europe. Good things usually happen when you get a good spirit of happiness and a dose of funk in the music.
It was a pop demo so I had to try to make it more ghetto. Ghetto meaning more Black, more rough and more ready for the club. I brought in Randy Jackson to play the mote bass on the record and the guitar part is being really funked out by Corrado Rustici. I recall when we got to the ending where she was singing, ‘Say you want to dance, don’t you want to dance, say you want to dance,’ I thought it was great for a B chorus idea and it turned into a chant. The chant took the song up another notch and it became a number one smash hit across the entire world.”
In 2001 “Wanna Dance” was introduced afresh to a new generation when Richard X brilliantly grafted it onto the top of Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” for his Girls On Top Mashup project.
She’ll also be remembered for the moment she met Serge Gainbourg, and the priceless look on her face when the grand master of seduction is slightly, shall we say direct.
What about her signature tune, the track for which shelll be most remembered? Well, yes her cover of Dolly’s “I Will Always Love You” is a vocal tour de force but for this heart at least it doesnt come close to Dolly Parton singing it to Burt Reynolds at the end of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas“.
A sampled snippet of Whitney’s version does however feature in Ital’s current “Doesn’t Matter If You Love Him“. It’s used with aplomb a minute or so in, amongst the Lady Gaga samples and the sound of Tackhead making a house tune.
Despite not exactly looking after her voice, Whitney still had some power, albeit rougher edged in 1999 for her big comeback tune “It’s Not Right but it’s ok“. Acapella & video below.
In 1991 with the US caught up in the first Gulf War, Houston performed the Star Spangled Banner during Super Bowl XXV. Of course the award for the greatest rendition of all time goes to Marvin Gaye in 1983 but Whitney became the first performer to have a recording of the national anthem go Top 20 on the Billboard charts both at the end of the Gulf War and when re-released after 911.