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Back Tracks: Whitney Houston

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Music was in both the bloodline and the spirit of Whitney Elizabeth Houston (1963-2012).  The native of Newark, New Jersey called Cissy Houston of The Sweet Inspirations her mom, while Dionne Warwick and Dee Dee Warwick were her beloved cousins.  Her godmother was none other than Aretha Franklin.  Following in her mother’s footsteps, she began performing at Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church, singing in the gospel choir as a featured soloist, and began to make inroads in the music business as a background vocalist, again echoing the path of some of her most famous relatives.  When Clive Davis saw the young, beautiful and effervescent Houston performing in New York City, he sensed that great things were in store.  The mogul appeared alongside the singer for her debut on television’s The Merv Griffin Show in 1983; she was off and running.

Over a career spanning nearly thirty years, Whitney Houston proved that there was nothing vocally she couldn’t do.  Though an undisputed legend of pop, soul and R&B, she was at equally home on the dance floor, could do justice to Rodgers and Hammerstein (Cinderella) and Stephen Schwartz (the Academy Award-winning “When You Believe” from The Prince of Egypt), and even dabbled in hip-hop.  2006’s “Family First” teamed Houston with Dionne and Cissy, and the key presence of family and faith was a source of strength in her often-troubled life.  One can only hope that Houston also found solace in the number of young individuals whose styles she influenced and whose careers she inspired.

Even as our thoughts reside with Whitney Houston’s family at this difficult time, Mike and I have chosen to remember the great singer in the best way we know how: through a tour of her music.  Though Houston wasn’t a prolific artist, the magnitude of her accomplishments looms large.  Put simply and at risk of cliché, we will always love you, Whitney Houston.

We start our guide to Whitney’s discography with 1985’s Whitney Houston after the jump!

Whitney Houston (Arista, 1985)

If pure joy has a sound, it might well be the sound of Whitney Houston’s explosive debut for Clive Davis’ Arista Records.  Houston joined her godmother Aretha Franklin at Arista, she trusted in Davis’ instincts as much as the Queen herself had.  In both cases, that faith paid off.  Davis teamed the not-yet 22 year old singer with producers including Kashif, Jermaine Jackson, Narada Michael Walden (a guiding light of Franklin’s career at Arista) and Michael Masser.  It was the last-named gentleman who supplied Houston with two of the three songs that topped the Billboard Hot 100, beginning an as-yet-unrivalled streak of seven consecutive Number One singles.  The slow-burning, sensual “Saving All My Love For You,” co-written with Gerry Goffin, was introduced in 1978 by Marilyn McCoo of The 5th Dimension on her Marilyn & Billy album with husband Billy Davis, Jr.  The luscious pop ballad would become Houston’s first No. 1 and also net her a Grammy Award.  Houston’s third No. 1 was Masser’s “Greatest Love of All,” co-written with Thom Bell’s most frequent collaborator, Linda Creed.  George Benson first recorded the song in 1977, and while Masser and Creed believed in the song and its uplifting message, Davis initially disagreed, relegating it to B-side status of “You Give Good Love.”  When it was promoted to A-side status in April 1986, it was an instant, resonant favorite.  In between these two ballads was “How Will I Know,” an ebullient piece of dance-pop spearheaded by producer Walden.

Whitney Houston became the first album by a female artist as well as the first by a debut artist to yield three Number One singles.  One accolade that Houston didn’t receive was the Best New Artist Grammy, having been denied a nomination on the basis of her guest appearances on discs by Teddy Pendergrass and Jermaine Jackson one year earlier.   (The hit Pendergrass duet, “Hold Me,” was reprised on Whitney Houston.)  The loss of that Grammy hardly hurt Houston, though, as the album shunted her to the ranks of superstardom.  The 2010 25th anniversary edition of Whitney Houston from Legacy Recordings expanded it by five bonus tracks: the 12-inch dance mixes of “Thinking About You,” “Someone for Me,” and “How Will I Know,” a 1990 live version of “Greatest Love of All,” and a an cappella mix of “How Will I Know” revealing the powerful vocals beneath the glossy production.  The second disc, a DVD, included music videos, new interview footage and some fascinating television appearances.  Among those early performances is a scorching 1983 appearance with the avuncular Merv Griffin singing “Home” from Charlie Smalls’ score to The Wiz, as well as an emotional take on Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen’s “I Am Changing” from Dreamgirls.   The television portion is rounded out by a 1987 Soul Train Awards performance of “You Give Good Love.”  All are potent reminders of the ease with which Houston navigated pop, soul, dance, R&B and beyond, all with an effortless enthusiasm. – JOE MARCHESE

Whitney (Arista, 1987)

In a sad bit of timing, we envisioned a 25th anniversary edition of Whitney’s sophomore album in our last Reissue Theory post. At the time, we’d spotlighted the album’s genius, in a way, in hewing closely to the same formula that made Whitney Houston a success. Kashif, Michael Masser and Narada Michael Walden returned with new producer John “Jellybean” Benitez to produce, “How Will I Know” writers Shannon Rubicam and George Merrill wrote a fantastic sequel of sorts in “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” and most of the stellar session players who participated on the first record made return appearances.

But the album’s success was all its own: just the fourth album in music history to top the Billboard charts in its first sales week, Whitney continued the run of chart-toppers from the last album with four No. 1 hits: “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” “So Emtional” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.” Creatively and commercially, things kept peaking for Whitney – but few could have predicted what happened next. – MIKE DUQUETTE

I’m Your Baby Tonight (Arista, 1990)

While Houston’s second album expanded on her debut’s blend of pop and R&B from the likes of Michael Masser (teaming again with Gerry Goffin and also with Will Jennings) and even included a nod to Broadway with “I Know Him So Well” from the musical Chess, the artist concentrated on a more urban style of R&B for her third Arista outing, her pop stardom already solidified.  At the time, though, nobody knew that I’m Your Baby Tonight would be her final studio album for eight years.  Michael Masser and Gerry Goffin returned with “After We Make Love,” which Masser also produced, but the song wasn’t selected as a single.  Instead, the lead-off single and title song honor went to “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” one of three tracks written and produced by Antonio “L.A.” Reid (now of television’s The X-Factor) and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.  It went to No. 1, as did the next single, “All the Man That I Need,” by the Footloose and Fame team of Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford.  As wasn’t uncommon with songs recorded by Houston, it wasn’t an original, having been first recorded by Linda Clifford in 1982.  But Houston’s unique delivery and unmistakable style transformed “All the Man” into a bona fide smash.  Houston reached back to early inspiration Stevie Wonder for a duet on Wonder’s own “We Didn’t Know,” and she teamed with another R&B superstar, Luther Vandross, “Who Do You Love.”  (Vandross, like Wonder, wrote and produced his track.)

I’m Your Baby Tonight took the old-fashioned route up the charts.  Rather than debuting in the top spot, the LP started at No. 22 on the Billboard 200 chart, jumped to No. 5 the following week, and then hit its peak of No. 3.   It may not have repeated the success of Houston’s first two albums, but her star power was still undiminished, with four Top 20 pop singles including those two No. 1s.    Six tracks scored strongly on the R&B charts, as well.   In an odd footnote to the album, international territories saw the Reid/Babyface mix of their own title song was jettisoned in favor of a remix (known as the Yvonne Turner Remix).  “Takin’ a Chance,” included on the Japanese edition of the album, became a hit single in Asia, and a cover of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” was also included as an exclusive bonus track there. – JM

The Bodyguard: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Arista, 1992)

Dolly Parton deeply believed in her song “I Will Always Love You,” first included on her 1974 album Jolene.  Its single release topped the Billboard country chart, and in 1982 she re-recorded it for the soundtrack to the film adaptation of Carol Hall’s musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.  The new version, too, went to pole position, but as happened the first time around, pop success didn’t follow.  In between, Elvis Presley was interested in recording the song.  In 2008, Parton confirmed, “Elvis loved ‘I Will Always Love You,’ and he wanted to record it…Then Colonel Tom [Parker, Presley’s manager] gets on the phone and said, ‘You know, I really love this song,’ and I said, ‘You cannot imagine how excited I am about this. This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me as a songwriter.’ He said, ‘Now you know we have a rule that Elvis don’t record anything that we don’t take half the publishing.’ And I was really quiet. I said, ‘Well, now it’s already been a hit. I wrote it and I’ve already published it. And this is the stuff I’m leaving for my family when I’m dead and gone. That money goes in for stuff for my brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews, so I can’t give up half the publishing.’ And he said, ‘Well then, we can’t record it.’”  She continued, “I said, ‘I’m really sorry,’ and I cried all night…[and] then when Whitney[‘s version] came out, I made enough money to buy Graceland!’

Such was the force of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”  The ubiquitous single turned Parton’s subdued, almost mournful song into a steamroller of determination, and it propelled the various-artists soundtrack of The Bodyguard to become the biggest-selling soundtrack album of all time.  Not only that, but it was the first album to sell more than one million copies in one week since the 1991 introduction of Nielsen’s SoundScan system for monitoring album sales.  Of course, “I Will Always Love You,” with its fourteen weeks at No. 1, wasn’t the only attraction, with Houston’s powerhouse  interpretations of Ashford and Simpson’s “I’m Every Woman” as well as David Foster and Linda Thompson’s “I Have Nothing” both going Top 5.  Thus, Houston earned another first, as the first female singer to have three songs in the Top 20.

Like the pop success of “I Will Always Love You,” the film was a long time in the making, originally scripted in the 1970s by Lawrence Kasdan as a potential vehicle for Diana Ross and Steve McQueen.  Houston, in her film acting debut, took the Ross role of a musical superstar (sound familiar?) while Kevin Costner filled McQueen’s shoes as her protector.  Although reviews were decidedly mixed for the movie itself, it earned a respectable $121.9 million box office haul.

The soundtrack to The Bodyguard, an ideal candidate for reissue, counts Curtis Stigers (performing a cover of Nick Lowe’s “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding”), Lisa Stansfield, Kenny G and Aaron Neville, and Joe Cocker among its performers.  In addition to his duet with Neville on the standard release, Kenny G can be heard on “Waiting For You” on international editions of the album.  A short cue from Alan Silvestri’s score rounded out the original CD. – JM

The Preacher’s Wife: Original Soundtrack Album (Arista, 1996)

Throughout the 1990s, it became almost a serious question of when Whitney Houston would make a full return to the music world. Her two biggest post-The Bodyguard projects were films that just happened to have music by her feature in the picture. She first starred in 1995’s Waiting to Exhale, which featured the chart-topping ballad “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” as well as Top 10 hit “Count on Me,” a duet with gospel singer CeCe Winans. A year later, Houston played the title character of The Preacher’s Wife, a remake of the Cary Grant-Loretta Young-David Niven vehicle The Bishop’s Wife (1947).

True to the themes of the film, the album is by and large the closest Whitney ever got to her gospel roots. Luminaries of the genre were featured, including songs by Dottie Rambo and Richard Smallwood and appearances by the Georgia Mass Choir and Cissy Houston and the Hezekiah Walker Choir. But there were shining moments of pop brilliance, too: lead single “I Believe in You and Me,” a cover of The Four Tops’ original, received single treatment by David Foster and became a Top 5 hit; elsewhere, Diane Warren, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Teddy Riley, husband Bobby Brown (with New Edition cohorts Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant) and Annie Lennox contributed vocals, songwriting and production.

Houston would star and sing in one more film – a 1997 remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1957 made-for-television musical Cinderella for Disney, a soundtrack to which has never been released – before returning in full force to the pop music game. – MD

My Love is Your Love (Arista, 1998)

After what seemed like an eternity between soundtrack albums, Whitney returned to straightforward pop/R&B with My Love is Your Love, a monumental album released on a monumental day – one of the first big “Super Tuesdays” of the CD era, where it competed with more than 10 other major releases on the same day in November 1998. Shockingly, it placed rather low on the Billboard charts (No. 13), but international sales were strong. And it was hailed by many critics as having a broader streak of consistency than most of her albums – no small task when you’re working with some of the hottest R&B/rap producers and performers of the moment, including Babyface, Rodney Jerkins, Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Missy Elliott. The album boasted a boatload of hits, from the Jean-produced title track and the excellent “Heartbreak Hotel” (a trio with Houston, Faith Evans and Kelly Price) to “When You Believe,” a duet with Mariah Carey that featured prominently in that year’s animated epic The Prince of Egypt.

When Houston took the album on tour to Australia and Korea, fans were treated to an expanded edition of My Love is Your Love which featured a five-track EP of club remixes. Years later, 10 club mixes of the title track ended up as a digital EP. – MD

Whitney: The Greatest Hits (Arista, 2000)

Why had it taken so long for Whitney: The Greatest Hits to arrive?  Perhaps it was the relative lack of material from an artist with such a compact catalogue, but many fans were chomping at the bit for a collection of Houston’s best.  When it arrived in 2000, however, it wasn’t quite the set most had expected.  The set was divided into two discs, “Cool Down” (the hits) and “Throw Down” (the dance mixes).  All would have been well and good, targeting two segments of the artist’s still-sizeable audience.  But the decision was made to eliminate the original hit versions of “”How Will I Know,” “So Emotional,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” and “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” all U.S. No. 1 hits, and the egregious omission of that quartet of songs makes this far from a definitive collection.

Still, what remained on Disc One was choice, with songs from Frank Wildhorn, David Foster, Babyface, Dolly Parton, and of course, Michael Masser with a variety of notable partners (Gerry Goffin, Linda Creed, Will Jennings, Jeffrey Osborne) and productions by Foster, Kashif, Narada Michael Walden, Babyface and Wyclef Jean.  It also included the Jermaine Jackson duet “If You Say My Eyes Are Beautiful” (written by Elliot Willensky, of “Got To Be There” fame) for the first time on a Houston release, and offered three brand new songs including duets with Enrique Iglesias and Deborah Cox.  Disc Two did include dance remixes of the songs eliminated from the first disc, and also tacked on the spine-tingling single performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from Super Bowl XXV) and Albert Hammond and John Bettis’ “One Moment in Time” from the 1988 Olympics.  Both songs were hits but also hadn’t appeared previously on a Houston album.

The track listing varied in international territories, while the U.S. version offered an exclusive from now-defunct retailer Circuit City offering two bonus dance mixes.  An accompanying DVD offered music videos of many of the beloved songs, and a vinyl-only release (Whitney: The Unreleased Mixes) contained eight extended club versions of tracks from the American edition.  In 2006, this set was reissued digitally under the title Dance Vault Mixes: Whitney Houston – The Unreleased Mixes (Collector’s Edition).

Whatever the set’s omissions, Whitney: The Greatest Hits started off Houston’s career in the new millennium with a bang, debuting in the U.S. Top 5 and selling over 10 million copies to date. – JM

Love, Whitney (Arista/BMG (U.K.), 2001)

Following the success of Whitney: The Greatest Hits and with new material still not on the immediate horizon, Arista again tapped the vaults for another anthology, although this one was only released internationally.  The U.K. collection Love, Whitney brought together sixteen tracks of the romantic ballad variety.  Unlike its predecessor, no new tracks were included, so there’s nothing here that longtime fans didn’t already have.  That said, Love, Whitney is a pleasing collection of big songs that show off Houston’s always-impressive pipes, and in 2001, the release could also have served as a reminder of how the singer virtually invented the melisma-laden diva-pop genre.  As the U.K. Greatest Hits lacked “Why Does It Hurt So Bad” and “Miracle,” those songs were welcome, and the collection also included lesser-known cuts like “For the Love of You.” – JM

Just Whitney (Arista, 2002)

Though the title of the late 2002 release Just Whitney might indicate otherwise, a better title would have been Whitney and Her Many Friends.   Only one of the album’s ten songs had less than three credited writers, and that song was a cover of “You Light Up My Life,” written by the late, notorious Joe Brooks.  More than half of the tracks had four or more writers, and the album proved the old adage about too many cooks.  Between My Love is Your Love (the first of what we might think of as Houston’s contemporary R&B albums) and Just Whitney, the diva’s career had taken a turn for the worse, plagued with cancelled concert appearances and rumors of drug-fuelled escapades.  And so many of the album’s tracks featured oddly defensive lyrics (Carole Bayer Sager was actually among the many credited lyricists!) while the contemporary soul setting didn’t always play to the artist’s pop strengths.  On My Love Is Your Love, Houston credibly teamed with cutting-edge R&B/rap/hip-hop talent to update her sound; on Just Whitney, the material wasn’t as strong and the approach just not as fresh.

Still, Houston was in typically strong voice for the album, and it squeaked into the Billboard Top 10 at No. 9.  Its lead-off single produced by Bobby Brown and co-written by Whitney herself, “”Whatchulookinat,” scored heavily on the dance chart.  Babyface returned to produce four of the album’s cuts.  Just Whitney received some of the least favorable reviews of Houston’s music career, but did become a moderate success.  (It also came on the heels of a remarkable $100 million contract signed with Arista.)  A bonus-DVD edition included music videos and behind-the-scenes footage, while the album’s international edition added a P. Diddy remix of “Whatchulookinat,” further underlining Houston’s hopes to connect to a younger audience.  Whitney would, indeed, have one more shining moment in the studio to prove herself a singer not only gifted with once-in-a-lifetime pipes, but with the ability to touch listeners in a contemporary style.  That would be her final proper album, 2007’s I Look to You. – JM

One Wish: The Holiday Album (Arista, 2003)

Sixteen years before the release of her holiday LP, Whitney added a definitive performance to the seasonal canon: her excellent cover of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” for the equally great inaugural A Very Special Christmas compilation released by A&M Records in 1987. It was hard to top that track alone, and One Wish unfortunately doesn’t provide all that much to solidify itself among the great Christmas albums of recent years. Almost all the material is standard holiday fare, the only deviations being the title track (originally performed by Freddie Jackson) and two tracks recycled from The Preacher’s Wife. Her take on “Little Drummer Boy,” featuring daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown, is nice enough, but again, it doesn’t match the heights of her first holiday recording. – MD

The Ultimate Collection (Arista (U.K.), 2007)

On one disc and 18 tracks, Whitney’s second compilation more than lives up to its name, offering the hits as mainstream audiences first heard them (minus a few edits and a remix of “I’m Your Baby Tonight” that was in fact the standard mix on international pressings of the album of the same name). Naturally, it was only released outside of the U.S., where fans had to make do with the heavily-remixed, far-from-definitive The Greatest Hits from several years prior. – MD

I Look to You (Arista, 2009)

It was the Behind the Music/E! True Hollywood Story moment everyone was hoping for: after what seemed like an eternity of musical silence and personal tribulations (namely her maligned interview with Diane Sawyer – the one where she famously declared “crack is wack” – and the unfortunate reality series Being Bobby Brown, which saw the diva reduced to a major punchline), Whitney was back. I Look to You was exactly the kind of record fans wanted: soaring vocals, quality efforts from of-the-moment producers and performers including Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz, Akon, StarGate, R. Kelly and Nate “Danja” Hills (plus stalwart collaborators Diane Warren and David Foster) and tunes that neither shied away from the rocky path Houston walked on – one only had to hear her slightly-lower register to gain a glimpse of what that meant for her – nor overly rehashed past glories.

With a generous heap of club-worthy tracks, including the oft-remixed “Million Dollar Bill” and “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength,” remixed and released on digital EPs literally dozens of times, I Look to You gave Houston a much-deserved final No. 1 placement. While the next years would obviously be difficult for her, with a rough European tour and continued troubles with substance abuse – culminating in the outpouring of grief this past Saturday – Whitney Houston got one last shining moment in time. – MD

Written by Joe Marchese

February 13, 2012 at 10:15

3 Responses

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  1. Well done–thank you.


    February 13, 2012 at 12:39

  2. Thank you…enjoyed every word you wrote, excellent tribute.

    Anton williams

    February 13, 2012 at 14:56

  3. Very nicely done. A great summary of her music.. the important part many people have already overlooked. Thank you.


    February 13, 2012 at 18:30

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