The Debut of a Powerhouse
It's not often that a record designed down to the last breath to be commercially accessible ends up changing the rules. Whitney Houston's debut did exactly that. Discovered and launched by legendary record executive Clive Davis, Houston came out of nowhere in early 1985, and within two years virtually everything on urban radio sounded like an echo of this album—producers shamelessly borrowed the beats, the string sounds, and the plush padded keyboards, while a school of singers (Toni Braxton, the members of TLC, Janet Jackson) emulated Houston's writhing phrases and demanding-diva delivery.
Houston was, to be sure, something special. The daughter of gospel dynamo Cissy Houston, she grew up in Newark, New Jersey, singing in church. Her early career included jingle dates and appearances in clubs—her first recording was with producer Bill Laswell's experimental rock band Material. From the start, Houston had an unusual combination of skills: the timing of a jazz singer and the range—and indomitable vocal power—of a gospel soloist. This enchanted Davis, who spotted her one night when she was singing in a club, offered her a contract on the spot, and was largely responsible for pairing her with the various producers who provided the material.
Although some songs lean into vapid "adult contemporary," this stunning success (for over a decade it was the bestselling debut from a female artist) establishes Houston's command of nuance. She's a singer confident enough to turn out a sweeping ballad ("Saving All My Love for You") without getting too showy, and a playful presence who can whip an ordinary hook ("How Will I Know") into an occasion for high-energy belting. Houston went on to have other big hits, as did many of the followers who hijacked her formula. Most of that music is exceedingly competent and boring. This has fire in it.
Released: 1985, Arista
Key Tracks: "How Will I Know," "Saving All My Love for You," "The Greatest Love of All."
Catalog Choice: The Bodyguard, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Next Stop: Toni Braxton: Toni Braxton
After That: Mariah Carey: Butterfly
Book Pages: 370–371
#1 from Ben, Baltimore, MD - 02/11/2012 11:43
Whitney Houston tragically died on February 11th 2012 at the age of 48. Maybe your next post on this website should be about her.
#2 from Robert Ardura, Richmond, VA - 06/13/2012 7:08
@bEN:I’m pretty sure he mentioned it in his tribute to Levon Helm. He mentioned her, Johnny Otis, Levon Helm, and Etta James because they all died relatively close to each other.
Anyway this album was awesome. I was surprised to actually like it. Normally I hate pop music. To be honest, I would take Nsync or Backstreet Boys any day of the week than the crap they’re playing on the radio these days. There is no substance at all in radio music anymore. It’s all gone. It’s always about clubbing. If it’s not about clubbing than the romance usually is paper thin and lacking any real qualities of love. This album I would have to say really sparks that feeling of yearning for someone. I was very surprised. Good choice!