Almost Had It All

I wrote a little about Whitney Houston for yesterday. There are a lot of better pieces out there, like this one at Any Major Dude With Half a Heart, and this 2006 piece from Salon that captures Whitney’s rise and fall pretty well. A few additional, more personal observations follow.

I remember being deeply impressed with the songs on her debut album Whitney Houston—the zillion-selling singles “You Give Good Love,” “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know” and “Greatest Love of All,” as well as her first single with Teddy Pendergrass, “Hold Me.” But there was also the gorgeous “All At Once,” which might be the best song she ever found to sing.

On her second album, Whitney (couldn’t anybody think of a better title?), she doubled down on stardom, and the result was thinner, even as the songs sold further zillions. One song in particular can be considered historic. “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” is Whitney playing her instrument at its loudest, occasionally crossing the line that separates singing and shouting. And that’s a pity, because “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” is a song with plenty of power inherent in the way it’s written—it doesn’t need to be oversold. Whitney’s performance makes it a pivotal record in the recent history of popular music. Its success is at least somewhat responsible for a whole generation of female singers who have confused volume with emotion and melisma with soul.

(Twenty-five years later, the production on Whitney has dated pretty badly—all of those shiny electronic keyboards and synthesized drums mark it as a product of a specific moment in history as clearly as if it were sporting a Dukakis-for-President bumper sticker.)

“I Will Always Love You” quickly became the top-selling single at after Whitney’s death. It’s already one of the top-selling singles of all time, and was one of the most ubiquitous records in history during its 14-week run at #1 in 1992 and 1993. Dolly Parton, who wrote it and took it to #1 on the country charts twice, in 1974 and 1982, sang it with a sweetness that lights it up like an ember bursting to flame. Whitney, however, opens up on it like a flamethrower. She also manages to find the previously unknown line between melisma and yodeling, and then steps over it.  (The slow, cold opening of “I Will Always Love You” is also one of radio’s great momentum killers, and at 4:32, it’s at least two minutes longer than it needs to be.)

I lost track of Whitney after the early 90s, except for the unavoidable tabloid stuff. In 2009, I played her new single “I Look to You” on the radio, and I liked it—especially the blemishes, where you could hear her reaching for notes, or straining to breathe as she never had to do before. There was real life in those reaches and breaths, however sordid and difficult that life was. Had she followed it with a triumphant concert tour and recommitted herself to her art, it would have made a great story. As it was, the tour featured poor shows, canceled dates, and other assorted embarrassments, and you have to wonder how long it would have taken before she got another chance. Now we’ll never know.

Issues of my personal taste aside, there’s no denying the beauty and power of Whitney Houston’s pure, un-Auto-Tuned voice. I’m listening to “All At Once” as I type this sentence, and it’s simply stunning.

On Another Matter: I learned of Whitney’s death on Twitter just as I was settling in for a show at the Barrymore Theater here in Madison, a former movie theater that’s old enough to be cool and ramshackle enough to be rock ‘n’ roll, featuring Steely Dane. Not Steely Dan, but Steely Dane, with an e on the end—a 22-member conglomeration of local musicians who get together two or three times a year to play Steely Dan songs. (They take their name from the county in which Madison is located.) It’s hard to play Steely Dan’s music, with all of the complexity and weirdness inherent in it, but these people have the chops. It’s the second time I’ve seen them, and they burned the house down again Saturday night. Highlights: Fagen’s “New Frontier,” the only non-Dan song they do, and “Doctor Wu,” which has been climbing my list of favorite Steely Dan songs for the last several years.

Coming next: a crossroads of history, as seen late at night on two weekends in 1978.

6 thoughts on “Almost Had It All

  1. On those first few albums, some of my favorites are the non-singles: “Take Good Care of My Heart” with Jermaine Jackson, “For the Love of You,” “Just the Lonely Talking Again” and yes “All at Once.” On “Whitney,” I prefer “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” to “Didn’t We Almost Have It All?” but I’ll be darned if I can explain why — one of those “your mileage may vary” things, I guess.

    I agree completely on “I Look to You,” and I was very sad that it didn’t become more successful on pop and adult contemporary stations. By then, her tabloid life had so consumed her recording career that it didn’t look like Top 40 would give her a chance (that, plus she was — gasp — 40-something, and only Madonna can get away with breaking through that glass ceiling these days).

  2. You mention “All At Once,” which is a song that I still can’t figure out why it wasn’t issued as a single. Our MOR-leaning station played it for a few weeks, and then I was surprised that it never followed on Casey Kasem’s weekly show.

    A year later, the song “Didn’t We Almost Have it All” appeared on the radio, and one of my friends kept saying it was “old” because he confused it with “All At Once.” This started some arguments, since none of us had either of Whitney’s albums. To me — though I could hear the similarity in the vocal — “All At Once” was a far superior track. Playing them back-to-back confirms exactly what you said about the production of Houston’s second LP.

    I’ve pulled out “Hold Me” in the past couple of days. (Here it is on my 1980s music blog.) Now that the song features two stars who’ve left us far too young, it’s hard to see it for what it was at the time: A song that was both a triumphant return from a horrible car crash and an introduction to a fresh new voice that would soon be heard everywhere.

  3. Great post, JB. Sensitive without being cloying; illuminating. Kudos for not digging through all the garbage of her life – baggage most big-time artists have. In the end, it’s the body of work that counts, not the circumstances.

    1. Thank you sir. Praise means a lot coming from you.

      I heard so much self-righteousness commentary on Sunday: “Who cares, she was washed up anyhow, she wasted her life on drugs, etc.” But we *all* have baggage, and nearly none of us can imagine what it would be like to carry that baggage in the spotlight. Her baggage is part of her story, and it’ll be a big part for a while, but eventually, it will cease to be so important. We don’t think of Elvis as a drug-addicted libertine first anymore, although people did for a while. I am guessing that even Michael Jackson’s substantial baggage will someday become less important than his music. And so will Whitney’s Houston.

  4. bean

    I don’t know where I read last week that Linda Ronstadt recorded the first cover of “I Will Always Love You” but I dug out my copy of “Prisoner In Disguise” this morning and there it was. Check it out if you have time. It is really fantastic and the missing link between Dolly’s and Whitney’s version.

  5. Michael

    Whitney desperately needs remastering. One could also make the claim that Whitney Houston had dated badly, but it has since been beautifully restored—especially considering the resurgence of ’80s influences in pop music of today. It’s now as gorgeous and addictive as it ever was. Oddly enough, this is the 25th anniversary of Whitney, and one would think a reissue would be in order, even if it would be in the wake of her incredible loss.

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