In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956.
1986: Whitney Houston’s Whitney Houston
For legendary music exec Clive Davis, Whitney Houston represented a major goldmine. When Davis discovered Houston, he had a singer who was young, beautiful, had an enormous singing talent, and had high profile musical talent in her family. When work began on Houston’s debut album, Davis and his label Arista Records put out all the stops to ensure that the album was a smashing success. But there was one major hurdle to that vision, Houston’s race. Davis had ambitious goals for Houston as an artist who could succeed across demographics and radio formats and he didn’t want her to be restricted as just an R&B artist the way most Black artists are.
From what we know now from the many tellings of Houston’s life and career, there was a very conscious effort made by Arista to not present Houston as sounding too Black as former Arista exec Kenneth Reynolds explained in the 2017 documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me, “Anything that was too ‘Black-sounding’ was sent back to the studio.” It was this plan though that through a year-long carefully coordinated rollout led to Houston’s self-titled debut selling around 22 million copies including 13 million in the US and Houston immediately becoming one of the most dominant pop stars of the ‘80s and ‘90s. This intentional effort to not sound too Black would eventually lead to a major backlash for Houston but in the moment it accomplished what it was supposed to accomplish.
Whitney Houston was born and raised in New Jersey first in Newark and then in East Orange where her family moved to after the Newark race riots of 1967. As a kid, people began realizing Houston’s exceptional singing ability first exposing her talent at the family church where she sang solos constantly. It also helped that Houston came from a great lineage of singers with Aretha Franklin as her aunt, Dionne Warwick as her cousin, the great Phil Spector session singer Darlene Love as her godmother, and as her mother the gospel singer Cissy Houston. Cissy was part of the Sweet Inspirations, the group known for their background singing work for artists that included the aforementioned Aretha, Jimi Hendrix, Dusty Springfield, Van Morrison, Elvis, and so many others.
It was Cissy that guided Whitney into a singing career as she got older. Whitney started her recording career by singing backup as a teenager which is where she made her first record appearance at 14 on “Life’s A Party,” a 1977 disco song by the Michael Zager Band. Right away, labels were interested in signing Whitney but Cissy wouldn’t allow it at first wanting her daughter to finish school and gain more experience. For the next few years, Whitney continued to perform with her mother and also became a popular fashion model becoming for instance the first Black woman to appear on the cover of the teen magazine Seventeen in 1981.
It wasn’t until 1983 when Cissy did allow Whitney to sign with Arista after Clive Davis saw them performing at a New York nightclub at the suggestion of a label exec and liked what he had heard. Davis was quick to show off his new discovery with the country booking Whitney on a June 1983 episode of The Merv Griffin Show where she performed “Home,” a musical number from The Wiz. The next year, Whiney made her official singing debut with “Hold Me,” a collaboration with the R&B legend Teddy Pendergrass. The song was a minor Hot 100 hit peaking at #46 but did perform better with Black audiences peaking at #5 on the R&B charts, enough of an impact that it was tacked on as the album’s final track.
Work on the first album did not happen immediately. Davis and Arista wanted to make sure no other label was gonna sign Houston and when it came to getting songs and producers, not many were interested in working with a then-unknown talent. Davis eventually got a good group of people to work on the album including some that were already big in the industry and some that would go on to big careers. The producers included Kashif, a former member of the hit ‘70s funk group B.T. Express turned behind the scenes R&B hitmaker, Jermaine Jackson, brother of Michael and Janet, who collaborated with Houston on two tracks, Michael Masser, a former Motown songwriter who wrote and produced a good run of hit ballads, and Narada Michael Walden who only works on “How Will I Know” but through that became a reliable producer for fun ‘80s dance-pop. There are also some big names in the playing credits including future American Idol judge Randy Jackson on bass, future hitmaker Richard Marx on keyboards, and Cissy Houston herself singing backup.
Whitney Houston, the album, was released on Valentine’s Day 1985 but it did not set the world on fire immediately. Instead, Arista spent its rollout releasing singles that tested Houston’s wide crossover ability. Arista pushed the album’s opener, the smooth soul ballad “You Give Good Love,” as the lead single to follow “Hold Me” in establishing Houston with R&B/Black audiences first. The move worked with the song going #1 R&B and even crossed over very well to the wider pop audience going to #3 on the Hot 100.
That set the stage for the dominance to come with the next single “Saving All My Love For You,” a song Masser had co-written that was originally recorded in 1978 by the former Fifth Dimension singer Marilyn McCoo, becoming Houston’s first Hot 100 #1 in October 1985. With its more gloopy inoffensive feel, the song brought Houston from R&B into adult contemporary. Then with “How Will I Know,” Houston was able to crossover to the kids and MTV with its on-trend mid-‘80s dance-pop production. The singles ended in 1986 with “Greatest Love of All,” another song Masser co-wrote originally sung by George Benson for the 1977 Muhammad Ali biopic The Greatest, a show-stopping ballad for Houston to show off her impressive range.
From listening to Whitney Houston today over 35 years later, I’m conflicted in my views on the album. On the positive side, it’s an expert marketing ploy of a debut being able to pitch Houston to different audiences and succeeding heavily on all fronts. From R&B to adult contemporary to dance-pop, Houston’s voice fits really well to all of the tracks. As Stereogum’s Tom Breihan has pointed out in his reviews of Houston for his Number Ones column, a lot of Houston’s early songs basically exist as a showcase for her voice being able to seamlessly go from one climax to another and it works at that. Not many singers in the mid-‘80s really sounded like Whitney Houston so it’s easy to hear why she stood out and why she became so popular. Her success made it safe for other big-voiced female R&B and pop singers to get popular in the decades to come.
But while Houston sings great all over the album, I can’t say the songs really hold up. If there’s one thing Clive Davis was very big on having his artists release it was ballads no matter how sleepy and boring they were. The Michael Masser productions specifically stand out as among the weakest tracks of the album with his heavy reliance on schmaltzy ‘80s ballad hallmarks like the Yamaha DX7 keyboard that’s used on so many ‘80s and ‘90s ballads. All this means that Houston is doing a lot of heavy lifting in her singing to be able to work with the mediocre instrumentals and in many cases succeeds. A line like “I believe the children are our future” on “Greatest Love Of All” is silly on paper but Houston through her delivery gives it more of a profound meaning than it would have otherwise. A song like “Saving All My Love For You” should be easy to forget with all the keyboards and smooth jazz sax runs but Houston through mere talent and presence is able to make it memorable. That’s a talent not many singers have.
All of this makes a song like “How Will I Know” stand out a lot in a good way. Where much of the other songs on the album force Houston to sound more mature and older than she was at the time, “How Will I Know” allows her to let loose and have fun. She sounds excited singing about the uncertainty of whether this boy loves her or not and it’s hard not to feel excited with how fun the song is. While many people seem to remember Whitney Houston today for her ballads, don’t sleep on the uptempo jams. It’s the only moment on the album where the music comes to life with Houston’s singing.
The success of the singles helped to push Whitney Houston, the album, to #1 on the album chart in March 1986 after a 55-week climb, the longest climb to the top since Fleetwood Mac’s 1975 self-titled album. By that point, Houston had already become the next biggest star in music with no turning back. For the next album, 1987’s Whitney, Houston and team basically replicated the formula of the self-titled debut and it was another blockbuster. Whitney debuted at the top of the album chart after its June 1987 release becoming the first female artist to do that and the fifth album overall to do it in the period before SoundScan made it easier for albums to debut at #1. Singles-wise, Whitney had its first four singles reach #1 which led to seven consecutive #1 hits for Houston when added to the three from the self-titled album. This helped Houston break the record for most consecutive #1 hits beating out a tie between the Beatles and the Bee Gees.
Going into the ‘90s, Whitney Houston remained one of the most popular artists around. Her third album, 1990’s I’m Your Baby Tonight, spun off three more Top 10 hits including two #1s even if sales-wise it was a bit of a letdown from the first two albums. At the 1991 Super Bowl, she performed her acclaimed rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” which was so popular that it was released as a single first benefitting relief efforts in the Persian Gulf War reaching #20 on the Hot 100. It was more popular a decade later when her version was re-released after the 9/11 attacks and wound up peaking higher at #6, Houston’s last Top 10 hit in her lifetime.
Not long after that Super Bowl performance, Houston soon found herself acting in a film that would carry an absolute phenomenon of a soundtrack and that’s where we’ll pick up with Houston again.
Next time: Bon Jovi breaks glam metal into the mainstream with their immortal catchy singalongs on Slippery When Wet