Whitney Houston wasn’t yet 22 years old when Arista Records released her self-titled debut album on Valentine’s Day, 1985. Overseen by executive producer Clive Davis, Whitney Houston anticipated every style the singer would explore in her subsequent discography. 35 years later, nearly every song is a recognized classic and a cornerstone of the late singer’s career. Vinyl Me, Please, in association with Legacy Recordings and Arista, has just revisited Whitney Houston in a beautiful new 2-LP box set featuring the original album and a bonus disc of dance remixes.
Music was in both the bloodline and the spirit of Whitney Elizabeth Houston. The Newark, New Jersey native’s mom was Cissy Houston of The Sweet Inspirations, while Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick were her cousins. Aretha Franklin was a close family friend. Following in Cissy and the Warwicks’ footsteps, Whitney began performing at Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church, singing in the gospel choir as a featured soloist. She began to make inroads in the music business as a background vocalist, again echoing the path of some of her most famous relatives, and earned featured appearances on albums by Paul Jabara and Bill Laswell’s funk band Material. When Arista founder 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 and signed to the same label as Aretha and Dionne. Whitney Houston catapulted her from the nightclub stage to the world stage.
Davis, adhering to a practice which had by then become commonplace, enlisted multiple producers for Whitney Houston: in this case, four. Kashif, who made his Arista debut in 1983 and would team with Dionne Warwick in 1987 on “Reservations for Two,” was responsible for the album’s first two tracks. The shimmering “You Give Good Love,” written by La Forrest “LaLa” Cope, was youthfully fizzy yet sensual and just suggestive enough to attract minor controversy. The uptempo dancer “Thinking About You” by LaLa and Kashif emphasizes the rhythm in rhythm and blues. Kashif joined her on the light, bright duet.
Recent Arista signing Jermaine Jackson, fresh off a long run at Motown, got the plum assignment of producing three tracks including Peter McCann and Steve Dorff’s pulsating duet “Take Good Care of My Heart” which had previously appeared on his eponymous label debut in 1984. Jermaine is also heard on James P. Dunne and Pamela Phillips’ “Nobody Loves Me Like You Do.” Lyrically chockablock with memorable metaphors and similes, it boasted a chorus readymade for Houston to take to the stratosphere. Raymond Jones and Freddie Washington’s “Someone for Me” is dreamy teenage dance-pop, one of many tracks on Whitney Houston alluding to the singer’s young age.
Narada Michael Walden, who played a crucial role in Aretha Franklin’s career at Arista, produced Whitney’s perky rendition of George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam’s ebullient confection “How Will I Know.” Sparkling and joyful, it was originally offered to Jermaine’s little sister Janet. She passed on it, but her loss was Houston’s gain. “How Will I Know” was the perfect pop crossover, a dance groove that was – at heart – pure pop.
Composer Michael Masser, best known for his work at Motown including such beauties as Diana Ross’ chart-topping “Touch Me in the Morning” and “Do You Know Where You’re Going To (Theme from Mahogany),” helmed four tracks. (He had also produced Warwick in the studio at Arista.) His quartet of songs emphasized the adult contemporary side of the young star with the big voice, another crucial “crossover” in Davis’ plan to make Houston a superstar.
Marilyn McCoo introduced Masser and Gerry Goffin’s “Saving All My Love for You” on her 1980 LP Marilyn and Billy (with husband Billy Davis, Jr.) but Whitney made the smooth, soaring ballad her own. Following in the footsteps of the effortlessly elegant yet sultry McCoo is no small feat, but Houston added an urgency and fire to Gerry Goffin’s lyric and channeled deep soul in the sleek, pretty production by Masser. While the contour of the song is identical to McCoo’s version (produced by Masser and Davis), the composer updated the arrangement from Gene Page’s original. He kept the lush strings but dropped the busy background vocals and added session veteran Tom Scott’s saxophone solo. Seductive and romantic, “Saving All My Love for You” was adult pop that would have made Houston’s cousin Dionne proud. The ever-gracious McCoo had no hard feelings about Houston’s success with the song, praising her pure vocal delivery.
Masser co-wrote the heartbreaker of a ballad, “All at Once,” with former L.T.D. lead vocalist and future Warwick duet partner Jeffrey Osborne. While it was never released in the U.S. as a single, it received plenty of airplay anyway. It’s not hard to see why as its emotionally-escalating melody inspired a vocal tour de force from Whitney. The moving “Greatest Love of All,” co-written by Masser and Thom Bell’s frequent lyricist Linda Creed, already had been a hit record in George Benson’s rendition; in fact, the guitarist-singer’s 1977 recording gave Arista Records its very first top ten R&B chart entry. Houston had been singing “Greatest Love” in her club act which both Davis and Masser saw earlier in the ’80s. The Arista chief was initially reticent about her cover, relegating it to B-side status of “You Give Good Love.” But the public couldn’t get enough of it, and when released it on 45 RPM, it became not only a No. 1 hit but the most successful song on Whitney Houston and the third biggest single of her career. With its sweet, empowering message, earworm-worthy melody and lush arrangement with those dramatic modulations, it may be the ultimate Houston anthem – and the song that launched a thousand divas trying to emulate her success and sound.
Masser and Creed’s smoldering “Hold Me,” a duet with Teddy Pendergrass, had previously appeared in 1984 on the deep-voiced Philly soul man’s Love Language; Diana Ross had introduced the composition as “In Your Arms” on her RCA album Silk Electric a couple of years earlier. Masser freshly adapted and tailored his typically melodic, dynamic tune as a duet for Houston and Pendergrass who had an undeniable frisson. Conventional wisdom would resist the logic of having three duets with two well-established performers on a new artist’s debut album – for fear of being overshadowed – but such was Davis’ confidence in Whitney’s enormous talent.
That confidence paid off. Upon its release, 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. Whitney would shatter another record, too; those three Number Ones turned out to be just the first of seven consecutive chart-toppers. It also reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 after a staggering 55-week climb, and occupied that position for 14 non-consecutive weeks. To date, the album has sold over 22 million copies worldwide. One recognition that Houston didn’t receive was the Best New Artist Grammy, having been denied a nomination on the basis of her guest appearances on the Pendergrass and Jackson discs one year earlier. She did take home the coveted statue for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “Saving All My Love for You.”
For this 35th anniversary reissue, Vinyl Me Please has paired Whitney Houston with a 1986 Japan-exclusive 12-inch EP making its U.S. debut. Whitney Dancin’ Special is exactly what the title suggests: a special selection of floor-filling remixes which have retained their considerable luster. Its six tracks (three per each side of vinyl) include the Dance Remix and Instrumental Version of “How Will I Know,” the Extended Version of “You Give Good Love,” the Extended Dance Version and Dub Version of “Thinking About You,” and Remix of “Someone for Me.” (“You Give Good Love” is a bit of a ringer as it’s not changed or sped up from its original, mellow groove.) The No. 3 U.S. Dance success of “How Will I Know” set the stage for Whitney’s first No. 1 on that chart, Rubicam and Merrill’s effusive “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me).” (“Thinking About You” also reached a respectable peak of No. 24.) Whitney Dancin’ Special is a most complementary bonus for this set.
Both platters are housed in a sturdy, glossy gatefold tip-on jacket. The front and back covers are designed after Whitney Houston while the gatefold interior has two pages from the original Whitney Dancin’ Special insert including the liner notes written in Japanese. Oddly, the cover artwork for the EP isn’t included anywhere in the package. The disks themselves are on heavyweight 180-gram peaches-and-cream-colored vinyl pressed at GZ Vinyl, with period Arista labels (though not the font familiar from U.S. vinyl pressings). Sound quality is impeccable, and up to Vinyl Me Please’s high standards. The warm sound, quietly and tastefully mastered, comes courtesy of Mark Wilder (who transferred the analog master tapes at Sony’s Battery Studios) and Ryan Smith (who mastered at Sterling Sound).
The 35th Anniversary Edition produced by Pat and Donna Houston and Cameron Schaefer is lavishly designed by Clay Conder. Its rigid cloth slipcase houses the album gatefold as well as a clothbound, 32-page, coffee table-worthy book. Pat Houston, executor of the late singer’s estate, provides the foreword. Clive Davis, Narada Michael Walden, LaLa Cope, and author Mitchell Cohen have all contributed essays, and lyrics are reprinted in full. The book is copiously illustrated with photographs, memorabilia (including tape boxes, sheet music, and newspaper clippings), and single picture sleeves. Whitney’s own remembrances are also included.
This impressive release befits the stature of its artist. For those who own the 25th anniversary CD/DVD edition from Legacy (with some unique bonus material such an a cappella “How Will I Know” and a later live version of “The Greatest Love of All” from 1990), this is an ideal vinyl companion. 2022 will mark 35 years of Houston’s equally-excellent follow-up, Whitney; that one hasn’t been previously expanded on either vinyl or compact disc. (Vinyl Me, Please, are you listening?) TSD imagined one possible reissue concept way back in 2012; in any format, such an expansion is long overdue.
Whitney Houston had a once-in-a-lifetime voice. Ultimately a few stolen moments were all that we shared, but with this reissue, her pure, clarion sound happily is ringing out as beautiful and powerful as ever: eternally youthful, vibrant, and filled with rich possibilities.
Whitney Houston: 35th Anniversary Edition is shipping now from Vinyl Me, Please, and copies of this limited release are still available here!