SoulTracks Lost Gem: Whitney Houston found strength “On My Own”

(August 9, 2017) Publisher's Note: As we commemorate what would have been Whitney Houston's 54th birthday, our Justin Kantor takes a look back at a "Lost Gem" from the latter part of her career

After a decade and a half of continuous hit-making, the early 2000s were trying times for the late, great Whitney Houston. Where her classic balladry and trendsetting dance numbers had previously shined over tabloid fodder, her personal turmoils steadily began to acquire more public interest than her recording efforts in the new millennium. But not for lack of quality material or performances.

(August 9, 2017) Publisher's Note: As we commemorate what would have been Whitney Houston's 54th birthday, our Justin Kantor takes a look back at a "Lost Gem" from the latter part of her career

After a decade and a half of continuous hit-making, the early 2000s were trying times for the late, great Whitney Houston. Where her classic balladry and trendsetting dance numbers had previously shined over tabloid fodder, her personal turmoils steadily began to acquire more public interest than her recording efforts in the new millennium. But not for lack of quality material or performances.

Perhaps the most glaring commercial casualty of this period was a striking ballad entitled “Try It on My Own” (or, simply “On My Own” in some countries), which was released as the third single from Houston’s 2002 CD, Just Whitney. With a remarkable songwriting team including R&B king Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, pop legend Carole Bayer Sager, and Babyface’s nephew, Jason Edmonds (today a member of After 7), the song had all the makings of a classic anthem. SoulTracks’ Justin Kantor recently spoke with Jason about the backstory of the tune, which was briefly discussed in Sager’s memoirs, They’re Playing Our Song.

Jason Edmonds: “Try It on My Own” actually started as another song that myself, Nathan Walton, and Tavia Ivey were coming up with at a different recording studio than the one Babyface was working in at the time. I was at the piano, playing groups of chords, and the three of us wrote completely different lyrics over that. We were really excited to get it to Face and have him hear it, so we recorded a demo and immediately drove over to his studio.

As he listened, he asked me to come over to the piano and show him what I was doing with certain chord changes. He loved it, and also suggested that we go in a couple of different directions with certain parts. So, the B-section [sings: “I’ll live my life the way I feel/No matter what, I’ll keep it real”] he chorded out. Nathan, Tavia, and I had written a song about love, but Face knew the inside scoop of Whitney’s album and where she was in life. He asked, “Would you guys mind if I got Carole Bayer Sager on the song to take a look at some of these lyrics?” We were thrilled!

Face called her on the phone, got her on the speaker, and they worked out the record—basically rewrote the entire song—with us sitting right there. It was magic. I had written professionally at this point for Boyz II Men and 3LW; but to be sitting and listening to two mega-hitmakers just write a song off the cuff, on the phone! Carole was just hearing Face play. She wasn’t there in the studio to go off of a certain vibe; she was just going off of her feelings. And a lot of how the final song turned out was from her wordplay.

A week later, Whitney recorded her vocals for “Try It on My Own.” I wasn’t in on that session, but Face called me to come in for the string session conducted by Bill Meyers. He had a 70-piece orchestra with a fully drafted song structure. That’s the first session I was in where I actually had tears in my eyes—just to hear them playing this amazing arrangement to my little chords.

I was lucky to have birthed the original melodic structuring of the song, but Carole and Face are really the heart of it. What people loved about it is really what they brought to the table. They were on the same page of doing something positive, talking about where Whitney was at that moment and how she was trying to bring herself out of it. You never really know what all factors into success—or lack of it—when you release a song. But I think the fact that the song didn’t go to the heights we thought it would might have had to do with changes in music at that time. People really didn’t know what was going on with ballads, in general. Also, Whitney was dealing with a lot of things that made headlines, so I’m not sure that everyone was 100 percent open to hearing that message from her.

Ultimately, “Try It on My Own” became a #1 dance record in the U.S., thanks to a handful of remixes by the likes of Maurice Joshua, Thunderpuss, MaUVe, and Pound Boys. Although the original version only reached the lower end of the R&B and pop charts stateside, it reached the top 40 in Canada and also became a top-10 adult-contemporary hit in America. Supported by a charming video which brought to mind "The Greatest Love of All" with a twist, the song undoubtedly stands as one of Houston's finest ballads, regardless of its chart statistics.

by Justin Kantor 
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