I was one of the few people who bought Whitney Houston's self-titled debut album during the week it was released in 1985 (it opened at a whopping #166 on the Billboard LP charts). I remember vividly seeing Houston appear on television during the week of the release and I was stunned by her presence, her voice and the songs she was singing. I didn't know where her career would go from there, but for that moment she appeared to be the hottest new singer I had seen in years.
Well, the twenty-five years since that release have been, ahem, eventful. Like the quarter century anniversary reissue of Thriller two years ago, Whitney Houston - The Deluxe Anniversary Edition, the supersized re-release of Whitney Houston's monster debut album -- the biggest selling debut by a solo artist ever -- commemorates not only a hugely popular album by a seminal artist, but also a musical time that seems like a millennium ago. These were the halcyon days of the major music labels: there was no file sharing ("piracy" was pretty much limited to homemade mix tapes), no internet radio or podcasts, and few paths to mass media that didn't go through the majors. More specifically, the labels had the power and resources to take the near-unlimited potential and appeal of a prospect like 22 year old Whitney Houston and create a star.
While the star-making machine was part of the equation, Whitney was another part. Born into a soul music family, stunningly beautiful, and with a bright, big voice that was still on the upswing, she was a music marketer's dream. Discovered by the already legendary record executive Clive Davis at age 19 singing "The Greatest Love of All," Houston was a phenomenon waiting to happen, and Davis knew it. He spent nearly three years preparing the stage for her grand entrance as popular music's new diva and the crowning achievement for his fast growing Arista Records.
So with the artist and the system in place, all that was needed was the album to complete the equation. While the typical record label approach was to team a singer with a single producer who would shape a consistent theme throughout the album, Davis, as Executive Producer, was both more strategic and more ambitious. He orchestrated a posse of A-List contributors for the debut, each with a specific purpose in creating the musical version of a variety show. Pulling in the hottest dance-funk producers of the day (Narada Michael Walden, Kashif) for several upbeat cuts and adding big ballad hitmaker Michael Masser to provide adult contemporary material, Davis was guaranteeing maximum shots on goal for world domination, betting Houston could conquer multiple radio formats. Most of all, he made sure that each song on the disc was as accessible as possible. His approach became the template for not only Houston's future albums, but for the next two-plus decades of albums by major pop stars ranging from Celine Dion to Mariah Carey. The result of all these factors was the self-titled Whitney Houston, an album that turned Whitney from Cissy Houston's daughter to the most popular female singer in the world.
Listening to The Deluxe Anniversary Edition now, 25 years later, provides a much different perspective than the original version seemed to provide in 1985. Admittedly, it is now difficult to look past the terribly dated electronic 80s arrangements, particularly on the album's weakest songs, "Someone For Me" and "Thinking About You," which sound downright silly today. But time has been kind to much of the disc, revealing just as many positive surprises, the biggest being "You Give Good Love." I must admit, while I thought that the lead hit single from the album was just okay when first released, it sounds monumentally better today, a fantastic urban adult contemporary song and the undoubted highlight of the album. And while the urbane "You Give Good Love" showed Houston as a sophisticated adult singer, Walden's bouncy "How Will I Know" and Masser's beautiful ballad "All At Once" succeeded by capitalizing on Houston's youthful, wide-eyed approach -- and because they were gloriously hooky. Often forgotten but nearly as enjoyable are the two duets with Jermaine Jackson, "Take Good Care of My Heart" and the mild country-flavored "Nobody Loves Me Like You Do," which sounds adorably earnest despite its Crystal Gayle-lite production.
Houston's development as an artist over the course of her career is best demonstrated by the treacly Michael Masser number, "The Greatest Love of All." While "Greatest" topped the charts in '86, Houston's performance (which she says required at least 50 "takes") sounds big but incomplete, artistically just a fraction of what she would accomplish later on songs like "I Have Nothing" and "I'm Every Woman." It is weaker than both the George Benson version that preceded it by a half decade and the live version of the song that is included as a bonus on this disc.
I quite enjoyed hearing The Deluxe Anniversary Edition and watching the accompanying DVD (which includes music videos from the album and interviews with Davis and Houston). Musically, the disc is less than it seemed 25 years ago, a relatively conservative but well executed pop excursion. It was ambitious in how was made, but not in the outcome, which was a competent album filled with a bunch of radio-ready hits, aging somewhat better than contemporary releases by Duran Duran and Lionel Richie but without the lasting musical impact of Thriller, Born In the USA or even Purple Rain. Perhaps what is most fun about hearing Deluxe is remembering the epiphany of the time those of us, now our forties, first saw Whitney and heard that voice, even though it would just get better over the next few years. Her arrival brought instant star power to our generation, a one of a kind singer who sounded like an angel...and looked great in all those cool wigs. Recommended, again.
By Chris Rizik