Tuesday, 2 June 2009

1985: Whitney Houston: Saving All My Love For You

The vantage point of hindsight can reveal some terrible landscapes. Take Whitney Houston. "For the next generation there's a singer who combines the fiery gospel of Aretha Franklin with the stunning elegance and the beauty of lyric phrasing of Lena Horne and she is Whitney Houston". Clive Davis said that, and though as President of Arista records (Whitney's label) he could be said to be biased, he also makes a good case.

There is no doubt that Ms Houston can sing. Daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston, cousin of Dionne Warwick, niece to Thelma Houston and godchild to Aretha Franklin, there's is no way any of that line up would have let her near a microphone if she was going to embarrass herself. And on 'Saving All My Love For You' she doesn't.

It's a strange song for any 22 year old from a gospel background to tackle at the outset of a career, based as it is on the viewpoint of the 'other woman' in an adulterous relationship:

"A few stolen moments is all that we share

You've got your family and they need you there
Though I've tried to resist being last on your list
But no other man's gonna do
So I've saving all my love for you"

It's heady stuff, and by trying to make a virtue of horsing around with another woman's husband (made more explicit in the video), Houston risked the wrath of wronged women the world over and a negative backlash that could have sunk her career before it had properly started. And yet as soon as she opens her mouth to sing the opening lines, all thoughts of Houston as possible being a 'bad girl' melt away with her hypnotic delivery.

Forget the singer she became, running through the scales simply because she could and hanging on to every note until it died on the vine, Houston's phrasing on this is immaculate. There's restraint where restraint is needed and when she soars, it's because she is emphasising the depth of her love and devotion in a way that the song demands and not showing off in a 'look at me' way.

For once, Houston is singing the song instead of trying to steamroller it flat and the fact that 'Saving All My Love For You' has a lyric by Gerry Goffin means it has a depth that much of the later flim flam she was given to record sorely lacked. It's an adult song with adult themes and yet Houston tackles it with a confidence and assurance that belies her age. Michael Masser's subtle musical backing and production wisely remains muted, almost to the point of slipping into muzak, in order to play second fiddle to Houston's delivery which he knows is the true star here.

For a while at least it seemed that Davis's comments would ring true, that a baton had been passed from those illustrious members of her extended family and that a new chapter in this dynasty was about to be written. Sadly, it was not to be. Houston would go on to have incredible musical success and more number ones would follow, but the brash and over the top road she would follow was at the expense of the raw emotional honesty she displayed on this recording and it always reminds me of some rich kid with the best car money can buy but not the first idea of how to drive it properly.

The whole package of 'Saving All My Love For You' is an American Tragedy in microcosm, an observation hammered home with that sleeve image of the fresh faced Houston ready to conquer the world as another Aretha or another Dionne. Hindsight reveals she followed a much different path, one less concerned about soul and more about substance, be it purely fiscal or the 'more is better' attitude. The most frustrating thing was how quickly she got sidetracked down these roads that, although were wide and straight, never led anywhere particularly interesting. And certainly not to anywhere you'd want to visit again. Shame.

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