- Nick Levine
- Special for BBC Culture
Whitney Houston’s recording of I Will Always Love You it was not only a success, but an unstoppable cultural phenomenon.
The lead single from the film’s soundtrack The Bodyguard (“The Bodyguard”), released in November 1992, topped the Billboard top 100 for 14 consecutive weeks (then a record) and won two Grammy Awards. Now, 30 years later, it remains the best-selling single of all time by a female artist.
The album, which garnered four more Houston hits including I’m Every Woman Y I Have Nothingsold 45 million copies worldwide.
I Will Always Love You was originally written and recorded in 1973 by Dolly Parton, who la conceived as a tribute and farewell a his mentor Porter Wagoner.
Parton’s charming, understated version turned out to be a No. 1 hit on America’s Top Country Songs chart, but the singer has always been kind to the way Houston turned the lyrics into a power ballad.
Recalling the first time she heard Houston’s version, Parton said in 2020: “It was one of the most overwhelming feelings I’ve ever had hearing it so good and so beautiful and so big. I had no idea I had written a song. It could be so important… He just took her and made her more than she ever would have been.”
Houston’s performance captivated the world because it combines unnerving technique with a candid reading of Parton’s tender handwriting. From the moment she sings “so I’ll go, but I know I’ll think of you every step of the way,” it’s clear that Houston delivers a vocal performance of exceptional quality.
“Whitney knew how to use the full range of her voice to emotionally connect with the song and create that drama,” says Dami Im, a Korean-Australian singer-songwriter who has been influenced by Houston.
Vocal coach Yvie Burnett believes that I Will Always Love You It’s a “masterpiece” due to the “excellent combination of what Whitney does vocally combined with the perfect production of David Foster”, a music industry veteran who had previously worked with Celine Dion and Aretha Franklin.
Control of Houston during the opening to capthe A of the song is a vital ingredient.
“Whitney begins the song holding back all her vocal abilities and trusting in raw emotion,” Burnett tells BBC Culture. “Then when the music kicks in, she maintains that ethereal vocal quality, hitting the highest notes perfectly while she stays quiet and restrains her vocal force.”
She finds this “incredible creation” makes Houston’s subsequent vocal “fireworks” at the song’s climax all the more poignant. “Either she’s an amazing actress,” Burnett adds, “or she’s experienced these feelings in real life. In which case, she’s telling us her story.”
An example for other singers
Either way, Burnett describes Houston’s interpretation of I Will Always Love You What “one of the most important vocal performances of our generation”. This is not an exaggeration: along with hero by Mariah Carey and My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion, set a very high bar, and model, for many singers looking to break into the popular early-2000s TV shows.
Leona Lewis, who achieved a number one transatlantic hit with Bleeding Love in 2007, a year after winning the British version of The X Factorsaid at the time: “When I was a kid, I used to listen to Whitney Houston [y] Mariah Carey. Those kinds of big, powerful singers. That influences my music and a lot of the songs I like to sing.”
In fact, it could be argued that Houston’s vocal performance was too influential. Vocal coaches Carrie and David Grant, who have worked with contestants on British talent shows pop idol Y fame academyas well as artists like Demi Lovato and the Spice Girls, say that Houston’s most famous songs became a gold standard which was rarely achievable.
“Almost every singer we taught or auditioned for about five years wanted to master I Will Always Love You either The Greatest Love of All either I Have Nothing“, comments Carrie Grant to BBC Culture. “Most of [ellos] They should have tried something a bit easier: many singers have been eliminated in an attempt to make Whitney!“
David Grant believes that Houston’s influence “cannot be underestimated” because “for most singers, she was the voice of her generation.” Although she became known for singing pop, soul, and R&B music, Grant notes that you could always hear the “roots gospel” (gospel music) of her in her singing.
The daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston, a long-time Aretha Houston backing vocalist, and a Grammy-winning artist in her own right, Whitney honed her vocal skills in the gospel choir at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey. “Even if they had the riffs (singing with different musical notes in the same syllable), many of those who followed her could not reflect this story,” adds Grant.
Bringing R&B to the mainstream
I Will Always Love You it remains Houston’s best-selling single, but she had already enjoyed seven years of worldwide success when she released it. Between 1985 and 1987, he had a record seven numbers. 1 in a row in the Top 100 of bill board with songs that include Saving All My Love for You, I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me) and So Emotional.
“Whitney was the standard bearer for a line of great R&B singers, from the ’60s with Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin to the ’70s with Gladys Knight and Patti Labelle,” says David Grant. “But what she did was bring R&B to a bigger market than any of them.
Without Whitney, there would arguably not have been a mass market for Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé or Jennifer Hudson.”
not everyone loved her
Houston’s success as an artist, who could sing pop, soul, rock, R&B, and dance music, was unprecedented at the time, but she wasn’t popular across the board. She was booed by audience members at the 1989 Soul Train Awards, a ceremony that recognizes the best in soul, R&B, and hip-hop music.
Houston addressed this incredibly awkward moment in a 1991 interview on The Arsenio Hall Show, saying, “I think I get a lot of flak about ‘I sing too white’ or ‘I sing…white’ or something like that.” She added defiantly: “I sing the way God intended me to sing and I’m using what he gave me and I’m using it to the best of my ability.”
Much of this criticism faded in subsequent decades as the full scale of its impact became apparent. After Houston’s death in February 2012, Beyoncé posted a moving tribute to the artist who had long inspired her.
“I, like all singers, always wanted to be like her. His voice was perfect. Strong but relaxing. moving and classic“, Beyoncé wrote. “She is our queen and she opened doors and provided a role model for all of us.”
At the Grammy Awards the previous year, Lady Gaga named Houston when she picked up the trophy for Best Pop Vocal Album. “I need to thank Whitney Houston tonight,” Gaga said. “I wanted to thank Whitney because when I wrote Born This WayI imagined she was singing it, because I wasn’t sure enough of myself to imagine I was a superstar.” More than a decade after her death, Houston’s place in music history is secure. This December , Bafta-winning actress Naomi Ackie plays her in I Wanna Dance with Somebody, a brilliant Hollywood biopic in the mold of Elton John’s Rocketman and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
But at the same time, the kind of powerful singing that he exemplified with I Will Always Love You has gone out of style. “The definition of ‘singer’ has gotten broader,” says David Grant.
“For a while, if you couldn’t sing as high or play the riff as fast as Whitney or Mariah, you didn’t qualify for the title of ‘great singer’. But vocal styles go in cycles and in this cycle the singers are more likely to sound like Rihanna or Amy Winehouse.”
Carrie Grant argues that the growing popularity of Auto-Tune, a production tool that corrects small imperfections in vocal pitch, means that having “great tonal quality” is no longer a prerequisite for singers hoping to climb the charts.
He also points out that bombastic and powerful ballads like I Will Always Love You they are no longer in fashion. But, in his opinion, “torch” or outstanding singers still exist, such as Adele.
Still, Houston’s work on hits like I Will Always Love You continues to be inspiring. “She raised the bar for all female vocalists with her use of range and dynamics”, says Dami Im. “She has shown me that vocally you can be so delicate and gentle and also extremely powerful when you need to be.”
It’s fair to say that 30 years after its release, Houston’s interpretation of I Will Always Love You it remains the Olympic gold standard of performances.
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“I Will Always Love You”: the reasons why Whitney Houston’s legendary song captivated the world