Whitney Houston’s Whitney LP revisited with producer Narada Michael Walden

Whitney was released on June 2, 1987 by Arista Records. After selling over 13 million copies of her self-titled debut album, Whitney Houston once again graced the music masses with her vibrant presence and astounding vocal abilities. This formidable combination led to the creation of an album that would redefine music industry standards for a recording artist and ultimately her legacy.

Houston returned to the studio determined to capitalize on her newfound stardom as a solo recording artist on one of the most prominent music labels in the country. Her show stopping talents were on full display and she more than lived up to the extraordinary expectations placed on her after her groundbreaking debut effort.

This album would see Houston’s career ascend to heights unknown by not only a female recording artist, but a Black recording artist. Her popularity among the new MTV generation was at an all-time high and the demand to have more Black recording artists featured on the channel became a priority. With her model physique and soul stirring vocal capabilities, Houston was able to open doors for other Black artists during this time period in the same vein as Michael Jackson.

Under the tutelage of the legendary Clive Davis, her music would evolve into a more pop friendly direction. Following a similar format from her debut album, Davis enlisted the help of legendary producers Narada Michael Walden, Kashif Saleem, Michael Masser and Jellybean Benitez to solidify Houston as the single biggest act in the recording industry. Houston’s incomparable vocals were showcased on a stellar mixture of up tempo songs and ballads. As a result, Houston remained a dominant force on the Pop and R&B music charts.

Whitney Houston came from a musical family steeped in the Soul and Gospel musical traditions. Her mother, Cissy Houston was a singer for then well-known Soul group The Sweet Inspirations on Atlantic Records. Cissy Houston was also a much sought after recording session and background vocalist for many high profile artists in the 1960s and 1970s. Whitney Houston’s cousins Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick had achieved superstar status in their respective careers. Houston’s Godmother Aretha Franklin and her mother were quite instrumental in teaching her the gift of song.

At the tender age of 11, she began singing in her hometown church in New Jersey and by the time she reached high school, Houston was performing background vocals on records for Michael Zager’s Band, Chaka Khan, Lou Rawls and Jermaine Jackson. It was during this juncture where she traveled alongside her mother as she would perform in night clubs across the country. At one of these performances, Houston caught the eye of Arista Records A&R executive, Jerry Griffiths. Griffiths told label impresario Clive Davis about this new talent and upon seeing Houston perform, he wanted to sign her to a record deal. As the story goes, Houston signed to Arista Records in 1983, but wouldn’t release her solo effort until two years later.

Between the months of September 1986 and February 1987 Whitney was recorded at Tarpan Studios in San Rafael, California and various studios in New York, New York. Two years after releasing her debut, Houston would become one of the greatest recording artists on the planet.

SoulCulture recently sat down with Narada Michael Walden, the producer of seven tracks for the album to share his vision for creating a definitive record.

Walden recalls how he first became involved with Houston on her previous album and how he was chosen to do more production work for her follow up.

“It’s very simple really,” says Walden. “’How Will I Know’ was the fourth single and the fastest rising single off of Whitney’s first album. It was done very quickly by us and it was appreciated by Clive Davis. Jerry Griffith and Clive were happy that I could work with her so quickly. When the time came to do the second album, Clive began to show me songs that he was liking. We took those songs and moved quickly because they wanted a fast, but quality turn around on the product. Where they were at during that time it would have taken them years and years to make an album.

“So we worked quickly on the songs they were choosing. I remember Whitney really wanted to record a cover version of ‘For The Love Of You.’ It was the first song we cut for that album here at Tarpan Studios. She came in and we started doing her background vocals on the Isley Brothers track ‘For The Love Of You’ and it sounded so heavenly hearing her sing all of her own background parts. This is how we started making the second album.”

Walden discusses how arduous the process was during the making of the album and how easy it was working with Houston.

“It was a lot of work putting together this album,” says Walden. “One day, she would come into the studio at 4pm and sing from 7 to 8 pm. I would be there much earlier working on other things. After she would be done singing, I would get as much as I could from a production standpoint and stay until 1 or 2 am. I would put all of the best bits together and leave. I would tell my engineer to stay from 1 or 2 am until 6 am to bring it all together so it would be a seamless transition once I received the tapes from the recording in my hotel room when I’d wake up the next morning.

“I’d wake up at 8 or 9 am in the hotel to study all of that tape to return to the studio at 12 in the afternoon to tweak everything before she returned to work with us again at 4pm. So when she’d hear it all the next day she’d say, ‘Wow that sounds incredible! It sounds done.’ It was indeed done and we just had to add a little riff or harmony here and there to finish up the record.

“All of the raw energy she had from the day before would be in the recording, but it took us a lot of time to put together in one day because we had to stay up all hours of the night to edit it. But that was the best way to get the results out of Whitney so she wouldn’t lose momentum. If you do things quickly with her, she would stay excited and couldn’t wait to try the next parts. That was the trick for her. Everyone has a different type of psyche. Speed for Whitney was important. It stayed fun for her and it didn’t become a drag.

“She could hit all of the notes, but then the trick became putting all of the pieces of the puzzle together. Making records are like putting together puzzles because when one line ends it goes into another. It’s important that everything ties in together. To work with her was a great tool. She was wonderful in taking direction as well. We were an excellent team together and I’m very happy with the results of our collaborations. We just had that certain type of magic.”

Walden spoke on his mindset as a producer when it came to producing songs for the album.

“You pray to God for the right inspirations,” says Walden. “And with the songs Clive and them were picking you want to do your best to make them turn out great. My goal in producing a pop song is making it for everyone. I want to make it work for the people in the ghettos, Whites, Blacks, and just people all over the world.”

Walden remembers how the lead single “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” came to fruition.

“On ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ I brought in the handclaps and things that really make the song swing for everyone,” says Walden. “I brought out the 808 bass drums, which were brand new at that time to bring in some more flavor for the record. I had to think about how to make the sound unique and how it was going to work with a hit chorus. I also had to think about how it was going to hit on the dance floors in New York, Detroit and Europe. Good things usually happens when you get a good spirit of happiness and a dose of funk in the music. If you have the funk, then the rhythm can travel around and around and it will effect you.

“When I received ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ it was a pop demo so I had to try to make it more ghetto. Ghetto meaning more Black, more rough and more ready for the club. I brought in Randy Jackson to play the mote bass on the record and the guitar part is being really funked out by Corrado Rustici. Preston Glass was involved with helping me program some of the drum machines at that time. Whitney sang the song beautifully. I recall when we got to the ending where she was singing, ‘Say you want to dance, don’t you want to dance, say you want to dance,’ I thought it was great for a B chorus idea and it turned into a chant. The chant took the song up another notch and it became a number one smash hit across the entire world.”

“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” went on to peak at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #2 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart and #1 on the UK Singles Chart. It helped to generate steam for the sales of Whitney after its release. This single soared to the top of the charts in 11 different countries during the calendar year of 1987 and it became one of Houston’s signature songs across the globe.

The second single to be released from the album would be the heartfelt ballad, “Didn’t We Almost Have It All.” It was written and produced by Michael Masser. “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #2 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart and #14 on the UK Singles Chart.

The next song to be released from the album would be the infectious up tempo record, “So Emotional.” Walden briefly recalls why it was chosen to be on the album; “The song ‘So Emotional’ is one song I remember Clive Davis picking because he thought it was going to be a number one record.”

“So Emotional” was written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly and it became the third consecutive number one record from this album for Houston placing her in esteemed company. This song became her sixth number one record tying a previous mark set by the Beatles and the Bee Gees. It peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #2 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart and #5 on the UK Singles Chart.

The next single to be released from the album would be the iconic “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.” Walden spoke on the historical significance of the record and the inspiration behind it.

“’Where Do Broken Hearts Go’ was the seventh number one song in a row for Whitney,” says Walden. “This song beat the Beatles record of having six number one songs in a row. This triumph made not only Clive Davis proud, but everyone who was associated in making the record. This song once again visited the topic of going deep into your heart where it’s hurt and how do you transfer that pain so people can feel it like when you hear Jimmy Ruffin’s old Motown hit, ‘What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted.’ See, this is how I get my inspiration. I think of records from other eras that really touched me because of how they felt. I tried to duplicate it in a song such as ‘Where Do Broken Hearts Go.’ It has be that kind of heart wrenching request to God asking, ‘Where can this pain go?” It’s one of the reasons why it feels so beautiful because it’s the honest request and an honest answer.’

“Where Do Broken Hearts Go” peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #2 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart and #14 on the UK Singles Chart.

The final two singles to be released from the album would be the dance record “Love Will Save The Day” written by Toni C. and produced by John “Jellybean” Benitez and “I Know Him So Well” written by Tim Rice, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and produced by Narada Michael Walden.

“Love Will Save The Day” peaked at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #5 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart and #10 on the UK Singles Chart.

Walden recollects the experience of working with Houston and her mother during the recording of “I Know Him So Well” and a story of working with her previously.

“I Know Him So Well” came from a play called Chess,” says Walden. “This song was also chosen by Clive Davis. He was touched by the song when he heard it during the play and he wanted Whitney to record the song. I was so grateful to have Cissy Houston and Whitney come here to record the song with me. It was a knock out to hear the mother singing to the daughter and the daughter singing to the mother about God.

“Cissy Houston actually sung background vocals on my debut record, Garden of Love Light in 1976. In the corner of the studio we were recording in at the time was a young Whitney. Little did I know, I’d be working with her a few years later on her own project. She was there in the studio singing with her mother even back then.”

“I Know Him So Well” was only released as a single in Australia, Germany, Netherlands and Spain.

Walden provides insight on how the remaining songs of the album came together.

“’Just The Lonely Talking Again’ was a song chosen by Clive Davis and he was crazy about that song,” says Walden. “He said he had to have that intimate feel on the record. I broke out the brushes out on my snare drums and gave that type of vibe throughout the entire song. Everything on the record was very delicate and her vocals were seamless. I was really trying to make the song smoky.”

“Just The Lonely Talking Again”:

“’Love Is a Contact Sport’ was a song written by the great Preston Glass. He helped bring that song to us and Clive loved it. We were off to the races after we received the green light from Clive. We sought out to make the song smoking hot for Whitney. Whitney’s vocals on that record and on all of the records were just so powerful. She had a sound and a bolt of electricity in her voice and soul that was so easy to feel in her every move. It’s one of the many reasons why she has become the star she is not to mention she’s absolutely gorgeous to look at.”

“Love Is a Contact Sport”:

“’For The Love Of You’ is a song Whitney wanted to record badly. It was the first song we cut for the album. All of the background vocal parts were so intricate that we had to get those done first. Kenny G played a saxophone solo on this record as well.

“For The Love Of You”:

The remaining songs on the album were “Where You Are” written by LeMel and Dyan Humes and James Calabrese and produced by Kashif and “You’re Still My Man” written by Gerry Goffin and Michael Masser and produced by Michael Masser.

Walden remembers a brief conversation about how Houston felt before the release of the album.

“I recall asking Whitney when we were in New York was she nervous about the second album coming out,” says Walden. “She told me, ‘No, I’m not nervous because if they loved me the first time, they will love me now.’ I was so taken aback by her confidence and I told her she was a whole new breed of artist.”

Whitney peaked at #1 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart in the early summer of 1987 and it found its way to the top of the charts in ten different countries and has went on to sell more than 47 million albums worldwide. Houston became the first female recording artist to have an album debut at #1 on the Billboard Music Charts. It stayed atop the charts for eleven consecutive weeks and on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart for an unprecedented seventy five weeks between 1987 and 1988. The album has achieved multi-platinum status in 12 countries and its lasting effect on popular culture is undeniable.

To this day, it’s regarded as the one of the greatest albums from the 1980s and remains one the highest selling albums of her career. This album earned a plethora of Grammy, Billboard, American Music Award and Soul Train Music Award nominations and wins for Houston. Whitney set the standard for other Pop infused R&B records for not only the remainder of the 1980s, but to present day. Every aspiring female vocalist in any genre has been influenced by the vocal prowess of Houston. This album has been recognized for every award under the sun and rightfully so. It contains all of the essential ingredients for a classic album and it shall be remembered as being one of the greatest albums ever recorded.

Walden mentions how important Houston was in shaping the sound of the next generation.

“She was truly a phenomenon,” says Walden. “Every now and then someone like a Whitney Houston will come along and change everything. There was a new standard to aspire to when Whitney arrived on the scene. There was also a new standard on how to sing a ballad, how to produce a ballad, how to have number one records with a ballad and how to have number one records with dance songs.

“Every now and then there is a new step for humanity. I think Whitney forged new ground with her performances and just overall. We had a new way to look at this whole music game. She took from the elegance of Diana Ross, the power of Aretha Franklin mixed with some Lena Horne, Josephine Baker and her cousin Dionne Warwick. When you put all of those factors together, you get Whitney Houston. We all had to surrender to her talent. She had a gift that God put together in His own unique and special way.”

Whitney Houston – Whitney
Released: June 2, 1987
Label: Arista Records
Buy: iTunes UK / Amazon UK / Amazon US

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