Whitney Houston – I Will Always Love You

First Hit #1: November 28, 1992

Whitney Houston’s music was inevitably focused on the voice. The decision to start her version of I Will Always Love You with just her voice was something that seems like she should have done before. It’s a simple touch, but it sets the tone quickly and allows the audience to calibrate their expectations: This recording is all about Whitney Houston, singer. It’s also a love song, of course, but that is almost incidental, this is going to be a virtuoso performance by a gifted singer and we’re going to keep the hell out of her way.

She doesn’t start out aggressively, she’s doing a slow build, starting gently and then increasingly adding force until we hit the moment where she unleashes the full brunt of her vocal attack. Houston is dedicated to showing her entire emotional range here, and the arrangement is satisfyingly minimal. It doesn’t need more than Houston, she probably didn’t need an arrangement at all.

It’s at about 3:10 in the video that really defines the song. It’s the point where we get full concentrate Houston, the sound drops out, she looks up, and she unleashes, going right to the edge of her range and turning someone else’s song into her own. It’s not a subtle moment, but Houston’s not a subtle person, instead she’s someone who knows the sheer power of her own vocal ability. She harnesses all of it into one torrent of sound, and she caps off a song which has shown that no matter what challengers might arise, Houston has a voice, and that voice can do anything.

It since became her signature song and one of the best selling singles ever released. Sure, it’s a cover of a Dolly Parton song and on the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, but that’s incidental. Sure, it probably is directly responsible for the over-singing a lot of wannabe starlets do on shows like American Idol, hell it is probably directly responsible for the entire existence of shows like American Idol and The Voice, because it’s a recording where the vocal defines the whole thing. It’s a song that’s about the performance, and it’s about showing that Whitney Houston’s voice is one of the great ones in popular music.

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One Response to Whitney Houston – I Will Always Love You

  1. RBerman says:

    Structurally, this song is a standard late 1950s I-vi-IV-V ballad which sounded “retro” even in Dolly Parton’s original 1973 version, moreso when she re-recorded it in 1982 for a film soundtrack. It topped the country charts both times. Dolly talks the third verse, which gives Whitney even more freedom to vamp a melody there in her rendition.

    The lyrics make perfect sense in the context of Dolly leaving her musical partnership with Opry star Porter Wagoner to become a solo artist. At the time, it seemed like, “Ingénue no longer riding on coattails of established star,” though in retrospect it was really more like, “Tomorrow’s superstar no longer tied down by yesterday’s journeyman star.” But instead of a “Don’t You Want Me, Baby?” style kiss-off, Parton lets him down easily. The verse lyrics don’t fit the plot of Houston’s film vehicle “The Bodyguard” so well, but the only lyric anyone cared about is the chorus, a single line repeated over and over like the libretto of an opera, which like this song really just serves as an excuse for a talented vocalist to soar and plunge and wheel.

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