In wee morning hours of May 1987, Tim, Stefanie and I were bleary-eyed but determined.
We huddled excitedly around an FM radio at 7:30 a.m. in Skidmore’s Jonsson Tower residence hall for release of Whitney Houston’s debut single “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” from her second studio album, Whitney. Yes we were groupies: we boarded Nippy Train early with Whitney’s eponymous album featuring hits like “You Give Good Love” and “How Will I Know.”
The Narada Michael Walden-produced “Wanna Dance” pop nugget eventually reached No. 1 in 13 countries. Back then Whitney was criticized for being “not black enough” and pandering to a pop audience. These slams seemed dopey at the time to me (Rev. Al Sharpton referred to her as “Whitey Houston”); Whitney is and always was, to those of us paying attention, a child of gospel music.
RELATED: IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN ‘WONDERFUL COUNSELOR‘ YOU SIMPLY MUST
— Kygo (@KygoMusic) June 28, 2019
Cut to today and we’ve a newly unearthed, remixed Whitney cover of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love“, courtesy of Norwegian songwriter and producer Kygo. (Writer’s note: I reached out to Kygo via Twitter and will add comment if and when I hear back.) The track is everything you’d expect: uplifting, spiritual and a legit toe-tapper.
Release of this tune in 2019 means “Higher Love” has come full circle
About a year prior to Whitney’s “I Wanna Dance” single, Steve Winwood released “Higher Love,” which was his first-ever Billboard No. 1 song. After Winwood performed at Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) in early September 1986, the song (along with the entire “Back in the High Life” record) became an anthem for our Skidmore College freshman class—a marker that endures to present day.
Back then “Higher Love” was unique in that it was *already* a gospel-infused tune, with driving beats and backing vocals by legendary “Queen of Funk” Chaka Khan. (When her riff would come during the end of the song bestie gal pal Rachel Harris Brown and I would scream “sing it, Chaka!”)
My take: without Chaka Khan’s backing vocals the song would not be the enduring hit it is today. I’ll also go out on a limb and guess (short of interviewing folks to whom I’ve reached out) that Whitney, a close friend of Khan’s, heard “Higher Love” with Chaka’s vocals and decided to arrange and record it herself. Don’t forget Whitney covered Chaka’s “I’m Every Woman,” too. From UK’s The Independent:
Houston’s vocals on the track were originally recorded for her third album I’m Your Baby Tonight, until she decided to shift into a more R&B direction. Her original cover of ‘Higher Love’ was subsequently only released as a bonus track on the Japanese version of the album.
“I’m Your Baby Tonight” was released as a bit of a middle-finger to those critics who called Whitney “not black enough.” If those folks hadn’t freaked out to the extent they did in the late 80s we might’ve been blessed by her version of “Higher Love” sooner.
In her own right Whitney Houston was a prolific music arranger—a largely unrecognized talent dwarfed by her legendary voice and tabloid life. (Writer’s note: if you’re reading this and have first-hand knowledge of her arranging skills or backstory of “Higher Love” cover please reach out so we can do an interview.) According to AllMusic she arranged music for The Bodyguard and “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” her record collaboration with Babyface & L.A. Reid.—but I’m certain she arranged a lot more than that.
So here we are: Houston was booed at ’89 Soul Train Awards and certain African-American radio stations refused to play her music. Today crossover appeal is required for any legit artist to be successful; seven years after Whitney’s death she’s inspiring us all over again with a rousing gospel take on “Higher Love.”
Make no mistake: her church roots ran deep and was always a gospel artist at heart. Some of us were just too dumb to see it. 🔵
Writer’s note: this entire post would not have been possible without Greg Hogben (@MyDaughtersArmy) posting to Twitter; thanks Greg
— William Barr’s Jumpy Polygraph Test (@bywillpollock) June 28, 2019
Gorgeous! It is so nice to hear her voice
— Larry Flick (@LarryFlick) June 28, 2019
Will Pollock is a perpetually crabby New York City escapee based in Midtown Atlanta. He’s a freelance multimedia journalist, media analyst and author of two books (award-wining Pizza for Good & Leaving Triscuit), with more on the way.
In 2001, Will earned his Masters from The Medill School of Journalism, graduating with highest honors from the magazine sequence. As permanent member of Journalism’s National Honors Society, he’s been active in monitoring, writing and blogging about media and journalism ever since he graduated.
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