In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
“Anything that was too ‘Black-sounding’ was sent back to the studio.” That’s Kenneth Reynolds, a former Arista executive, speaking in the 2017 documentary Whitney: I Can Be Me. Whitney Houston, the young gospel-trained phenom, absolutely had what it took to be an R&B star; that much was obvious. But Clive Davis, the man who signed Houston, wanted more. He saw her as a crossover senstation, as someone who could appeal to audiences all across the various arbitrary boundaries imposed by radio formatting. But if Whitney Houston was going to become a crossover sensation, she couldn’t be an R&B singer. She couldn’t sound too Black.
The Clive Davis model worked. Shortly after her debut, Whitney Houston became one of the most dominant pop-music figures of the late ’80s and early ’90s. She sold records in numbers that are now baffling to even consider. This was not an accident. It was Davis’ design at work. Few military campaigns are planned out with the same level of precision as Houston’s new-artist rollout. “Saving All My Love For You,” the first of many #1 singles for Houston, played a crucial role in that strategy. The song was Whitney Houston’s coming-out party, her introduction to audiences beyond the Black fans who’d loved her right away.
To find those audiences, Houston had to make something bland and palatable — something that didn’t sound too Black. She had to sing a Barbra Streisand ballad. Houston did it. She pulled it off. But if there’s any real lasting power to “Saving All My Love For You,” it’s because of what Houston did with that song, not with the runway that her handlers carefully laid for her. Listening to “Saving All My Love For You” today, I hear a singer too good for what she’s been assigned to sing.
There are no born superstars. Stardom is a process, and it’s not one that you can necessarily plan out. It takes timing and luck and instincts and work. But if there was ever anyone who was destined for superstardom, it was Whitney Houston. Houston was born into a family of successful musicians, and she grew up with all-time greats as family friends. She was stunningly beautiful, and she had a miracle of her voice that her mother carefully honed. For years, label people were trying to sign the teenage Houston. By the time Clive Davis got ahold of her, she was a complete package — everything a record mogul could want.
Houston grew up in Newark and East Orange, the daughter of a city administrator and a career backup singer. (The #1 single on the day of Houston’s birth was Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips (Pt. II).”) Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother, had started out as a gospel singer in the ’50s, and she’d gone on to sing backup for Wilson Picket and Jimi Hendrix and Paul Simon and David Bowie and Chaka Khan. Most importantly, Cissy had sung with Elvis Presley and with Aretha Franklin, a woman who Whitney would call her aunt. Whitney’s cousin was Dionne Warwick, someone who has already appeared in this column once. Her godmother was Darlene Love — another singer who has also been in this column, though that one was uncredited.
In the years since Whitney’s death, there have been some horrifying reports about her childhood. The recent documentary Whitney makes the case that Whitney’s cousin Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s sister, sexually abused both Whitney and her brother. None of that was public during Whitney’s lifetime. At the time, all anyone outside the family knew was that Whitney Houston was a prodigy, a singer who was already belting out solos in her church at the age of 11. Under her mother’s tutelage, Whitney got better and better. When she was 14, she appeared on her first record, singing backup on the Michael Zager Band’s 1977 disco track “Life’s A Party.” (The Michael Zager Band’s highest-charting single, 1978’s “Let’s All Chant,” peaked at #36.)
Michael Zager wanted to sign Whitney right away, but Cissy decided she wasn’t ready yet. For years, Cissy wouldn’t let Whitney sign with a label. Instead, other opportunities arose. A fashion photographer saw Whitney singing backup with her mother at Carnegie Hall, and Whitney became an almost instantly successful model. In 1982, she became the first Black woman ever to appear on the cover of Seventeen. A year later, Clive Davis saw Whitney singing at a nightclub, and he signed her to his Arista label. She was 19.
Davis put all the best writers and producers he could find on the Whitney Houston project. One of them was Michael Masser, a ballad specialist who knew something about making easy-listening crossover hits with Black women. Masser had co-written and produced the Diana Ross chart-toppers “Touch Me In The Morning” and “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To).” Houston sang one of Masser’s older songs as part of her nightclub act. (That song will eventually appear in this column.) Masser enthusiastically came on board right away, and he suggested another of his ’70s songs to Houston.
In 1978, Masser and his “Theme From Mahogany” co-writer Gerry Goffin — Carole King’s ex-husband, a guy who’d been writing hits since the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” — had written a ballad called “Saving All My Love For You.” The former Fifth Dimension member Marilyn McCoo had been the first to record it, and it had appeared on Marilyn And Billy, an album that McCoo and her husband Billy Davis, Jr. released about a year after they scored their own #1 hit. The original “Saving All My Love For You” hadn’t been a hit, but Masser thought it could be one for Houston. He was right.
“Saving All My Love For You” would turn out to be Whitney Houston’s big pitch to white audiences. In 1984, Houston had teamed up with the slow-jam great Teddy Pendergrass on “Hold Me,” a song that went top-10 R&B while only reaching #46 on the pop charts. (As a solo artist, Pendergrass’ highest-charting single is 1978’s “Close The Door,” which peaked at #25.) When Houston released her self-titled debut in February of 1985, the first single was “You Give Good Love,” an R&B smash that ultimately crossed over more than anticipated, reaching #3 on the Hot 100. (It’s a 6.) If Houston was going to fully cross over, Davis wanted to make sure she had a song that wouldn’t pigeonhole her as a soul singer, one that wouldn’t scare anyone off. That was “Saving All My Love For You.”
As a producer, Masser did everything he could to turn “Saving All My Love For You” into pure schmaltz. He smothered the song in melodramatic strings and glassy keyboardists. (One of the session keyboardists on the track was Richard Marx, a man who will eventually appear in this column.) Masser brought in the extremely busy saxophonist Tom Scott to throw gooey smooth-jazz licks all over the song. All of Masser’s production decisions ensure that Houston’s song will be almost unbearably sleepy.
Because of that pure-gloop production, “Saving All My Love For You” sounds a whole lot like an uncomplicated love song. It’s not that. The lyrics make it clear: The narrator is a young woman who’s gotten herself entangled with a married man and who’s gettin used to being shunted away. He’s got a family, and he can’t give her the attention she wants. She’s starting to come to terms with that: “You used to tell me we’d run away together/ Love gives you the right to be free/ You said, ‘Be patient, just wait a little longer’/ But that’s just an old fantasy.” Houston’s narrator knows that she should probably move on, but she’s stuck on the guy. She’s saving all her love for him, and she understands that he’s not doing the same for her.
Houston sings the absolute hell out of this song, giving it nuance that isn’t there on paper. Early on, she’s sweet and tender. She sings her lines with a sort of cocktail-jazz reserve. But as the song builds, anger and determination creep in. Houston’s voice gets deeper and throatier. As the song climaxes, she puts her gospel training to work, putting emotional force into what she’s singing: “Cuz to-night! Is the night! That I’m feel-ing awwwlll-right!” The words aren’t confrontational, but the delivery is.
Houston sounds like she’s made up her mind that this guy is going to give her what she wants. It’s unspoken, but you get the idea that things are about to go very wrong if she doesn’t get it. On top of that, Houston uses the song to show off her voice — the creamy high notes, the expert timing, the way that she can convey a building sense of drama. I don’t think Houston’s performance is enough to save a song this sleepy, but it’s at least enough to elevate something that would otherwise be pure wallpaper.
“Saving All My Love For You” wasn’t really built for MTV, though Houston soon got big enough that the network couldn’t keep ignoring her. Instead, the song may have gotten its biggest boost when Houston guest-starred on an episode of the rich-kid sitcom Silver Spoons. On that episode, she sang “Saving All My Love For You” to Dexter Stuffings, the business manager of Ricky Schroder’s character Ricky Stratton. A few weeks later, the song was #1.
“Saving All My Love For You” only topped the Hot 100, for a single week, but the rocket was already taking off. Whitney Houston will be in this column again many, many times.
BONUS BEATS: In 1982, before she signed with Arista, a teenage Whitney Houston sang lead on “Memories,” a gorgeous ballad from Bill Laswell’s mutant-disco group Material. It’s a cover of a song originally recorded by the Wilde Flowers, the British psychedelic rock band whose members went on to form the Soft Machine. Here’s the Material version, with Whitney Houston singing lead and Archie Shepp on saxophone: