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.
In 1977, when his boxing career was still active, Muhammad Ali briefly became a movie star. In director Tom Gries’ 1977 film The Greatest, Ali got the role he was born to play: Himself. It’s good casting! Very few other people could believably take on that job. (Decades later, Will Smith, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, got an Oscar nomination for playing Ali. He did good work, but he always came off as Will Smith doing an Ali impression, not as Ali himself.)
Ali had been building up his own myth since the first time a reporter stuck a microphone in his face, so it was only natural for the man to tell his own story on the big screen. The Greatest is a sort of auto-biopic, like Howard Stern’s Private Parts, or maybe like 8 Mile. Ernest Borgnine plays Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee. Robert Duvall plays fight promoter Bill McDonald. James Earl Jones plays Malcolm X. It’s pretty weird!
The Greatest hit theaters a week before Star Wars, another film where James Earl Jones plays an intense, charismatic leader. The Ali movie didn’t make a lot of money. The next year, Ali acted alongside Kris Kristofferson in Freedom Road, a TV miniseries about a former slave who becomes a senator. But movie stardom didn’t really beckon Ali. Instead, Ali kept boxing for longer than he should’ve, and his career ended in losses that appalled everyone who saw them. The Greatest remains an odd little pop-cultural curio. Its opening-credits theme song, however, became something else.
Michael Masser, the former Motown songwriter who’d co-written the #1 ballads “Touch Me In The Morning” and “Do You Know Where You’re Going To (Theme From Mahogany)” for Diana Ross, wrote the music for “The Greatest Love Of All.” He’s said that he went to Jerusalem to find the inspiration for the song, though that inspiration may have really come from elsewhere. (More on that later.) The lyricist was Linda Creed, a young Philadelphia native who’d already co-written big hits for the Stylistics and the Spinners. Creed was in her late twenties when she wrote the lyrics for “The Greatest Love Of All,” and she’d already been diagnosed with breast cancer. When she and Masser got together to write the song, she’d just recovered from surgery.
“The Greatest Love Of All” is a song about finding inner strength to power yourself: “I never found anyone who fulfilled my needs/ A lonely place to be/ And so I learned to depend on me.” It’s a love song, as the title implies, but it’s not about romantic love. Instead, the song is about learning to love and trust and rely on yourself. You can see why a young woman facing a life-threatening illness might come up with words like those, and you can just as easily see how they might apply to Muhammad Ali.
George Benson, the smooth soul singer and guitarist, recorded “The Greatest Love Of All” for The Greatest, and his version, at least compared to the one we know best, is oddly understated. (Benson’s highest-charting single, 1980’s “Give Me The Night,” peaked at #4. It’s a 9.) Benson’s “The Greatest Love Of All” wasn’t a huge crossover hit — it peaked at #24 on the Hot 100 — but it reached #2 on the R&B chart. More importantly, Whitney Houston loved it.
Years later, after Clive Davis had signed Houston to Arista, Davis was trying to persuade Michael Masser to work on her debut album. Davis took Masser to see Houston sing at the Harlem nightclub Sweetwater’s, and as Masser was walking in, Houston was singing “The Greatest Love Of All.” Masser couldn’t believe it. Before Masser would agree to work on Houston’s debut album, he had a precondition: He had to record Houston singing “The Greatest Love Of All.” Clive Davis thought this was a bad idea, since Benson’s original version wasn’t a hit, but Masser insisted.
At first, Houston’s version of the song — which for some reason had the “The” dropped from its title — wasn’t supposed to be a single. When Houston released her 1985 single “You Give Good Love,” “Greatest Love Of All” was the B-side. (“You Give Good Love” peaked at #3. It’s a 6.) On Houston’s self-titled debut album, “Greatest Love Of All” is the second-to-last track. But radio stations started playing her version of the song. Houston had already gone to #1 with “Saving All My Love For You,” another Masser-produced cover of a ’70s ballad that Masser had co-written. So finally, Houston’s “Greatest Love Of All” became the fifth single from her debut album. It became, to that point, her greatest hit.
By the time “Greatest Love Of All” came out as a single, Whitney Houston was made. Houston’s debut album had been out for more than a year by the time “Greatest Love Of All” hit #1, but it went on to become the biggest-selling album of 1986, beating out Heart’s self-titled LP and John Cougar Mellencamp’s Scarecrow and ZZ Top’s Afterburner. “Greatest Love Of All” topped the Hot 100 for longer than “Saving All My Love For You” or “How Will I Know” had done, and it quickly emerged one of Houston’s signature songs. Linda Creed, who’d written those lyrics, didn’t live to see any of that happen. She died of breast cancer at 37 — one month before “Greatest Love Of All” hit #1.
“Greatest Love Of All” stands as an eternal monument to Houston’s ballad-singing powers. She sings the song about as well as a song like this can possibly be sung. Early on, she’s warm and controlled and precise. The opening line — “I believe the children are our future” — looks pretty ridiculous on paper. Houston sells it. She’s like an expert politician, someone who can make a stock nothing of a phrase sound a whole lot more meaningful than it really is. As the song builds, so does Houston. She wrings serious drama out of the pause before every chorus, and when the song hits its first crescendo, she’s just howling.
Entire generations of R&B singers learned their craft from hearing what Houston did on songs like this one. She brings the song along from climax to climax, showing a different side of her voice at every turn. None of Houston’s mid-’80s pop peers were remotely capable of anything like that, and most of them weren’t trying. Houston could use all the technique that she’d learned in churches and nightclubs to go off on a song like this one, and she could still convey warmth and personality while she was doing it. When Houston wails that she decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow, I believe that shit.
I just wish the song was better. “Greatest Love Of All” is a richer text than “Saving All My Love For You,” Houston’s previous Masser-produced hit, but it’s got a lot of the same issues. I hate the arrangement, with its noodly electric piano and its obvious string part. I can’t stand the treacly gloss that Masser puts on everything. I don’t like the turgid, lugubrious march of the beat. As with so many Whitney Houston hits, “Greatest Love Of All,” has a vocal performance of world-historical power and finesse, and it also has some butt-ass music. There’s a lot to admire about “Greatest Love Of All,” but I have a hard time getting past how everything other than Houston’s voice sounds.
And maybe Masser didn’t exactly write the music himself. After Houston’s “Greatest Love Of All” took off, past Number Ones artist Gordon Lightfoot walked into an elevator and heard the song playing. Lightfoot immediately realized that he was hearing a melody uncomfortably close one of his own songs — that Masser had taken much of “Greatest Love Of All” from Lightfoot’s 1970 hit “If You Could Read My Mind.” (“If You Could Read My Mind” peaked at #5. It’s an 8.) Maybe Lightfoot had just never heard the George Benson original, which has an arrangement a lot closer to “If You Could Read My Mind.” In any case, Lightfoot filed a lawsuit against Masser in 1987, but he later dropped it because he didn’t want it to have an ill effect on Whitney Houston.
Maybe Lightfoot dropped the lawsuit because he saw the video. The “Greatest Love Of All” video is some kind of masterpiece, and it makes you feel invested in Whitney Houston’s whole story. Director Peter Israelson, who would later make the 1990 C. Thomas Howell beach-volleyball movie Side Out, films Houston getting ready for a show at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. She’s got this look of wonder and satisfaction in her eyes, taking in the whole scene as stagehands run around and test pyro behind her. She flashes back on being a kid, singing at a talent competition in the same room, being encouraged by her mother. When she finally steps out onstage, luminous and sparkly, her younger self joins her, meeting her and then becoming her. At the end, Houston walks to the side of the stage and hugs her mother Cissy, glowing with love.
The video works in part as an endorsement of stage-kid life, and most of Houston’s life story runs counter to that. Houston was 22 when “Greatest Love Of All” hit #1, so that little girl wasn’t too far in the rearview. A lot of other things would happen in Houston’s life — things that suggest that she should’ve been able to have a normal childhood instead. But that video is still a moving little story, expertly shot and beautifully acted. Houston radiates pride, and she should radiate pride. She made people feel things.
After Whitney Houston died in 2012, three of her songs climbed back into the Billboard Hot 100, and one of them was “Greatest Love Of All.” (The song reappeared at #41.) “Greatest Love Of All” was a huge career moment for Houston, but there would be more to come. We’ll see her in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: When teenagers sing terrible versions of “Greatest Love Of All” at school functions? Comedy gold, baby! Here’s Loren Dean singing “Greatest Love Of All” during the opening credits of Cameron Crowe’s 1989 movie Say Anything…:
And here’s Charisma Carpenter singing “Greatest Love Of All” at a talent-show audition on a 1997 episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jack Black attempting to use “Greatest Love Of All” lyrics in conversation in the 2003 Richard Linklater film School Of Rock:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s dancehall star Vybz Kartel’s video for his 2013 track “Children Are Our Future,” on which singer Gaza Slim interpolates “Greatest Love Of All”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from Maren Ade’s 2016 movie Toni Erdmann where Sandra Hüller sings “Greatest Love Of All” at a party:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Blow’s affecting 2017 DIY electro-pop cover of “Greatest Love Of All”:
THE 10S: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s floridly bittersweet synthpop hymn “If You Leave” peaked at #4 behind “Greatest Love Of All.” I won’t let it go at any price. It’s a 10.