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 September of 1987, MTV took over LA’s Universal Amphitheatre for its fourth annual Video Music Awards. Prince performed in the arena. So did Bryan Adams. So did the Bangles and the Cars and Cyndi Lauper. At the end of the show, Run-DMC did “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. (“Walk This Way” peaked at #4. It’s a 5.) Some of the big stars who were on tour gave their performances live via satellite: Madonna from Italy, David Bowie from Montreal, Bon Jovi from New York. But only one star got to come back for an encore.
About halfway through the VMA broadcast, MTV’s cameras cut to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, New York, where Whitney Houston sang “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).” That song had been a #1 hit a few months earlier, and it had helped Houston’s sophomore album Whitney to debut atop the Billboard album charts, back in the pre-SoundScan days when that almost never happened. The song was an uptempo dance-pop jam, the kind of thing that did well on MTV. But then, a little while later, the show again went to Saratoga Springs, and Houston returned to sing her newest single.
The second song that Houston sang wasn’t really MTV-friendly at all. Instead, it was a big, showy adult contemporary ballad, a song so old-school that it didn’t even have a video. But Houston sang the living hell out of the song. Houston’s performance didn’t have any bells or whistles. The sound was a bit muddy, and Houston didn’t have a big stage set or even a visible backing band. She didn’t dance. She just stood there, in jeans and boots and leather jacket and leather gloves and silk scarves, and sang the thing. And she really sang it, too. Houston’s performance was so impressive that Arista Records just went ahead and used the live footage as the song’s music video. A few weeks after the VMAs aired, Whitney Houston had her fifth straight #1 single.
“Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” the song that Houston sang that night, was a case of Arista taking something that had worked once and running that strategy back again. Two years earlier, Whitney Houston had topped the Hot 100 for the first time with the big, gloopy ballad “Saving All My Love For You,” which Michael Masser, a ballad specialist who’d once been a staff writer at Motown, produced and co-wrote. It was a new version of an older Masser song; Masser and Gerry Goffin had written that one for Marilyn McCoo back in 1977.
A few months later, Houston had an ever bigger hit with “Greatest Love Of All,” another big ballad. Once again, Michael Masser produced it. Once again, it was a version of an old song that Masser had co-written. (Masser and Linda Creed wrote that one for George Benson, and it had been the opening credits song from the 1977 Muhammad Ali biopic The Greatest.) When Houston went back to record Whitney, then, Michael Masser was naturally invited to contribute once again.
Michael Masser co-wrote and produced two ballads for Whitney. This time, he wasn’t recycling his old material anymore. Instead, Masser got together with lyricist Will Jennings, another guy who’d had a lot of success writing gooily grandiose ballads. Two of those ballads, Barry Manilow’s “Looks Like We Made It” and Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes’ “Up Where We Belong,” had been #1 hits. (Jennings had also co-written Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” which was a #1 hit but which was not a gooily grandiose ballad.)
In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Jennings says that “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” took forever to write: “It seems like Michael Masser and I worked off and on for years on that song. I don’t know how many times I rewrote bits and pieces of the tune.” But Jennings wasn’t working obsessively to nail a feeling or to find the exact right words. He and Masser were both just busy, and they kept losing track of the assignment. Writing “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” sounds like a grind. Listening to it is definitely a grind. (Will Jennings’ work will appear in this column again. Masser’s will not. “Didn’t We Have It All” was the fifth #1 hit that Masser co-wrote and produced. It was also the last.)
“Didn’t We Almost Have It All” and “You’re Still My Man,” the two Masser/Jennings songs on Whitney, are probably the two most boring tracks on an album that’s a little too heavy on boring tracks. At the time, Whitney Houston was in the midst of a history-making hit streak, and Clive Davis put plenty of energy into making sure Houston’s sound stayed current. But those Masser songs are the sorts of tastefully sleepy howlers that seem custom-designed for banks and credit-card companies to use as hold music. They’re numb, reassuring nothings, made without pulse or rhythm or urgency. It takes an extremely gifted person to elevate songs like those. Whitney Houston was an extremely gifted person.
I prefer that Saratoga Springs live version of “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” to the one on the Whitney album. On the live version, Houston uses the song’s melody as a mere suggestion, and she comes up with her own runs and ad-libs and exhortations. You can see her starting to gain steam as the song trundles along, until she’s wailing out her own embellishments: “Didn’t we! Didn’t we!” On the record, she never fully takes flight like that, but she still delivers the song with gale-force determination. If “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” is a worthwhile song at all, it’s because Houston made it worthwhile through sheer sense of will, using her vocal firepower to give a sense of drama.
Really, “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” is simply the wrong song for Whitney Houston to sing. Houston was 23 when she recorded the song, but it’s a grown-up song, in both execution and subject matter. Musically, “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” is sleepy and obvious, full of strings and glassy pianos and watery guitars. Lyrically, it’s a look back on a long-dormant relationship. Houston’s narrator flashes back to when things were new and exciting, and she wonders how she can get it back: “Didn’t we almost have it all/ When love was all we had worth giving?/ The ride with you was worth the fall my friend/ Loving you makes life worth living.” That’s old-people shit!
At this stage of her career, Whitney Houston was absolutely transcendent when singing about things being new and exciting, and that’s probably because she herself was new and exciting. “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” forces her to dress her voice up in middle-aged trappings, and they just don’t suit her. She could sing a song like that, and she could do it well. On “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” you can hear the athletic force of Houston’s voice, and you can also hear her confidence and poise and sense of purpose. But the song never lets her come to life the way she does on “How Will I Know” or “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).” The song smothers her. It’s an endurance test.
“Didn’t We Have It All” became Houston’s fifth straight #1 single, which is an amazing feat. It also topped the Adult Contemporary chart and reached #2 on the R&B chart. Whitney Houston’s streak was not over. She’ll be back in this column soon.
BONUS BEATS: On “Jenny,” a song from Sleater-Kinney’s classic 1997 album Dig Me Out, there’s a part where Corin Tucker wails, “Didn’t we almost have it all?” I don’t know whether that’s a conscious Whitney Houston quote or not, but Sleater-Kinney fucking rule, so I’m throwing it in here anyway. Here’s “Jenny”: