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.
From a certain angle, when you look at the entire arc of Whitney Houston’s long and dominant career, the most important night of that career wasn’t when she first sang for Clive Davis, and it wasn’t when she sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl. It wasn’t any of the nights when she performed on TV or walked off an awards-show stage with an armful of statuettes. Instead, it was the night in April of 1989 when Houston didn’t win anything more than some cold, hard perspective. It was the night when the audience at the Soul Train Awards booed the mere mention of Houston’s name.
By most accounts, that night was a traumatic wake-up call for Whitney Houston. Houston’s first two albums had been absurdly huge; with the release of her 1987 sophomore album Whitney, Houston became the first woman ever to debut atop the Billboard album charts. Those two albums launched Houston into the ranks of ’80s pop titans like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince. Houston’s kajillion-dollar voice was what took her to the dance, but Clive Davis, Houston’s label boss at Arista, was the engineer of that meteoric rise. Davis started pushing Houston on R&B radio first, but he crossed her over to white adult-contemporary stations as quickly as he could. This had consequences.
Whitney Houston had grown up steeped in the community of of Black American music; her family was fully immersed in the interlinking worlds of gospel and soul. But Clive Davis worked to sell Houston as a universal entertainer, and he made sure not to present her as being too Black. This had the effect of stripping much of the feeling of community, the rootedness, away from Houston’s music. That night at the Soul Train Awards, a certain segment of the Black audience let Houston know that they’d noticed and that they weren’t OK with it. This wasn’t fair to Whitney Houston. She was a generational talent in an untenable position.
Houston’s mother Cissy has written that she was never fully comfortable growing up middle-class, that she used to tell kids in her high school that she’d really grown up in the projects. In a poisoned American climate where race and class are forever interlinked, Houston always felt, to some extent, like an outsider. Even with all her success, that outsider feeling never quite faded. That night at the Soul Train Awards, she felt it more than ever. In an interview afterwards, Houston said, “Sometimes it gets down to ‘You’re not Black enough for them. You’re not R&B enough. You’re very pop. The white audience has taken you away from them.'” Whitney Houston wanted to change that.
After that audience booed her, Houston knew that she’d have to change her music if she wanted to keep the first audience that had embraced her. Houston had been a fixture on the R&B chart since she’d first arrived, but she hadn’t had a #1 hit on that chart since “How Will I Know” in 1986. In making her follow-up to Whitney, Houston moved away from the the sleepy ballads that had become her trademark, and she consciously went after R&B radio. It worked. “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” the single where Houston reintroduced herself, reached the top of the R&B chart. Along the way, it landed Whitney Houston one more #1 pop hit, too.
Clive Davis agreed that Whitney Houston needed to recapture a Black audience. In his memoir, Davis wrote, “For a singer of Whitney’s pedigree to be white-identified was unfortunate and wrong, and we set out to correct that impression. We’d enjoyed an unprecedented degree of pop success, and now we wanted to enhance her R&B credibility.” (I haven’t read Clive Davis’ memoir. Instead, I’m taking that quote from Kelefa Sanneh’s new book Major Labels, a beautifully observed history of the last 50 years of music. It fucking rules, and I recommend it without reservation.)
The night of the Soul Train Awards was also the night that Houston met Bobby Brown, the younger man who would soon become her husband. Brown really had come from the projects, and he’d become hugely successful by pushing a tough, swaggering version of R&B. On her 1990 album I’m Your Baby Tonight, Houston worked with her old collaborator Narada Michael Walden and also with Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder. For the first single, though, she teamed up with two writer-producers who hadn’t yet scored their first #1 hit: LA Reid and Babyface, two of the men behind Bobby Brown’s sudden rise.
Kenneth Edmonds grew up in Indianapolis, and he got his “Babyface” nickname from Bootsy Collins when he was playing guitar in the ’70s R&B group called Manchild. In the early ’80s, Babyface left Manchild and joined the Deele, a band from Cincinnati. By that point, Babyface was already writing for other artists. He co-wrote “Slow Jam,” a 1983 track for Midnight Star, and that song’s title became the name of a whole style of R&B song. Soon enough, Babyface and the Deele’s drummer LA Reid started writing songs together.
Babyface and LA Reid first made the Hot 100 in 1984, when “Body Talk,” a song that they wrote for the Deele, peaked at #77. (“Body Talk” was also a #3 R&B hit.) Three years later, a Babyface/LA Reid single made the pop-chart top 10 for the first time when “Rock Steady,” a song that they wrote and produced for the Whispers, a vocal group who’d been around since the ’60s, climbed as high as #7. (It’s a 7.) Soon afterward, the Deele themselves made it to #10 with their single “Two Occasions.” (It’s another 7.)
In the late ’80s, Babyface and LA Reid proved themselves to be masters of a certain form of sleek, funky uptempo R&B. They wrote and produced hits for Karyn White, Sheena Easton, and Pebbles, the woman who would later marry and then divorce LA Reid. After 7, a vocal group that included two of Babyface’s brothers, peaked at #6 with 1990’s “Can’t Stop,” another Babyface/Reid track. (It’s a 5.) Most importantly, Babyface and Reid wrote and produced “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Every Little Step,” two of the biggest hits from Bobby Brown’s massively popular album Don’t Be Cruel. (“Don’t Be Cruel” peaked at #8. It’s a 10. “Every Little Step” peaked at #3. It’s a 9.)
Babyface and Reid both left the Deele in 1988. A year later, the two of them teamed up with Clive Davis and started a new Arista subsidiary called LaFace Records. Babyface also started up a hugely successful solo career, and he made the top 10 for the first time in 1989, when “It’s No Crime” got as high as #7. (It’s a 7.) As lead artist, Babyface’s highest-charting single is 1994’s “When Can I See You,” which peaked at #4. It’s an 8.) Clive Davis knew that Babyface and LA Reid — credible but pop-friendly, able to use the tools of new jack swing without losing their old-school smoothness — were the exact collaborators that Whitney Houston needed.
Whitney Houston’s timing was good. In the three years since Whitney, R&B and pop had moved closer together. Houston’s boyfriend Bobby Brown had a lot to do with that, and so did LA Reid and Babyface. Earlier in 1990, Mariah Carey, a young singer essentially created in Whitney Houston’s image, had broken through and become a superstar. For the next decade, Houston and Carey would compete for chart space and awards. LA Reid and Babyface wrote “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” the song that marked Houston’s shift away from corny ballads and toward a fresh, gleaming R&B sound. The song did exactly what it was engineered to do.
Houston had made huge dance hits before, but they hadn’t sounded anything like “I’m Your Baby Tonight.” “I’m Your Baby Tonight” isn’t exactly new jack swing, but it has a seriously syncopated computer-funk groove, exactly the kind of smoothed-out ride that had already turned Babyface and Reid into hitmakers. On the song, Babyface played bass and keyboards, while Reid played drums and percussion. Babyface and Reid built “I’m Your Baby Tonight” to showcase Houston’s voice, but not in the standard way that so many past Houston songs had done. It doesn’t build up toward one massive howled-out money-note. Instead, the song shows how she can ride that groove. Babyface and Reid wrote all sorts of tricky changes into the lead vocal, and Houston knocked them out effortlessly. Later on, Reid claimed that Houston had recorded her entire vocal in an hour, astonishing the two producers. They thought they’d written something that would really put her voice to the test, but she knocked out everything with professional ease — all apparently because she wanted to get to the mall before it closed.
For Whitney Houston, “I’m Your Baby Tonight” was a departure in another important way: It’s a sex song. Up until then, Houston’s dance-pop songs had mostly been about crushes, and her ballads had mostly been about old-fashioned romantic love. “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” by contrast, is all about desire: “I can do anything for you, baby/ I’ll be down for you, baby/ Lay all my cards out tonight/ Just call on me, baby.” In the title, the word tonight does a lot of work. It lets us know that this is a temporary arrangement. Houston sings the song with a raw and ecstatic sense of need, but she also implies that her narrator is just having fun, not plotting out the rest of her life.
For me, the hooks on “I’m Your Baby Tonight” don’t hit as hard as those on past uptempo Houston hits like “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).” The lyrics melt away, and they don’t convey any of the real hunger of the attraction that they’re trying to describe. But Houston herself is spectacular. The song’s cadence is fast and choppy. Houston has to stay on top of the beat, and she’s more than up for it. She manages to hit big notes without ever sounding like she’s trying to flex. Instead, she’s just urging that beat forward. She bellows out all sorts of ad-libs, but those ad-libs serve the song. As the song builds up, Houston’s voice brings more and more urgency, and she sounds like she’s having more and more fun.
“I’m Your Baby Tonight” didn’t fully reinvent Whitney Houston. She still sang plenty of sappy ballads, and plenty of those sappy ballads were still hits. But Houston made a crucial pivot at the right moment. I’m Your Baby Tonight didn’t sell in the vast numbers that her previous two LPs did, but it gave her a new sense of purpose and momentum. We’ll see Whitney Houston in this column again before long. We’ll see a whole lot of Babyface and LA Reid, too.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Shuga Cain and Ariel Versace’s dramatic and eventful “I’m Your Baby Tonight” lip-sync, from a 2019 episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race:
(RuPaul’s highest-charting single, 1992’s “Supermodel (You Better Work),” peaked at #45.)