The Number Ones

February 23, 1991

The Number Ones: Whitney Houston’s “All The Man That I Need”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

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.

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“All The Man That I Need,” Whitney Houston’s ninth #1 hit, was a Clive Davis special. Davis, the domineering music-business giant, made his name by signing Big Brother And The Holding Company and Santana in the late ’60s, but he made his fortune by pushing grand and overwrought love songs on an American public that was only too happy to buy them. Lots of people — like, for instance, me — have absolutely no taste for his kind of soft-batch operatic balladry, but that sound turned this particular Brooklyn-born lawyer into the final boss of the music business — a cigar-puffing Bowser in orange-tinted aviators. Clive Davis sold Barry Manilow and Air Supply to the world, and he made a colossal star out of Whitney Houston. I don’t fucking get it, but the man clearly knew what he was doing.

On her first two albums, Whitney Houston did pretty much whatever Clive Davis wanted, and the combination of her ridiculously powerful voice and his instinct for what the record-buying public wanted proved very, very lucrative. For Whitney Houston’s third album, 1990’s I’m Your Baby Tonight, both Davis and Houston recognized that Houston needed to win back the grassroots R&B fanbase that had brought her to the dance in the first place. She pulled that off with the album’s title track, recorded with ascendant Davis underbosses Babyface and LA Reid. But I’m Your Baby Tonight wasn’t a radical break from Houston’s past, and the album’s second single took her right back to what had been working since she first ascended the pop charts five years earlier.

Clive Davis always loved an undervalued asset, especially if that undervalued asset came from a brand-name songwriter with a history of hits. Whitney Houston’s very first #1 hit was “Saving All My Love For You,” a Michael Masser/Gerry Goffin ballad that the former Fifth Dimension singer Marilyn McCoo had first recorded in 1978. A few months later, Houston returned to #1 with “Greatest Love Of All,” a song that Masser and Linda Creed had written for George Benson in 1977. Davis didn’t give a damn that these were drippy, old, unfashionable songs. He knew that Whitney Houston could turn them into money.

“All The Man That I Need” is cut from the same cloth. Dean Pitchford, a former Broadway actor, got together with film-score composer Michael Gore, the younger brother of former Number Ones artist Lesley, in 1980, to write songs for the musical Fame. (Michael Gore made the Hot 100 once as a lead artist, when his theme for the 1983 film Terms Of Endearment peaked at #84.) Gore won two Oscars for Fame — one for scoring the film and another for the Irene Cara-sung title track, which he co-wrote with Pitchford. (“Fame” peaked at #4. It’s a 6.)

Gore and Pitchford wrote much of the Fame soundtrack together, including “Red Light,” a #41 hit for the disco singer Linda Clifford. (“Red Light” is one of Clifford’s two highest-charting singles. The other is her club-ready 1979 cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which also peaked, coincidentally enough, at #41.) After working with Clifford on “Red Light,” Pitchford and Gore also wrote the songs for her 1982 album I’ll Keep On Loving You. The album was mostly uptempo, but Pitchford needed a ballad, and “All The Man That I Need” was that ballad. Clifford released her version of “All The Man That I Need,” and it disappeared without a trace.

That same year, Sister Sledge also recorded a version of “All The Man That I Need” as a duet with the singer David Simmons. Sister Sledge’s take made a slight dent in the R&B charts, but it didn’t reach the Hot 100. (Sister Sledge’s highest-charting single, 1979’s “We Are Family,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.) In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Pitchford says, “I figured it was one of those songs that was probably going to be cut a number of times and not ever have its day.” Pitchford moved on, and he did very well for himself. He wrote the screenplay for the 1984 blockbuster Footloose, and he also co-wrote every song on the movie’s soundtrack, including the #1 hits “Footloose” and “Let’s Hear It For The Boy.” (Weirdly, Pitchford never wrote another movie after that.)

In 1986, Dean Pitchford had dinner with his friend Clive Davis, and he mentioned this song that he’d written that just hadn’t quite clicked. Davis loved the song, but Houston had just finished recording her 1987 sophomore album Whitney, so Davis asked if he could hold the song for whenever she got around to recording her next LP. Houston didn’t record that next album for years, and other people wanted to cut “All The Man That I Need” before she finally got to it, but Pitchford and Gore held the song for her. In the context of the I’m Your Baby Tonight album, “All The Man That I Need” sounds like a throwback, a stodgy and old-fashioned ballad that shows up after the two dancey R&B tracks that open the LP. Listening to it, you can almost hear the adult-contemporary radio programmers of 1991 breathing a sigh of relief.

Dean Pitchford wrote the lyrics for “All The Man That I Need” from the perspective of someone who’s finally found love after losing all faith in it. (Pitchford met his husband after Houston’s version became a hit, and Pitchford’s husband’s friends used to tease him about how the song was really about him.) Given what we know about Whitney Houston’s personal life, the opening lines take on a tragic sort of irony: “I used to cry myself to sleep at night/ But that was all before he came/ I thought love had to hurt to turn out right/ But now he’s here/ It’s not the same, it’s not the same.” Bobby Brown probably wasn’t the same as anyone who Whitney Houston had met, but that doesn’t mean it turned out right.

Houston recorded her version of “All The Man That I Need” with Narada Michael Walden, the producer who’d previously done most of her uptempo hits. I like Walden’s production style a lot better than what Michael Masser did with Houston’s previous ballads. “All The Man That I Need” is ultimately a showy, toothless Broadway-showstopper kind of tune, like so many other big Whitney Houston ballads, but the arrangement mostly works for me. Walden piles on pianos and strings, but his backbeat gets a tiny bit busier, and his piano-plinks and noodley guitar flourishes hit a tiny bit harder. I like how the gospel choir comes in, giving a bit more oomph to a chorus that was already plenty big. That choir also has the effect of making “All The Man ThaT I Need” sound like a gospel song; it’s easy enough to imagine, if you want, that it’s a song about God. (The lyrics make that a bit of a reach, but people hear what they want to hear.)

The list of musicians who played on “All The Man That I Need” is full of boldfaced names. Walter Afanasieff, who’d just reached #1 as producer of Mariah Carey’s “Love Takes Time,” plays keyboards and synth-bass. Fairlight programmer Ren Klyce would later become David Fincher’s go-to sound designer. And the song’s squalling, dramatic tenor sax solo comes from Kenneth Bruce Gorelick, the bouncy-haired cheesedick known to the world as Kenny G.

Clive Davis signed Kenny G, a former sideman in Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra, as a solo artist in 1981, and Kenny became a smooth-jazz superstar in the late ’80s and early ’90s, selling baffling numbers of records. It’s hard to properly describe how fucking popular Kenny G was in the early ’90s. My parents didn’t care about him — or, for that matter, about any other popular music that came out post-1971 — but everybody else’s parents had Kenny G CDs on deck, so that motherfucker soundtracked a whole lot of my carpool rides. The man came to stand in for the entire genre of smooth jazz, and I learned to hate him with a burning, fiery passion. (Kenny G’s highest-charting single is 1987’s “Songbird,” which peaked at #4. It’s a 3.)

But I kind of like Kenny G’s solo on “All The Man That I Need.” The song is reaching its grand, crashing finale when Kenny comes wailing in, spraying smoky atmosphere everywhere. He tootles away as the strings build upwards and Whitney Houston howls her ad-libs. In the video, Kenny’s solo gives Houston a chance to walk out on a balcony in the middle of a thunderstorm, screaming her exultations at the sky. (It’s sort of a shame that Bobby Brown isn’t in the “All The Man That I Need” video. Real-life storylines aside, it might’ve been fun to watch him swaggering around while Whitney Houston roars about his greatness.)

The main attraction on “All The Man That I Need” is Whitney Houston’s voice, and that’s still something to behold. The song is the kind of ballad that Houston could sing in her sleep, but she still brings high drama to it, elevating all the those clichés with her own overwhelming majesty. Maybe I’m imagining things here, but I hear a bit more confidence in Houston’s delivery on “All The Man That I Need” than I heard on previous hits like “Saving All My Love For You.” Maybe that confidence comes from the way the song skirts a little closer to her gospel roots. Houston lets notes linger a little longer, or she pauses half a beat before big notes, letting herself savor the moment a tiny bit more. I don’t hear “All The Man That I Need” as a convincing human love song. It’s too mushy, too light on specifics. But as a bombastic showcase for a great voice, it works pretty well.

Houston released “All The Man That I Need” as a single in December of 1990. The next month, a few weeks before “All The Man That I Need” reached #1, Houston sang a rapturously received rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl. This was during the Persian Gulf War, and I imagine the reflected patriotism of that performance helped push “All The Man That I Need” to #1. Arista released Houston’s “Star-Spangled Banner” as a war-effort benefit single, and it charted as high as #20. A decade later, in the immediate wake of 9/11, Arista once again released that “Star-Spangled Banner” performance as a single, and this time, it went all the way up to #6. It was Houston’s final top-10 hit. (I have no idea how to rate “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s, like, a 4? It’s impressive, but that doesn’t mean it’s the kind of thing I want to hear ever again.)

I’m Your Baby Tonight was double platinum by the time “All The Man That I Need” reached #1, and it went on to sell another two million. The album didn’t do anywhere near as well as Houston’s previous two rivals, and it didn’t do anywhere near as well as the debut from Houston’s new rival Mariah Carey, either. After those two #1 hits, “Miracle,” another sodden ballad, peaked at #9. (It’s a 4.) “My Name Is Not Susan,” a nasty little dance jam, only made it to #20, but it’s probably my favorite song on the album. The video version of “My Name Is Not Susan” with Monie Love on it, so maybe Whitney Houston should get credit for putting rappers on remixes years before Mariah Carey started doing the same thing.

In retrospect, maybe I’m Your Baby Tonight underperformed a little, if you can even say that about an album that spun off two #1 hits. But the record accomplished its goals. It recaptured Whitney Houston’s original Black audience, and it kept her name percolating. Not too long afterwards, Houston would return with her greatest commercial triumph. We’ll see her in this column again.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Before he became a solo star, Luther Vandross put in a lot of work with Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore, singing backup and doing vocal arrangements. At a listening party for I’m Your Baby Tonight, Vandross complimented Pitchford on “All The Man That I Need.” In the Bronson book, Pitchford tells the story: “He said, ‘I love your song; it sounds so familiar.’ And I said, ‘Luther, you sang background vocals on it 11 years ago for Linda Clifford!'” In 1994, Vandross released his own version of the song, changing it to “All The Woman I Need.” Here’s his cover:

(Luther Vandross’ highest-charting single is his 1994 version of “Endless Love,” recorded as a duet with Mariah Carey. It peaked at #2, and it’s a 5.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil B quasi-rapping over an “All The Man That I Need” sample on his 2014 mixtape track “They Want B”:

(Lil B has never been on the Hot 100 as a solo artist, but his old group the Pack got to #58 with “Vans” in 2006.)

THE 10S: Chris Isaak’s vaseline-smeared, atmosphere-drunk quasi-rockabilly fuck-sweat slow jam “Wicked Game” — originally released in 1989, but moving up in the world after a memorably freaky Wild At Heart scene and a Herb Ritts video where Isaak smoldered all over Helena Christensen — peaked at #6 behind “All The Man That I Need.” What a wicked game it plays, to make me feel this way. It’s a 10.

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