The Number Ones

November 28, 1992

The Number Ones: Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”

Stayed at #1:

14 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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Elvis wanted half. In 1974, a young Dolly Parton topped the country chart with “I Will Always Love You,” a ballad that she’d written. Quickly, Parton started hearing from artists who wanted to cover the song, and one of those artists was Elvis Presley. But Presley’s manager Col. Tom Parker had a caveat: Anytime Presley covered anyone else’s song, he would need to get half of the song’s publishing rights signed over. Parton agonized and cried over the decision, but she finally turned Elvis down. Almost 20 years later, long after Elvis was dead and in the ground, Parton’s song became one of the biggest pop hits in history. When that happened, Parton later said that she made “enough money to buy Graceland.”

“I Will Always Love You” was a personal song for Dolly Parton, but it was not a song about romantic love — at least, not then. Parton had gotten her start in the late ’60s as a duet partner for the established country star Porter Wagoner. She’d become a regular fixture on Wagoner’s TV show, and they’d recorded a bunch of hits together. After working with Wagoner for six years, though, Parton wanted to break out on her own. Wagoner felt betrayed. Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You” as a fond farewell to Wagoner, a man with whom she’d never been romantically involved. Famously, she later claimed that she wrote the song on the same day as she wrote “Jolene,” one of the greatest songs of all time. That’s a pretty good day. (“Jolene” was the first Dolly Parton single to cross over to the Hot 100. It peaked at #60.) When Dolly Parton first played “I Will Always Love You” for Porter Wagoner, he cried and said it was the prettiest song he’d ever heard.

“I Will Always Love You” became a signature song for Dolly Parton. Elvis never recorded a version of the track, but other artists covered it. One of those artists was Dolly Parton herself. In 1982, Parton starred alongside Burt Reynolds in a movie called The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. Parton sang “I Will Always Love You” in the film, and her re-recorded version once again topped the Billboard country chart. While Parton’s 1974 original hadn’t crossed over to the Hot 100, her 1982 version did make the pop chart, where it peaked at #53.

By that time, Parton had already topped the Hot 100 with “9 To 5,” the theme song from the movie where Parton made her acting debut. A decade later, another star singer would make her film debut in a blockbuster. In that movie, this singer would belt out the song that would become her biggest hit. The song was “I Will Always Love You,” and the singer was Whitney Houston.

Whitney Houston became one of the world’s biggest pop stars very, very soon after she released her self-titled 1985 debut. She’d always shown a compelling screen presence in her videos, and she’d gotten offers to star in movies, but she’d never made the leap. In the early ’90s, though, Houston landed on the role that, however briefly, would make her a movie star. At that point, Kevin Costner was essentially the king of Hollywood. Costner was already a big deal when he directed and starred in 1990’s Dances With Wolves. That movie was a smash, and it won Costner the Oscar for Best Director. Coster followed it with two more smashes, 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and JFK. Next, he wanted to make The Bodyguard, and he wanted Whitney Houston to be in it. The stars aligned. Costner had to wait a year for Houston’s schedule to open up, but he waited, and they made the movie together.

Lawrence Kasdan wrote the screenplay for The Bodyguard, a romance about an ex-Secret Service agent and the pop star he’s been hired to protect, in 1975, not long after Dolly Parton first released “I Will Always Love You.” At the time, Kasdan was an advertising copywriter who wanted to become a screenwriter and who cranked out scripts in his spare time. When he wrote The Bodyguard, Kasdan was thinking about it as a Steve McQueen/Diana Ross film, which sounds pretty cool. The script got Kasdan an agent, and they shopped it around for a few years before Warner Bros. finally optioned the film in 1977. For a little while, Diana Ross was actually attached to star in the movie alongside her then-boyfriend Ryan O’Neal, but it didn’t happen.

Things turned out just fine for Lawrence Kasdan. All of his unproduced screenplays caught the attention of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and they brought Kasdan in for some big jobs. In short order, Kasdan co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and Return Of The Jedi. Kasdan became a director, too, and he made Body Heat and The Big Chill. In 1985, Kasdan directed Kevin Costner in the Western Silverado, and Costner found out about Kasdan’s script for The Bodyguard. When Costner became a big enough star, he and Kasdan got together to finally make The Bodyguard, with Coster starring and with him and Kasdan producing. Whitney Houston was cast, and Mick Jackson, a British journeyman who’d made the Steve Martin vehicle LA Story, came in to direct. Other than Costner and Houston, there aren’t really any stars in The Bodyguard. The third-billed actor is Gary Kemp, the Spandau Ballet member and the credited co-writer of “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss,” who’s got a fun role as a slimy manager.

Up until very recently, I had never seen The Bodyguard. It was one of those movies that you kind of absorb through cultural osmosis, and I never cared enough to sit through the thing. Last night, though, I ate an edible and settled in, and I have to ask: What the fuck was that movie? For about 20 minutes, The Bodyguard seems like it’s going to be a pretty watchable early-’90s potboiler, something in the vein of Patriot Games or In The Line Of Fire. But then the goofy-ass plot twists pile up, and the film becomes a surreal howler of a melodrama right around the time it hits the oft-parodied scene where Costner carries Houston away from an unruly nightclub. The funniest part of that scene is the sight of all these motherfuckers getting way too crunk at a Whitney Houston concert. (It’s technically a Rachel Marron concert, but Whitney is pretty much playing herself.)

By the end of the movie, the aforementioned slimy manager is yelling at Costner for being overprotective of Whitney Houston and making it too hard for her to do her job. And it’s like: Buddy! Remember when this lady’s sister hired a hitman to murder her? And then the hitman accidentally shot the sister instead? And also the bodyguard did a flying tackle to knock Whitney’s son off of a boat, a few seconds before the boat exploded? All that stuff happened 10 minutes ago! These seem like legitimate causes for concern! But then, the hardest thing to buy is the idea that Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston would fall in love in the first place.

Whitney got a lot of snark for her performance in The Bodyguard, including a Razzie nomination, but I think she’s mostly pretty good. She’s got an easy, natural screen presence. She does not, however, generate any chemistry with Kevin Costner. I do not blame Whitney Houston for this. She was married to Bobby Brown in real life. The idea of her getting all hot for this ochre golf dad is a bit much.

While making The Bodyguard, Whitney Houston recorded six songs for the soundtrack. Originally, the movie’s big centerpiece was supposed to be a cover of Jimmy Ruffin’s 1966 Motown hit “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted.” (The original “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted” peaked at #7. It’s an 8.) Houston and David Foster, the schlockmeister producer of Chicago’s “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” and John Parr’s “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion)” were working on that cover, and it wasn’t quite coming together. Then former Number Ones artist Paul Young covered “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted” for the Fried Green Tomatoes soundtrack, and his version peaked at #22. The Bodyguard needed a new song.

Kevin Costner liked the idea of Houston singing a country song. Everyone else was skeptical, but Costner and Maureen Crowe, the movie’s music supervisor, put together a tape of potential songs. One of the songs on the tape was former Number Ones artist Linda Ronstadt’s 1975 cover of “I Will Always Love You.” David Foster figured out how “I Will Always Love You” might sound as a smooth-soul track, and he put together a demo. Whitney Houston loved it. The Bodyguard had its big song.

Just before Houston recorded her version of “I Will Always Love You,” David Foster called Dolly Parton to tell her that they were covering the song and that they were using the Linda Ronstadt version as its basis. Parton was happy, but she told Foster that Ronstadt’s version didn’t include the third verse — the “I’m wishing you joy and happiness” part — and that Houston should make sure to keep it. Foster didn’t have a copy of Parton’s version on hand, so she told him the lyrics for the third verse over the phone. Foster changed up his arrangement to leave room for that verse.

In the near-nonsensical narrative on The Bodyguard, “I Will Always Love You” plays a crucial function. When the Houston/Costner romance first starts, it’s because Houston pretty much orders Costner to take her on a date. They go see Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which mostly made me wish I was watching Yojimbo, and they get a drink at a country bar. There, they dance to a cover of “I Will Always Love You” recored by X’s John Doe. (This will probably be the only time I’ll get to mention X in this column, and they don’t have any Hot 100 hits for me to throw in. But holy shit, I love that band.)

At the end of the movie, after Costner has saved Houston’s life and they’ve realized that they won’t work out as a couple, the two stars share one last big, awkward kiss. Then we see Houston singing “I Will Always Love You” on a stage somewhere while Costner moves on to bodyguarding someone else. In the movie, Houston sings the song live, and that live version is the one that she released. This was her idea. It was also her idea to use her touring band on the song, rather than studio musicians. That’s why the tootling smooth-jazz sax solo comes from Houston sideman Kirk Whalum and not from Kenny G or whoever. Costner wanted Houston to start the song out a cappella because it would work better for the movie. David Foster was convinced that this was a terrible idea, but he went along with it. When Houston actually shot the scene, though, she nailed the whole song in a couple of takes, and Foster knew that she was doing something incredible.

Whitney Houston really was doing something incredible. Dolly Parton’s original “I Will Always Love You” is a great song, and it’s also completely different from the one that Whitney Houston made. Parton’s version is soft, tender, and almost uncomfortably intimate. The chorus is still huge, but when Parton sings that she knows she’s not what this person needs, it’s almost conversational. On the original, Parton doesn’t sing the third verse; she speaks it. Whitney Houston does things differently. Her version is pure unstoppable bombast. It’s meteors crashing and volcanoes erupting. It’s a thundering juggernaut, and it would be a thundering juggernaut even if the whole thing was just Whitney Houston’s voice.

Whitney Houston had one of the all-time great pop careers, but “I Will Always Love You” is something more than a signature song. It’s the signature song that threatens to eclipse every other monster hit that Houston ever made. The song’s title is literally inscribed on Houston’s tombstone. It’s a display of colossal, overwhelming dominance — a great singer bulldozing us into the ground with the sheer force of her voice. I can’t even begin to calculate how many times I’ve heard Whitney Houston sing “I Will Always Love You,” and that final chorus still stops me in my tracks every time.

Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston’s prime early-’90s pop-chart competitor, could’ve never made “I Will Always Love You” the way that Houston did. Nobody else could’ve done it like that. Houston was perfectly capable of Carey’s trademark showy melisma, and she does some of that on “I Will Always Love You,” but she does it selectively. Early on, Houston holds back. That a cappella opening is remarkable in its poise and restraint. Houston sings softly, and she only bends notes when they need to be bent. When she sings the word “you,” Houston stretches it into five or six notes. But when she sings “I,” Houston sings the word without embellishment. There’s a reason for that. The “you” is where Houston gets vulnerable. The “I” stands as a pillar of strength.

In a lot of ways, I think of Houston’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You” as the singer going to war with David Foster’s arrangement. Instrumentally, Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” is microwaved leftover soup. It’s the kind of thing that’s supposed to be comforting, but it’s old and mushy. Parts of it are too warm, and parts of it are too cold. Foster sticks with the ’80s adult contemporary playbook, heaping on strings and gluey piano sounds, as well as that sax solo. I hate that sax solo. It’s so unpleasant. I would rather hear literally anything else on that stretch of the song. I’d rather hear a car alarm. I’d rather hear a barbershop quartet of indignant beagles. My nine-year-old is addicted to YouTube videos of dorks screaming at each other while playing Minecraft, and those motherfuckers’ voices make my teeth numb, but I’d rather hear those guys shouting about “bro, look at this villager, bro” than listen to that fucking saxophone. And yet the saxophone can’t ruin the song. Whitney Houston won’t let that happen.

As “I Will Always Love You” rolls on and on, Whitney Houston’s voice gains fire and steam, and it all builds to that final hair-raising dramatic-overdrive chorus. The one great David Foster moment on the song is the pause before that last chorus, the kickdrum thump before Houston’s voice crashes into your ribcage like a semi with its brakes cut. In the video for “I Will Always Love You,” the camera zooms in tight on Houston’s face, and when she sings again, it zooms out and shows that she’s magically transported herself to snowy mountains. She nails that final chorus so hard that this directorial flourish seems perfectly reasonable. (The “I Will Always Love You” video is credited to Alan Smithee, the fake name that directors use when they don’t want credit for what they’ve made. Director Nick Brandt took his name off of it because Houston’s label boss Clive Davis took over the editing.)

Whitney Houston’s performance on “I Will Always Love You” is awesome in the most literal sense — it inspires awe. It’s huge and theatrical and over-the-top, and that’s the point. It crushes you with the sheer force of its emotional display. That completely changes the song; Houston’s version has none of the intimacy of the Dolly Parton original. Plenty of people don’t like that. But when Whitney Houston just opens her mouth and howls out hurricanes, I can’t help but be overwhelmed. The song has been played to death, and the production mostly sucks butts, but the sheer power of the song, and of Houston’s voice, just obliterates all quibbles I might have. I look at this record the same way I look at that guy who parachuted out of the upper atmosphere. It’s just amazing that a human being did that.

Critics hated The Bodyguard, and Lawrence Kasdan was humiliated at how it turned out. But The Bodyguard was a big, fat hit. It pulled in $122 million at the US box office, making it the year’s seventh-highest earner. The movie didn’t gross as much as A Few Good Men or Sister Act, but it did better than Wayne’s World or Basic Instinct. There was almost a sequel, too. Princess Diana reportedly agreed to star alongside Costner just before she died. That movie would’ve been nuts.

The Bodyguard soundtrack, meanwhile, was a phenomenon, to the point where it overshadowed the movie. The soundtrack spent 20 weeks at #1, and it went platinum 18 times over. It won the Grammy for Album Of The Year, and it dethroned Saturday Night Fever as the biggest-selling soundtrack of all time, a title that it still holds. Both the movie and the soundtrack, however, seem almost comically insignificant when compared to “I Will Always Love You” itself.

“I Will Always Love You” landed at #1 a few months after Boyz II Men’s “End Of The Road” stayed there for 13 weeks and broke all chart records. Boyz II Men did not keep that record for long. “I Will Always Love You” held the #1 spot for a week longer, eclipsing Boyz II Men. I don’t think this was merely an effect of the SoundScan era. I think “I Will Always Love You” probably would’ve broken records in any era. The song was simply inescapable, and it’s never really gone away. Even with the soundtrack to The Bodyguard selling in ridiculous numbers, the “I Will Always Love You” single still shipped four million copies. After Whitney Houston died in 2012, “I Will Always Love You” shot all the way back up to #3. In the streaming era, the song has been certified diamond. It’s one of those songs that’s become bigger than just a song. It’s become a part of people’s lives.

Whitney Houston also sent a couple of other singles from the Bodyguard soundtrack into the top 10. The soundtrack’s other big cover was Whitney Houston’s house-flavored version of “I’m Every Woman,” the dance classic that Chaka Khan released in 1978. (Chaka Khan’s version peaked at #21.) Houston’s old collaborator Narada Michael Walden produced her vocals, but the instrumental track came from C+C Music Factory’s Robert Clivillés and David Cole. While “I Will Always Love You” was still sitting at #1, “I’m Every Woman” peaked at #4. (It’s a 7.)

When “I Will Always Love You” finished its run at #1, Whitney Houston had another grand and stately ballad about to break into the top 10. “I Have Nothing” came from the songwriting team of David Foster and Linda Thompson, his wife at the time. (This column is really long already, and I don’t want to get into Linda Thompson’s whole life story, but that lady’s Wikipedia page is wild. What a life!) “I Have Nothing” eventually peaked at #4. (It’s a 6.) At the Oscars in 1993, “I Have Nothing” and “Run To You,” a Whitney Houston Bodyguard song that peaked at #31, were both nominated for Oscars. Both songs lost to a track that’ll appear in this column very soon.

The whole time that “I Will Always Love You” sat at #1, Whitney Houston was pregnant. Her daughter, the late Bobbi Kristina, was born a few days after the song finally vacated the top spot. If things had turned out differently for both Whitney and Bobbi Kristina, this might’ve seemed poetic — a transcendent star’s greatest triumph coming at the same moment that her life transitioned into a different phase. That’s not how things worked out. There were so many tragedies ahead for Whitney Houston and her family, but we’ll get to all that. Whitney Houston will appear in this column again.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s footage of Beyoncé singing the beginning of “I Will Always Love You” before her own song “Halo” at an Atlantic City show in 2012, just after Whitney Houston’s death:

(“Halo” peaked at #5. It’s a 9. Beyoncé will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Girls, a band I miss dearly, leading an “I Will Always Love You” singalong at a 2012 festival in Singapore:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Will Ferrell singing “I Will Always Love You” while giving a commencement speech at USC in 2017:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: At the beginning of the 2019 movie Spider-Man: Far From Home, a high-school TV broadcast attempts to pay tribute to various fallen Avengers with a sloppily edited video set to “I Will Always Love You.” Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Mount Eerie and Julie Doiron ending a 2019 show in Brooklyn with a simple, stirring version of “I Will Always Love You”:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Wreckx-N-Effect’s smoothly horny gibberish-laced, booty-pop strut “Rump Shaker” peaked at #2 behind “I Will Always Love You.” It’s an 8.

THE 10S: Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love,” a raw lovelorn howl built around the elemental drum loop from Audio Two’s skeletal rap classic “Top Billin’,” peaked at #7 behind “I Will Always Love You.” It sets my heart free, and it’s a 10.

Prince’s mystically nonsensical psych-funk wizard workout “7” also peaked at #7 behind “I Will Always Love You.” It will smoke them all with an intellect and a savoir faire. It’s a 10.

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