When Whitney met Mick: Secrets of Whitney Houston's 1987 classic 'Whitney'
Thirty years ago today, Whitney Houston released her second album, Whitney — a follow-up 1985’s Whitney Houston. But where Houston’s debut established her as a singular pop star, Whitney was something different: The LP spawned four No. 1 singles, scored her a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance, and broke records (it was the first album by a female performer to debut at No. 1 on Billboard‘s Top 200). While critics were initially cool to the album — Robert Christgau, writing in The Village Voice, called it “forgivable” — Whitney spawned modern classics like “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” by far Houston’s most-streamed song on Spotify. In honor of its landmark anniversary, EW caught up with producer Narada Michael Walden to talk about the making of the record.
Whitney was fired up in the studio
Houston’s debut album, 1985’s Whitney Houston, had topped the charts for 14 weeks, thanks to singles like “How Will I Know” and “The Greatest Love of All.” But when the singer, then 23, entered Tarpan Studios in San Rafael, Calif., to begin work on Whitney in September 1986, she wasn’t worried about a sophomore slump. “She got to the studio and took one day to rest; once she got that, she was ready,” says Walden, who co-produced the record. “Whitney was the kind of person who loved the sound of her voice — she’d get turned on by herself!”
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” originally had a country lilt
The songwriters George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam penned what would become one of Houston’s signature songs. Walden says that the track, selected by Houston’s mentor and producer Clive Davis, had a twangy tinge when he first heard it. So he and Houston tweaked it significantly. “The hook was so powerful, but I brought in everything I could from the R&B side and we just kicked it to the edge,” he recalls. “And for the out-chorus, the part that goes ‘Don’t you wanna dance, say you wanna dance,’ Whitney made that.”
Mick Jagger was a big fan
Houston headed to New York City to lay down vocals for “So Emotional” at Right Track Studios, and her powerhouse pipes caught the ear of the Rolling Stones frontman. “Mick was recording next door and he had to come in and witness it,” says Walden. “He started jumping around, as he does, and he just couldn’t believe the sound. Whitney was so excited about that.”
She was in perfect harmony with her mother, Cissy
Cissy Houston, a successful gospel and soul singer in her own right, teamed up with her daughter for an over-the-top rendition of “I Know Him So Well,” from the Broadway show Chess. “Cissy was pulling out all her power—not trying to compete with her daughter, she just wanted to hang with her,” says Walden. “They got so caught up in singing it. And Whitney’s love for her mother was so apparent.”
The album was a pop juggernaut
After it was released on June 2, 1987, the album spawned four No. 1 singles and earned Houston one Grammy, and it’s since been certified nine-times platinum. Despite such success, Walden says, Whitney remained humble: “She was like a soul sister, just loving to me. She would acknowledge the engineers, and how much heart and soul went into that album.” It’s a pulse that still thumps after all these years. “The rhythms and the melodies on Whitney — that’s what makes this thing live. Whitney understood R&B music, and she had that in her heart and her soul.”
A version of this story appeared in the June 2-9, 2017 issue of Entertainment Weekly.