To understand why Whitney Houston is a superstar, all you need to do is listen to the live version of “Greatest Love of All” that is included as a bonus track on the deluxe, 25th anniversary reissue of her 1985 debut album, Whitney Houston. Recorded five years after the album, at an Arista Records anniversary concert, and originally released on a German 12-inch, it’s one of those show-stopping vocal performances that demonstrates not just that the singer has a great singing voice, but that she knows how to use it. It’s an example of virtuosity used carefully for emotional effect.
At the start of the song, she’s emphasizing the words in a drawn-out way, a common technique in jazz, and then as she proceeds she routinely ascends to acrobatic heights. The first time she holds a note to a surprising length, audience members yell out in appreciation. From then on you can hear them in her grasp, hear the way that they’re reacting to the way she sings each word. She isn’t just demonstrating her vocal prowess, she’s singing the song with a fierceness that hammers home the emotions of the song. Nearly five minutes in, there is applause when she shifts forcefully back to the chorus. It’s the sort of applause an instrumentalist might get after a solo, but more boisterous, and it feels like the applause is for the chorus as much as the acrobatics, for the impact of the chorus when she slams back into it. Then there’s the ending, where she holds a high note at the building point of an emotion for so long that your jaw may drop, even when you know that it’s coming. Then the song ends, and you can just about hear the audience leaping to its feet, in tears.
This same skill can be heard on the album itself; not as starkly or as consistently, but it’s there. Her singing of the opening song, and first single, “You Give Good Love”, soars for what seems a fairly average slow-jam love ballad otherwise. Listen to the point, two minutes and ten seconds into the song, where she sings “it took some time for me to see”, and her voice trails off. Listen to how her voice trails, how she manages to communicate a sublime sense of giddiness in that small of a moment. The song, like much of Whitney Houston, is a reminder that vocal gymnastics isn’t necessarily empty, but also a showcase in how that sort of gymnastics isn’t just about singing high and long. It’s about power, about what a singer can do with her voice, but also what she does.
The impact rises in proportion to how interesting the songs themselves are. “Saving All My Love for You” goes further with its story and specifics. Singing as “the other woman”, Houston ratchets up the drama without overdoing it. She sings some parts with bittersweet lightness (“that’s just an old fantasy”) and other parts with urgent heaviness (“tonight is the night”), exactly right for carrying the feelings in the song. A companion to that song where she does similar things is the ballad “All at Once”. The delicate way she sings the saddest details is sublime: “I started counting teardrops / And at least a million fell”.
Another of the album’s enduring hits, “How Will I Know” shows how well Houston can do the same sort of singing with a bubbly pop song. The a capella version included here as a bonus track is an amazing look at her raw talent.
Whitney Houston the album has its generic moments too. The two duets are lackluster, even “Hold Me”, which pairs her with the fabulous Teddy Pendergrass, and previously appeared on his 1984 album Love Language (the other duet, “Take Good Care of My Heart”, is with Jermaine Jackson). They may have been designed as torch-passing moments, but the songs don’t hold up to the best work here, in writing or performance. Whitney Houston had enough star material to, well, make her a star, but its best-known songs are also its best songs.
This deluxe edition, too, has fluff: three so-so dance remixes, especially. But the best of the bonus material — the live performance and a capella track mentioned earlier, plus video footage of two early concert performances, from 1983 — help give a rounded view of how truly gifted Whitney Houston is as a singer. It also gives us a look at how important a singer’s choices are. Pop singing isn’t just a choice between showing off versus straightforwardly communicating emotion. With the best singers, both of those happen, and much more. In 1985, Houston was singing with power, emotion, flash, and style, and she had the ability to leave entire audiences stunned.