Why We Will Always Love Whitney...

Telegraph: As Whitney Houston makes a long-awaited comeback with her album I Look To You, it's time to recall her finest moment in The Bodyguard.

By Helen Brown
Published: 6:01PM BST 07 Oct 2009


Snuggling deep into Kevin Costner's shoulder on the dancefloor of a no frills American bar, Whitney Houston tunes in to the country and western tune coming from the jukebox. "It's a kinda cowboy song, huh?" she teases. Costner gazes down at the beautiful soul singer in his arms and laughs, acknowledging his taste in old fashioned music and values. And she ploughs on: "I mean, it's so depressing. Have you listened to the words? It's one o' those somebody's-always-leaving-somebody songs."

The scene is, of course, from Houston's 1992 movie debut, "The Bodyguard" in which Houston essentially played herself and Costner (then at the height of his Hollywood hunk cachet) played the deadly, deadpan former CIA man hired to protect her from a psychopathic stalker. (The film was originally propsed for Steve McQueen and Diana Ross in 1976, but fell through when McQueen had a diva fit of his own refused to be billed second to Ross). And the song is, of course, "I Will Always Love You". Houston's powerful version of it not only gave emotional wings to an otherwise laughably leaden movie - it also sent her career soaring, spending ten weeks at Number One in the UK and fourteen weeks at the top of the American charts, selling a whopping 12 million copies around the world.

The Bodyguard Soundtrack - featuring six songs sung by Houston, including "I Have Nothing" and -- sold 42 million copies worldwide, making it the world's best selling soundtrack of all time. 'I Will Always Love You' became Houston's signature song, marking her transformation from the technically gifted but emotionally lightweight girl who just wanted to dance with somebody to fully fledged diva. So as the world's fourth-biggest-selling female artist of all time makes a come back after years blighted by drugs, marital trauma and reviews which described her as "an artist vainly trying to reach for what her future once could have been", it's worth taking a look at what made "I Will Always Love You" such a massive and enduring hit.

The song was written by another great singer with Hollywood aspirations, Dolly Parton. And it's no coincidence that Houston used the song in a film about romantic tension in a professional relationship. For when Parton penned her "bitter sweet" country ballad back in 1973, she wasn't writing about the break up of a romantic relationship, but about the end of a professional one. The buxom blonde from Tennessee had gotten her big break as "the girl singer" on the Porter Wagoner Show in 1967.

But the song writin', gun totin' gal from the mountains didn't plan on spending her life as anybody's lovely assistant and, as she later told the press, Wagoner was "very much was a male-chauvinist pig. That's why we fought like crazy, because I wouldn't put up with a bunch of stuff." When Parton decided to leave the show and strike out alone, she wrote the song as a kindly farewell to her old mentor and duetting partner, wishing him joy and happiness in his future career. But the good will wasn't reciprocated and Wagoner sued her for breach of contract.

This history is perhaps what gives the song its rare mood of nobility. Songs about the end of relationships are traditionally sung with an agenda. The singer often regrets bad behaviour that's caused a break up and seeks reconciliation by promising reformation (as in The Jackson Five's 'I want You Back'); or threatening suicide (The Police's 'Can't Stand Losing You'); or wants a cheating lover to know how empowered they feel now the relationship has ended (Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive'); or wants to vent a little spleen (Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice" or Justin Timberlake's 'Cry Me a River'). But the singer of 'I Will Always Love You' is thinking about the lover - the singee, if you like - who's been left for his own good. Although the singer acknowledges she will always love him, she acknowledges she's not what he needs. And so departs taking only her memories and promising she will think of him every step of the way. So it's a brave song.

Parton released the single three times and had a minor hit with it in 1982 when she usesd it on the soundtrack to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Her various corecordings of the song are all moving evocations of the ending of a complex relationship. But in each, she sounds like a woman resigned to her decision and already driving away. So does Linda Ronstadt in her version. John Doe (whose 1990 recording is the one the Houston and Costner dance to in The Bodyguard) sounds, likewise, like a man who's closed the door. But when Whitney took the country song into soul ballad territory - lifting it tenderly over the racial borderlines of popular music the way Costner's character lifted hers across the screaming mob in the movie - she injected it with a whole new level of drama and tension.

She nails us from the start with a raw and vulnerable a capella opening (for which Costner and Houston had to fight studio and record label bosses) "If I should stay, I would only be in your way…" Her soft, regretful vocal stays unaccompanied for a bold 46 seconds, and it achieves in under a minute what the film fails to manage in nearly two hours - it strips away the layers of celebrity fakery to reveal the vulnerable woman beneath. achieved, an acoustic guitar wraps its warm simple strings around her. And from there the song just builds and builds. With each step Houston takes away from the lover in the song, she has to screw up all her courage again, and harder. A keyboard joins her and then, at 1 minute 20 seconds, a drum beat for pace. She's left the room now and she's walking. 30 seconds later, she's upped the volume and that famous 'Whitney warble' on a note has a little, almost playful flutter before the saxophone solo.

And while Houston does allow her technical ability to dance around the basic melody, she holds key notes steady just long enough to ensure they matter, and then some. Her vocal ornamentations sound, in this context, like resolve wavering and add to the drama. After she sings "But most of all, I wish you love" there's a 3 and a half second pause. It sounds like she's lost her resolve, she might turn back! The tension is almost unbearable. And then that decisive drum beat strikes and she powers back in with the final, triumphal chorus.

No wonder so many contestants on shows like Pop Idol and X Factor think this is the song to wow the judges. It's a song which pleads its own modesty, nobility and vulnerability and is thus guaranteed to win audience empathy. How could we not feel for the little girl alone on that big stage, singing unaccompanied to the nation? And then it builds and builds into a huge statement of strength and courage against the odds allowing the contestant to showcase their technical skills. Done right, it can make the audience feel that they willed it to happen this way: that their support enabled a fragile wannabe to soar so high.

Leona Lewis' nailed it in 2006. It's worked its magic for Lucie Jones this year. But as Cowell always cautions: "Are you sure you wanna do that song? It's one of the hardest songs in the world to sing." Houston set the bar so high. It's why we will always love her. And why we're all rooting for her again, for the vulnerable, divorced and drug addicted singer to screw up her courage, strengthen her resolve and stride bravely back onto the world stage.

  • Whitney Houston's new album I Look To You is out on October 19




n a v i g a t e  c l a s s i c  w h i t n e y

Newsfile Reports
Awards // Records
Sales Statistics
Current Tour Info
Albums // Singles
Chart Log
Audio // Video
The Bodyguard
Waiting To Exhale
The Preacher's Wife
New Movie Projects
Movie Index
Album Covers
Singles Covers
Whitney Live
Listed Galleries
Interviews & Articles
Music Reviews
Movie Reviews
W H Foundation
Fan Club
Discussion Forum
Mailing List
Chat Room
Email Manish

www.classicwhitney.com - Copyright Notice & Disclaimer