How a 1990s ballad, “I Will Always Love You,” captivated the world

Whitney Houston produced one of the greatest vocal performances of a generation with her version of the song I Will Always Love You, which was released 30 years ago, writes Nick Levine.

I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston was not only a successful song but an unstoppable cultural phenomenon. It was the lead single from The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album when it was released in November 1992. It was number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for a record-breaking 14 weeks and won two Grammys. It continues to be the most popular single ever released by a female artist thirty years after it was released. The soundtrack album for The Bodyguard, which featured four more Houston songs, including I’m Every Woman and I Have Nothing, went on to sell 45 million copies globally.

I Will Always Love You is a well-known song that was first written and released in 1973 by Dolly Parton as an homage and farewell to her early mentor Porter Wagoner. Although Houston’s version of the song became the ultimate power ballad, Parton has always been gracious about it. Her wonderful, modest rendition of the song peaked at number one on the US Hot Country Songs chart. Parton recalled hearing Houston’s version for the first time in 2020, saying: “It was one of the most overwhelming experiences I have ever experienced to hear it done so wonderfully, so sweetly, and so large. I had no clue that the song I had created might be so significant. She simply grabbed it and enhanced it beyond what it could have been.

The world was enthralled by Houston’s rendition of the song because it combines mind-boggling technical brilliance with an emotional interpretation of Parton’s sensitive words. Houston begins the song by singing, “So I’ll depart, but I know I’ll think of you every step of the way,” and it is immediately apparent that she is producing a vocal performance of exceptional caliber. Dami Im, a Korean-Australian singer-songwriter who has been influenced by Houston, tells BBC Culture that Houston “understood how to use the full range in her voice to completely connect emotionally with the song and create such drama.”I Will Always Love You, in the opinion of vocal coach Yvie Burnett, is a “masterpiece” due to the “outstanding combination of what Whitney does vocally combined with perfect production from David Foster,” a veteran of the music business who had previously collaborated with Celine Dion and Aretha Franklin.

A key component of the song’s initial Cappella section is Houston’s restraint. According to Burnett, Whitney begins the song by suppressing all of her vocal prowess and relying only on her emotions. She retains that ethereal voice quality when the music starts, hitting the higher notes precisely while remaining silent and holding back her vocal power. This “amazing build-up,” in her opinion, makes Houston’s ensuing vocal fireworks even more poignant when they occur at the song’s finale. “She is either a fantastic actress or she has actually gone through these emotions, says Burnett. So she is telling us her narrative in that scenario “.

In any case, Houston’s performance of I Will Always Love You is hailed by Burnett as “one of the most significant vocal performances of our generation.” This is not an overstatement: along with Mariah Carey’s Hero and Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On, it served as a model and set a very high bar for many female singers who aspired to succeed in the well-liked TV talent competitions of the early 2000s. When she won the British version of The X Factor in 2007, Leona Lewis said: “When I was growing up, I used to listen to Whitney Houston [and] Mariah Carey – those kinds of huge powerful kind of vocalists – and Bleeding Love became her transatlantic number one song. Consequently, a lot of the songs I like to sing and play are influenced by that.

Houston’s vocal delivery might have perhaps occasionally had a bit too much influence. Houston’s most well-known songs set a benchmark that was hard to meet, according to vocal trainers Carrie and David Grant, who worked with participants on the British talent competitions Pop Idol and Fame Academy as well as with musicians like Demi Lovato and the Spice Girls. I Will Always Love You, The Greatest Love of All, or I Have Nothing were the songs that nearly every vocalist Carrie Grant instructed or who auditioned for over a five-year period wanted to master, she tells BBC Culture. Many singers have lost their lives trying to do Whitney; most of [them] could have tried something a little easier!

Houston “cannot be overlooked,” according to David Grant, because “for most female vocalists, she was the voice of her generation.” Grant notes that despite the fact that she is best recognized for singing pop, soul, and R&B songs, you could always sense her “church roots” in her delivery. Whitney Houston, a Grammy-winning musician in her own right and the daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston, who was a frequent Aretha Franklin backup singer, polished her singing in the gospel choir at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey. According to Grant, many of the others who followed her “could not mimic this history, even if they had the [vocal] riffs.”

Introducing R&B into popular culture

Houston’s best-selling song, I Will Always Love You, was published after she had already experienced seven years of international fame. She achieved a record-breaking seven consecutive Billboard Hot 100 number-one singles between 1985 and 1987 with songs like Saving All My Love for You, I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me), and So Emotional, among others. According to David Grant, from the 1960s with Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin to the 1970s with Gladys Knight and Patti Labelle, “Whitney was the standard bearer in a succession of outstanding R&B singers.” But she managed to introduce R&B to a market that was much larger than any of them had ever encountered. Whitney is absent. there might not have been a mass market for Jennifer Hudson, Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, or Mariah Carey.

Although Houston’s popularity in singing pop, soul, rock, R&B, and dance music was unusual at the time, it wasn’t universally admired. At the 1989 Soul Train Awards, an event honoring the greatest in the soul, R&B, and hip-hop music, she reportedly received boos from the audience. In a 1991 interview on The Arsenio Hall Show, Houston addressed this exceedingly difficult situation, saying: “I think that I’ve had a lot of flack about ‘I sing too white’ or ‘I sing… white’ or something like that.” “I do sing the way God meant for me to sing,” she asserted defiantly, “and I’m using what he gave me and I’m using it to the best of my ability.”

These objections, for the most part, diminished over the years as the extent of her influence became more apparent. Beyoncé posted a moving eulogy to the musician who had long been an inspiration to her after Houston passed away in February 2012. “Like all singers, I’ve always aspired to be like her. Her singing was flawless. powerful but calming Classic and soulful, “She composed. She is our queen, and she gave us all a road map and opened doors. Lady Gaga mentioned Houston when she accepted the Best Pop Vocal Album award at the Grammys the year before. Gaga stated, “I need to appreciate Whitney Houston tonight. “When I wrote Born This Way, I pictured Whitney Houston singing it because I wasn’t confident enough in myself to think of myself as a superstar,” Whitney said.

Houston’s place in music history remains unquestionable more than ten years after her passing. In December, Naomi Ackie, a Bafta-winning actress, will play her in I Wanna Dance with Somebody, a glitzy Hollywood biography in the vein of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and Elton John’s Rocketman. I Will Always Love You was an example of the kind of powerful singing she was known for, but it has since become somewhat out of style. According to David Grant, the term “singer” has expanded. “For a while, you weren’t considered a “great vocalist” if you couldn’t riff as quickly or as high as Whitney or Mariah. However, vocal trends follow cycles. additionally, singers in this cycle are more likely to emulate Rihanna or Amy Winehouse in sound.

Few songs written now have those ‘money moments’ in them, so big voices aren’t required – Carrie Grant

Carrie Grant contends that having “excellent tonal quality” is no longer necessary for singers who want to succeed in the charts due to the rising use of Auto-Tune, a production technique that corrects minor issues with vocal pitch. She also emphasizes the demise of obnoxious power ballads like I Will Always Love You. Big voices aren’t necessary because “few songs written now have those money moments’ in them,” according to her. Although torch singers like Adele still exist, the tone doesn’t have to be as slick or flawlessly executed.

However, there is no denying that Houston’s work on songs like I Will Always Love You continues to be an inspiration. Dami Im claims that she “set the bar for all female vocalists with her utilization of range and dynamics.” She has demonstrated to me how verbally one can be both incredibly sensitive and gentle as well as extremely powerful when necessary. It’s safe to assume that Houston’s performance of I Will Always Love You is still the gold standard for performances in the Olympics 30 years after it was first released.

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