Today in 1986 Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” begins run at No. 1

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Whitney Houston’s death in February 2012 came to a shock to fans and critics alike. And it wasn’t just her relative youth (48 years) that made her passing a tragedy. Houston had a string of hits and iconic performances in films such as “The Bodyguard,” “The Preacher’s Wife,”  and  “Waiting to Exhale.” According to Allmusic.com, In 1994, Houston was the first solo or group performer to sell one million copies of a single in one week for the soundtrack to “The Bodyguard.”

Since Houston’s pioneering debut in 1985, audiences were drawn to her. In 1986, Houston turned a 1977 George Benson song into a chart-topping success. The original, “The Greatest Love of All,” was changed to “Greatest Love of All,” and it showed off Houston’s vocal power and spirit, and reached No.1 and stayed there for three weeks.

“Greatest Love of All” by Whitney Houston

For clarification, it was not as if Benson’s version of “Greatest Love of All” had performed badly on the charts. In fact, it did manage to reach as high as No. 2. Still, it was no small feat that a ballad with all the hallmarks of 1970’s emotiveness became a hit in 1986. Then, Houston was still a newcomer, and in some ways the song represents a risk. But it seems as soon as it was released, Houston’s version became a classic and some people all but forgot that it was a cover song.

“Greatest Love of All” performance notes

In terms of performance, “Greatest Love of All” is not easy to sing. The vocalist has to sing over soaring orchestral arrangements in the instrumentation, and there are notes that must be held, namely syllables in the word “achieve.” And there are more difficulties with the lyrics. The rhythm changes and the emotional qualities of the song are ramped up even further, until neither the singer nor the audience can take it. The lyrics “If I fail/if I succeed/at least I’ve lived as I believed/no matter what they take from me/they can’t take away my dignity…” are a mouthful. But, when sung correctly, each word gets a punch of air that stresses the importance of every syllable.

The song celebrates the human spirit and the wonder of self-esteem. The proverbial “they” are set up as the enemy and the narrator seeks to overcome the negativity that “they” create. The idea behind the song is simple enough; performing it properly is something else entirely.

But Houston did perform it well. So well, in fact, that her version has become canonized among audiences. Immediately after the song’s release, it seemed that parents and choir directors were buying the sheet music for it, and choirs of children were taught to sing “Greatest Love of All.” At least in certain parts of the Midwest. The overarching reason was that the song taught about self-esteem. It was a pop song that kids could sing in church.

Of course, it was beyond the talent of most pre-pubescent children to hit stratospheric notes in a voice as rich as Houston’s, and that is why her version of “Greatest Love of All” remains a classic.

“Greatest Love of All” became Houston’s third No. 1 single in the US. Looking back on it, the song and its predecessors were just the beginning of an illustrious career that ended far too soon.

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