Key Tracks: Whitney Houston’s Debut Album

Two producers behind the singer’s mega-hit debut speak about the album’s construction

By the mid-’80s, Whitney Houston was already an accomplished model and had contributed her otherworldly vocals to records by R&B royalty. During one of her performances with her mother, Houston caught the ear of Arista Records A&R executive, Gerry Griffith. Griffith told label impresario Clive Davis, and – after seeing Houston perform – Davis signed her to a record deal in 1983.

The debut record wouldn’t come until two years later, but it was worth the wait, with renowned producers Kashif Saleem, Narada Michael Walden, Jermaine Jackson, and Michael Masser all contributing to Houston’s arrival on the musical landscape. Whitney Houston spawned seven singles, including four number one hits: “You Give Good Love,” “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know,” and “Greatest Love of All.” For the album’s 30th anniversary, we spoke with Saleem and Walden about their roles in crafting one of the most definitive albums in the latter half of the 20th century.

Whitney Houston - You Give Good Love

How did you become involved with the project?

Kashif Saleem

It’s an interesting story. Clive Davis was asking me to do something on the record for about a year. For the first seven months, I didn’t know what to do with her because I had only seen Whitney sing cabaret songs. As you know, I’m not a cabaret song producer. It’s either great ballads or funky synths and everything in between. I was in a quandary over what I should do with her. One day, I was in California at the Arista Records office, and they happened to be playing the Mike Douglas show there. She was on the show singing “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” When I heard her singing it, something clicked in my head, and I knew what I could do with her. So, this is when I really started to dig in deep to write songs for her. This just goes to show the brilliance of Clive Davis. He didn’t push me; he just gently nudged me.

So, the next step was, I was in my apartment in New York City and a woman by the name of Lala Cope came over one day. She was a writer for my publishing company, and when she came over, she was in an ornery mood. I said to her, “What’s going on with you?” She replied, “Well, I called Roberta Flack, and I told her assistant I sent her a song, and she was kind of snarly. She told me that my tape was over there on the floor in a pile with the rest of the tapes.” So – any writer that is emotional about their work hears that their tape is on the floor in the corner, it doesn’t sound good. I asked her, “Why didn’t you give it to me?” She said, “I already sent it to Roberta a long time ago before I signed with you.” I replied, “Let me hear the song, Lala.” She played it, and I said, “Lala, this is a hit song.”

I told her that we needed to make it a double entendre. She asked, “What’s a double entendre?” I replied, “A double entendre means more than one thing.” The song was “You Give Good Love.” So, we went into the studio, and we did a lot of tweaking to the song. We tweaked the melody and chords that went around the song. It ended up being what you hear today. Interestingly enough, Whitney got a hold of the song the first day we were in the studio, and most of what you hear is her singing it for the first time after learning it. The chorus of “You Give Good Love” reminds me of an old school Aretha Franklin type of chorus.

I realized I was really dealing with a brand new model of sound and energy.

Narada Michael Walden

Narada Michael Walden

I was in the middle of producing an album called Who’s Zoomin’ Who? for Aretha Franklin. I got a phone call from Gerry Griffith at Arista Records asking me to take time to do a song for Whitney Houston called “How Will I Know.” I told him I didn’t have time because I was working on an album for the Queen of Soul, which was really critical to me. He said, “No. You have to take time. I’ll send you the idea for the song.” So, he did. He sent me a little, quick snippet of the song. To me, it wasn’t finished. It needed some verses added to it. I asked if I could write some verses to the track. He said, “Let me ask the other writers.” He told me the writers said it was OK for me to write some verses. So, I wrote a couple of verses, and I cut the song on the same sessions as doing “Freeway of Love” for Aretha Franklin. I cut the basic tracks in San Francisco at the Automan Studios in 1984.

A week or two later, I flew to New York to meet Whitney and put her voice on the song “How Will I Know.” She knew the song really well. Before I got there, I called her on the phone. I asked her if she was comfortable singing in the same key as it was on the demo because the key on the demo was really, really high. I asked her, “Do you sing that high?” She replied, “Yes. Keep it in the same key.” So, I did. When I arrived in New York, I put her voice on the song, and I was surprised that she did sing that high and powerful. I wrote the first melody in the song to be that high. She didn’t mind it at all. She killed the whole song. Her mother and group sung the backing parts. It was smoking, man. Whitney was just so confident and happy. I realized I was really dealing with a brand new model of sound and energy for the future of music, and it was Whitney Houston.

Whitney Houston - Greatest Love Of All (Live)

Since you were working with Aretha Franklin on her album, did you hear Whitney sing before you started working with her?

Narada Michael Walden

No. I hadn’t. I was going off of what Gerry Griffith told me. He told me, “You need to make time for her. She is going to be a major artist.” Once he told me that, I knew he was serious. So, I slowed down. When I first heard her open her mouth in New York on the song, I was like, “Yeah. She’s bad.” She was so confident. She came back in to where I was sitting to hear the playback of the song, and she was looking at me. She was real confident. She was looking at me, and I was looking at her. [laughs]

After that, we went out for a slice of pizza. She started talking about how her album was coming along and how she was doing. I had to be really careful that she didn’t think I was hitting on her because she was so beautiful. I was married, but nevertheless, I didn’t want her to think I was hitting on her, so we could become good friends, which we did. She was 20 years old at the time. You could tell that her mother really got her into vocal shape and that she listened to Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, and all the great ones before her. She took something from each of them, but she worked really hard to get her own sound. Her mother really passed the torch on to her. Her mother, Cissy, was a genius. Dionne Warwick was in her family, too.

When you started working with her, what made you believe that she could become a star?

There was no such thing as morning Whitney.

Kashif Saleem

Kashif Saleem

Well, it’s kind of like this: One day, you’re driving a Dodge Dart and then you get into the driver’s seat of a Ferrari. [laughs] That’s what it was like when I started working with Whitney. I worked with many great singers and all of them were great, but when I got with Whitney, it was a different kind of soul I was hearing. We just connected musically. She always told me that I was her favorite producer. The reason why was because I was a singer and I could sing to her what I wanted to hear, and she could build on that. I sung to her exactly what I wanted to her to do, and she could sing it just like I sang it, only ten times better. I provided a vocal direction for her. She was such a student of music history. She loved classic soul records, and so did I. We were kindred spirits in that regard. I pressed upon her to be creative. Any box that she thought she needed to be in, I told her to tear that box down. I told her to hear the notes and the rhythm and then “Whitneycize” it. I wanted her to be creative and free in the studio. We had mutual admiration in our studio environment. The energy was always fun.

What was your studio routine when you were working with Lala and Whitney on the two records you produced for her on this album?

Kashif Saleem

We recorded a lot of the music in a studio in New Jersey called Digital by Dickerson. They were one of the first recording studios that had digital recorders. It’s the reason why I chose them. We also recorded at my house in Connecticut. I had a world-class studio named New Music Group in my house. When we worked together in the studio, we had set times that we would work on music. Sometimes, she would be on time and other days she would be three or four hours late. She always had to eat before she sang, and she could put down some food. We would work anywhere from 8 to 12 hours in a given studio session. Some days she would come in and not be feeling it, or some days I wouldn’t be feeling it. On those days, we would work for three hours and then sit around and talk for another three hours. She was definitely an afternoon person. There was no such thing as morning Whitney. [laughs]

Whitney Houston - Saving All My Love For You - Live on Letterman

What was your thought process in mixing the records that were on this album?

Kashif Saleem

I have another interesting story. We finished mixing our song on a Wednesday at Magic Studios in New York City. Atlantic Records had their own world-class studio, and I went there to mix the record. I finished mixing the record, and I ran into Paul Sloman who was the studio manager. He ran into the room I was mixing in and said, “Kashif, we just received the mixing console that the Beatles used to mix many of their hits on. We just hooked it up, and I was wondering if you would like to mix this song on that console. I replied, “Are you kidding me? Many of the Beatles hits! Yeah. I want to mix it on there.”

She went from being an unknown artist to a worldwide phenomenon in a matter of months.

Kashif Saleem

So, we remixed the whole record on that mixing console. I sent it over to Clive and everybody loved it. The song was on every R&B radio station in the country with the exception of one. The mixing console we used was a MCI mixing console. The week before we mixed the record, Whitney and I could go hang out at a restaurant and have food. The very next week, we went to that same restaurant and we couldn’t stay. There were too many people seeking autographs. No exaggeration. So when you think about the trajectory of Whitney career, she went from being a basic unknown artist to a worldwide phenomenon in a matter of months. It was hard for her to deal with all of that. For the longest time, Whitney and her friend Robin remained close to me whether we were making a record or not. They would come to my house in Connecticut and hide from the world. Robin was her best friend and confidant. It was overwhelming for her.

I always had a head engineer and that was his job to make sure things were recorded properly and technically proficient. Then, I would leave the studio and tell them to mix the record. They had a general idea of what I wanted, and they added their creativity and technical prowess. It would come back to me either on the mark or off the mark. If it was on the mark, we would move to two-track it. If it was off the mark, I would tell them they had too much reverb on the vocals or they need more reverb on another set of vocals or there needed to be a delay on a tambourine. It was definitely a collaborative process. It wasn’t just me. There was a chain of people there to help us realize our creative dreams.

Which song did you produce first “You Give Good Love” or “Thinking About You”?

Kashif Saleem

“You Give Good Love” came first, but Lala and I also co-wrote “Thinking About You.” When she brought the track in for “Thinking About You,” it was loosely put together. We got together in the studio, and I used the technology that was available to me and took that technology to create something fresh and unique. I went back to using the bass marimbas and added some rock guitar chords to the track. We really experimenting with sounds in the studio back then.

Whitney Houston - How Will I Know

When she sung the vocal takes for “How Will I Know,” did it take her one take to nail the vocal or multiple takes?

Narada Michael Walden

I had her and her mother and her friends sing their backing vocals first. Then, when those sounded really good, we did the rest of the song in one or two takes. I fixed some of the harmonies here and there on the record. After that, it was basically done because she knew the song so well. The energy was so powerful it was a one or two take song. I have to give her a lot of credit. She had it smoking early on. I added some things to the song, but the attitude was there from the beginning. “How Will I Know” was the fastest rising number one record on this album.

Can you take me through the process of how you tweaked “You Give Good Love”?

Kashif Saleem

It’s like sculpting, really. On the choruses, I emptied them out, so when she sang, it really resonated with her voice and gave you a sense of who she was as an artist. On the bridge of “You Give Good Love,” most of the notes were long, and I instinctively knew that I had to make the band more kinetic. We wanted to offset the long vocals because we knew it needed more energy somewhere, so I decided to do it on the low end by using bass marimbas, xylophones, and other instruments that made that part go really quick.

What were some of the other instruments you used during the making of the album?

Kashif Saleem

I used two synclaviers, Moog synthesizers, a Fender Rhodes, and I worked with some incredible musicians like Ira Siegel, Marcus Miller, and Bashiri Johnson. I played most of the keys on my songs. We had this feeling of not knowing what to expect and being open to anything. On some of those songs, I played garbage cans and ashtrays. It didn’t matter. Some of the percussion I did with my mouth.

Coming into 1985, Michael Jackson and Prince were dominating the music charts. Many people forget, but you had a string of highly successful recordings during this time, too. As you look back on the album 30 years later, how do you feel about the impact it has made on popular culture?

Kashif Saleem

Well, I wasn’t thinking that we were going to end up selling 35 million records. [laughs] It was a fascinating time. We were both from the ghetto, and we were just having fun. I was making music on million dollar machines at the time. I still have those same instincts and emotions to the music. I just let the music guide me. You just never know what twists and turns life has for you. Clive was astute and smart enough to make me see something I couldn’t see. That’s why he’s Clive Davis. I’m glad I was open enough to receive that vision.

Narada Michael Walden

Whitney Houston was so brilliant. Her songs and music will last forever. The fact that she could sing like a church girl and be a beautiful woman and understand pop music, it was a rarity. All of those elements together will be the reason why she will live on forever. Also, she was so funky. The rhythm aspect and the way she would phrase her words when she was singing was so funky. She had so much gift, charm, magic, and happiness in her sound that was infectious. She will live forever.

By Chris Williams on March 4, 2015

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