LISTEN: Whitney Houston’s First Big Break as a Lead Vocalist
Overlooked “Eternal Love” was the birth of a vocal superstar
Whitney Houston will return to the national spotlight this week when her highly-anticipated low-budget biopic hits Lifetime this Saturday (Sat. Jan. 17; 7 pm CST). The film, showing off Angela Bassett’s first time as a director, is already getting kicked in the head by critics, and that’s to be expected: What Lifetime film ever gets a thumbs up? But Houston, the first-rate singer with a voice of a million angels, is still getting her shine. Almost two years after her death (the anniversary approaches on Feb. 11), Houston’s dramatic story still hasn’t hit the big screen, so this will do in the meantime.
Before it debuts, it might be best to revisit a very innocent time in her illustrious career, before her debut LP Whitney Houston turned her into an overnight star and before The Bodyguard soundtrack along with her landmark cover of Dolly Parton’s eternal love ballad transformed the music industry forever. By 1983, Houston was already familiar with the mechanics of the studio. She had appeared on background for a number of albums including Chaka Khan (see “I’m Every Woman”), Michael Zager (see “Life’s a Party”) and for her mom Cissy. She even got her first solo credit on a track recorded by the fusion superband Material called “Memories” in 1982. But she had not amassed her golden opportunity in the front as a prominent lead singer. Before Clive Davis signed her to Arista and poured a good chunk of his resources into her debut album, Houston starred on a track for record producer Paul Jabara.
On his CBS debut — an album also containing the juggernaut gay anthem “It’s Raining Men” by the Weather Girls, Jabara focused his attention on showing off fresh and upcoming talent. On “Eternal Love,” released in 1983, a twenty-year old Houston shows off her glowing pipes on a contemporary soul tune that sounds as if it was intended for a Phyllis Hyman or an Anita Baker. It’s not a knockout track*, but her pipes are and would prove to be insurmountable in the year to come. A duet with Teddy Pendergrass (“Hold Me”) was heard first, then her debut album dropped in 1985. The rest is history.
* The same year, Stephanie Mills recorded her version for the Merciless LP, which was never released.