These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.
Whitney Houston’s mother was a highly lauded gospel and soul singer. But it was someone other than Cissy Houston who stirred aspirations to the stage for young Whitney.
“I remember when I was six or seven, crawling up to the window to watch my mother sing,” Whitney once explained. “And I’d be talking to Aunt Ree. I had no idea then that Aretha Franklin was famous — just that I liked to hear her sing, too. I just remember being in an atmosphere of total creativity. When I heard Aretha, I could feel her emotional delivery so clearly. It came from deep down within. ‘That’s what I want to do.'”
By the end of the nineteen-eighties, Whitney Houston was doing it, all right. In one stretch, she took seven straight singles to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. She topped herself a couple years later, when her cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” the centerpiece of the soundtrack for The Bodyguard, spent an astounding fourteen weeks at the pinnacle of the singles chart. But Houston was already a huge star.
Her Aunt Ree was wasn’t doing too badly, either. After watching her commercial prospects soften up somewhat in the late nineteen-seventies, Franklin revived her career with the 1985 album Who’s Zoomin’ Who? It yielded four Top 40 singles and was amazingly her first full-length album to be certified platinum by the RIAA. Part of Franklin’s clear strategy was to pair with other famed performers, especially relatively young up-and-comers. In 1987, a duet with George Michael, freshly sprung from Wham!, earned Franklin her first #1 single since she reportedly inspired Otis Redding to say, “That little girl stole my song.”
So teaming up with Houston was a natural fit for Franklin. Working with producer Narada Michael Walden, who presided over Franklin’s earlier hits in the eighties, Franklin and Houston traded verses on “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be,” a song penned by Albert Hammond and Diane Warren. Truthfully, it’s not much of a song, which might help explain why, despite the great diva convergence, it was held back to serve as the third single. Even so, both Franklin and Houston absolutely belt on the track, showing off voices that seemed to be effortlessly powerful.
The meeting of vocal luminaries wasn’t quite enough to overcome the other limitations of the song (and maybe the yucky aftertaste of preceding single “Through the Storm,” a duet with Elton John that smashed all the worst traits of adult contemporary radio into a single track). Both Franklin and Houston had made plenty of hits on their own. Together, they had to settle for a song that peaked at #41.
Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.