I was in the coffee shop the other day when this plaintively sad song sung with a haunting falsetto came on. “Sounds so familiar,” I thought. Much to my surprise, I realized that it was one of my favourite songs from the ’80’s, but done in a completely different way.
Whitney Houston came from a talented singing family. Her mother, Cissy Houston, was a respected gospel singer and her cousin was the chart-topping Dionne Warwick. Houston’s debut album, released in 1985, itself had several chart-topping singles. I was just blown away by her talent, vibrancy, and obvious joy in singing. “How Will I Know”, written by George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam, was the third single from the album and went to number one on the charts in both the US and Canada. Houston’s mother joined her in singing backing vocals on the song. Houston’s version of this song is upbeat and hopeful, despite being about the uncertainty of a new relationship.
Sam Smith’s mother used to play Whitney Houston and other R&B/soul singers in the car, while driving the kids to school. In a 2014 Rolling Stone article, he described Houston’s single, “How Will I Know”, as “…a feel-good song,” saying, “I love the juxtaposition of a melancholy lyric with an upbeat sound.” He found the sadness in the lyric, slowed down the tempo, and paired his heart-wrenching vocal with only a piano. The result is magic. I’ve certainly heard of Sam Smith, but I’ve never really listened to his music. This song is one that I can listen to over and over again.