unCOVERed: “The Greatest Love of All” Featuring George Benson VS. Whitney Houston
by Matthew Allen
“I Believe the children are our future…” a proclamation; a hopeful, yet definitive manifestation. And so begins “The Greatest Love of All,” a tender precursor to “Man in the Mirror,” in that it’s an anthemic affirmation of self-awareness. It was composed by Michael Masser – the late hit maker behind “Touch Me in the Morning,” “Theme From Mahogany,” “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love,” and “Miss You Like Crazy” – this melody was conceived with intent to reach wide audiences and exude high emotion. The lyrics came from Linda Creed, responsible for Philly Soul classics like “Betcha By Golly, Wow,” “People Make The World Go Round,” and “The Rubberband Man.” Her words were created to remind us that what goes around comes around; if you love yourself, and teach that to the children, then love itself will endure in the World forever. The song has been performed numerous times over the years, but today, the focus is on two artists (with respect to Randy Watson and Sexual Chocolate): the original 1977 recording by George Benson and the 1985 cover version by Whitney Houston.
Which one is the best? With soulhead, the topic will be unCOVERed.
George Benson, 1977
Up until 1976, George Benson had confirmed his reputation as one of the greatest jazz guitarists of his generation. Known for melding the worlds of jazz and soul together on albums like White Rabbit and The Otherside of Abbey Road, Benson at that point had only sparingly showcased his vocals, letting his ax do most of his talking. But in that year, he released In Concert: Carnegie Hall and Breezin’, both which featured one recording of him singing standards with almost feminine gentility, diction and conviction – “Summertime,” and “This Masquerade.” A year later, he was tapped to co-headline, with funk outfit Mandrill, the soundtrack to Muhammad Ali‘s self-starring biopic, The Greatest. He incorporated that same fragility to the movie’s theme, “The Greatest Love of All.” Backed by a slow, strong piano and intertwining electric and acoustic guitars, Benson’s voice floated over Masser’s homely production. It swelled with a dramatic symphony as it built to the chorus, “I found the greatest love of all inside of me….learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.” The song reached number two on the R&B charts and the top 30 on the pop charts, helping to thrust Benson out of the jazz box and into a whole new world of recognition.
Whitney Houston, 1985
We were blessed with the treasure that was Whitney Houston‘s voice when her self-titled debut album dropped in 1985. Daughter of Cissy Houston and cousin of Dionne Warwick, Whitney was destined for musical greatness. Her debut album featured some of the most beloved songs in her Hall of Fame worthy catalog; “You Give Good Love to Me,” “How Will I Know,” and “Saving All My Love For You.” The final of the LP’s six singles was a cover of George Benson’s hit, “The Greatest Love of All.” Like the original, it was produced by the song’s composer Michael Masser. With eight years between them, he was able to enhance the sonic sheen on the recording to match the grand nature of Houston’s voice; It picked up the pace from Benson’s version, moving a half step faster in rhythm; the electric keyboards and synthesizers took the place of the grand piano and guitars, thus sparkling like the sequin dress she wore in the video. There was a heft in her treatment, especially on the bridge – “no matter what they take from me, they can’t take away MY dignity” – that had an urgency and commanded attention. This became Houston’s third single to reach the top of the pop charts and helped to propel the album to go platinum 13 times over, cementing her arrival as music’s newest pop diva.
Whitney’s version is the template of which that song is measured. Her incomparable voice, contemporary instrumentation and rigid tempo took it to heights that Benson’s version could not. However, there’s a humility and theatrical undertone of the original that maintain’s the song’s foundation of poignancy that Masser did not incorporate in the remake. Thus, George Benson gets the win.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based music journalist and television producer. In addition to soulhead, his work can be found on EBONY, JET and Wax Poetics Magazines. To keep up with his work, follow him on Twitter and visit his blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict. Check out some of his work for soulhead.