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The Greatest Breath Of All

How Whitney Houston got hooked on singing -- The star of ''Waiting to Exhale'' has contributed her voice to the soundtrack

It's not just the four black female leads of Forest Whitaker's upcoming film who share the sensation of ''waiting to exhale.'' Also breathlessly anticipating some relief are the nation's music retailers, who, after a string of wheezy fall superstar releases, could use a couple of sure-fire Whitney Houston hits come Christmas.

They've got 'em, so batten down the hatches: The new Waiting to Exhale soundtrack, a diva-driven album written and produced by R&B hitmeister Kenny ''Babyface'' Edmonds, includes three Whitney tracks — and that's three more than Houston, who has a non-singing starring role in the movie, had planned on recording. ''She didn't have to. I would've been happy for her to just act,'' says actor-turned-director Whitaker. ''It kind of organically came about.''

Even Houston, or maybe especially Houston, knows better than to completely buy that. ''I did not want to be on the soundtrack,'' she declares. ''Rachel Marron [her Bodyguard character] was good to me, but I wanted to just concentrate on the acting, because I'm playing on screen with Angela Bassett, and I'm thinking, God, if you don't learn nothing from this girl, you just don't learn nothing at all.'' Fortunately for Whitaker, there was a trump card: He ended up hiring old pal Babyface — or ''Face,'' as Houston calls him — to write both a song and instrumental score. That was good enough to get her signed on for a trio of new tunes.

Houston says she and Babyface both independently came up with the idea of mirroring the movie's female bonding via an all-distaff lineup — a 16-song CD that includes Aretha Franklin, TLC, and Toni Braxton. ''I'm tired of soundtracks where you just slap a bunch of artists together and have a hit. I wanted for it to make sense,'' says Edmonds. So as the film was being shot, he'd visit the set, then pick singers who best brought out the scene's subtext. The producer had different ideas about the film's orchestral score. ''I wanted to make sure that it wasn't too urban,'' says Edmonds, ''because the women's stories were wider than that.''

There may be some of Houston's own story in at least one of these songs. The final addition to the soundtrack, slipped in at the very last minute, was ''Why Does It Hurt So Bad,'' which Edmonds had written for her two years ago — at which point ''I refused it,'' says Houston. ''I wasn't really in the mood for singing about why it hurts so bad.'' But two years later, ''as life would have it,'' the emotions of the movie merged with the real-life circumstances of her troubled marriage to Bobby Brown. Now, says Houston, she's ready to sing ''not only the joys of things, but the pains of things, also.''

Originally posted Nov 24, 1995 Published in issue #302 Nov 24, 1995 Order article reprints
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