How Kygo's Reimagined 'Higher Love' Landed Whitney Houston Her First Posthumous Hit

A song nearly 30 years in the making that deftly combines an iconic voice with a contemporary star, Whitney Houston and Kygo’s cover of Steve Winwood’s 1986 No. 1 “Higher Love” recently became the legend’s first posthumous Billboard Hot 100 hit. Produced by the Norwegian DJ utilizing vocals recorded in 1990, it’s part of a larger push by Houston’s sister-in-law and estate executor Pat (with help from music and marketing company Primary Wave) to remind fans why they fell in love with Whitney in the first place.

The resulting foray has been blasted everywhere from the World Cup ticker tape parade to Wimbledon and is a reception that’s bittersweet for those closest to Houston. Says Pat: “When I spoke Whitney’s 85-year-old mother Cissy the other day, she said she had gotten calls from several people that they heard it on the radio. She told me, ‘I’m so happy. My baby’s not here, but her music is.’”

Pat Houston, executor of Whitney Houston’s estate: The whole thing with Whitney is that I never liked to do anything that I know she wouldn’t want to happen. That’s how I’ve always worked. If I didn’t feel that if she didn’t want it, I would just not do it. A lot of times over the years, people have said we needed to do this or we needed to do that. And it was always not in the best interest of her legacy. We’ve gotten numerous calls to do many things and have said no.

Clive Davis, chief creative officer, Sony Music Entertainment: Pat Houston has been diligent in consulting with me on everything involving Whitney’s recording. The criterion from me was clear: wait until the time was right for any Whitney release and then only release music that was special, contemporary and relevant. RCA and Legacy have always supported that point of view.

Rewind 30 years….

Narada Michael Walden, longtime Houston producer who worked on the original version: On the first album (1985’s Whitney Houston) I produced “How Will I Know” and then the second album (1987’s Whitney) I produced seven tracks including "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me).” And then I did the Olympic theme song, “One Moment in Time.” Then it was time for the third album (1990’s I’m Your Baby Tonight). By that time, Whitney’s a big superstar and she loved the song “Higher Love” because Chaka Khan and Steve Winwood already put it out. Will Jennings, with the genius Steve [Winwood], wrote the song. He put it down. When she heard Chaka’s voice, she said, “Oh yeah, we can take that and do our own thing to it, Narada.” And that’s what we did, we took it right to church. When I came back to my studio in San Francisco, I cut it for her and put a big choir on it out here because I knew I wanted to put a gospel tinge on it. When I went back to do her vocals on the third album in New York, I surprised her with what I made. She went bananas and was so excited, it was like a six-minute-long jam. She sang it hard for six minutes. Beautiful! If you hear that original version, that’s what I’m talking about. Just killing it.

Davis: The I’m Your Baby Tonight album was a more urban record than Whitney had recorded than her first two albums, mainly produced by L.A. Reid and Babyface.

Narada: Recording her was the best thing in the world. We were best friends, it was the best times and I had the best seat in the house. I’d just bring her my tracks that were made for her in the right key in the right tempos, everything I knew so well at that time about what would just set her free. I would never put too much in there that she wouldn’t have room to do her thing. For me, it was the very best in life. To sit there and have her be so comfortable that she could just do her thing. The thing about Whitney Houston that you need to know is how much she loved what God gave her in her heart. The sound that came out of her, she loved. When she’d come back to hear playback, she’d look at you giggling, happy, smiley, giddy and delighted that she had that kind of control on her own voice. It was phenomenal. The music is like a gift, we’re all trying to serve the music. When you serve the music, you do things you think you can’t do. They’re kind of beyond you in a way. And that’s what the magic was. She’d be like, “Wow, check that out!” Or, “Wow, listen to that!” It was this really excited state of euphoria. When we gave all the music to Arista and Clive Davis, there wasn’t much said about “Higher Love.” Clive had his reasons, so it only came out in Japan. But I’ll never forget the fire she gave me in making it.

Davis: The vocals were spectacular, not surprising from the amazing Whitney. However, with the exception of a Japanese album release that included it as a bonus cut, consideration was tabled for the next album. What ultimately happened was, for the next eight years, Whitney's albums were exclusively motion picture soundtracks; so there was no studio album recorded.

As a result, Houston and Narada’s version of “Higher Love” was never released in the United States. When Whitney passed away on Feb. 11, 2012 at the age of 48, all releases came to a halt and Pat was adamant about waiting for the right time to revisit her catalog.

Pat: It’s been seven years since Whitney’s passing and it’s been an emotional roller coaster being family and working for her. But I always tell everyone, it’s all about timing. Seven years was enough time to be a bit more strategic where her legacy was concerned. We decided to partner with someone that was very strong and was a one-stop shop with everything with people that we really knew, which was Primary Wave’s Larry Mestel. He and I worked on a 100 million dollar deal with Whitney in the early '00s. He’s a very smart, strategic man and we came together and partnered and needed a resurgence of Whitney.

Seth Faber, senior vice president of marketing and artist development, Primary Wave: Our company does a lot of acquisitions and partnerships with various music rights and publishing masters, name and likeness. We’re often put into partnerships with artists, managers, heirs or in the case of Pat, estate executors. You never know who you’re going to find on the other side of the table. But to my delight, Pat is clearly an incredibly tasteful and knowledgeable creative steward of Whitney’s music and legacy. We were immediately aligned on the idea of focusing on her music and reminding people that she represents the height and pinnacle of vocal achievement.

Primary Wave is a full service entertainment company that handles both contemporary artists (Melissa Etheridge, Kiiara, LP) as well as a bevy of legacy acts (Bob Marley, Glenn Gould, Count Basie). In May, the Houston estate and Primary Wave Music Publishing agreed to a 50 percent arrangement for upcoming releases, branding and even a hologram tour. 

Pat: Whitney’s gone but her music still lives, so it’s like, “What can we do to make people fall in love with her all over again?” It first started with her music, and that’s where we started.

Faber: We began digging into some music and they played us a couple records that either hadn’t been heard or had only been heard in limited capacities.

Narada: Even 30 years later, it has always been in my heart to bring “Higher Love” back out. So when I got a phone call from the estate saying, “What would be the right kind of song that we can bring out from Whitney that would be significant out of all of them that we’ve done?” I just immediately thought “Higher Love.” I went into my studio and made a new version on how I thought it should be updated.

Pat: When Seth heard “Higher Love,” his antennas went up. It was like, “Wow. That’s a great song.”

Faber: I’m a Whitney fan and when she played “Higher Love,” the version she played had been touched up by Narada with a little more contemporary production. Just hearing Whitney’s vocal performance, I was like, “Oh my God, I’m in church right now. This is mind-blowing, this is incredible.” I sort of felt that if we were going to do something in the direction of a contemporary dance-pop version of the record, we needed to go wholly in and not just dip a toe. When I was listening to the tempo of the record and the vocal performance, I was thinking of what producers could make sense for it. Kygo was an immediate thought because he has a history of rebooting classic vocals and started his career doing bootleg remixes, like with Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” So Kygo became the target.

Davis: From both meetings with Pat Houston and Larry Mestel and separately with Peter Edge and (RCA’s president of A&R Keith Naftaly), the idea of Seth Faber and them reaching out for Kygo and “Higher Love” was inspired and exciting. 

Faber: I thought, well they’re excited. Will Kygo be excited?

Peter Edge, chairman RCA Records: Truthfully it came out of left field. Seth Faber came to see Keith Naftaly and myself just a few weeks ago. It wasn’t that long ago. I had never heard Whitney’s version before and I didn’t even know she cut that song. To be really honest, I was a bit like, “Okay? Brace yourself.” You never know with these discussions. Some things might feel a little forced. Are we going into one of those conversations about trying to make something out of something that’s not very good? But Keith and I listened to a stripped-down version of the vocals and I was floored. It sounded like peak Whitney and I happened to love Steve Winwood’s version. It’s one of my favorite songs from that period. It went from, “What is this really gonna be?” to actually thinking there’d be huge potential. We sent it to Kygo that day.

Kygo: I don’t know who brought my name up, but they decided to give me the opportunity to try to work around it. I remember I got it in my inbox and I just loved it. When I listened to it, I thought it was something I could really work with. I ran to my studio and started producing around the vocals. With “Sexual Healing” and this Whitney Houston song, you have to be very respectful. I remember when I remixed “Sexual Healing,” I was very skeptical about actually doing it. You shouldn’t try to fix perfection. The song is obviously perfect the way it is. It’s such a classic song and so many people have such a deep connection with it. But a lot of my fans were asking me if I could try, and one day I decided to do it. So (with “Higher Love”), I wanted to be respectful of the original song while still adding my touches and letting her vocals shine. She has those ad-libs that she does that no one else does, so I wanted to get that in there.

Faber: Kygo did two things that speak to his brilliance. One, he did not overproduce the record. He could have easily gone nuts, but he let her voice be her voice. Two, he has the audacity to make a drop by chopping up her vocals. I mean, they’re Whitney Houston’s vocals… who would think someone would come along and creatively chop them up? But in doing so, I think he let them shine even further and made the record a little more forward thinking.

Kygo: I wanted to let her shine. I cut up her vocals and did this vocal chop section which is kind of interesting to do with a Whitney vocal. Some people were skeptical about actually doing that, but I think it just really worked out. I have this section at the end there where she’s really give it all ad-libbing. The first time I heard the original track, there were so many ad-libs that I just decided we definitely had to have a full section of just her doing these crazy ad-libs.

Edge: Within a week he had made that tremendous track, and I absolutely think it’s one of his best records. It was meant to be.

Kygo: My best songs are the ones that go pretty quick. When I start producing them things just come naturally, so it might only take a couple days before the song is actually finished. That’s usually when I know when something can be special. That was the case with this song, it came so quickly and I just knew what direction I had to go in. When I listened to the final song and played it for my friends and girlfriend, they all said that it was one of the best songs I’d done. It definitely felt like that with this song.

Edge: There was something kind of elevating listening to that song. It sounds like a cliche, but what’s a better word?

Davis: When Peter, Keith and I listened to what Kygo did with the brilliant Whitney vocals, chills ran up my spine. He created a spectacular brand new track and the combination with what Narada had produced with Whitney’s vocals was magical. 

Pat: The first time I heard Kygo’s version, it was like... “She’s back.” Having to deal with everything in her life for the past 15 years and hearing that track is a reminder of why people loved her so much. She was so talented, hearing that voice. And thank God for Kygo because he did a fabulous job. He really did.

Narada: Clive said he was putting Kygo’s version out this coming Friday, I said, “Wow, okay!” And that’s how fast it came. It was like lightning striking.

Within weeks of the initial concept, “Higher Love” was released on June 28, 2019. It coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising and WorldPride taking place in New York City. The track debuted at No. 63 on the Hot 100, becoming Houston’s first posthumous release and first charting hit since her death, giving her the distinction of having a Hot 100 hit in the ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s and now ‘10s.

Edge: We decided to release it at the beginning of WorldPride weekend and the 50th anniversary of Stonewall because we felt the lyrics and the feeling of the song were particularly appropriate for what was going on that whole weekend in New York. The timing just worked out. It’s a song for everybody, truthfully, but it’s particularly a song about inclusion and rising above.

Pat: It’s just a really good feeling to know that while she’s not here, people still love her and the music lives on. Hearing the World Cup soccer team even singing the song in the ticker tape parade was something else. It proves that she’s just a phenomenon and always will be.

Kygo: I’m just so happy to see the reactions. Obviously this was super special and it was kind of unreal for me to get that opportunity and work on one of her vocals. I was super happy with the results and obviously a little nervous to put it out as I didn’t know if people were going to like it. But now seeing the reception, it feels amazing.    

Narada: Oh my God. So I’m so pleased that the world can hear it 30 years later. I really am happy about it. The funny thing about time is that it flies by so quick. I’d say it was four or five years ago we made the original, not 30.

Edge: It sounds like it was written two days ago. It has an urgency to it. That’s what we heard in the vocal performance and the production that Kygo did brings that further to the foreground. It seems so right for this time, even with the lyrics, with so much going on in the world it makes you go, “Oh my God. Where are we?” It’s one of those things you dream of happening.

Faber: What delights us is the speed we were able to put a win on the board.

Edge: For me it was particularly satisfying to be involved in a record that’s meaningful. It’s like, it’s about something. It’s not like, “Oh yeah, let’s do this just because.” It was like, “This is a great song. This is the best of her." It was such a sad ending in her life, but this celebrates the great times when she sang and it reminds you why she’s a legend. It’s a great thing to remind people when somebody has gone through terrible things how they got to be artistically so great. It’s that moment, which is why it’s perfect.

Pat: I get social media inbox messages from small kids singing Whitney songs all the time. These are kids in car seats, believe it or not. They’re four years old and singing her song. It’s an amazing feeling. We’ve had people from all over the world asking about Whitney music for years. We’re just happy that we savored the moment for now, and it paid off. It takes teamwork. We are dealing with people who had worked with Whitney and really, really cared about her. We’re so happy that things turned out the way they did. Sometimes I can’t even speak about it. I just meditate and ask God what’s next.

Davis: It’s very emotional seeing Whitney back on the charts again. Frankly, to read the incredible reviews has brought tears to my eyes.

Edge: What’s exciting is that this feels like it’s still very much on the rise. This morning I was looking at all of the different information coming in on the song, and just this week various things that have happened in terms of things like Wimbledon to people wanting to use this song. There’s something to it. It’s not just another song. It’s a very inspiring moment. I don’t know, I have a feeling that it’s really going to keep going.

Faber: This will lay the groundwork for us to go out and chase other opportunities. Now she has a little bit of sizzle in the marketplace and people are reminded of how incredibly talented she was and is. A project like this has turned from us having to make outbound calls to receiving inbound calls. We’re getting a ton of those inbound calls and we have some incredible things we’ll be lining up for Whitney.

Narada: I’d like to do more, take more of the things we’ve done that the world hasn’t heard much of and contemporize the track around her. But she’s always modern. When you have that kind of soul and spirit and gusto in your voice, and rhythm and funk and spitfire in your voice, you can always be contemporary. She’ll always be modern. She’s not laying on you like syrup, she’s laying on you in a groove. Her phrasing of the notes she chooses, it’s so effortless what she can do that it’s just like... Wow. Spellbound!

For those closest to Houston, the success of “Higher Love” is obviously bittersweet.

Narada: To be honest with you, I talk to her in heaven. I keep my dialogue with her. She’s on my heart all the time; I’m always thinking about her and hoping everything is good for her, and thinking about what I can do to keep her legacy alive. That’s why she’s on my heart. For me, it’s a beautiful thing that’s happening and something I feel like is wonderful because she was so gifted to sing the way she did.

Edge: It just feels good to be involved in a record this good. I personally love it. It’s always cool when you get a record that you personally love and see it working like this. It makes you feel good about what you’re doing and it touches you. It’s soulful.

Kygo: It’s pretty crazy. I’m obviously a huge fan of Whitney. I’ve grown up listening to her songs. They kind of just remind me of my childhood.

Narada: Everything coming together at this time is just perfect, I think. It’s all God-ordained. It’s a beautiful remembrance of her talent and that we can still get high or happy hearing her. That makes me thrilled.

Pat: I played the song for her mother Cissy and she said, “I believe I sung background on that song many years ago.” I said, “Did you really?” She said she thought she did and started singing the song. It’s so great to see her light up the way she did when I played her the song. She said it was so fabulous. When I spoke to her the other day, she said she had gotten telephone calls from several people that they heard it on the radio. She said, “I’m so happy. My baby’s not here, but her music is.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the July 27 issue of Billboard.

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