This is the 77th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
In the late 1970s, the husband-and-wife songwriting duo of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson stumbled upon a set of chords that they wanted to turn into a song. Other than the melody, all they had come up with was the phrase “I’m every woman.” Ashford had a moment of writer’s block, unable to come up with any verses around that idea. Simpson suggested that he “ponder” the lyric, telling him to “put your hand on your hip. Dig into your feminine side. It’ll be there.”
Simpson said she did not see Ashford put his hand on his hip, but within a few days, Ashford had reflected on the words and fleshed out the lyrics. The finished song become the first single on Chaka Khan’s debut solo release, “Chaka.” Khan was still a member of the bad Rufus, but “Chaka” would determine whether not she could hold her own as a solo artist.
Spoiler alert: she definitely could.
But as much as Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” helped prove she could have a solo career, the song ended up being a defining song for another female singer.
By the time Whitney Houston starred in “The Bodyguard” in 1992, she was already well-known quantity, having released three hit albums. But that movie — and its soundtrack — demonstrated her star power. To say the movie’s soundtrack gave her three hits would be an understatement. With three songs from “The Bodyguard,” Houston became the first female artist to ever have three Top 20 singles simultaneously: a cover of “I’m Every Woman,” a cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” and the original ballad, “I Have Nothing.” Houston’s “I’m Every Woman” was in the Top 20 in more than a dozen countries.
Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” had been a dance jam from the first second, whereas Houston gave the song a slow introduction before ramping it up. But otherwise, she left the arrangement more or less the same, a move that Amy Linden of Entertainment Weekly praised:
To take on another diva’s material requires the female equivalent of cojones, and Houston (wisely) doesn’t muck around with the original’s overall tone or arrangement. But she sure does it justice, even adding a sly ”Chaka” shout-out as the cut fades.
No version of “I’m Every Woman” has unseated Houston’s cover as the definitive version, though there have been some versions that have reimagined the song.
A reggae version of “I’m Every Woman” was released by singer Latisha the year after Khan’s was released. Latisha’s version, though slower, still had a force to it, as she projected the same confidence that Khan had delivered in her version.
Jazz musician Jeanne Newhall’s instrumental version of “I’m Every Woman” appeared on her album, “Soul of My Own,” released in 1996. Newhall’s piano playing underscores the fact that she’s been playing ever since she was a kid, but the horn part overpowers that and gives the song an “elevator music” vibe.
Irish singer Bernie Nolan, who performed with her sisters in The Nolans, released her cover of “I’m Every Woman” on her 2005 solo album “All by Myself.” Like Houston’s version, she stayed close to Khan’s arrangement, though Nolan didn’t include Houston’s slow introduction to the song.
Brazilian singer Juliana Aquino recast “I’m Every Woman” as a bossa nova song, and made it work. Though the arrangement felt light compared to Khan’s disco sound, Aquino kept the same pacing as the original.
Aretha Franklin covered “I’m Every Woman” on her 2014 album, “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics.” Franklin paid homage to Houston’s version by starting off with the slower beginning, but didn’t waste time getting to the fast dance track. About three minutes in, Franklin began singing lines from her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect.”
On tour in 2015, Ariana Grande performed a mashup of “I’m Every Woman” and Madonna’s “Vogue,” showing how well the two songs match up.
A version of “I’m Every Woman” by Alexandra Burke appeared on the 2015 world premiere cast recording of “The Bodyguard: The Musical.” The version was faithful to Houston’s version, including the slow introduction before the temp picked up.
Over the years, “I’m Every Woman” has become a go-to song for contestants on singing shows. On season five of “American Idol,” contestant Mandisa performed the song…
…and later recorded a version for “American Idol: Season 5 Encores.”
Jenny Jones and Joelle Moses sang “I’m Every Woman” together on a 2012 episode of “The Voice UK.”
In 2016, Christina Aguilera sang “I’m Every Woman” in a duet of sorts for “The Voice.” I say “of sorts” because the duet was with a hologram of Whitney Houston, who had died four years earlier.
The performance never aired. Pat Houston, Whitney Houston’s sister-in-law, said in a statement:
We are so appreciative of the opportunity for the Whitney Houston hologram to appear on NBC’s “The Voice” with a talent pairing as extraordinary as Christina Aguilera and Whitney Houston… We were looking to deliver a ground breaking duet performance for the fans of both artists. Holograms are new technology that take time to perfect, and we believe with artists of this iconic caliber, it must be perfect. Whitney’s legacy and her devoted fans deserve perfection. After closely viewing the performance, we decided the hologram was not ready to air. We have much respect and appreciation for Christina, and she was absolutely flawless.
Micah Tryba sang “I’m Every Woman” on “The Voice” in 2017…
…and later recorded a studio version.
The number of covers that include Houston’s slow beginning indicate what an impact she had on that song. But Houston gave Khan the proper credit: Not only did she name-drop Khan on her recording of “I’m Every Woman,” her live performance of the song with Khan was one long shout-out.
It’s easy to forget that Houston’s “I’m Every Woman” came hand in hand with her cover of “I Will Always Love You.” With one soundtrack, Houston took possession of two songs from two legendary singers. She not only changed the way the songs were recognized, she changed their DNA. That might sound hyperbolic, but remember: Even Aretha Franklin used Houston’s arrangement when she recorded it.