American pop-songwriting duo, George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam, reveal how their signature track was meant to be for Whitney Houston
Originally a Seattle band, keyboardist and vocalist George Merrill and singer Shannon Rubicam first met while performing at a wedding, before getting married themselves and forming Boy Meets Girl. After moving to Los Angeles, the duo released their eponymous 1985 debut album that featured the single Oh Girl, but it was their penning of two hits for Whitney Houston – How Will I Know? and I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) – that established them as one of the most sought after songwriting duos of the 80s.
In 1988, the pair released their second LP, Reel Life, with the hit single, Waiting For A Star To Fall, that reached the Top 5 in the US and topped charts throughout Europe and Canada. It remains a staple of radio stations and Spotify playlists to this day as well as the catalyst for a multitude of records that have sampled it including three in 2005 alone (Cabin Crew’s Star To Fall, Sunset Strippers’ Falling Stars and Mylo’s In Your Arms).
Here, George and Shannon reflect on the song’s creation, production and path to success.
“So we finished writing and recorded the demo in our little Venice, California garage studio [pictured above] and sent it to Clive [Davis, Whitney Houston’s manager] who…declined!”
George Merrill: “We [still] have the rejection letter. We keep our rejection letters from everybody.”
SR: “Hey, universe, we were misled!”
GM: “We always think that. That’s the way when you get done writing a song. Anyhow, it was a great moment. It became obvious that this could be a lead off for another Boy Meets Girl record. So that’s when all the great things happen and we met [the producer] Arif Mardin who guided the demo to a proper master and did a gorgeous job of broadening it.”
SR: “I felt it was a good idea. It was about reaching for the unattainable in love, or any other thing. My process is: I just sit and start writing – we call it ‘the blah’ – I stream of consciousness my way down a page. I happened to have what was largely the chorus lyric. I put the page in front of George and then he runs with it. He pulls out what he feels is the gem portion of it, and we go from there.”
GM: “I remember really focusing on Shannon’s chorus lyric and thinking every word, every syllable, should be supported. I made a point to really emphasize the music underneath each part of it and I think that also helps to make you listen to the words.”
SR: “I think so too. Then, when we were recording the demo – which we did on our reel-to-reel in Venice – George had a bunch of synths and he wanted to make the intro something that would draw you in.”
GM: “Yeah, like the orchestra’s tuning up.”
SR: “So he came up with that kind of sparkling array of notes, and it really perks your ears up.”
GM: “And I have to say, I could make melodies and do all sorts of things, but one of the things that I’ve come to realise is the importance of a good lyric. And I think that’s why Waiting For A Star To Fall wouldn’t have happened without Shannon’s brilliance at codifying that. I think a lot of average songs have brilliant music, but oftentimes they haven’t really done their work to bring out the idea.”
SR: “The 80s had this frenetic quality to them, on all levels… [But] I think it represents exactly what it is very well – it’s a time capsule.”
GM: “Yeah, I would concur. When we brought the demo to Arif, the song structurally felt really good to us, as it was then. With some songs, you feel there are some loose ends and there’s still some tidying to do, but this song was pretty well written at that point and arranged, even. But Arif added this other component. And I don’t think we had a key change.”
SR: “Oh, maybe not, no.”
GM: “We didn’t modulate because the middle eight kind of modulates. We did that on purpose, because part of that was that it didn’t really need to modulate because we’re going back to the chorus and it’s going to sound like a lift. I remember sitting at the piano with Arif and he did the little simple thing of creating the key change in the recognizable riff there, that you’d already gotten familiar with. I’ll never forget that, that was a seminal moment for me as an arranger to see how it became a stronger key change, because it happened in a figure that you’d already listened to a bunch of times, and all of a sudden, whoa! I’m very proud of how that turned out and Arif gets the credit for that.”