How Will I Know

Album: Whitney Houston (1985)
Charted: 5 1
Play Video


  • This was written by George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam, who record as Boy Meets Girl and had a hit in 1988 with "Waiting For A Star To Fall." George and Shannon were a romantic couple, and secured a record deal with A&M Records after writing a batch of songs together and playing the Seattle club scene. They spoke with Songfacts to tell the story behind this song.

    George: "They asked us to write for Janet Jackson's next record, so Shannon and I went to work and came up with our song How Will I Know, which was sent to Janet Jackson's people. They passed on it because it wasn't right for her at the time - she was in the midst of doing her Control album.

    Shannon: "It wasn't right for that, but then our publishing company played it for Gerry Griffith when he was in Los Angeles gathering material for the unknown Whitney Houston. He loved it, sent it to Clive (Davis), and Clive said, 'We must have it.' And we said, 'Whitney who? Clive who?'

    George: "Shannon and I had our first record deal, so we were caught up in Boy Meets Girl land, and the idea of writing for other people, this is pre-Whitney Houston and pre- our understanding of songwriting for other people, so it was really a big deal when they wanted to hold onto this for Whitney Houston. Then we started checking into it and thought, well, this could be kind of a neat deal. Our good friends, brother team Alan and Preston Glass, called us where they were working with Narada Michael Walden. They were recording Whitney Houston on 'How Will I Know' and they said, 'Guys, you've got to hear this.' They played it over the phone, and I swear, her voice, hearing the first take of 'How Will I Know' on the phone we knew we were on to something special, too."
  • This is a very innocent song where Houston sings about trying to decide if a boy she likes will ever like her back. It went well with her wholesome image early in her career.
  • Shannon sang the demo, which was done in a sweet, light, R&B style suited for what Janet Jackson was recording before her Control album. Narada Michael Walden, who has also produced for Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey and Lisa Fischer, went to work.

    Shannon: "Narada added his very punchy track and he did some rearranging on it and got us involved in some writing on the song. So it really was far more powerful than the demo we did and it sounded gorgeous and fun."

    George: "He had an idea for taking some of the music of the chorus and making a verse out of some of it, and as Shannon and I heard it, we thought that sounded like a cool idea, and Shannon jumped right in on the lyrics."

    Walden almost didn't take the gig. He told us: "I got a call from Arista and I said, First of all, I'm right in the middle of making this album for Aretha. I can't take my attention off that. But they said, You've got to make time for this girl because she's going to be incredible. So they sent me the demo on 'How Will I Know.' I said, the song's only half done, will it be okay if I mess with it? Eventually, the writers said it would be okay. So I rewrote it and cut it on the same session as 'Freeway of Love.' It didn't come out until December, but it was a monster hit. And it was all because when I met her, she was just mind-blowing. All that range and power and beauty and sex appeal coming at you with a kind of confidence you've never known before. I said, oh my Lord, you are really too much. She said, yeah, I know. After that a bunch of things came down the pike." (Here's our full interview with Narada.)
  • The backing vocals are by Whitney's mother, Cissy Houston.
  • George and Shannon also wrote Houston's hit "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)." They describe what it's like writing for other artists:

    Shannon: "When we're writing a song for other people, we tend to do more stringent editing. In some cases that's for the better, and in other cases it just ends up making the song sound a little too mental and not emotional enough. So I think that's just the thing that we keep an eye on when we're writing for other people, to not overthink it, really keep it emotional. Not really so much about what they're going to think, just feel how the song is going.

    George: "You want to make sure that the idea is clear and that you haven't put every idea into one song."
  • George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam continued their musical partnership and released an album in 2003 called The Wonderground. They can be found at
  • The video was directed by Brian Grant, who also did Olivia Newton-John's "Physical" and Donna Summer's "She Works Hard For The Money." Houston is playful and coy in the clip, where she is surrounded by energetic dancers.

    Grant recalls Houston being very grounded, showing up at the shoot with just a friend and a rep from her record company. He told her to relax and have fun with it, which she did despite being apprehensive at first about the bevy of dancers popping out at her.

    The choreographer was Arlene Phillips, who was later a judge on the British show Strictly Come Dancing. She and Grant were asked back to work on Houston's video for "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)," which had even more of a dance focus, this time with Houston doing some light hoofing.
  • Sam Smith recorded a slowed-down version of this song in 2014 that was featured on the Season 10 episode of Grey's Anatomy, "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."

Comments: 2

  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn January 25, 1986, a video of Whitney Houston's "How Will I Know" was aired on the Dick Clark ABC-TV Saturday-afternoon program, 'American Bandstand'...
    At the time the song was at #17 on Billboard's Top 100 chart, three weeks later it would peak at #1 {for 2 weeks} and it spent twenty-three weeks on the Top 100...
    It reached #1 on Billboard's Hot R&B Singles chart, Billboard's Adult Contemporary Tracks chart, and in Canadian RPM Singles chart...
    "How Will I Know" was her second of seven straight #1 records on the Top 100 chart...
    Between 1984 and 2009 she had thirty-nine records on the Top 100 chart, twenty-three made the Top 10 with eleven* reaching #1...
    Six of her 39 charted records were duets, one each with CeCe Winans, Mariah Carey, Enrique Iglasias, George Michael, Deborah Cox, and Aretha Franklin...
    And she charted once as a member of a trio with Faith Evans and Kelly Price...
    Sadly, Whitney Elizabeth Houston passed away at the young age of 48 on February 11th, 2012...
    May she R.I.P.
    * She just missed having a twelfth #1 record when "Heartbreak Hotel" with Faith Evans and Kelly Price in 1999 peaked at #2 for 3 weeks, the 3 weeks it was at #2, the #1 record for those 3 weeks was "I Believe" by Cher.
  • Theresa from Murfreesboro, TnThis song is so fun, her best song to date.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Kristian Bush of Sugarland

Kristian Bush of SugarlandSongwriter Interviews

Kristian talks songwriting technique, like how the chorus should redefine the story, and how to write a song backwards.

Brenda Russell

Brenda RussellSongwriter Interviews

Brenda talks about the inspiration that drove her to write hit songs like "Get Here" and "Piano in the Dark," and why a lack of formal music training can be a songwriter's best asset.

Tony Joe White

Tony Joe WhiteSongwriter Interviews

The writer of "Rainy Night in Georgia" and "Polk Salad Annie" explains how he cooks up his Louisiana swamp rock.

Dean Friedman - "Ariel"

Dean Friedman - "Ariel"They're Playing My Song

Dean's saga began with "Ariel," a song about falling in love with a Jewish girl from New Jersey.

How "A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss" Became Rock's Top Proverb

How "A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss" Became Rock's Top ProverbSong Writing

How a country weeper and a blues number made "rolling stone" the most popular phrase in rock.

Janis Ian

Janis IanSongwriter Interviews

One of the first successful female singer-songwriters, Janis had her first hit in 1967 at age 15.