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Masser's Greatest Love

June 08, 1986|JACKIE HELMAN

No matter what they take from me

They can't take away my dignity

--from "The Greatest Love of All"

In Brooklyn, a classroom of black elementary school children sing "The Greatest Love of All" daily as their personal anthem.

In Encino, a psychological therapist specializing in incest uses the song as part of a program for her patients.

The tune also has been used for inspirational purposes and fund-raising by youth groups and organizations for the disabled. The Dance Theatre of Harlem has choreographed a ballet for the music and it's been utilized by the YMCA and self-help groups such as Life Spring and Insight Transformational Seminars.

Whitney Houston, whose version of the song just spent three weeks at No. 1 on the nation's pop charts, will sing "The Greatest Love of All" at the dedication ceremonies of the Statue of Liberty in July. (See related story, Page 60).

The surprising thing about the song is that it is 10 years old. Its new success is dramatic evidence of how a composition that once seemed to be forgotten can suddenly capture the public's imagination.

Composer Michael Masser, who wrote the song with the late lyricist Linda Creed, is thrilled with the song's rebirth.

"This is a culmination of a 10-year journey, but we did it," he said. "We knew it was special."

The song was written in 1976 for "The Greatest," a film based on the life of former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. George Benson performed it, but the single only reached No. 24 on the pop charts that year.

After being asked to write the song for the movie, Masser said, he felt drawn to Jerusalem--even though he wasn't a religious man--"to get the feelings--not just my own."

Masser also had special feelings about Ali.

"Here was a man who wanted to change his name and religion," Masser said of Ali. "That's all. Ali hadn't believed in the war in Vietnam and had refused to fight in it. He won that battle through the legal system. Still, he lost everything--including his title. But Ali retained the most important thing of all--his dignity."

The song has another personal meaning for Masser.

A few years earlier, the songwriter had given up a legal career to do what he believed in. Having had, what he calls, "a typical Jewish upbringing," Masser became the lawyer his parents wanted him to be, and he had everything: a family, a farm in Vermont. At age 30, however, he moved to Hollywood to write songs.

Masser remembers, "People thought I was crazy. I had to starve. Had no money. Marriage broke up. But I had to do what I'd wanted to do since I was 6 . . . write music."

Upon his return from Jerusalem, he contracted with Creed--who co-wrote such hits as "You Make Me Feel Brand New" for the Stylistics and "The Rubberband Man" for the Spinners--to work on the song. "Our souls were so close," he said. "She inspired me. I inspired her."

George Benson shares Masser's emotional bond with the song.

"The song is a mainstay of my concerts and evokes a lot of emotion besides standing ovations," he said.

"In Cape Town, South Africa, the racially mixed audience stood up, joined me in song and held hands. It was the first time blacks and whites had attended a concert together and the first time they had ever held hands there."

Encino therapist Farzaneh Baroumian of Susan Forward & Associates also sensed the universality of the song.

"When I first heard the song, I knew every one of my patients could benefit from the message of those words. I tell them to buy the record or cassette and listen to the song several times a day . . . to listen to the words."

The greatest love of all

Is easy to achieve

Learning to love yourself

It is the greatest love of all

Whitney Houston was still an unknown hopeful when Masser heard her sing "Greatest Love" a few years ago in a New York club.

Masser--who produced and composed such hits as Diana Ross' "Touch Me in the Morning" and "Do You Know Where You're Going"--remembered the voice in 1984 when he needed a female vocalist to sing a song ("Hold Me") with Teddy Pendergrass on Pendergrass' first album after an automobile accident which left him paralyzed.

Masser also produced the version of "Greatest Love" that appeared on Houston's debut album. The song was released this year as the fourth single from the album and went to No. 1 last month, helping push the album's sales past the 5 1/2 million mark.

Creed died of cancer April 10, just before the single's big success. At Creed's funeral, a rabbi recited the words to the song, including these ending lyrics:

And if by chance

That special place

That you've been dreaming of

Leads you to a lonely place

Learn your strength in love.

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