Waiting for a Star to Fall: Boy Meets Girl on how they made a pop classic | Pop and rock


Shannon Rubicam, singer-songwriter

We’d written How Will I Know and I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) for Whitney Houston, so were given tickets when she played the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on her first tour in 1986. After she sang How Will I Know, I glanced up and there was a shooting star in the night sky above the amphitheatre. I pulled out my notebook and wrote down: “Waiting for a star to fall.” It felt like a sign from the heavens.

We’d just turned our rental garage into a studio. I don’t think we’d put up insulation yet so you could hear the cars going by. But we sat down and the song just flowed out. I usually do a page of lyrics I call “the blah” and hand it to George, who can identify the gems. We were a married couple, but I had a past like anybody does. I wrote the song about an unattainable person – that moment everyone has in their teens or early 20s where they have a longing for someone they can’t reach.

We made a demo in the garage and offered the song to Whitney’s label boss, Clive Davis. He said it wasn’t right for her and he was right – it was too poppy and she was going R&B, so we decided to record it ourselves. Our label told us that the producer Arif Mardin was in LA, so we went to his hotel and sat there really quietly and nervously as he popped on his headphones and paced around the room, listening to the song. He took his headphones off and said: “This is a hit! I can work with this.”

In the studio, Arif added multiple layers and musicians. He pushed us to make everything grand and perfect. Then we went to New York and Andy Snitzer added sax. He’s well known now, but back then he was this kid who’d just come from playing a barmitzvah. He came to the studio still in his barmitzvah band uniform and played this incredible solo.

Weirdly, before we became successful, someone had introduced us to some wine that had supposedly been meditated over in a pyramid in Egypt resulting in mystical, magical qualities. It came with a sort of caution – that if you drank it, there would be an effect. After Waiting for a Star to Fall became a global hit, we looked back and went: “Hey, we drank the magic wine and look what happened.”

George Merrill, singer-songwriter and keyboards

The phrase “waiting for a star to fall” just seemed so perfect I could feel the beat in it right away. The way the song just tumbled together felt like really good math. But one of the first things Arif Mardin said was that the song had a very unusual chord structure. “Did I screw up?” I thought. But he was actually giving me a compliment. At that point, Robert Palmer was all set to do the song – but Arif intervened. I was actually in the room when he called Robert in his wonderfully gentlemanly way to ask if he “would mind awfully if he didn’t do anything with it just yet”. It was the funniest, coolest thing. Belinda Carlisle did a version but apparently was unhappy with it so it didn’t get released.

the single cover.
‘The song just tumbled together’ … the single cover.

Much of what we did in the garage made it on to the studio version. I played my Juno 6 synthesiser that I still have. Arif’s son Joe played synth too. Our friend Susan Boyd did the backing vocals, which gave it such full-throated power, but when we came out of the studio we knew it still wasn’t quite there. We adored Prince, so we looked over his album covers to see who mixed his records, saw the name David Leonard, and called him. He mixed the song and, in between telling us amazing Prince stories, took the track where it needed to go.

For the video, the director really liked the idea of us being a couple. We’re still musical partners – but Shannon and I are now married to other people, so the video is like a document of our home life at that time. Our daughter Hillary is in it with her preschool friends. We had to make sitting on the couch interesting so they filmed us riding a bicycle around the living room, which of course we did all the time!

I never asked if Whitney regretted not doing our song, but by then she was on to I Will Always Love You and that incredible body of work. I doubt she looked back.

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