For once, a genuine hit tops the charts

TONIGHT, Radio 1 will unveil the Christmas number one. This year there is little suspense - Whitney Houston's 'I Will Always Love You' has been number one since 29 November and is outselling the current number two, 'Heal The World' by Michael Jackson, by two to one.

Houston's song has become the biggest-selling single of 1992, and the odds on its being the Christmas number one are 1-8. All this makes 'I Will Always Love You' a very different sort of Christmas number one: a genuine hit. In recent years, holders of the spot have been either charity records or seasonal songs by old- timers such as Cliff Richard or Shakin' Stevens.

Band Aid's charity release, 'Do They Know It's Christmas?', shot to number one in 1984, and, with 3.5m sales, became Britain's biggest-selling single to date, raising pounds 8m on the way. The song reappeared at number one in 1989 but sold just 500,000.

Last year, in the wake of Freddie Mercury's death, Queen re- released their 1975 Christmas hit 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. It sold 1.5 million copies and EMI gave the pounds 1m to the Terrence Higgins Trust. But Cliff Richard's 1990 number one, 'Saviour's Day' sold just 350,000 copies - the 1978 Christmas number one 'Mary's Boy Child' by Boney M sold 1.8 million. These days, in a bad week, a song can reach number one on as few as 50,000 sales. And that makes it easier to 'help' a song into the chart.

'The record companies can kick-start a record by distributing 'free product' to chart-return shops,' explained one London- based independent retailer. 'The reps might give you free copies of a single together with display boxes to put next to the till. They want you to sell them at a lower price so they come with price stickers already on them. When the record is in the chart you have to buy product, but you may get a better discount. The record companies definitely know which shops are Gallup-linked.'

So the Whitney Houston single looks like a blast from the past. 'It's a genuine number one,' said the independent retailer. 'If more records were like it in terms of quality, the industry would be a lot healthier.'

With 1,020,000 sales 'I Will Always Love You' is Britain's biggest hit since Bryan Adams's '(Everything I Do) I Do It For You' spent 16 weeks at number one in 1991. Like that song, it has a very broad appeal. 'It's a huge cross-over,' said Chris Lycett, head of music at Radio 1. 'It is very big on Radio 2 as well.'

'I Will Always Love You' is also taken from a film, The Bodyguard, released on Boxing Day: the Adams track featured in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.

So will Whitney Houston remain number one for as long as Bryan Adams? 'I think it's unlikely she'll last very long into 1993,' said Mr Lycett. But as Graham Sharpe of the bookies William Hill said: 'You don't have to sell very much to stay at number one after Christmas.'