Of the many aspects of Diana Ross’s life and career that have been written about, her actual working process in the studio is easily the most overlooked. People are happy to discuss her hair, her fashion, her relationships, and her temperament…but what about her musical contributions? Though Miss Ross is credited with executive producing many of her albums and co-writing several songs during her stint at RCA Records in the 1980s, this work has rarely been discussed, not even by the artist herself.
In terms of writing, Diana’s first credit was on “Work That Body,” her 1981 single from the Why Do Fools Fall In Love LP — which also happened to be her first project as executive producer. That song was a moderate hit, as was 1982′s “So Close,” another Ross co-write and the second single from Silk Electric. Neither of these songs is necessarily considered a Diana Ross “classic,” but both have their share of fans. Many count the 1980s b-side “Fight For It” as Diana’s strongest recording as a writer; though it was left off of her Swept Away LP, it remains a popular track for record-hunters and completists.
That song was co-written with Peppy Castro, renowned singer/writer/musician whose career has gone from psychedelic garage rock to Broadway to hard rock, pop and beyond. Castro’s credits are staggering; he’s worked with artists including Cher, John Denver, Michael Bolton, and Liza Minnelli, not to mention his own success with groundbreaking group the Blues Magoos. Castro has the distinction of working on two oft-discussed Diana Ross tracks; along with “Fight For It,” he also wrote (with Mary Anne Kelly) “We Are The Children Of The World” from Swept Away.
Recently, Mr. Castro was kind enough to briefly discuss his work and Ross-related experiences with The Diana Ross Project. We chatted by e-mail, and it was truly a pleasure and honor to hear from such a talented and legendary musician.
Diana Ross Project: First of all — let’s go back to the beginning. You first gained fame with group the Blues Magoos in the 1960s – I believe you were still a teenager at the time. What’s the story behind the founding of the group?
Peppy Castro: The group was formed in New York and 3 of us hailed from the Bronx at the time. We would play all the clubs in Greenwich Village and we broke out of a club called The Night Owl Cafe. We had a top ten record “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet” in 1967 and we were the first group to rise up from the underground in the Psychedelic rock movement to have a hit record.
DRP: Your rock career took you to Broadway. I can only imagine being part of the original cast of “Hair” was pretty wild. What are your recollections of the experience?
PC: “Hair” was the place to be, the most exciting time in musical history. It was yet another groundbreaking experience for me. That’s a book just on that subject. Everybody who was doing anything in the world came to that show. Unlike the Magoos, I had a principle role as an actor-singer in the Broadway production.
DRP: I believe it was through KISS that you met Diana Ross. A lot of people are unaware that Miss Ross and Gene Simmons dated for awhile. What are your recollections of them and how you became acquainted with the singer?
PC: I was introduced to Diana through Gene Simmons. He called me up and asked me, did I have any material for Diana? I went over to Gene, who at the time had a penthouse overlooking the Central Park Zoo on 5th Ave. in New York. I sat and went through lots of portfolios of Gene’s “on the road” memorabilia. Haha…you can imagine what was in there! What an amazing person Gene is. He took the songs I had and gave them to Diana for me and she had interest in “We Are The Children.”
DRP: The period during which you worked with Diana Ross was one in which she was quite vocal about wanting more independence and creative control in her career. Did you get that sense from her?
PC: Oh yeah…it was time.
DRP: Tell me about “Fight For It.” Although it never made it to an album, it’s a fan-favorite and sought after b-side.
PC: Diana, after cutting “We Are The Children,” called me up and asked me would I collaborate on the song. She wanted to know that she had writer’s credits now on her records, which was long overdue.
DRP: I happen to love the song — it’s got a sexy, subtle groove that is really fantastic. What were each of your contributions to the creation of the record?
PC: I wrote some melodies and lyrics and Diana did the same. It was give and take.
DRP: “We Are The Children Of The World” was the b-side to “Missing You” and is a song that still inspires much spirited debate among fans. How did the song come about?
PC: In all actuality, I had the song, which was written with my ex-wife Mary Kelly, and had a great concept for it. I tried to pitch Diana about it but she didn’t get it or wasn’t prepared to follow through. My original version was a little more rock and what Diana did was right for her and her record. I envisioned a video based around Diana in a stadium with children from all over the world marching in to her much like the Olympics. As it was PM Magazine, a TV show out of Philly, did a half hour special with Diana based on the song with children. So they got the concept. Somewhere in my treasure chest is an old VHS that one day I’ll transfer to DVD.
DRP: Did you work on any other songs with Miss Ross that were unfinished/unreleased? What are your overall feelings looking back on the experiences?
PC: Ya know, it’s funny. I’ve heard people say all kinds of things about Diana, she’s a diva and tough to work with, etc. I found her to be focused and charming and a pleasure to work with. I think there was one other song that didn’t make the record. I forget myself, as well, because we didn’t follow through on it.
DRP: Finally – you’re still a busy guy. Your album JUST BEGINNING is getting great reviews — tell me about the record.
PC: After being a rock and roll guy and in so many bands in my career, it was long overdue for me to just put my own CD out. Of course, now that CD’s are becoming obsolete. LOL. It’s my labor of love. I have Joey Kramer (drummer, Aerosmith) on a few cuts. Lucky for friendship. You don’t see him on other records so it’s a real honor. I do so many things that life is never boring.
Thanks again to Peppy Castro for answering questions about these two unique and memorable recordings with Diana Ross. Be sure to check out his website to hear samples from his album Just Beginning and read more about his incredible career.