“Time will tell if love survives, but we only have today, and today love is alive…”
Coming a year after the huge success of Diana Ross – with its two #1 singles – and two years before her dance classic The Boss, this is one of the lesser-known, mainly forgotten albums of Diana Ross’s career. Though it managed to climb to the top 20 of the album chart, none of its three singles rose made the top 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and there aren’t any tracks that the general public would likely recognize. Though the album’s second single, “Your Love Is So Good For Me,” earned Miss Ross another Grammy nomination, the LP itself isn’t usually named by critics as a Diana Ross “classic” – at least, not in the way her work with producers Ashford and Simpson are.
All of that said…Diana Ross fans know better.
Baby It’s Me is one of the best albums of Diana Ross’s career; in some ways, it may qualify as the best. From start to finish, track by track, this is a pop masterwork; Diana Ross and producer Richard Perry chose ten absolutely perfect songs, and each one is performed and produced to the highest degree of quality. Diana’s vocal performances here are her most consistently exiting since 1971’s Surrender; she manages to recapture the youth and vibrancy of her Supremes recordings while still retaining the maturity and complexity of her forays into jazz and blues. Perry’s productions, meanwhile, are as classy and sophisticated as anything ever released by Motown. There is magic – not to mention inspiration – in these recordings.
Profiled in the August 11th, 1977 issue of Rolling Stone (and featured on the cover), Diana talked to writer Ben Fong-Torres while recording this album, saying, “We wanted to make a record people could make love to – keep putting the arm on back to the thing, and make love to it” (35). This focus on consistency as an album, rather than on each individual song, is the reason Baby It’s Me works so well. It is indeed a love album, but it’s much more than that. It’s an album all about the joys of life – about love, longing, dance, and friendship. That joy is every bit as powerful 35 years after its initial release.
1. Gettin’ Ready For Love: The album’s opening track, this was also its first single; it managed to climb into the Pop Top 30 and R&B Top 20. Though not a huge hit, it’s one of the best singles Diana had released up to that point, a soaring, enchanting pop record that’s at once mature, danceable, and romantic (and thus, a perfect opening song, since those themes will be repeated throughout the LP). The complex, jazzy instrumental track features the excitement of strings and a swinging sax, not to mention a hip rhythm section with the prominent sound of a classic, upright bass. This is a feel-good song, the lyrics revolving around the excitement of a new romance, and Diana’s vivacious performance perfectly sets the tone. She handles the tricky, fast-paced verses nicely (she never muddles the rapid-fire succession of words like “I-sit-by-the-telephone-waiting-for-you-to-call-me…”) and her voice soars into the higher end of her range during the last 35 seconds of running time, sounding much stronger and more assured than it had in quite some time. Her “Yes I am!” at 2:35, for example, sounds more energetic and engaged than almost anything she’d sung on Diana Ross (1976). In the same way “Surrender” set the tone for Diana’s classic 1971 album of the same name, “Getting Ready For Love” is the ideal way to introduce listeners to the sound of Baby It’s Me.
2. You Got It: A nice slice of sophisticated soul, Motown chose to release this song as the final single from Baby It’s Me, although it didn’t make much impact on radio or with record buyers. It is, however, another dynamic song, featuring a sterling vocal performance by Diana Ross. The climax of the song, coming just over three minutes into the song, is as powerful and exhilarating as anything she’d recorded with Ashford and Simpson; her voice is in full force as she nails some nice high notes, accompanied by a choir of soulful background singers. The chorus is also one of the most memorable on the album; it’s so deceptively simple and “sing-along-ish” that it sounds like it could have been a Holland-Dozier-Holland composition meant for the Supremes. Listen to the background singers on the verses, too – the musical line sounds lifted straight from a Four Tops song. Thus, “You Got It” could be considered the Motown Sound, Version 2.0 – it’s an intelligent update of the sound that made Diana Ross famous.
3. Baby It’s Me: This is a fun, funky song with a great guitar and horn-driven instrumental track. Diana sounds completely relaxed and loose here; this isn’t a performance where she pushes her voice much, but she doesn’t need to. She sings most of the song in unison with a deeper background voice, a nice effect that gives the song an added energy and an almost “live performance” feel. These elements – the prominent “other” voice, and the smooth funk feel – make the song an interesting continuation of Diana’s earlier single “One Love In My Lifetime” from 1976’s Diana Ross. As good as that tune was, though, this song has an even stronger focus and crisper production; it’s not quite as catchy, and thus probably wouldn’t have worked as a single, but it’s great album track.
4. Too Shy To Say: After three uptempo songs, the pace slows down with this Stevie Wonder cover, one of the most gorgeous ballad performances from Diana Ross since her work on Lady Sings The Blues. In the Rolling Stone piece written by Ben Fong-Torres, Diana is described as listening to her work on this song and saying, “That was a good one…very nice” (35). Indeed, this is one of her best – the song combines the dreamy, almost hypnotic feel of “Theme From Mahogany” with the passionate, emotional readings she gave to songs like “All The Befores” on Surrender. The production work by Perry on this track is some of the best on the album; the string-and-piano laden instrumental track is romantic and achingly beautiful. It’s interesting that Motown overlooked this song as a single candidate in favor of three upbeat singles; this is such a strong performance that it sounds like it could have at least been a big hit on R&B radio, and likely could have crossed over to pop, too.
5. Your Love Is So Good For Me: This is, really, only the second true dance-club track ever released by Diana, coming a year after her #1 disco smash “Love Hangover.” This one apparently found some success in clubs at the time, and managed to grab a Grammy nomination for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance – somewhat of a surprise given that it wasn’t a big chart success. It is, however, a really good song – a driving, upbeat R&B tune that manages to sidestep falling into the trap of sounding like dated disco thanks to Perry’s impeccable production. What’s more, the strong bassline and the blaring synth-horns don’t detract at all from vocal performance, something that often happened on dance songs of the era. Miss Ross is front and center, and full of energy. She truly sounds like she’s having fun on this track; it’s easy to imagine her grooving behind the microphone while in the studio recording it.
6. Top Of The World: This is one of the sparkling highlights of Baby It’s Me. A pop masterpiece penned by Tom Snow, the song skillfully connects the dots between disco, pop, soul, and jazz much in the way the album’s opener, “Gettin’ Ready For Love,” did (that song was also written by Snow). It’s similar in tone to the work artists like George Benson and Al Jarreau were turning out in the late 70s/early 80s; there’s an elegance to the music, in its tip of the hat to smooth jazz, that sets it apart from other pop songs of the era. The tune is catchy as all get out; the crisp, staccato, string-laden intro immediately sets a head-bopping beat, and the chorus is probably the strongest and most memorable on the entire album. The song boasts another strong performance from Diana; she sounds youthful here in a way she hadn’t in years. Hearing her work her way through such a strong melody, it’s impossible not to think of her work with the Supremes. That connection to her past as the lead singer of the most successful female group in history is strengthened even more on the next track…
7. All Night Lover: This song is, simply put, an all-out lovefest to the Motown sound. It is a splendid recreation of Diana’s best work as lead singer of the Supremes, but never feels derivative or like a parody of her performances from the 1960s. Like the previous track, there’s a real elegance to the production here; this is pop/soul at its classy, shimmering best. The bouncy, repetitive beat is incredibly catchy, and Diana’s vocal is masterful – she throws in some nods to her past hits (like her opening cooing, straight out of “Baby Love”) while still sounding like a seasoned, mature songstress. Diana was recording this song while being written about in Rolling Stone; it’s interesting to see how collaborative the process apparently was with producer Perry, as detailed in this exchange: “Perry says he thinks the word ‘dream’ seems to come up too often in the verse. ‘I don’t mind it,’ says Ross. ‘The repetition is good with me.’ They go over a lyric that reads: ‘Renew me, move me,’ and Perry suggests rewording it to ‘Renew me, do me,’ as Ross had sung in a run-through. Ross sings it again, then laughs at the naughtiness” (35). Perhaps it was that freedom and collaboration that led to the joy and “magic” in this song; it’s a shame it wasn’t considered for single release. It is, I think, one of the most exciting Diana Ross album tracks of all time, and a highlight on an album that’s already full of highlights.
8. Confide In Me: A nice change of pace from the past few songs, this is a smooth, laid-back ballad with a lovely performance from Miss Ross. Co-written by singer/songwriter Melissa Manchester (the first of two Manchester tunes here), this is a less-dramatic piece of work than “Too Shy To Say,” and gives Diana and Perry the chance to relax and “take it slow,” as the lyric says. Diana’s vocal performance is extremely assured and confident, and she soars beautifully when the song calls for it.
9. The Same Love That Made Me Laugh: This is another hidden treasure of the Baby It’s Me album, a funky Bill Withers track that gets a dark, driving reading by Perry and Ross. This is, perhaps, Diana’s best vocal performance on the entire album; the song itself requires her to stretch a little more than others do, and she powerfully wails the word “why” on the choruses, stretching it over several bars and exhibiting a lung power not often identified with her. She also gets the chance to do some wordless improvisation at just over 3:00 in that foreshadows her dynamic work on The Boss album a few years later. The production is beautifully done, retaining the prominent strings that feature on songs like “Gettin’ Ready For Love” and “Top Of The World,” but giving them a darker, more complex feel. This song sounds like it could have been a natural hit; it likely would have done well as a club record and hit on R&B radio. Since it was never released to radio, it stands instead as a terrific album cut waiting to be discovered by soul music fans.
10. Come In From The Rain: The second Melissa Manchester composition on Baby It’s Me (this one co-written with the prolific Carole Bayer-Sager), this is most purely “pop” song on the album. It’s a lovely ballad that begins with a simple, understated verse and slowly grows into a sweeping, almost cinematic finish reminiscent of Diana’s work with writer/producer Michael Masser (the song does sound like it could have been a film’s love theme). As on the pair of previous ballads, Diana’s clear, ringing soprano is showcased brilliantly; she’s never sounded better, and is bolstered by the strong material and production. Her voice here is warm and inviting, and this is a nice way to close out a perfect line-up of songs.
Unlike her previous few studio albums, which featured both strong singles and weak filler, each track here blends perfectly into the next, creating a complete musical work that is full of energy and romance (this is, perhaps, why none of the eventual singles, out of the context of the rest of the LP, did very well). This was her first really cohesive collection since Touch Me In The Morning, but easily surpasses that album in overall quality due to its better production and vocal performances. Just prior to recording Baby It’s Me, Diana had been focused on her one-woman show, An Evening With Diana Ross, and it certainly seems that the ambitious show had warmed her up vocally and unleashed her creativity.
But perhaps the real strength in this album lies simply in the fact that there’s a clear vision here; as Diana said while recording it, she and Richard Perry had set out from the start to create an album people “could make love to.” By keeping that goal front and center, the duo were able to execute their version with exacting clarity. As they hoped, the album is a compulsively listenable, timeless tribute to the joys of being in love; it has more than stood the test of time. And in the Diana Ross discography, this album stands as perhaps the single most consistently enjoyable work she would ever record.
Final Analysis: 5/5 (Diana’s On “Top Of The World”)
Choice Cuts: “All Night Lover,” “Top Of The World,” “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh”
The Grammy nominees for Best Female R&B Vocal Female Performance that year were:
Thelma Houston, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (Winner)
Natalie Cole, “I’ve Got Love On My Mind”
Aretha Franklin, “Break It To Me Gently”
Dorothy Moore, “I Believe You”
Diana Ross, “Your Love Is So Good For Me”