Record Store Wednesdays: “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” Cassette

Diana Ross Reach Out Cassette

Because these days we’re so focused on collecting either Diana Ross vinyl (the best cover art) or Diana Ross CDs (the best sound), it’s easy to forget that Motown once produced some really wild collections on cassette tape.  I absolutely love this one, released in 1990 under the “Motown Special Products” imprint.  My dad picked it up for me years ago at a Big Lots store in Daytona Beach, Florida — for those of you unfamiliar with Big Lots, it’s a discount store crammed with everything from jelly beans to bedroom sets.  But this cassette is random even by Big Lots standards — check out this lineup:

Side 1:
1. Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand) (from Diana Ross)
2. Stone Liberty (from Last Time I Saw Him)
3. We Can Never Light That Old Flame Again (single, released 1982)
4. When Will I Come Home To You (from Last Time I Saw Him)

Side 2:
1. It’s My Turn (from To Love Again)
2. (They Long To Be) Close To You (from Everything Is Everything)
3. Together (from Ross)
4. For Once In My Life (from Motown Superstars Sing Motown Superstars)

There are several great inclusions here, the most notable being “For Once In My Life.”  Diana had recorded the song in the 1970s with Hal Davis (of “Love Hangover”), but it was shelved until it showed up in the 1983 LP Motown Superstars Sing Motown Superstars featuring various artists.  As of this writing, the song hasn’t been released anywhere else since, making it one of the singer’s rarer recordings.  Meanwhile, “We Can Never Light That Old Flame Again” was another shelved 70s track, finally released by Motown as a single in 1982 and then included on the 1983 Anthology — but never on a studio album.

There were a few other Diana Ross cassette tapes released around the same time that offer up similarly obscure tracklists (one is titled Baby It’s Me, but isn’t the actual album Baby It’s Mehow’s that for confusing?), and eventually the “Motown Legends” series of CDs would use this same format, placing a few hits alongside deep cuts and previously unreleased material.  Looking over the songs included on the various cassettes I’ve seen, it sure seems like someone wanted more people to hear the albums Everything Is Everything, Ross, and Last Time I Saw Him, all of which get major play.  And considering those were probably the three hardest-to-find Ross releases at the time, these cassettes seem like generous gifts to fans.

Now…if only I could find my old cassette player so I could play the thing again…

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Were You The One? The Top 5 Hits That Got Away

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I knew when you walked into the room, you were the one…

It stands to reason that a career as long and active as that of Diana Ross would be peppered with “should have been” hits — cases of superlative recordings that were somehow overlooked by record executives and perhaps the singer herself.  It’s hard to argue with many of the decisions made in Diana’s career — after all, she’s one of the most successful vocalists in history, and her voice has led a whopping 18 singles to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 (and, to be technical about the matter, she graced two other #1 hits, “We Are The World” and “Mo Money Mo Problems,” for a grand total of 20!).  Still, hindsight is 20/20, and it’s hard for fans to listen to some of the hidden gems of the Diana Ross discography and not wonder “what if?”

Sure, songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Touch Me In The Morning” sound like surefire hits; there’s a magic to these recordings and it’s clear that they were destined to become classics.  But what about songs like “You Were The One” (from 1978’s Ross) or “All Night Lover” (from 1977’s Baby It’s Me) — don’t these also possess the qualities that could have led them to become great successes?  It’s hard to say why certain songs are chosen for single release and others are relegated to “filler” status — but it’s sometimes the case in the Diana Ross discography that overlooked album tracks sparkle with a fire and energy that seem tailor-made for radio airplay.

It’s well-documented that Diana’s second stint with Motown (encompassing studio albums from 1989 to 1999) was marred by messy promotional campaigns; the label seemed completely confused by albums like 1999’s Every Day Is A New Day, for example, not even attempting to garner any radio play and letting Diana’s television movie Double Platinum serve as the sole promotional tool.  There were many missed opportunities in these years, but there were just as many earlier in the singer’s career.  Here, then, is a look back at some of my personal choices for the “should have beens” — non-singles that are as good as anything that reached #1, and seem like they could have easily added to singers tally of hits.

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5. All Night Lover (From Baby It’s Me)

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To be honest, there are several songs from this 1977 Richard Perry-produced masterpiece that should have or could have been hit singles; this is easily one of Diana’s strongest collections of material, and each track is perfectly suited for her warm vocal performances.  Lead single “Gettin’ Ready For Love” is a gorgeous song, a joyful, jazz-inflected tune that perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the album.  However, there’s a sparkle to “All Night Lover” that is irresistible, a shimmering and timeless sophistication. Had this song been released to radio in advance of the album, I think it would have caught on quickly; as I wrote in my original review of the album, the bouncy 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.  If there’d been an immediate hit to herald the release of this album, it surely would have become the smash success it deserved to be, and “All Night Lover” sure seems like a song that could have done it.

4. It’s Hard For Me To Say (from Red Hot Rhythm & Blues)

Diana Ross Red Hot Rhythm And Blues

Why this song wasn’t pulled as a single from Diana’s 1987 album Red Hot Rhythm & Blues is a complete mystery, given that it’s a gorgeous ballad written and produced by a man who was enjoying tremendous success on the R&B at the time — Luther Vandross.  Vandross reportedly worshipped Miss Ross and had hoped to produce a full-length LP on her (if only!); he at least got the chance to do this song, which turned out to be one of the highlights not only of the album, but of the singer’s entire RCA output.  This passionate, soulful ballad features a trademark crystal-clear vocal by Diana, who sounds assured throughout; her voice also blends beautifully with Vandross’s backgrounds on the chorus.  Had it been released, it could have topped the R&B chart — it’s that good — and was certainly a far better choice to go to radio than the significantly weaker “Tell Me Again.”  At least Diana seems to recognize the power of this song; she resurrected it in her live shows years later, after Mr. Vandross passed away, and even performed it on her final appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

3.  Be A Lion (from The Wiz)

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This is one of the great hidden treasures of Diana Ross’s discography and easily one of her best ballad performances of all time; anyone who doesn’t believe that Diana Ross has strong “pipes” or can belt out a song would surely change his or her tune after hearing her work here.  Though “Ease On Down The Road” was the first chosen single from The Wiz soundtrack and the ballad “Home” is the one Diana most often performed in concert, “Be A Lion” is her clear standout on the double-LP, a powerhouse of a performance that is ripe for rediscovery.  Miss Ross shifts from a smooth, velvety performance at the beginning of the song to a soaring and rich delivery that rivals the most seasoned of Broadway performers; the second half of the song includes possibly the best singing of her entire career.  Considering the movie underperformed with both critics and audiences, MCA Records probably didn’t try too hard with this soundtrack; it did release a second single, “You Can’t Win” performed by Michael Jackson, but that one barely hit the Billboard Hot 100.  Had the movie been a massive hit, there probably would have been more singles from this soundtrack; certainly “Home” would have been released had there been more interest in the film.  But “Be A Lion” is the track that deserves recognition; it’s as good as any other ballad that topped the R&B charts during the decade.

2.  Change Of Heart (from The Force Behind The Power)

Force Behind The Power Diana Ross

And now we get to the really painful ones.  Why, oh why was this not the lead single from 1991’s The Force Behind The Power?  According to J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana Ross: A Biography, “Change Of Heart” was supposed to be the first release from the album, but Motown had its own “change of heart” and decided to focus on other songs instead.  In retrospect, this was a big mistake; the song is clear winner, an upbeat pop song that could have put Diana Ross back on top.  Written by the team behind Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” the song is a swinging mid-tempo number with a classy instrumental and catchy lyric.  Diana never sounded better than she does on this song; she’s in total command of the song, displaying great range and nailing some awesome high notes at the end that are reminiscent of her work on 1968’s “Love Child.”  She sounded great doing the song live — there’s a video floating around YouTube of the singer performing this song in Japan, and it’s outstanding — and it’s a track that could have done well on multiple formats (including pop, R&B, and adult contemporary).  The Force Behind The Power should have been a “comeback” album for Diana Ross; it’s a solid, classy work that deserved not only success but awards consideration.  Whatever shot the album had at bringing Ross back to the forefront of popular music, Motown blew it by not focusing attention on this standout song.

1.  You Were The One (from Ross

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On the heels of the commercial success of Diana Ross (1976), a special Tony Award for An Evening With Diana Ross, and the release of her pop masterwork Baby It’s Me (1977), Motown made an incredibly odd decision in putting together 1978’s Ross, an album containing both new recordings and older ones (some of which were previously released) and which didn’t seem to have any real concept behind it.  Although there are some very strong songs on the album, only one single was pulled from it, the Hal Davis-produced “What You Gave Me” — the song flopped, charting solely in the lower reaches of the R&B listings (which is, frankly, not a surprise — the song just isn’t very good).  Other new songs, like “To Love Again” and “Never Say I Don’t Love You” could have been hits, but the real showstopper is “You Were The One,” and funky disco song that is one of the big “what were they thinking?” moments of Diana’s career with Motown.  This is, frankly, one of the best dance songs ever recorded by Diana — a classy, funky club song boasting a poppin’ bassline and a powerful vocal performance.  It’s completely of its era, and yet sophisticated enough that it doesn’t sound nearly as dated today as much of the disco released in the late 1970s — it doesn’t even sound as dated as some of the songs on Diana’s great 1979 album The Boss Along with Diana’s soaring vocal, there’s an anthemic quality to the piece that could have easily carried it to hit status.  Why Motown went with a lackluster dance single to promote this album when it had such a stunner just doesn’t make sense.  It was the one, indeed.

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There are, of course, many “honorable mentions” that belong on this list; “Never Say I Don’t Love You” from Ross ’78 could have been a big pop hit, and “No One Gets The Prize” and/or “I Ain’t Been Licked” from The Boss should have been given a chance to chart.  And what would have happened if the absolutely sublime “Free (I’m Gone)” (featured on the Japan pressing of Every Day Is A New Day) had been serviced to R&B radio — would it have finally gotten Miss Ross the airplay she deserved during the late 1990s?  It’s impossible to say…but boy, is it fun to speculate.

Now, as Diana would say, it’s your move.  What are your top “should have been” singles?  What overlooked album tracks deserved one shining moment?

In Memory Of: Michael Masser (1941-2015)

Michael Masser Diana Ross Mahogany

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if life were like a song…”

There are certain people who are essential to the career of Diana Ross, people that have been absolutely instrumental to her success as a singer and entertainer.  Certainly Berry Gordy is one of these, as are Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard; Gil Askey would probably be another, along with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson.  The great Michael Masser must also be counted among this group; his songs are among the most memorable Miss Ross would ever record, and together Masser and Ross practically invented the “diva ballad” template that would be followed to the letter by future singing stars like Whitney Houston, Brandy, and Beyoncé.

Masser passed away this week at the age of 74, according to The Desert Sun.  What sad news; this is a man who is responsible for some of the biggest pop hits of the modern era, and who pushed some truly great singers to new artistic heights.  Interestingly, the article notes that Masser left law school to enter the music industry; his first big break was writing for Diana Ross, when Motown exec Suzanne dePasse asked him to come up with a hit song for the singer.  As related in J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana Ross: A Biography, “[She] had met a young composer named Michael Masser at a cocktail party.  She liked him, thought he was very personable. ‘Well, would you like to start at the top?’ she asked him. ‘If so, we need a song for Diana Ross, and we need it now'” (261).  The result was “Touch Me In The Morning,” which shot to #1 and earned Ross a Grammy-nomination; the song has become a classic, and is one that the singer still performs in concert today.

Diana’s next blockbuster ballad was also a Masser composition; “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” was a chart-topper and an Academy Award-nominee for Best Song.  Masser also wrote the theme song to the 1980 film It’s My Turn, and Diana’s recording of it sailed to the Top 10.  This song led to an entire album of Masser compositions, To Love Again, which was released by Motown in 1981; the LP featured both new and older recordings, and would sadly be the last time the writer/producer and singer worked together.  By the mid-80s, Diana was busy producing herself at RCA, and Masser was churning out hits for Whitney Houston and others.  Still, in less than a decade of work, Masser helped cement the image of Diana Ross as a sophisticated, velvet-voiced songstress; his songs were tailor-made for the singer’s glamorous gowns and classy demeanor, providing her with dramatic musical statements of heartbreak and resilience.  Coming on the heels of her triumphant foray into jazz with 1972’s Lady Sings The Blues, “Touch Me In The Morning” pushed Miss Ross to the forefront of pop music, a place she would remain for a very, very long time.

In honor of Michael Masser and his musical legacy, here’s a countdown of my Top 5 favorite Masser-Ross collaborations.  (NOTE: The discussions are pulled from my previous reviews posted on The Diana Ross Project, and thus focus mainly on the vocal performances.)

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#5:  It’s My Turn

Diana Ross To Love Again 

This song still stands as one of the greatest ballads Diana Ross would ever record; it was a deserved Top 10 hit, and it’s a crime that Diana didn’t receive a Pop Female Vocal Grammy nomination for it.  The vocal performance here is simple and powerful; there are no background voices to distract from Diana, and she stays comfortably within her range while still displaying impressive lung power as she belts out the familiar refrain.  Michael Masser’s lyrics here are some of his most memorable; though lines like “I can’t cover up my feelings in the name of love…” and “…if living for myself is what I’m guilty of, go on and sentence me, I’ll still be free…” are admittedly schmaltzy, the song is instantly relatable to anyone who’s ever made the decision to go out on his or her own and try something new.  Diana’s reading of the lyric is never overdone; she sounds wise and tempers the sometimes overly-optimistic theme with just a hint of sadness which adds complexity and depth to the entire work.  Diana’s emotional crooning of the words “…it’s my turn” at 1:50 into the song and then again at the end is some of her best singing since The Wiz soundtrack back in 1978; she’s certainly feeling this song as she’d been feeling those songs back then.  “It’s My Turn” remains a fresh, satisfying listen, and still sounds like it could be a hit today.

#4:  Touch Me In The Morning

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The Diana Ross singing here sounds far more mature than the one who squealed “This is My Place…” on Everything Is Everything, which is pretty astonishing considering only about two years separated the two songs.  Ron Miller and Michael Masser came up with a perfect vehicle for the new, grown-up Diana Ross; the song is a pop masterwork, with a sweeping chorus and memorable lyric.  Diana herself turns in a confident, laid-back performance; she is far less-giddy than she sounded on her earliest solo albums, and clearly is incorporating some of the relaxed singing techniques of her jazz performances here.  On the opening especially, when she’s accompanied by only the piano, there’s a smoothness to her voice that wasn’t present at all on songs like “Now That There’s You” from Diana Ross, on which she sang a similar introduction in far breathier, youthful voice.  The overdubbed ending, during which Diana Ross sings along with herself, almost in a duet, is a stroke of genius that makes the recording feel modern even today.  Though there’s been much written about the turmoil behind the recording process of the song (apparently Diana Ross was…shall we say…unmotivated to work on it), it’s to everyone’s credit that it ended up as such a great record.

#3:  Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To) 

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This is one of those deceptively simple performances that Diana Ross gives so well; it would be easy to say that the song isn’t a particularly challenging one to sing, or that it doesn’t stretch her much as a singer.  That, however, would be overlooking the skill it takes to put over the thoughtful, almost-abstract lyrics.  This is not a song like “Last Time I Saw Him” or “I’m Still Waiting” or even “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” – there’s not a specific story being told here.  Instead, Diana Ross uses her sensitivity to convey the sense of a story behind the words; her ability to interpret a lyric and bring such a dreamy, pensive quality to it is something that sets her apart as an artist (and something that she’d surely become an expert at with her work on Lady Sings The Blues).  The production is also top-notch; the instrumental track is sweeping and dramatic, fitting for its place as the theme song to a film.  Strangely, this song was overlooked for a Grammy nomination in the Best Female Pop Vocal Performance category; it certainly stands as one of the great female vocal performances of the year, if not the decade.

#2:  I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love) 

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This was the second single released from Diana Ross, and made it to the Top 50 on the pop charts before stalling out.  According to The Billboard Book of Number One R&B Hits, Motown had been promoting this track when it was forced to rush-release “Love Hangover” as a single to kill a version by The 5th Dimension.  That makes sense, as this song is another stunning ballad from Michael Masser and seems like a natural hit for Diana Ross; had attention not shifted to “Love Hangover,” this one probably could have been at least a Top 10 record.  “I Thought It Took A Little Time…” is just as beautiful a song as the “Theme From Mahogany,” and requires Diana to use more of her vocal range; she sounds controlled and relaxed here when using the lower end of her range as well as pushing herself higher during the song’s climax.  Diana’s voice, particularly on the dramatic, string-laden intro, is also extremely mature here; though she’d turned in wise, sophisticated work on her past few studio albums, she actually does sound older and more seasoned here.  The instrumental track, as on the previous offering, is dramatic and symphonic, with a prominent piano line, soaring strings, and dreamy, almost hypnotic background vocals.  Though they turned out some amazing work together, and had much bigger hits than this, this is clearly one of the strongest collaborations between Mr. Masser and Miss Ross, and stands among her best work of the mid/late 1970s.

#1: To Love Again 

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This is a stunning production, co-written with Gerry Goffin and apparently first worked up during sessions for the Mahogany soundtrack.  The European feel of the song may be a result of that, since much of the movie takes place in Rome; it probably would have fit in well had the soundtrack featured Diana’s voice on more than just the main theme.  The ballad is one of the more unusual of Diana’s career up to that point, thanks to the atypical structure and the interesting instrumental with the very prominent mandolin and accordian.  It does, however, feature a classic Diana Ross ballad vocal performance — which is to say, it has a control and subtlety so skillful that it sounds extremely simple.  This, I think, is a reason that Diana is all too often overlooked as a vocalist; because she doesn’t run up and down the scales here, showing off her range with bombastic gynmastics, the casual listener might mistake her singing for being weak or “limited.”  However — a song like “To Love Again” requires careful, multiple listens; only then is the complexity of Ross’s singing revealed.  Her vocal control during the first minute or so is extremely impressive; she is singing a challenging melody line and is required to hold certain notes and words for several beats at a time, but never sounds like she’s putting any excess effort into her performance.  I’d also say that Diana’s singing of the words “to love again” at 2:19 (when she takes them an octave higher than she had earlier in the song) is one of the single most beautiful moments in a Diana Ross recording; her delicate, crystal clear reading of the words, and her four-note improv following them, combine with the soaring strings of the instrumental track to create a breathtaking musical interlude.  This song stands among the best ballads Diana ever recorded, and is a masterpiece of her Motown days.

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In the liner notes to the 2003 CD reissue of To Love Again, Mr. Masser commented, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world to have known and worked with Diana.”  Indeed, we all luckier for having lived with the music of this singular talent.

Record Store Wednesdays: “If You’re Not Gonna Love Me Right” Promo LP

If You're Not Gonna Love Me Right Promo2

I stumbled upon this promo single for “If You’re Not Gonna Love Me Right” while rummaging through album boxes at the fabulous Highland Row Antiques in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highland neighborhood.  It’s a pretty bare-bones release, featuring a Radio Edit (4:10) and the instrumental (4:42) on Side A, and the LP version (4:42) on Side B.  That said, I’m always happy to see anything Take Me Higherrelated, as the album is one of the finest in the Diana Ross discography, and one of my personal favorites (to be honest, it might just be THE personal favorite).

It’s hard to believe it’s been a full twenty years since Take Me Higher hit store shelves; 1995 was a great year to be a Diana Ross fan, as the singer vigorously promoted her new release (the third studio album of her second stint signed to Motown).  She made absolutely stellar appearances on several late shows (in particular, her stops to Late Show With David Letterman to perform the title track and “I Will Survive” were wonderful) and the singer toured extensively, performing almost the entire album in concert.  I was in the audience at Deer Creek Music Center on August 30, 1995 — a month or so before the album was released — and immediately fell in love with songs like “I Never Loved A Man Before,” “Only Love Will Conquer All,” and “I Thought That We Were Still In Love.”  All of them sounded like potential singles, and hits.

If You're Not Gonna Love Me Right Promo1

Although fans and (many) critics loved the album, it didn’t turn out to be the huge success it deserved to be.  “If You’re Not Gonna Love Me Right” was pulled as the third and final commercial single off the album, and released to the public as a double A-side with “Voice Of The Heart” (this commercial single also includes the “Crenshaw Records Version” of “If You’re Not…,” a smooth R&B remix that’s pretty good until the ghastly digital altering of Diana’s voice toward the end!).  Both songs received only minor airplay, although they did chart; the former hit #67 on Billboard’s R&B chart, and the latter topped out at #28 Adult Contemporary.  Interestingly, although Miss Ross had shot music videos for the previous two singles (“Take Me Higher” and “Gone”) and would do another for “I Will Survive,” she didn’t release accompanying videos for either of these two songs.  She did promote each of them on television; she sang “If You’re Not…” on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, and memorably performed “Voice” on Soul Train’s 25th Anniversary Hall Of Fame Special, during which she walked through the audience and stopped to embrace Whitney Houston.

Note: To read my in-depth thoughts on each of these songs, click HERE.

Despite the existence of this Motown promo LP, Diana reportedly felt she wasn’t getting the kind of promotional push she needed from the label; whatever the ultimate reason, it remains one of the great disappointments for fans that Take Me Higher was not a major commercial success.  That said, the real success is in the music; there’s not a bad song on this album.  Most impressive, more than thirty years into her career, Diana Ross was still pushing herself creatively and vocally.  And twenty years later, Take Me Higher is still an impressive achievement.

“An Evening With Diana Ross” On Broadway: Part One

An Evening With Diana Ross Playbill1

“The mark of a great performer is charisma.  Whether it be motion pictures, records, nightclubs or concerts, a superstar possesses a certain magic to make each line or song seem as if it is being performed just to you.”

Few quotes describe Diana Ross better than the one above; that it’s found in the Playbill to her 1976 one-woman Broadway show An Evening With Diana Ross makes it even more appropriate.  The singer’s 16-show engagement at The Palace Theatre is one of the unqualified triumphs of her career, arguably as important as other milestones like her film debut in Lady Sings The Blues and historic Central Park concerts in 1983.  The musical extravaganza proved Ross could conquer yet another facet of the entertainment industry, the New York legitimate stage; after scoring an Oscar nomination for acting and several Grammy nominations as a vocalist, she won a special Tony Award for this record-breaking stint on The Great White Way.

Fortunately for fans who missed the show on Broadway, Motown later recorded An Evening With Diana Ross at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles and released it as a double-LP; the show was also turned into a 90-minute television special which aired in March of 1977.  The live album is one of the best of her career; the energy and excitement of the show is captured beautifully, with the singer’s soaring vocals and the boisterous audience response more than making up for the lack of visuals.  This is more than just a “greatest hits” concert or a cabaret act; this is a two-act, expertly constructed timeline of both Diana’s career and a tribute to those who paved the way for her.  The television special took the “tribute” idea to the next level, with Diana in full makeup portraying legendary singers Josephine Baker, Ethel Waters, and Bessie Smith.  Her acting here was justifiably lauded.

All that said, neither the album nor the special can probably compare to the electricity that must have been present during the live shows at the Palace, especially on opening night.  That was June 14, 1976; theatres nearby featured hits such as Pippin (at the Imperial), Grease (at the Royale), and The Wiz (at the Majestic), which would end up being Diana’s next motion picture.  A Chorus Line was also enjoying a blockbuster run at the Shubert Theatre; several of that musical’s songs were used in Diana’s show, probably marking a rare occasion of such overlap on Broadway.  Joining Diana onstage were three mimes (Hayward Coleman, Don McLeod, and Stewart Fischer) and her backing group, The Jones Girls (Shirley, Brenda, and Valorie).

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The Jones Girls, it should be mentioned, went on to enjoy success with their 1979 hit “You’re Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else” and the 1982 release “Nights Over Egypt.”  Shirley would hit #1 on the R&B charts in 1986 with “Do You Get Enough Love” not long after Diana herself occupied the same spot with “Missing You.”  The relationship between Miss Ross and The Jones Girls was by all accounts an extremely pleasant one; speaking from the 2011 Smithsonian Folklife Festival Sessions Stage, Shirley commented: “People say, ‘Was she a diva? Was she…’ Absolutely not.  She came to us right after the London tour and said, ‘I want to tell you girls one thing; you are too good to be singing background forever, behind me or anybody else.  And you know I change clothes a thousand times in my show, so I’m gonna give you an opportunity to pick a song and sing a song while I do one of my costume changes.’  And she did that.  And for the rest of the three years that we were with her, when she went to change clothes, we got a chance to sing ‘If I Ever Lose This Heaven.'”  That solo spot for the young ladies led to a record contact with Philly soul pioneers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

Other familiar names associated with An Evening With Diana Ross are musical director Gil Askey, who worked with Diana Ross for many years and supervised the music for Lady Sings The Blues, and director Joe Layton.  The legendary Layton directed Barbra Streisand in her early, groundbreaking television specials and worked on Broadway hits including The Sound Of Music and George M! (the latter of which brought him a Tony); more than a decade later, he’d work on Diana’s Red Hot Rhythm & Blues TV special.  In his book Call Her Miss Ross, write J. Randy Taraborrelli quotes Layton as saying about Evening‘s genesis, “We went through all kinds of emotional drama together. She was upset about her marriage and always in tears. I was upset because my wife had recently died, and also always crying my eyes out. Out of all these sobbing bouts, somehow came creativity.”  Interestingly, Layton goes on to discuss Diana’s thirst for independence at this time, something that also undoubtedly added to her drive to make this particular act successful: “Even though she was still recording for Motown, she wanted to split from Berry, and that was very clear. His image of her was something she wanted no part of, so he wasn’t consulted about the show. I’m sure it must have made him crazy, but she was cutting the cord that was around her neck” (331).

Also, note that the program credits “additional material” to the great Bruce Vilanch.  Vilanch had previously appeared in a bit scene in Diana’s film Mahogany; he wrote hilariously and lovingly about the experience in a 1999 issue of The Advocate, describing a last-minute script change when Berry Gordy took over directing duties:So instead of hiring her, I refused to hire her.  Mahogany, that is.  I had to rewrite the scene on the spot.  In fact, Diane and I did it together.  Then, because everyone was in a big-ass hurry to get to Rome, I wrote the dialogue in large letters on a piece of wrapping paper that sat on a table in front of me.  Diane stood so we could both read the dialogue and play the scene.”

An Evening With Diana Ross Playbill4

The opening night list of musical numbers is similar to that featured on the eventually-released LP, with a few minor exceptions.  Miss Ross performed her then-current single during the show, “One Love In My Lifetime” — but by the time the live album was released, the single had failed to become a major hit for the singer (it reached #25 on the Billboard Hot 100) and was left off.  Meanwhile, “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” is listed as the final musical number performed in Act II; on the album, it follows the Supremes medley.  The television special (and later performances on Diana’s tour) also added “Home” from The Wiz, as Diana was by that time preparing to play Dorothy in the film version.

Speaking of The Wiz, perhaps because Diana’s Broadway run fell between the high-profile releases of her second and third films, this achievement tends to be overlooked by both critics and the singer herself.  Diana’s Tony Award isn’t always mentioned in lists of her career highlights, and Diana didn’t even discuss the experience in her 1993 memoir, Secrets Of A Sparrow.  This is also probably because the New York stint was just one stop on a much larger tour around the globe; Diana traveled for a long time with the Evening show (there are clips from a Japan show on YouTube), so her shows at the Palace might not seem particularly significant to her.  However, from an outsider’s perspective, it is significant; An Evening With Diana Ross broke long-standing box-office records at the famed Palace Theatre and, by all accounts, garnered her rave reviews.  At the 31st Annual Tony Award ceremony, presenter Tony Randall commented, “I think it’s fair to say that the New York critics simply tossed their hats into the air.”  He goes on to quote The New York Times as writing, “This great lady easily held the audience in her neatly sculptured hand.”

Diana Ross appeared at the ceremony, broadcast on ABC in June of 1977, during which she was presented with her special award for An Evening With Diana Ross.  In her acceptance speech, Diana said, “The most important part of any show is to acknowledge the absolutely incredible magic that the audience brings to the show.  And I’d like to remember to thank them, especially, because they made magic in my show at the Palace.”  This is typical of Miss Ross; she generally gives credit to Berry Gordy and/or her fans for her achievements, tending to downplay her own efforts.  But as the opening quote of this article stated, there wouldn’t have been any magic to begin with had there not been a such a gifted performer at the center of it all.

Coming soon on The Diana Ross Project — “behind-the-scenes” of An Evening With Diana Ross

An Evening With Diana Ross Playbill3

Record Store Wednesdays: “The Best Of Diana Ross” (1972)

The Best Of Diana Ross 1972 German

I’m in love with this 1972 German import LP I picked up at an FYE store in the Atlanta-area — the cover is gorgeous and the record itself in mint condition.  The Best Of Diana Ross was never released in the United States — there wouldn’t be a “best of” collection here until 1976.  This German collection features selections from her first three solo studio albums, Diana Ross, Everything Is Everythingand Surrender — and although it doesn’t represent a very big portion of her career, a few of her biggest hits are included:

  1. Remember Me
  2. Doobedood’ndoobe, Doobedood’ndoobe, Doobedood’ndoo
  3. I Wouldn’t Change The Man He Is
  4. Surrender
  5. Where There Was Darkness
  6. Everything Is Everything
  7. Reach Out I’ll Be There
  8. I’m Still Waiting
  9. (They Long To Be) Close To You
  10. Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)
  11. Didn’t You Know (You’d Have To Cry Sometime)
  12. These Things Will Keep Me Loving You
  13. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

This is a pretty solid lineup, thanks to the fact that these first three albums all contain raw, soulful performances from the singer; things would change with the release of her film/soundtrack Lady Sings The Blues (also in 1972), which would lead Miss Ross to a smoother, more sophisticated style of singing and take her in a more “pop” direction for the majority of the 1970s.  Even though the film would catapult Diana to the true level of superstardom, this early collection does seem warranted, as several of the songs were top 40 hits in both the US and internationally (the enormous success of “I’m Still Waiting” overseas is likely what sparked the idea of releasing a “best of” in the first place).

Of course, I’d argue there are a few stronger performances that could’ve been placed on this early compilation; if tasked with making my own version, here are the substitutions/additions (printed in bold) that I’d make:

  1. Remember Me
  2. Doobedood’ndoobe, Doobedood’ndoobe, Doobedood’ndoo
  3. Something On My Mind
  4. Surrender
  5. Dark Side Of The World
  6. I Love You (Call Me)
  7. Reach Out I’ll Be There
  8. I’m Still Waiting
  9. (They Long To Be) Close To You
  10. Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)
  11. I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You
  12. Keep An Eye
  13. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
  14. Baby It’s Love
  15. All The Befores

Now it’s your turn — what would you include on an early (1970-71) Diana Ross “best of” collection?

Best of Diana Ross back

Record Store Wednesdays: “Changes” By T-Boy Ross

T-Boy Ross Browsing through the “Diana Ross” section at Wax N Facts Records in Atlanta, I came across this promo copy of the 1979 LP Changes by Diana’s younger brother, T-Boy Ross.  He is credited with co-writing the album (his only Motown release), and the track list includes two tunes that will be instantly recognizable to fans of the singer’s big sister.

Mr. Ross (given name: Arthur) initially found success at Motown as a writer; with Leon Ware, he wrote the 1972 Michael Jackson hit “I Wanna Be Where You Are.”  Ross and Ware also composed the bulk of the material for the 1976 Marvin Gaye LP I Want You, which hit #1 on the soul chart, along with the now-classic title track.  I’ve read that Ware and Ross had a falling out around the time of I Want You, leading T-Boy to focus on his own album.

Changes opens with a cover of his own “I Want You” and closes with a song called “To The Baby” — both of which were also recorded by big sister Diana.  “To The Baby” was done by Diana in the early 1970s, and was supposed to be the title track for an album of songs dedicated to her children (that album went unreleased until 2009, when it was included on the fabulous Touch Me In The Morning Expanded Edition).  Meanwhile, Miss Ross included “I Want You” on her 2006/2007 release I Love Youdedicating it to her late brother.

Based on what I’ve heard from the album, Changes is a collection of funky tunes featuring touches of disco and modern jazz (probably thanks, in part, to collaborator and jazz legend Joe Sample).  T-Boy’s voice is remarkably dissimilar to his sister’s; he possesses a unique high and raspy tone that (when listened to today) sounds more akin to Macy Gray.  Interestingly, although the album was apparently not a huge seller in 1979, it has gained enough of a following to have been released on CD overseas.

T-Boy Ross Changes Motown

Diana’s Duets (1981)

Diana's Duets (1982)

“I’m gonna use every trick in the book, I’ll try my best to get you hooked…”

Long before Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, or Barbra Streisand had hit albums comprised entirely of duets, Motown cobbled together Diana’s Duets, a 1981 Diana Ross anthology featuring work stretching all the way back to the singer’s days with The Supremes.  By this time, of course, Miss Ross was already transitioning to a record-breaking contract with RCA Records, leaving Motown after two decades.  Still, the singer’s swan song on Motown was the blockbuster smash “Endless Love,” a duet with Lionel Richie that spent a whopping nine weeks at the #1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100.  Thus, Motown likely felt it could squeeze some more money out of the Ross name with a full collection of the singer’s collaborations.

“Collaborations” is the key word here, because technically, only a few of the tracks on Diana’s Duets are true duets (meaning just two singers).  The fact is, aside from her work with Richie and an album with Marvin Gaye, Ross really hadn’t partnered with many other singers during her time with Motown (she had, of course, enjoyed a Top 50 pop hit with Michael Jackson from The Wiz soundtrack, “Ease On Down The Road” — but this had been an MCA release, not Motown).  So to fill out this particular LP, the label used several late ’60s recordings by Diana Ross and The Supremes with The Temptations and the 1978 tribute single “Pops We Love You”, featuring Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Smokey Robinson.

There’s one big problem with Diana’s Duets, however — “Endless Love” isn’t on it (at least, not on the US-released version; it was later included on international pressings, along with a few other tracks).  Whether because Motown didn’t want overlap with its upcoming All The Great Hits (a Ross compilation also released in 1981) or there was an issue with timing, the biggest duet in music history up until that point is missing, and its absence is strongly felt.  “Endless Love” wasn’t only a monster hit; it was also the best duet Diana had ever recorded (easily trumping much of the lackluster Diana & Marvin LP).  So while Diana’s Duets certainly demonstrates the singer’s versatility, it can’t really be considered a “best of.”

***

Note: Click on song titles for more information on the songs/albums previously discussed on The Diana Ross Project.

1.  I’m Gonna Make You Love Me:  This LP wisely opens with a bona-fide classic, recorded by Diana Ross and The Supremes with The Temptations. The only surprise about the success of this 1968 release is that it didn’t reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100; it settled for the second spot on both the pop and R&B charts. Still, the song is a Motown masterpiece, featuring Eddie Kendricks sharing the lead with Diana Ross; their voices are perfectly matched, with his falsetto bouncing around her brassy delivery in a playful interpretation of the song’s “I’m gonna get you” lyric. Meanwhile, the Supremes and Temptations offer up soaring, soulful support, all atop another toe-tapping Funk Brothers instrumental track.  This is one of the best singles released by Diana Ross while still leading The Supremes, and a wonderful showcase for everyone involved.

2.  My Mistake (Was To Love You):  This wasn’t the biggest chart hit from 1973’s Diana & Marvin, but it’s probably the most recognizable of the US-released singles and shows up fairy frequently on Ross anthologies. Though it’s got a memorable hook and Marvin Gaye sounds terrific, “My Mistake” isn’t a particularly good showing for Diana. She sounds a little too laid back here, and at times, a little flat. Anyone familiar with the backstory of the Ross/Gaye duets knows the pair recorded separately and neither was apparently very interested in the project, so it’s probably no surprise that this wouldn’t be a classic recording. That said, there is material on Diana & Marvin that exhibits way more chemistry (however manufactured) between the singers.

3.  I’ll Try Something New:  Though “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” was the big hit for the Supremes and Temptations, I’d argue this is the better recording. A lovely Smokey Robinson composition that for some reason stalled at #25 on the pop chart, the song features one of Diana’s best vocal performances of the 1960s; she is relaxed, sexy, and soulful here, allowing her voice to mine the lower reaches of her range before sweeping up to some powerfully high ad-libs during the climax. Again, she’s well-matched with the great Eddie Kendricks, and both groups sound like a chorus of angels singing the “I’ll Try Something New” refrain.  This might not technically qualify as a “Diana Ross duet” – but the singer never sounded better.

4.  Include Me In Your Life:  Why anyone wanted to “Include” this song is beyond me; it’s one of the weakest recordings featured on Diana & Marvin, and a poor showcase for both Miss Ross and Marvin Gaye. As I wrote in my review of the original album, the vocals on this song sound like “scratch” vocals – in other words, the tracks laid down by singers to get a feel for the melody. Neither is helped by the fact that the song just isn’t that good; the repetition of the word “darlin’” will certainly trap itself in your head…but not in a good way. Although the Diana & Marvin album is a lackluster one overall, just about any choice would have been better than this one.  (It should be noted that toward the end of the song, Gaye says, “You know I’m just a stubborn kind of fellow.”  The song by that title is later featured on Diana’s Duets — so perhaps some Motown staffer was having a little fun with the lineup here.)

5.  I’ll Keep My Light In My Window:  This song is a much better example of what Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye were capable of. Originally included on the 1979 collection Pops We Love You…The Album, this is a funky disco tune featuring a popping bassline full of swagger and an uplifting lyric about making “a world of love for me and you.” Both Gaye and Ross seem very relaxed here, neither working too hard nor trying to outshine the other. Being a disco song, it predictably comes off as dated today; that said, it’s soulful enough that it still sounds good, and probably could have been a decent dance and R&B hit for the pair had it been released as a single.

6.  Try It Baby:  A fun, jazzy number again pairing the Supremes and Temptations, this one was originally released by Marvin Gaye and written by none other than Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr.  That fact alone could be why it was placed on Diana’s Duets, as Gordy has reportedly said he was inspired by Diana to write the song (and, according to J. Randy Taraborrelli in Diana Ross: A Biography, considered this version for a single release).  The feel of this recording is miles away from “I’ll Try Something New,” replacing that song’s subtlety and soul with a big band pizzazz; this one certainly feels tailor-made for the glittery television specials the groups were starring in during the period.  It doesn’t necessarily sound like a hit, but it is a spirited recording and an enjoyable listen.

7.  Pops We Love You:  Again, this isn’t really a duet, but a collaboration among Motown’s top four stars paying tribute to Motown founder Berry Gordy’s father, known as “Pops” Gordy. Though a minor hit on both the pop and R&B charts, the song really never stood a chance at becoming a classic; the singers are specific in their praise of “Pops,” which means it’s not exactly a universal nor relatable lyric (and speaking of, the lyrics are pretty bland, anyway). It’s not a bad song; Ross, Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and Stevie Wonder all sound great, and each are given an equal chance to display their particular vocal talents. Diana kicks things off, and pretty much holds court over the entire proceeding; she no doubt sounds like the Queen of Motown here.

8.  You Are Everything:  Finally we get a really great duet, and a song that truly deserves a place on a collection of Diana’s duet work. The lead track from 1973’s Diana & Marvin, this song was a big hit in the UK (hitting #5) and is one of the two best songs on that LP, along with the other UK single, “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart).” Motown probably didn’t release this one to radio because it’s a cover of a Stylistics hit, but should have, anyway; both Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye offer up sizzling performances which rank among the best of their respective 70s output. Perhaps more importantly; there seems to be a real chemistry between the two, which is sorely lacking on so many of their other collaborations. It may be futile to wonder “what if” – but this sure seems like a song that could have been a solid hit stateside for the two singers, maybe even an R&B chart-topper.

9.  Stubborn Kind Of Fellow:  The Marvin Gaye connection continues with this track, another Supremes/Temptations recording from their 1969 album Together.  At this point, Diana’s Duets feels more like a Gaye tribute album, considering almost every single song either features him or had been recorded by him first.  In this case, “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” had been Gaye’s first hit, released in 1962.  That version is deservedly classic, full of grit and featuring the notable voice of Martha Reeves in the background.  It doesn’t fare nearly as well in the hands of the Supremes and Temptations, becoming a bit of a mess and losing much of the melody due to a strange, scaled-back track.  The lead singers all sound okay (Miss Ross does a lot of screeching, foreshadowing some of the more soulful work she’d do early in her solo career), but this isn’t a standout by any stretch.

10.  Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing:  The best explanation I can come up with for placing this version of the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell hit on Diana’s Duets is name value; perhaps Motown execs hoped people would just think that the Supremes and Temptations originated it. Unfortunately, they didn’t; this is an inferior version to the classic Gaye/Terrell recording, and it’s impossible to listen to without hearing the better rendition echo in your head. Though Ross and Terrell possessed, in some ways, similar sounds, Diana just doesn’t quite convey the quiet fire needed to pull off the yearning Ashford and Simpson lyric (she would fare much, much better with her solo remake of “You’re All I Need To Get By” in 1970).  At least, unlike the previous track, the arrangement is kept pretty close to the original, which was a wide decision.

***

If ever a Diana Ross release deserved an Expanded Edition, it’s Diana’s Duets. Not because it’s such an essential album to the singer’s discography, but because of how much more could be included. Not only do “Endless Love” and “Dreaming Of You” (the other Ross/Richie duet from the Endless Love soundtrack) deserve places here, but now, so do many other duets recorded by Diana post-1981. Chief among them are “All Of You,” a 1984 collaboration with Julio Iglesias which soared to the Top 20 on the pop charts, and 1991’s “No Matter What You Do,” a solid R&B hit and duet with singer Al B. Sure!.

Miss Ross would also score some lovely duets in the late 1990s and beyond; “Love Is All That Matters” with Brandy (from the Double Platinum soundtrack) deserves a proper release, and she sounds wonderful crooning with Rod Stewart on the 2005 recording “I’ve Got A Crush On You.” The digital booklet to the recent Baby It’s Me Expanded Edition includes a reference to a still-shelved duet with Billy Preston on the song “Room Enough For Two” – so who knows if there are even more Diana duets waiting in the Motown vaults?  Hopefully we’ll find out soon enough.

***

For now, if tasked with piecing together a totally new collection of Diana’s Duets, here’s what I would include. I’d stick with true duets from her solo career (Diana plus one other singer), and throw in a few bonus tracks from late 1960s Hollywood Palace performances as a nod to her earlier days. Of course, there would be several record labels involved here, so the likelihood of such a collection might be pretty low…still, it’s an easy iPod playlist to throw together!

  1. You Are Everything – with Marvin Gaye
  2. Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart) – with Marvin Gaye
  3. Ease On Down The Road – with Michael Jackson
  4. Endless Love – with Lionel Richie
  5. Dreaming Of You – with Lionel Richie
  6. All Of You – with Julio Igelsias
  7. Missing You (from “The Motown Revue Starring Smokey Robinson”) – with Smokey Robinson
  8. You’ve Got What It Takes (from Red Hot Rhythm & Blues TV special) – with Billy Dee Williams
  9. No Matter What You Do – with Al B. Sure!
  10. Big Bad Love – with Ray Charles
  11. Love Is All That Matters – with Brandy
  12. Baby Love/Stop! In The Name Of Love (from Divas 2000: A Tribute To Diana Ross) – with Mariah Carey
  13. I’ve Got A Crush On You – with Rod Stewart
  14. BONUS TRACK: I’m Gonna Make You Love Me (from “The Hollywood Palace”) – with Stevie Wonder
  15. BONUS TRACK: Bread & Gravy (from “The Hollywood Palace”) – with Ethel Waters

Now it’s your turn – what, for you, would make up the perfect Diana’s Duets?

Record Store Wednesdays: “Theme From ‘Mahogany'” Promo Single

Diana Ross Mahogany Rare Promo

Check out this gem I picked up from Fantasyland Records in Atlanta.  This is a promotional single for the 1975 Diana Ross release “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” on yellow (or gold) vinyl; one side features the stereo mix of the song, the other side is mono.  The single released to the public, which wasn’t on colored vinyl, was backed with the song “No One’s Gonna Be A Fool Forever,” which had been included on the Last Time I Saw Him album.

Diana Ross Mahogany Promo Single2

“Theme From Mahogany” — of course — went on to become one of Diana’s biggest hits.  It climbed to #1 on the Pop chart (her third solo chart-topper), #1 Easy Listening, and went Top 20 on the Soul chart; it was also nominated for an Academy Award.  It eventually became the first track on the smash 1976 LP Diana Ross.

Oh — and speaking of Mahogany — have you seen the “Couture Edition” released on DVD in May (celebrating the film’s 40th anniversary)?  It comes with some pretty spectacular full-color cards of Miss Ross and her costume sketches.

MahoganyDVD1 MahoganyDVD2 MahoganyDVD3

 

Baby It’s Me (Expanded Edition) (Released 2014)

Baby It's Me Expanded

“The love we have comes pouring out like cymbals, horns, and drums, I say…”

With a surprise digital release in November 2014, Motown Select bestowed an enormous early holiday gift on Diana Ross fans — the hotly anticipated Baby It’s Me Expanded Edition.  Although the original 1977 LP wasn’t a huge seller, its reputation has grown significantly over the years, and it’s now considered by fans to be one of the most polished and cohesive sets ever released by the singer.  The CD had long been out of print, with copies selling for outrageous sums online, and rumors swirled that there were other Richard Perry-produced tracks waiting in the Motown vaults.  So the sudden appearance of Baby It’s Me on iTunes — with bonus tracks and alternate mixes — was certainly cause for rejoicing.

That said, the remastering of classic albums is a funny thing; the process of “cleaning up” recordings that were sometimes done on primitive equipment in the first place can produce varying results.  Sometimes it totally elevates a batch of songs, revealing little vocal nuances and instrumental flourishes that lead to a new appreciation for the music and the craft behind it.  Other times, stripping a recording of the little pops and hisses we’ve grown accustomed to can cause it to seem plastic and manufactured, diminishing its charm and unintentionally highlighting deficiencies.  The two-disc deluxe reissue of 1980’s diana is a perfect example of the former; I’d argue a few of the songs on the reissue of 1970’s Everything Is Everything illustrate the latter.

So where does Baby It’s Me fall?  Undeniably (and fortunately) in the first camp.  This already-striking album sounds better than ever; the new crispness of sound only enhances the warmth of the performances.  The original lineup of ten songs is among the most sophisticated and adult material Diana Ross ever recorded, and she delivers powerful and accomplished vocals on every single song.  Richard Perry, meanwhile, in his quest to create something “a little different, a little more contemporary, where the whole album would be tasteful songs,” does exactly that, offering up tracks that are both evocative of the late 1970s yet also timeless (the quote, by the way, is taken from a new interview printed in the digital booklet).  In giving Baby It’s Me their deluxe treatment, the folks at Motwn Select have left the album’s glossy sheen intact, scrubbing away unnecessary imperfections and allowing the complexity of the spirited orchestrations to really shine.  It’s impossible to listen to this overlooked masterpiece and not hear the care that went into every track; this is truly an album without “filler,” which probably worked to its detriment at the time of release (there was reportedly much debate about what songs should be released as singles).

Note: You can read my original review of Baby It’s Me HERE.

The closest Baby It’s Me came to a hit is the opening number, the jazzy and energetic “Gettin’ Ready For Love.”  With swirling strings, a bouncy bass line, and muscular keyboards, the track provides the perfect bed for Ross’s bubbly vocal.  Though the song has appeared on several anthologies over the years (it went Top 30 on the pop charts), it’s never sounded better than it does here; the clarity of each instrument reveals how jamming the track really is, with top-notch musicians working together to create a dreamy jazz fantasy (side note: that’s composer Tom Snow on piano).  That song is followed by the smooth, soaring “You Got It,” another single and, according to the booklet, a Top 10 Adult Contemporary hit.  “You Got It” contains an exhilarating vocal from Miss Ross, one that builds to a powerful climax featuring some of her best singing on the album (Perry appropriately states in the new interview, “She sang her ass off on every track”).

Title track “Baby It’s Me” features a compact, funky groove and the expert guitar work of Ray Parker, Jr., and Stevie Wonder’s “Too Shy To Say” fits Diana’s warm, velvety voice like a glove.  Grammy-nominated “Your Love Is So Good For Me” (the album’s second single, and one that deserved to be a big hit) sounds as good as new here; it’s disco, but it doesn’t come across as dated in the way that something like Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” or Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” does.  The remastering job on this and the next song, the glorious “Top Of The World,” uncover phenomenal instrumental performances and an intricate layering of elements that were somewhat lost on vinyl.  “Top Of The World” is a pop masterpiece, and another recording that screams “HIT!”  Diana’s voice here and on the absolutely sparkling “All Night Lover” sounds stunningly youthful, returning her to the girlish purr of her earliest Supremes recordings.  And check out the hint of laughter Ross and Perry left in the track to “All Night Lover” toward the very end, a flourish Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey would incorporate into their respective pop recordings years later.

The album’s final three tracks range from late-night ballad (“Confide In Me”) to dark, driving funk (“The Same Love That Made Me Laugh”) to contemporary pop (“Come In From The Rain”).  All of them are gems; “Same Love…” in particular is a complex, soulful number featuring some of Diana’s best singing of the entire decade.  The next year she’d push herself as never before in her musical performances in The Wiz, and this song sounds like a vocal warm-up.  The sterling audio quality of this release spotlights the twists and turns of the Bill Withers-penned tune, its minor-key strings serving as an interesting counterpoint to the album’s peppy opener.

From start to finish, Baby It’s Me is a wonderful musical romance, a work in which each song perfectly flows to the next and furthers the story and mood being created by singer and producer.  It’s easily the best late-70s album by Diana Ross, and among the very best of her entire career (I’d place it with Surrender and Take Me Higher as the finest complete albums she ever released).  Interestingly, adding “bonus” cuts to the Expanded Edition only reinforces how perfect the original ten songs are together.  This isn’t because the four extra tracks are bad — they’re not.  But it’s impossible to try to fit them into the existing lineup.  Thus, the following four previously unreleased cuts are interesting addition to the singer’s output, but certainly not important pieces of the puzzle missing until now.

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1. Baby I Love Your Way:  In the digital booklet to the reissue, Richard Perry recalls: “‘Baby I Love Your Way’ was one of my favorite tracks that I cut with her and one of the first.  I really thought that we had a major hit on our hands, but the Frampton Comes Alive album started to blow up and he released it as a single so we had to keep it off the album.”  Of course, Diana’s version of “Baby I Love Your Way” did eventually get a release, on 1983’s Anthology (read my review of the song HERE).  The version included on Expanded is a different mix with an alternate vocal from Diana, and it’s sublime.  The production here is shimmering and laid-back; there’s a nice reggae-lite beat and beautiful guitar work throughout.  Diana’s vocal is relaxed and warm; she weaves in a bit of Billie Holliday, allowing certain phrases to waver and lag way behind the beat.  This is a lovely recording, and certainly sounds like it could have been a hit at pop radio had it been included on the album.  That said, it’s tough to visualize where the track would have fit in with the rest of Baby It’s Me — it’s just different enough stylistically that it might have detracted from the rest of the lineup.

2.  Brass Band:  A bouncy, beat-driven song with an interesting layering of Diana’s voice; she harmonizes with herself frequently, singing the catchy refrain, “If our love were music, we’d be a brass band.”  Miss Ross actually serves as the “brass” on the track, clipping her delivery in a trumpet-like manner and adding some “doo-doo-doos” in imitation of a horn.  That said, it feels pretty strange for a song with this title to not actually feature a boisterous brass band in the instrumental; it sets an expectation of a horn-filled climax (think “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”) that never comes.  A 1976 version by singer Marlena Shaw does feature a few horns in the refrain, although it similarly seems to skimp on the actual brass.  Perhaps in the case of Perry’s production, the track was just never finished; this is a fun listen but another song best left off the original release.

3.  Country John:  The digital booklet to this release compares “Country John” to Diana’s 1973 hit “Last Time I Saw Him” — and one listen quickly justifies the connection.  Both are swinging country/pop tunes that feature classic country-western arrangements and a lyric about a man with a desire to roam.  The big difference lies in Diana’s performances.  Her work on “Last Time I Saw Him” is pure, unabashed fun; it’s a campy performance that the singer dives into headfirst.  She’s far more restrained on “Country John,” which robs the recording of a lot of energy.  Interestingly, the song was written by Allen Toussaint, who recorded and released it in 1975; Toussaint had (according to Mary Wilson) earlier dated Jean Terrell, the woman who replaced Miss Ross in The Supremes.

4.  Room Enough For Two:  The best of this new batch of songs is the one that came out of nowhere; this bizarre, smoldering number features the great Billy Preston on organ, and the booklet states there is a duet version between the two singers still in the vaults.  This one takes a few listens to really click but when it does, boy, is it wild and worth the time.  Diana delivers one of her sexiest vocals ever, mining the depths of her lower range during the unusual “downward spiral” verses.  In many ways, the recording is similar to “You’re Good My Child” from the 1976 LP Diana Ross, but that earlier recording was sunk by a weak and wobbly vocal performance.  Ross gives a nicely controlled reading here, going for both low and higher notes with confidence, and her voice is doubled to good effect during several sections.  Here’s hoping fans don’t have to wait long for that duet version featuring Billy Preston!

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As noted earlier, Baby It’s Me Expanded Edition also features alternate mixes of several songs — seven of the ten, to be exact.  All are exciting listens; “Top Of The World” in particular sounds great, with a unique effect-laden opening, and it’s fun to listen to Diana duet with herself on this mix of “Baby It’s Me.”  But as with the bonus tracks, these alternate versions mostly prove how great the original release really was.  The unused takes are all fine vocally and instrumentally, but nothing elevates the LP as it was originally issued in 1977.

There’s not much to complain about with this release — aside from the fact that it was only released as a digital download (as of the time of this writing).  Many fans remain upset that this wasn’t a physical release, as were the previous Diana Ross solo reissues.  I get it; there’s something about holding the packing in your hand, flipping through the booklet and studying the stunning photography that can always be counted on in a Diana Ross release.  Plus, we Ross fans are completists.  That said, we’ve got the music.  This wonderful album — one that absolutely should be heard by those unfamiliar with the Ross discography — is finally accesible to the next generation of music-buyers.  If anything is going to get Diana Ross the respect she deserves as a vocalist, it’s having quality music like this available on-demand.