Mary Wilson Remembers Dr. King

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — here’s another look at the interview I conducted with Mary Wilson, during which she talked about Dr. King and his relationship with Motown.  Yes, when I’m not blogging about Diana Ross and The Supremes, I’m a television reporter…and this assignment was certainly the highlight of my career.

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“Love Is Here…” 50 Years Ago in Billboard

Check out this gorgeous full-page ad from the February 11, 1967 issue of Billboard.  “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” (from The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland) had just been released in January, and was climbing toward the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot R&B Singles charts.  It reached the summit of both listings in early March, becoming the group’s ninth #1 pop hit (and third in a sting of four consecutive pop chart-toppers).

Supremes "Love Is Here" Billboard Ad

 

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The “Project” Turns 5!

Happy New Year!

Along with being the first day of 2017, today also marks the 5th anniversary of The Diana Ross Project.  I started writing track-by-track reviews of every Diana Ross album back in January of 2012 simply because it’s the kind of information I couldn’t find on the Internet. Everybody seemed to have an opinion about the singer’s voice, career, and persona, but very few had actually critically evaluated the singer’s work in a way that seemed meaningful or thorough.

So I started writing…with no idea that anybody would actually read the posts or comment on them.  I certainly didn’t expect to hear from fans in countries I’d never even heard of.  And I definitely didn’t expect to hear from people who’d actually worked with Miss Ross during her career.  All of it has been a sincere surprise, and I’m so grateful that this has become a little corner of the Internet where fans can have a respectful discussion about the work and career of Diana Ross.  Thank you for coming along for the ride.

Hopefully 2017 will bring new music for me to write about and for all of us to discuss — it sounds like we’ll be getting an Expanded Edition of The Supremes A’ Go-Go very soon, with a stellar alternate mix of Diana’s solo “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'” included.  And, of course, we can all wish for something new from Miss Ross herself; if her recent shows with the NSO Pops at The Kennedy Center are any indication, her voice is in superb shape.  Watching clips of her performing songs like “It’s My Turn,” “If We Hold On Together,” and “The Best Years Of My Life” again was the perfect soothing end to a tumultuous 2016.

And, of course, if somehow, someday Miss Diana Ross gets any word about this website, I hope she knows how important she’s been in the lives of its writer and its readers.  Here’s to five more “best years” ahead!

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“Work That Body” (1982)

Diana Ross Work That Body Single Check out this gorgeous 12″ single for Diana’s “Work That Body,” released in Holland in 1982.  I picked this one up in an Atlanta record store called Wax n’ Facts today, lured in by the beautiful photo and packaging.

Diana Ross Work That Body import

“Work That Body” occupies a unique spot in the discography of Diana Ross.  It’s the final track on Why Do Fools Fall In Lovethe singer’s debut LP under a blockbuster new contract at RCA Records.  It was the Diana’s first self-produced album, and was heralded upon its release in the fall of 1981; Billboard magazine proclaimed, “Move over, Aretha and Dionne.  There’s a new artist on the scene” and called the album “nothing short of a masterpiece” (11-14-81).  Lead single “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” zoomed up the charts, peaking in the top 10, and was quickly followed there by the gloriously funky “Mirror, Mirror.”  The entire album was eventually certified platinum.

“Work That Body” was named in reviews as a standout on the album; the Billboard write-up noted “listeners will probably be burning a hole in through the floor with their feet.”  This must have been particularly gratifying to Diana Ross, because she co-wrote the song; when it was finally lifted as the album’s third single, it notably became the first self-penned release by the singer in her 20-year career.  The song just missed the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it was popular in the dance clubs (paired with “Mirror, Mirror”) and a UK top 10 hit; it also managed to break into the top 10 of the Jet Soul Brothers Top 20 Singles listing.

Jet Magazine 5-31-82

Today, “Work That Body” is derided by some as a rip-off of Olivia Newton-John’s massive hit “Physical,” which featured a similar aerobics-themed music video; to be honest, I’d always considered it a knock-off and nothing more.  But upon closer look, “Physical” was released in September of 1981 (according to Wikipedia, at least), the same month as the Why Do Fools Fall In Love album; thus, Diana probably wrote and recorded “Work That Body” before she’d ever even heard Newton-John’s recording.  In retrospect, “Work That Body” is more similar in tone to something like “It’s Raining Men,” the dance classic released by The Weather Girls in 1982; this makes sense, as both were co-written by Paul Jabara.  Both are knowingly campy, and Jabara clearly lent a gay sensibility to the songs which has helped them outlive many others of the era.  For example, 15 years after listeners first heard “Work That Body,” no less a diva than the fabulous RuPaul brought the song back for his 1996 album Foxy Lady.  (NOTE: Ross and Jabara also co-wrote “Ladies Hot Line,” a song recorded by The Weather Girls and released in 1983.  Click here to read more about that recording.)

Because Miss Ross co-wrote “Work That Body,” it will always hold a special place of interest for fans and those studying the singer’s career; it remains one of only a handful of Ross compositions.  That said, the track is very much a product of its time, feeding into the aerobics craze of the ’80s and featuring a chunky, late-disco rhythm section.  The song is undeniably catchy; Diana doesn’t so much sing as kind of speak along in a raspy voice, but she sounds like she’s having a great time in the studio.  The lyrics, of course, are completely ridiculous, with the hilarious opening, “Every morning when we wake/To make up for that piece of cake/We ate last night…” representative of everything else to come.  But, really, this isn’t supposed to be a serious song; it’s not exactly “It’s My Turn,” is it?  This is a song about the joys of looking good, and it remains a completely entertaining listen, if only to sing along with Diana Ross about being the “hottest girl in town!”

The music video is one of Diana’s very first, and it’s deliriously campy, spotlighting Miss Ross shimmying in a serious of colorful leotards.  And how about this?  In 2015, “Work That Body” resurfaced yet again…this time, thanks to a tribute video put together by Diana’s daughter, Tracee Ellis Ross.

So, perhaps it’s time we give “Work That Body” a little more respect.  It might not be a timeless classic on par with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” but it’s managed to gain more traction than many other singles released by Diana Ross.  And hell, at this point in history, maybe the fun of shouting “Eat your heart out!” along with her is exactly what we all need.

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Diana’s “Come Together” Hits Jet Chart (12/17/70)

I was doing some research recently and came across an interesting find in the December 17, 1970 issue of Jet (46 years ago this weekend!).  Although it was never released as a single, Diana’s recording of “Come Together” was ranked at #19 on the magazine’s Soul Brothers Top 20 chart that week.

“Come Together” was included on the 1970 LP Everything Is Everything, the second solo album from Miss Ross and one that’s often overlooked due to its relative lack of commercial success.  That said, it contains some great performances, including the UK #1 hit “I’m Still Waiting” and Diana’s version of Aretha Franklin’s “I Love You (Call Me),” which gained Miss Ross her second solo Grammy nomination.

“Come Together” is another exciting recording from Diana’s early solo career; the singer is breathy and soulful and sings over a rumbling track that sounds tailor-made for The Jackson 5.  It’s nice to see it at least gained a little airplay, even if Motown never really pushed it.  Notice, by the way, how Motown-heavy this chart is; several of the label’s top acts show up here, including The Spinners, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, and The Four Tops.  And, of course, sitting at #4 with “Stoned Love,” is Diana’s former group, The Supremes.

jet-12-17-70

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“Jet Letter” About Diana Ross/Billie Holiday Film (12/17/70)

Thought you’d all get a kick out of this letter printed in Jet magazine 46 years ago this month, on December 17, 1970.  Two years before the release of Lady Sings The Blues, the writer (a reader from New York) is praising the fact Diana Ross “will not play the role of Billie Holiday in the forthcoming film of the late Lady Day.”

It’s a good reminder that there was considerable criticism leveled at the idea of Diana Ross playing Billie Holiday, even before the official announcement that she would play the role.  It all seems funny in hindsight, of course, because not only did Diana Ross get the part, she turned it into a career-defining performance, gaining a historic Oscar nomination in the process and taking her recordings of the Billie Holiday songbook to #1 on the Billboard 200.

The writer of this letter hopes for an actress with the “greatness of soul” to play Billie Holiday; little did he (or many others, for that matter) realize that the former leader of The Supremes would be exactly the right person for the job.

jet-dec-17-1970

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Additional Supremes Christmas Tracks (Released 2015)

merry-christmas-supremes-bonus-tracks“Let them go…let them go…let them try their wings…”

2015 brought a Christmas to remember for Supremes fans, as the fine folks at Motown Select released an expanded edition of the 1965 classic Merry Christmas.  This deluxe digital package included both the mono and stereo versions of the original album, along with a hefty helping of songs left off of the original release.  Most of these tunes had been released on various collections over the years, but this was the first time they’d all been presented together, in all their remastered glory.  Along with the must-loved Florence-led tracks (“Silent Night” and “Oh Holy Night”), Merry Christmas: Expanded Edition presented an alternate version of “Silver Bells” with an extra verse and a live version of “My Favorite Things” recorded at New York’s Copacabana in 1967, among other treats.

It’s impossible to argue with Motown’s original 12-track release of Merry Christmas in November of 1965; the dozen tunes are perfectly sequenced and arranged, forming one of the strongest single albums in the Supremes discography.  More than 50 years later, the album remains a classy and timeless package, and still receives plenty of airplay on holiday stations around the world.  Aside from the tracks featuring Florence on lead, Diana Ross recorded the album solo, backed by Motown’s invaluable session singers The Andantes; though the sessions were crammed in quickly following the group’s historic first engagement at the Copa, Ross turned in some of the best vocal work of her career thus far, minting sensitive and engaging performances on every single recording.

Still, the tracks left behind in the vault are also worthy of release; though a bit more variable in quality, they feature the same sophisticated production and fine vocal work.  Fans new to these songs will likely be most interested in those led by Miss Ballard; her thick and operatic vocals are a nice counterpart to Diana’s elegant, light-as-air readings.  But they’re all worth a listen, as is the entire Expanded Edition.  It doesn’t necessarily improve upon the original, but it proves once again that The Supremes are a perfect match for the joy and magic of the holidays.  (And, as always, a HUGE thanks to the team at Motown Select for keeping this music alive.)

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1. The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You):  This recording first surfaced on the 1987 CD collection The Never-Before-Released Masters; it’s a fun listen for Ross fans, because the singer would record the song again in 1994 for her international release A Very Special Season.  The Mel Torme-penned classic is a perfect fit for Diana; it’s a song with a very strong and engaging melody, and Diana Ross is one of the best melody singers in music history.  Her performance here is sublime; it may be a bit too syrupy for some listeners, but that was simply the singer’s style at the time, and the sugary-sweet tone certainly matches lyrics such as “Tiny tots/With their eyes all a-glow.”  The instrumental track is stunning; as with the original release’s “White Christmas,” the sweeping strings must be among the most lush and sophisticated of anything Motown had released up until that point.  It should be noted that the tracks were cut in Los Angeles, not Detroit; the West Coast players do a tremendous job of conjuring up the Christmas spirit, especially considering the sessions for these songs were held in August!  Though nobody can top Nat King Cole’s iconic recording of “The Christmas Song,” this version easily does the song justice and stands up alongside the original dozen tracks released on Merry Christmas.

2. Just A Lonely Christmas:  Written by Alan Freed and Harvey Fuqua (Fuqua produced the Merry Christmas album), this recording first showed up on the interesting 1993 CD Christmas In The City, a collection of previously-unreleased Motown Christmas songs which first featured Diana’s solo take on “This Christmas.”  This is a country-tinged tune akin to those included on The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Popit’s actually a bit surprising that this one wasn’t written by Clarence Paul, who handled many of the songs on that album.  A nice, slow-shuffling beat accompanies Diana, who offers up a sensitive performance as she croons “If only my loved one/Would come back me.”  The wonderful Andantes (Marlene Barrow, Jackie Hicks, and Louvain Demps) softly coo behind her, proving again how incredibly sophisticated they were when it came to background harmonies.  In terms of original compositions, this one isn’t as strong as “My Christmas Tree” or as kookily memorable as “The Christmas Song,” but it’s a pleasant listen tailor-made for a late night by the fire.

3. Noel:  This traditional Christmas song first surfaced on the 1999 issue of Merry Christmas; of these vault tracks, it’s probably the weakest, due to a rather lackluster arrangement.  The instrumental track is nicely done, but the key is cut rather high, which forces to Diana to strain.  She speaks through a large chunk of the song, accompanied by her own voice quietly singing in the background; though Ross is a pro at delivering spoken passages (remember a little song called “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”?), it’s unexciting in this context, and sounds more like the singer just didn’t want to keep pushing toward those high notes.  Though “The First Noel” isn’t terrible, it’s not a surprise that this one was left off of the original release.

4. Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem:  Another traditional carol, this one is perhaps the most achingly beautiful of any Christmas song recorded by Diana Ross.  “Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem” initially showed up on the 1995 release A Motown Christmas Carol, and was among the best on that collection; it’s a beautifully rendered recording.  Similar in tone to “Born Of Mary” from Merry Christmas, Ross and The Andantes deliver the song in unison, singing with a quiet reverence; they are gloriously accompanied by a string-laden instrumental track which is as good as anything placed on the original album release.  When Diana sings the final lines solo, she does so with a clear, round tone that is startlingly beautiful (listen to her sing “The hopes and fears/Of all the years” at 1:55; it’s gorgeous).  This recording is a real treasure; it would have been a standout on the original album release, and it certainly a standout here.

5. Silent Night:  Fan first heard Florence Ballard singing “Silent Night” on 1987’s The Never-Before-Released Masters in an a cappella mix; later the song was placed on Christmas In The City with its backing track.  Both Mary Wilson and Diana Ross would write in later years that Ballard was a naturally gifted classical singer who could have studied opera; this song is an indication of what they meant.  Ballard’s performance here is assured and commanding; there are certain moments (at 21 seconds in, for example, as she sings “All is calm…”) at which she does sound like an opera singer, her solid soprano ringing out like a bell.  Miss Ballard nails every single note here; this ranks up there with “Ain’t That Good News” (from We Remember Sam Cookeas one of the singer’s shining moments as a Supreme.

6. Oh Holy Night:  This is a real treat for fans, another Ballard-led recording which didn’t surface until 2001’s A Motown Christmas, Vol. 2.  As with “Silent Night,” this is a perfect fit for Florence’s golden soprano; “Oh Holy Night” is a powerful song which requires a big voice with range, and Ballard does an excellent job with it.  I prefer the backing track on this one to that of “Silent Night” — she’s given a lush bed of music upon which to sing.  Listen to the song’s stunning climax at 2:13, as Florence jumps to the high note on the word “divine” and then soulfully riffs for a moment; this is further proof of the singer’s talent, sadly underserved during her professional career.  Miss Ballard’s voice wasn’t necessarily a perfect fit for the Holland-Dozier-Holland hits of the 1960s (as Diana’s undeniable was), but she excels on material like this.  It’s a shame that this song wasn’t included on the original Merry Christmas release, as it would have given more listeners a chance to hear Ballard’s beautiful voice; at least we’re lucky enough to hear it now.

7. Silver Bells (Alternate Version):  “Silver Bells” is one of the highlights of the Merry Christmas album; Diana sings it solo on the mono version of the album, and is accompanied by The Andantes on the stereo mix.  This alternate version runs about 40 seconds longer than the original album recordings, and includes an additional verse; Ross leads the mix solo for the first verse, and is joined by background singers after that.  The extra material isn’t particularly revelatory; it’s nice to get a little “bonus” music, but it doesn’t radically change the piece.  Thus, “Silver Bells” remains an accomplished addition to the Supremes Christmas canon in any form.

8. It Won’t Be Long ‘Til Christmas:  This song wasn’t actually cut during the Merry Christmas sessions; produced by Frank Wilson, it was recorded in 1967 for the group’s unreleased Disney album and held back for twenty years, until The Never-Before-Released Masters.  “It Won’t Be Long ‘Til Christmas” was written by Robert and Richard Sherman for the 1967 Disney film The Happiest Millionaire, thus its considered inclusion in the Disney LP.  Interestingly, the song sounds like it could have come from the 1965 recording sessions; although Diana’s voice had become brassier by 1967, she delivers the bulk of the lyrics here in a childlike voice that matches much of her work on Merry Christmas.  Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and Cindy Birdsong all took part in the Disney sessions, but Diana is joined by a choir of voices here that don’t sound anything like The Supremes; the background cooing could have been lifted straight from The Wizard Of Oz.  In any case, this is a pleasant recording; it’s not the most memorable, but it’s well-done, and Diana sounds great.

9. My Favorite Things (Live):  Here’s a real holiday gift, a newly-released live version of “My Favorite Things” recorded by The Supremes at The Copa on May 20, 1967.  The swinging standard (from The Sound of Music) was one of the highlights of the original Merry Christmas album; Diana had never sounded so confident on record, and she attacked the song with the gusto of a Broadway veteran.  This live arrangement is basically identical to that featured on the 1965 album; Diana’s voice easily rides over the engaging melody (she’s strained, but this isn’t a surprising considering it came during a challenging live show in which she did a lot of powerful belting), and Mary Wilson in particular really belts out the background.  I believe this was Florence’s final engagement with the group at the Copa, which makes the inclusion a little bittersweet; she’d soon be replaced by Cindy Birdsong, and the group would be re-branded as Diana Ross and The Supremes.  (NOTE: Additional portions of this May 20 Copa show are available on YouTube, and are a lot of fun to listen to.)

10. Season’s Greetings:  The final “bonus” track issued on Merry Christmas: Expanded Edition is a pair of spoken holiday greetings recorded by The Supremes for promotional purposes.

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It remains quite an astonishing feat that in the midst of such a demanding schedule, Motown was able to pull together the resources to deliver such an accomplished Christmas album.  It would have been easy for this one to sound rushed, and for the vocal and production to come off as “cheap” and unfinished (as is the case with the British tribute album A Bit Of Liverpool), but the stars were aligned for this one, matching a wonderful group of holiday tracks to a singer gifted with a natural affinity for the material.  Merry Christmas: Expanded Edition is the definitive Christmas album for Supremes fans; the only problem is that with its release, the vaults seem to be dry of any additional holiday recordings for fans.  Perhaps someday, something else will be discovered; wouldn’t that be a Christmas miracle?

Best Of The Bunch: “Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem,” “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You),” “Oh Holy Night”

Supremes Billboard ad 12-26-64

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The Only NEW Diana Ross Album (12/3/81)

This full-page ad ran in Jet magazine on December 3, 1981 — 35 years ago this week!

That week, Why Do Fools Fall In Love was sitting at #15 on the Billboard 200, and the title track was top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.  These were Diana’s first releases under her blockbuster new contract with RCA Records, after spending nearly 20 years signed to Motown.

Note the bold text across the top of the ad: THE ONLY NEW DIANA ROSS ALBUM.  It’s a clear message from RCA to Motown, as the latter had just released its own All The Great Hits double-LP collection.  Not that RCA needed to worry about the competition — All The Great Hits peaked at a so-so #37, while Why Do Fools… went platinum and produced two major hit singles (the title track and “Mirror Mirror”).

Diana Ross Why Do Fools Fall In Love Ad

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Diana Ross Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom (11/22/16)

Diana Ross Presidential Medal of Freedom

I just finished watching the livestream of the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony, at which Miss Diana Ross was among 21 recipients honored by President Barack Obama.  The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest honor the President can bestow upon a civilian, given for “especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”  Other 2016 honorees included Ellen DeGeneres, Robert Redford, Michael Jordon, and Cicely Tyson.

Miss Ross received a loud ovation from the crowd — one of the biggest of the ceremony — and she and President Obama were quite playful as a list of Diana’s accomplishments was read.  Hearing those accomplishments — lifetime achievement Grammy, Oscar nomination, Golden Globe award, and a total of 18 #1 hits — was a reminder of just how much Diana Ross from the Brewster Project of Detroit has achieved.

Diana Ross Medal of Freedom 2It’s a pleasure to see Diana Ross finally being recognized as a trailblazer she is.  As she once famously said, “It took a lifetime to get here” — and what a lifetime it’s been.

Diana Ross Medal of Freedom

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A Demand Release: Supremes Christmas Ad, 1965

We’re less than a week away from Thanksgiving — and I don’t know about you, but for me that means it’s finally time to pull out my various versions of Merry Christmas by The Supremes and keep them spinning for the duration of the holiday season.  The fine folks at Motown Select gave us a great gift last year with a digital re-release containing the mono and stereo mixes of the album, plus all of the additional Christmas songs recorded by The Supremes.  If you haven’t downloaded it yet — it’s worth it for the mono “White Christmas” alone.

Of all the great songs placed on Merry Christmas, Motown pulled the silly “Children’s Christmas Song” as a single.  Below is an ad I came across in the December 4, 1965 issue of  Billboard promoting both that single and the album.  Enjoy it — and don’t forget to give The Supremes a few spins this season.

Supremes Children's Christmas Song Billboard Ad

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