Where Did Our Love Go (1964)

The Supremes Where Did Our Love Go LP

“Then I knew…oh, then I knew…”

Where Did Our Love Go, simply put, is one of the most important pop albums of all time.  It’s a work that features a whopping six singles that charted on the Billboard Hot 100, including an astounding three #1 hits.  It sent the careers of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard — which had barely limped along since the beginning of the decade — into the stratosphere, and forced the music world to acknowledge Motown Records as the preeminent force behind American pop/soul music, which it would remain (unchallenged) for the next several years.  Never before in the rock era had a female vocal group dominated music this way, let alone an African-American female vocal group.

The LP was only the second released on The Supremes, following 1962’s unsuccessful Meet The SupremesThere had been some important changes for the group following that earlier record’s recording and release; fourth member Barbara Martin (featured on the bulk of the first album) had exited the group, leaving Ross, Wilson, and Ballard a trio.  Perhaps more significantly, the writing and producing team of Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland, and Brian Holland had begun churning out hits for the label including “Mickey’s Monkey” for The Miracles and “Heat Wave” for Martha and the Vandellas.  The Holland-Dozier-Holland sound was noted for its strong, catchy melodies and memorable lyrics — something sorely lacking in early releases by The Supremes.  Since nobody else had managed to get a hit with The Supremes, it must have seemed a no-brainer to let H-D-H have a go.

“When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” would be a breakthrough for The Supremes; it was the group’s first single written and produced by H-D-H, and climbed to #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and #2 on the Cash Box R&B chart), a huge improvement over the group’s previous releases.  The success of “Lovelight” meant more sessions with H-D-H, which eventually led to a little ditty about which Lamont Dozier would later comment, “I was fumbling around, and it just felt right…a bluesy kind of pop song.  We though it could be a hit on somebody” (The Supremes box set booklet).  That song was “Where Did Our Love Go,” and it (along with the subsequent smash album) would change the course of history for The Supremes, for Motown Records…and for popular music.

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(NOTE: As with the post concerning Meet The Supremes, the following summaries are based on the stereo mix of the LP when possible.)

1.  Where Did Our Love Go:  “To my ears, ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ was a teenybopper song.  It had childish, repetitive lyrics…a limited melody, and no drive.  It was too smooth, and I couldn’t imagine anyone liking it” (Dreamgirl & Supreme Faith, 143).  Mary Wilson has commented many times over the years that The Supremes wanted no part of “Where Did Our Love Go” — according to her, the group longed for the kind of fiery, soulful hits being recorded by labelmates Martha and The Vandellas.  If this is true, it at least speaks to the professionalism of the group that it produced such a superb performance in the studio; the end result is one of the most perfect pop songs ever recorded.  Released in June of 1964, while the group was touring with Dick Clark’s Caravan Of Stars, the song climbed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in August, remaining there for two weeks.  In her book Secrets Of A Sparrow, Diana Ross recalls, “…we were so busy riding the bus and performing we were unaware of what was happening with our record.  But the audiences knew.  They began to recognize us.  They would scream and shout when we appeared onstage, and when we got to the wings we’d scream to each other, ‘They know our song!'” (118).  It’s hard to believe today that anybody doubted the hit potential of “Where Did Our Love,” a tune that is loaded with hooks; from the iconic opening footstomps (apparently provided by Mike Valvano, using blocks of wood) to the hypnotic repetition of “Baby, baby…” in the background, this is the kind of tune that digs itself in the brain and remains there for days.  The lead vocal performance by Diana Ross is astonishing, displaying the major evolution her voice had undergone since recording songs like “Who’s Lovin’ You” early in her Motown career.  The high straining of those early recordings is gone, replaced by a relaxed, soulful sound that is far more confident than even the best work on Meet The Supremes.  It’s often said that her performance is strikingly different because she’s singing in a much lower key; there may be some truth to that, but she’s also just a better, more seasoned vocalist here, offering up an intelligent and unique mix of yearning and resignation in her delivery.  Listen closely, and you’ll hear the complexity, as though she’s well aware that pleading “Don’t you love me no more?” won’t do any good, anyway.  The contributions of Wilson and Florence Ballard are also key; their trance-like repetitions echo the smooth, emotionally-reserved tone set by Diana and the producers, who wisely keep the instrumental track spare and focused.  Whether all of this was planned or just a happy accident, “Where Did Our Love Go” is a masterpiece, and a song that probably could have only been a monster hit for the Diana Ross-led Supremes; it’s hard to imagine another group turning the same song into such a layered listening experience.  Had The Supremes never scored another hit, this would have been a recording to be proud of; amazingly, their work would only get better.

2.  Run, Run, Run:  This is the single that immediately preceded “Where Did Our Love Go,” and it certainly did nothing to raise expectations for The Supremes.  Although it’s also an H-D-H production, it bombed on the charts, scraping the lowest reaches of the Billboard Hot 100.  “Run, Run, Run” isn’t a bad song, but it’s extraordinarily dense; this is a track loaded with lyrics, instruments, and voices; in essence, it’s the polar opposite of the stripped-down “Where Did Our Love Go.”  Diana’s vocal is much more aggressive than on the previous track; she’s audibly working harder here, resulting in a less controlled performance.  She’s also back to singing in the upper reaches of her range; she doesn’t sound as tinny as she had on much of Meet The Supremes, although with the bottom-heavy instruments her voice does sometimes cut a little too sharp.  She’s backed by a loud and raucous choir of voices, which are unfortunately a little overpowering and messy; it also seems odd given the context of the song (Diana calling “Girls, gather ’round me!”) that male voices would be so prominent.  The Funk Brothers are operating on all cylinders here; again this is a packed instrumental, with almost no breathing room between the piano, organ, handclaps, and prominent saxophone.  The result of all this is a swinging, pulse-pounding song — but one that probably would’ve been done just as well in the hands of The Marvelettes or another group.

3.  Baby Love:  If “Where Did Our Love Go” was the song that created the “Supremes sound” — the follow-up single was the one that confirmed its success.  “Baby Love” was recorded in August of 1964 (right around the time “Where…” hit #1), released a month later, and hit the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 a month after that.  The song would go on to remain at #1 for four weeks, becoming the group’s longest-running chart-topper; perhaps more importantly, it also topped the charts in the UK, proving the appeal of the group beyond the borders of its home country.  It would also gain The Supremes its first of two Grammy nominations.  But forget all of these statistics — the most astonishing achievement of all is that as ideal a pop song as “Where…” is, “Baby Love” is actually better.  It’s extremely similar in sound to the previous hit, and that’s by design; in fact, according to Lamont Dozier, “It was originally cut slower than ‘Where Did Our Love Go,’ and Mr. Gordy felt it should be at least as fast because it had been so successful”  (The Supremes box set booklet).  But every element that contributed to the previous single’s success is turned up a notch here; the melody is more engaging, the lyrics more compact, and the instrumental more sophisticated.  Wilson and Ballard get more play in the background, too, offering up the catchy “Don’t throw our love away” refrain and displaying a real power while never distracting from the lead vocal.  And that lead vocal from Diana Ross is another slice of pop perfection, beginning with the brilliant “oooh-ooh-oooooh” cooed by the singer just six seconds into the song’s brief running time.  That intro isn’t present in the original, slower version of “Baby Love,” and it’s addition is genius; it’s the kind of flourish that is totally unique in delivery to Diana Ross (try to imagine any other singer matching it — it’s impossible).  Likely bolstered by her first major hit, Ross is more confident in this performance; anyone who discounts the vocal as “simple” is missing the skill it takes to inject the clipped, mainly monosyllabic lyrics with emotion and personality.  What could end up sounding like a nursery rhyme in the hands of another singer contains all the angst and yearning identifiable to the millions of teenagers who kept the song at #1 for so long.  When British music magazine Mojo published its list of the 100 Greatest Motown Songs in 2009, “Baby Love” came in at #52, with a testimonial by no less than soul legend Mavis Staples.  She wrote, “I used to sing it all the time around the house.  I love Diana Ross…She had this high voice, and it was unusual to hear a soprano voice since lead, sopranos are usually background singers…Holland-Dozier-Holland went hand-in-hand with The Supremes.  They took pop music and turned it into a symphony of sound.  It was infectious.  ‘Baby Love’ is too.”

4.  When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes:  The breakthrough song, and the first released collaboration between H-D-H and The Supremes.  Recorded in early October of 1963, the song was released less than a month later and climbed to a relatively impressive #23; remember, the group’s highest pop charting previous to this was a dull #75.  Listening to the song today, it’s not a surprise that “Lovelight” broke the losing streak; in fact, it’s surprising it didn’t do a little better.  This is an upbeat, exciting track, easily one of the most energetic singles every released by The Supremes; it was actually recorded after “Run, Run, Run” and features a similar sound with extra backing voices and layers of echoed instruments.  That said, “Lovelight” is a much better song, and a natural bridge between the chunky grit of “Run, Run, Run” and the spare sophistication of “Where Did Our Love Go.”  Although H-D-H hadn’t hit upon that perfect Supremes formula yet, they were getting warmer; there’s a strong melody here, perfect for the crisp lead vocal by Diana Ross, and the background vocals by Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard aren’t cluttered up, allowing the women (especially Ballard) to contribute a definable sound to the recording.  There are also plenty of memorable touches, from the prominent handclaps to the growling male voices; H-D-H were clearly experimenting with the idea of “hooks,” finding ways to create music that would immediately grab the attention of radio listeners.  And the experiments were working — and it’s the mark of great artistry that everyone involved took the very best elements of this record and refined them into something even better.

5.  Come See About Me:  Christmas 1964 must have seemed like a dream for The Supremes; after two smash hit records, the group scored an amazing third #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, as “Come See About Me” hit the top spot for the week of December 13th.  Better yet, after being knocked off the summit by The Beatles (“I Feel Fine”), the song reclaimed the throne for another week in early 1965.  Considering America was caught up in the throes of Beatlemania, the fact that Diana, Mary, and Florence could wrestle with the British supergroup for chart supremacy (pardon the pun…) demonstrates just how popular the group had become in such a short period of time.  “Come See About Me” was the most challenging Supremes record yet; Holland-Dozier-Holland incorporated a gospel “call and response” structure for the song, expertly pacing it to mask the musical origins and place it firmly in the realm of pop music.  This back-and-forth means all three ladies are able to equally add to the song’s success; if Diana is the “preacher” here, then Mary and Florence are the full-bodied choir without which the song wouldn’t work.  Although it’s hard to top the smooth and exquisite “Baby Love,” Diana matches her own performance here, offering up a warm, crystal-clear delivery with touches of a brassiness that would become more pronounced over the next few years.  After their cool, repetitive vocals on the previous two hits, Ballard and Wilson really get a chance to shine here; listen as they break certain phrases (“…for you…”) into two-part harmony, and wail out the “Come See About Me!” refrain.  Attention must be paid, as always, to the brilliant work of The Funk Brothers; the driving beat here is highlighted by those fabulous footstomps, and the rest of the players create a clean, muscular bed for the vocals.  For an interesting comparison, listen to the competing version of this song released by singer Nella Dodds on the Wand label (her recording, which topped out at #74 on the charts, apparently forced Motown to rush-release theirs).  The Wand version is arranged identically to Motown’s; the two songs even share the same running time, and Dodds doesn’t diverge one bit from Diana’s vocal blueprint.  Still…it’s not the same.  Without that crisp, percussive Motown track — and certainly without the sophisticated, deliberate vocals of The Supremes — the song just doesn’t sing.  There’s a magic to this record, and that’s why “Come See About Me” has become a deserved classic.  (NOTE: It also doesn’t hurt that the group performed this song on The Ed Sullivan Show, their first of many acclaimed appearances on the program.)

6.  Long Gone Lover:  The first non-single inclusion on Where Did Our Love Go, and the first song that’s not the work of Holland-Dozier-Holland.  “Long Gone Lover” is a Smokey Robinson production; Robinson, of course, had written several songs for The Supremes and made some valiant efforts to gain them a hit.  Overall, the tune is pretty standard girl-group fare, featuring a swinging, 50s-style beat and allowing Diana, Mary, and Florence the chance to demonstrate their skill at three-part harmony.  That vocal work is probably the most notable aspect of the song; similar to “You Bring Back Memories” from Meet The Supremes, the song doesn’t feature a particular memorable hook — certainly not when compared to the big hits included on this album.  Still, the ladies sound good and it’s nice to hear Miss Ballard cut loose at the end of the song; Robinson allows her to take the lead on the ad-libs during the outro, and her round soprano rings clear and powerful.

7.  I’m Giving You Your Freedom:  Another H-D-H composition, this song was placed on the b-side of “Run, Run, Run,” although it couldn’t be more different from that song.  This is a relaxed, low-key breakup song, one that sounds like it could have been written for Mary Wells; the songwriters had produced a hit for Wells with 1963’s “You Lost The Sweetest Boy” (featuring The Supremes on background vocals), and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if the guys had meant this song for her, too.  That said, there’s an elegance to the song that makes it perfect for Diana Ross; she offers up a high, sweet vocal, similar to her work on the earlier “Your Heart Belongs To Me.”  The background vocals are also quite sophisticated, although for my money the voices don’t sound a bit like Mary or Florence, and I’d guess someone else is backing up Miss Ross.  It’s not the strongest track on the LP, but this qualifies as very good filler.

8.  A Breathtaking Guy:  An excellent pre-stardom single for The Supremes, written and produced by Smokey Robinson.  This would be the group’s last non-H-D-H single for several years; it managed to climb to #75 on the pop chart, which at the time was the group’s best showing.  Robinson’s lyrical genius is on full display here, with a whimsical chorus composed of the refrain, “Are you just a breathtaking…first sight soul-shaking…one night lovemaking…next day heartbreaking guy?”  Wordy?  Yes…but Robinson wisely breaks up this chorus, allowing each Supreme to take a line.  This is, then, one of the few Supremes singles on which each member’s voice is featured separately, and all three ladies sound superb; Diana offers up another accomplished lead, which is perfectly complimented by Florence’s thick, honeyed delivery and Mary’s mature and husky sound.  No matter how talented Motown’s other female groups — and there was great talent there — no other group featured three such distinct, polished voices.  And, of course, nobody else sounded like Diana Ross.  Later in her career, Ross would often talk about the importance of “living” the lyrics she sings; she certainly sounds like she’s doing that here, offering up a high, piercing bittersweet reading.  For whatever reason, many over the years have doubted her skills as a true vocalist, condescendingly referring to her as an “entertainer” in order to downplay her gifts as a singer.  But listen to her first line on the choruses here; the way she jumps several notes from the word “are” to “you,” landing squarely on pitch in her head voice, is masterful.  Years later, Wanda Young (Rogers) would record the song and release it as The Marvelettes; although also an undeniably gifted singer, she alters the melody in this part, revealing just how impressive the range displayed by Diana Ross really is.

9.  He Means The World To Me:  This one was penned by the prolific Norman Whitfield, a man whose name shows up on some of the greatest Motown songs ever released.  In particular, Whitfield co-wrote and produced many of the biggest hits for The Temptations, including “Ain’t Too Proud To Bed” and “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” along with the group’s later, fascinating foray into psychedelic soul.  Although he contributed to some gems for other female groups, including The Marvelettes (the joyful “Too Many Fish In The Sea”) and The Velvelettes, his work with The Supremes unfortunately falls flat, giving Where Did Our Love Go its weakest entry.  This isn’t solely Whitfield’s fault; everyone seems to be operating on half-speed here.  The song itself is a shuffling ballad, hampered by an opening verse that starts high and descends down the scale; although she’s been up to the challenges thus far, Diana doesn’t nail the notes this time around, aiming just a little too high and coming off as shrill.  This is especially true as she ad-libs the word “world” at about 1:30 in; the sound she produces is not pretty.  Meanwhile, the most notable performance on the instrumental track is that of the xylophone player, which should pretty much tell you how subdued the brilliant Motown studio musicians were during this session.  Interestingly, this was the song placed on the b-side of “Where Did Our Love Go.”  Thus, even though it’s not one of the group’s better efforts, it was probably heard by a much wider audience than some of the better tracks on this album!

10.  Standing At The Crossroads Of Love:  A great album track (and the b-side to “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes”), this song serves as an interesting counterpoint to Where Did Our Love Go‘s previous offering.  This H-D-H composition features a similar “downward scale” structure, and requires Diana to do some of the highest singing of her early career; but with a far stronger production and much more accomplished vocals, it’s miles better than “He Means The World To Me.”  Considering this was obviously cut in 1963 (The “Lovelight” 45 was released in October of that year) and the background voices don’t seem to be those of Florence or Mary, it’s questionable if this song was originally intended for The Supremes; nonetheless, it’s impossible to imagine another singer nailing the octave jumps as effectively as Diana Ross.  I’m sure many fans (and many more non-fans) will argue that the key is cut too high, and maybe it is; still, I’d argue back that even at its most piercing, Diana’s delivery generally matches the unorthodox feel of the entire piece.  There’s something about the song, with its weird “Twilight Zone”-meets-Motor City intro and the aggressive, meaty backing vocals (is it just me, or do the “ooh-ooh-oohs” sound more like judgemental “eww-eww-ewws”?) that just works.  Maybe it’s the sputtering beat; at times, it seems to mirror the sound of a car stalling out at an intersection, which probably wasn’t intentional, but matches the lyrics beautifully!  H-D-H would turn out some exciting, experimental music for The Supremes over the next several years; consider this a very early exploration of the fringes of pop.  (NOTE:  If you’ve heard the 1964 recording of The Supremes performing this song live, you’ll know the key was dropped significantly.  While it allows Miss Ross to give an earthier, more guttural reading, it also robs the song of a lot of its odd charm.)

11.  Your Kiss Of Fire:  This one’s a holdover from the days when Berry Gordy was personally trying to pen The Supremes a hit; the Motown founder had written several of the group’s early singles, and is credited as co-writer on this tune, along with legendary writer and producer Harvey Fuqua.  Gordy’s personal output on the Supremes ranges from sublime (the unreleased “Come On Boy”) to the depressing (“Play A Sad Song” — despite a nice lead vocal), and thankfully “Your Kiss Of Fire” ranks a little closer to the former.  Though the song is undoubtedly filler, it’s solid; the production is clean, with a neat touch of Spanish influence in its chord structure and the tango-like bassline (one can imagine the song showing up in an old movie about matadors).  Diana offers up a warm, relaxed vocal; the song makes nice use of her low-to-mid range, and when she does reach for the higher notes on the bridge, she sweetens them with an audible yearning.  Her “Please don’t forsake me, after showing me the way to love!” is the pre-jaded version of the young woman who croons on “Where Did Our Love Go.”

12:  Ask Any Girl:  Where Did Our Love Go ends on a high note, with a stellar H-D-H album track that’s become a well-known favorite and is featured on many anthologies.  “Ask Any Girl” was original placed on the b-side of “Baby Love,” and apparently regarded highly enough around Motown that it would be recycled for the 1965 LP More Hits By The Supremes and again on 1967’s Greatest Hits (writer J. Randy Taraborrelli mentions in his Diana Ross: A Biography that Motown was interested in it as a potential candidate for single release).  The swirling pop symphony features perhaps the best instrumental track on the entire album; laden with strings and muted horns, it’s more complex than the big hits, but the musical flourishes never bury the hook.  The ladies offer up a terrific interpretation; the majestic intro alone features some of Diana’s best work thus far in her career.  She had never sounded so assured, and so comfortable in her voice, and she easily glides along the song’s bouncy melody without ever displaying any discernible effort.  Interestingly, the booklet to the 4-CD box set The Supremes notes that “Ask Any Girl” was recorded on April 10, 1964 — just two days after “Where Did Our Love Go” and several months prior to “Baby Love.”  The song feels like a more mature extension of those other two songs — but the recording dates suggest otherwise.  (NOTE: “Ask Any Girl” did end up near the top of the charts, in a way; Motown apparently sued the writers of the 1965 Len Barry hit “1, 2, 3” — claiming it was a reworking of “Ask Any Girl.”  According to Lamont Dozier in the box set booklet, because of the lawsuit, “that particular song is my catalog” — which explains why in 2003, “1, 2, 3” was performed on American Idol’s Motown night.)

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Where Did Our Love Go is an astonishingly solid album, considering Motown wasn’t in the business of creating great albums in 1964.  The label would keep its focus firmly on racking up hit singles through the end of the decade, but it hit the jackpot with this collection of memorable tunes and classic performances.  The LP was a smash success; bolstered by the hits, it climbed to #2 on the Billboard 200, and would ride the chart for sometime thereafter.  And yet, somehow, the impact of Where Did Our Love Go has been lost over the years; the LP rarely shows up on lists of great popular music recordings (it doesn’t even garner a place on the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time).  For whatever reason, critics seem endlessly reluctant to give the group its due; when they do, the credit goes to the men behind-the-scenes.  Certainly Berry Gordy had the vision, and H-D-H provided the incredible hits — but on this album, The Supremes (and especially Diana Ross) really deliver, maturing into exciting, skillful vocalists.

Final Analysis: 4/5 (A “Breathtaking” Breakthrough)

Choice Cuts: “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Where Did Our Love Go”

Trivia:
The Grammy nominees for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording that year were:
Nancy Wilson, “How Glad I Am” (Winner)
The Supremes, “Baby Love”
Sam Cooke, “Good Times”
Joe Tex, “Hold What You’ve Got”
The Impressions, “Keep On Pushing”
Dionne Warwick, “Walk On By”

Meet The Supremes (1962)

Meet The Supremes 1962

“Funny how time changes, rearranges everything…”

The legacy of The Supremes is so firmly established today — from the group’s influence on fashion, to music, to Broadway musicals and films — that is seems impossible to imagine a time when it didn’t exist.  From 1964 until the end of the decade, The Supremes would become the savior of American music, almost single-handedly defending a corner of the industry from the British Invasion while conquering the rest of the world through sell-out tours and hit singles.  The group’s astounding string of a dozen number one singles (racked up in just five years) is something modern pop acts still struggle to match, and those hits continue to win over audiences though appearances in movies, commercials, and through radio airplay and album reissues.

But success wasn’t overnight for Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard (and, in the beginning, Barbara Martin, who is featured on most of this album); after signing with Motown Records, the group suffered through eight lackluster singles before finally striking gold with “Where Did Our Love Go” in 1964.  The earliest of those singles were collected and released as Meet The Supremes in late 1962, an album that’s basically a patchwork of songs recorded during various sessions at the beginning of the decade.  It’s interesting to note the talent involved in this debut album; along with the four young vocalists, names like Smokey Robinson, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and even Berry Gordy, Jr. pepper the credits.  Still, without a sizable hit or much audience demand for its existence, Meet The Supremes failed to make an impact.

So what happened?  Well, first of all, the top-notch material wasn’t there.  But more importantly — in the vaguest of terms — The Supremes weren’t quite The Supremes yet.  The elements are all there on Meet The Supremes; the unique style of each singer is immediately discernible, as is the endearing, primitive grit of what would become known as The Motown Sound.  But the smooth, sophisticated polish that would set The Supremes apart from every other vocal group — male or female — is missing.  There’s a roughness around the edges here (and, in some cases, more than just the edges) far more akin to The Marvelettes and The Contours than to later Supremes efforts.  Meet The Supremes is the work of a group still finding itself; while it’s a fascinating listen, it’s no surprise that the songs featured here struggled to stand out.

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(NOTE: Writing about the discography of The Supremes is challenging, due to varying versions of the group’s early albums; mono and stereo versions often feature alternate vocals on certain songs.  Although Meet The Supremes was initially pressed as a mono release only, the following summaries are based on the more widely-available stereo mix of the LP.)

1.  Your Heart Belongs To Me:  Meet The Supremes opens with perhaps its best song, a Smokey Robinson tune that was released as the group’s third single (and first on the Motown label, as the previous two had been placed on the company’s Tamla imprint).  More than any other song on the album, “Your Heart Belongs To Me” hints at the sophistication these young ladies were capable of; there’s a sexy maturity to the vocals here, especially those of Diana Ross, that would become much more pronounced in the next few years.  This is a softly-swinging ballad, driven by surf-style guitars and snapping percussion; with lyrics that mention “faraway sand” and the sea, listeners can practically hear the rolling of waves in the background.  The sweet yearning of Diana’s lead vocal is expertly done; there’s an appealing roundness of tone here, devoid of the nasally sound that sometimes plagued the singer’s early work.  Of course, Miss Ross had been singing for a few years by this time, and her experience in the studio shows; the way she stylishly stretches the word “me” at the end of the second chorus to “me-e-e” demonstrates her innate ear for pop flourishes.  Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Barbara Martin provide able support, although there’s far less precision in the background here than would later become standard for the group, resulting in a hint of flatness in some of the harmonies.  Because Robinson’s lyrics are so timely — the song is a love letter from a young woman to her boyfriend, who is serving overseas — it seems hard to believe this song wasn’t a bigger hit; it ended up charting at #95 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Still, it remains one of the group’s best early recordings, and a sign of greater things to come.

2.  Who’s Lovin’ You:  Perhaps the most recognizable song on Meet The Supremes, “Who’s Lovin’ You” is a widely covered Smokey Robinson tune first recorded by The Miracles in 1960.  This was one of the earliest songs recorded by The Supremes at Motown; it had been placed on the b-side of the group’s second single, “Buttered Popcorn,” released in 1961 on Tamla (the single failed to chart).  The decision to include the song directly following “Your Heart Belongs To Me” is an interesting one, as it really highlights the dramatic growth The Supremes made as vocalists in such a short period of time.  “Who’s Lovin’ You” is everything the previous song is not; it’s raw and imperfect, dominated by a high, “go-for-broke” lead vocal by Diana Ross over a bluesy, oil-smudged track.  Diana really reaches for the notes here, and doesn’t always nail them; she is far less controlled than in the album’s previous track, with her voice here wavering around notes and attempting soulful runs that she would later eschew completely.  There’s a reason, of course, for that youthful abandon in Diana’s singing; she was still a high school student when the song was recorded (eventually graduating from Detroit’s Cass Technical High School in 1962).  Wilson, Ballard, and Martin could pass for the Marvelettes in the background; their loud, girlish voices have a slightly discordant sound that’s quite endearing (Mary Wilson writes about recording this song in her book Dreamgirl, recalling that Barbara Martin sang “loud and flat” and cracked up the other girls in the booth).  I’ve read that Berry Gordy, Jr. preferred this song to “Buttered Popcorn,” but the truth is that neither recording really stood a chance at becoming a timeless classic.

3.  Baby Don’t Go:  It’s interesting that for all the online chatter focused on Diana and Florence, one of the most accomplished lead vocals on Meet The Supremes comes from…neither one.  Mary Wilson takes the lead on the album’s third track, and knocks it out of the park; she offers up a confident performance reminiscent of fellow girl-group singer Darlene Love.  The song, credited to Berry Gordy, Jr., is a doo-wop ballad similar to “Who’s Lovin’ You” — it’s not a particularly memorable song, but Wilson’s solid vocal easily sells the rather banal lyrics.  Wilson would later become known for her unique misty tone, which served as a perfect tool to blend Ballard’s strength and the sharp urgency of Ross.  But here, Mary displays something of a brassy swagger that’s both impressive and appealing.

4.  Buttered Popcorn:  This song would be the group’s second (and final) single released on the Tamla imprint; it also bears the distinction of being the sole Supremes 45 release featuring a lead vocal from Florence Ballard.  “Buttered Popcorn” is unlike anything the group had recorded before, or ever would; it’s a rollicking, bottom-heavy tune with gutsy vocals and totally bizarre lyric (which, if taken literally, really is about a man’s obsession with buttered popcorn.  If not taken literally, than the meaning might not be fit for print).  Mary Wilson would later write, “The song had a great dance riff, and I think ‘Popcorn’ was the most raucous thing we ever released.  The musicians were pleased with the session, and we all left the studio believing we had a hit” (Dreamgirl & Supreme Faith 97).  Of course, the song was not a hit, and while it’s a hilarious listen today, it’s not hard to understand why it didn’t click.  There’s no denying the soul present in Ballard’s voice, but her guttural growls are not particularly pleasant listening here; furthermore, she’s given the task of selling a rather unappetizing lyric (it’s perhaps the only pop song to feature the words “salty,” “sticky,” and “greasy”).  The song doesn’t require much range from its vocalists, either; Ballard doesn’t stretch far beyond a few notes, and the backgrounds consist of a constant repetition of the song’s title.  Several versions of this song can be found floating around (in fact, the single was withdrawn, re-recorded, and re-released), but the fact is “Buttered Popcorn” remains more of an interesting experiment than anything else.  (NOTE: The song would get something of a “second life” when a snippet was performed in the 2013 Broadway smash Motown The Musical — used as an example of the early Supremes songs nobody considered “hit” material!)

5.  I Want A Guy:  In her 1993 memoir Secrets Of A Sparrow, Diana Ross writes of this song, “I vividly remember this recording session.  I felt so important.  With my eyes closed and my arms outstretched, I poured my heart into this song.  When I listen to it now, I feel nostalgic; I can hear that teenage yearning in my voice” (104).  It makes sense that Miss Ross would recall the recording of “I Want A Guy” — it would become the group’s very first single, issued in March of 1961 as Tamla 54038.  Opening with an eerie organ motif, the song eventually evolves to include a galloping beat that sounds more like the theme music to a Western TV series than a Motown release.  One can hear easily hear that “teenage yearning” in Diana’s lead vocal; as with “Who’s Lovin’ You,” she’s singing in an awfully high key here, so much so that the All Music Guide review of the album calls her performance “whiny” — which it often is.  The odd, almost operatic delivery of the single letter “I” is probably the most notable “hook” of the recording; it’s memorable, but not necessarily strong.  And that’s the big issue with the song; it’s just not very strong.  Compare it to “Please Mr. Postman,” released later the same year by The Marvelettes; both were co-written by Freddie Gorman and Brian Holland and contain similarly raw and youthful vocals, but the latter’s song structure is tighter and the melody much cleaner.  That song easily climbed to the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100, while “I Want A Guy” didn’t chart at all.  (NOTE: Coincidentally, The Marvelettes would cover “I Want A Guy” and include it on their Please Mr. Postman LP.)

6.  Let Me Go The Right Way:  The group’s fourth single was one of its best yet; featuring a gutsy and soulful lead by Miss Ross, it managed to climb into the Billboard R&B Top 30, easily the best chart showing for the group thus far and likely an indication to Motown head Berry Gordy, Jr. (who wrote and produced the song) that the group was capable of major success.  By the time of this recording, Barbara Martin had exited the group to give birth to her child, leaving The Supremes as a trio.  The change is noticeable; there’s a cleaner sound to the background work here, and the three voices are fairly distinct.  Of the group’s first four singles, “Let Me Go The Right Way” is the most classically Motown; there’s a fire and a real spunk to the recording, with a gritty, syncopated beat courtesy The Funk Brothers.  Though Diana’s delivery is undeniably girlish (imagine the more mature Martha Reeves attempting the song; it doesn’t work), she displays an impressive range and puts some muscle behind her lead vocal; those who believe Ross was always a “pop” singer might want to listen to her soulful performance here.  Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson really belt the backgrounds here, and the three young women sound like they’re having a ball in the studio.  Though it wasn’t the hit it deserved to be, The Supremes energetically performed this tune during early concerts; a great version recorded live at the Apollo Theater in 1962 was released on the 2000 four-disc box set The Supremes (during which Diana uses the “A little bit softer now!” routine that she allegedly cribbed from Smokey Robinson!).

7.  You Bring Back Memories:  Speaking of Robinson, this song is his third and final contribution to Meet The Supremes.  This song would later end up the b-side to “My Heart Can’t Take It No More,” the group’s fifth single (the a-side was included two years later on The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop), but it’s one of the lesser-known early Supremes recordings.  The ladies sing a generous portion of the song in unison, and each voice is clear and strong; indeed, that’s a problem, as the simultaneous vocal attack is quite startling at the beginning of the song (not to mention the clumsy lyrics they’re forced to recite don’t exactly seem to roll off the tongue).  Once it gets going, the recording has that real, definable Motown sound, led by a rocking piano line typical of an early Marvin Gaye release.  Unfortunately, what it lacks is a great Motown hook; atypical of Smokey’s work, there’s not a memorable refrain.  This one is filler — not the worst song the Supremes would ever record, but certainly not an essential.

8.  Time Changes Things:  More than any other song on Meet The Supremes, “Time Changes Things” foreshadows the formula that would eventually send The Supremes into the pop stratosphere.  And this isn’t a surprise; it was co-written by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, two-thirds of the team that would pen nearly all of the group’s future chart-toppers.  “Time Changes Things” was a late addition to the album, initially appearing as the b-side to “Let Me Go The Right Way” about a month before the LP was issued.  Although there’s still a primitive roughness to the recording, the evolution in the group’s sound is audible; the background work by Mary and Florence is light years ahead of something like “I Want A Guy.”  Diana offers up a confident lead vocal; she is naturally gifted with a sense of how to twist a word or a phrase to give it more emphasis than it would otherwise receive.  Listen to the way she coyly blurs the word “guys” during the line “I already had many guys in my telephone book” — it’s a masterful way to direct attention to the lyric without seeming crass.  The production is a little too cluttered; the instrumental is dense with what sounds like every single member of The Funk Brothers, and the song probably would have been more successful had the track been slightly more spare.  Still, this is the first definitive step toward greatness; Lamont Dozier would later comment, “…they had a certain poise that came innately; they were born with a certain presence” (The Supremes box set booklet).  “Time Changes Things” begins to take advantage of that poise and presence; it wouldn’t be long before the team perfected it.

9.  Play A Sad Song:  This is one of the few tracks on Meet The Supremes that didn’t end up on either side of a 45 release; a Berry Gordy, Jr. composition, Diana Ross handles lead vocal duties again, and offers up one of her best performances on the album.  Ross sings in a slightly lower key here, allowing her voice to shake off the tinniness present on many of the other songs here; she produces a thicker, richer tone and really digs into the melody.  The song isn’t a great one; it’s a morose, 50s-style doo-wop ballad with touches of country-western (it’s not that far off from the material included on 1965’s The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop).  Still, this one’s worth listening to for Diana’s lovely performance.

10.  Never Again:  This song has the distinction of being one of the first two that listeners ever heard from The Supremes; it was placed on the b-side of the group’s very first single.  This song was also written and produced by Gordy, and is again a classic 50s doo-wop ballad; the All Music Guide review of the album states, “…if you didn’t know, you’d think it was The Chantels.”  Indeed, “Never Again” is a close relative of 1958’s “Maybe” — Diana and company sound like they could be The Chantels’ kid sisters.  This song itself is no stronger nor weaker than the album’s previous tune; the biggest difference is in the vocal performances, which are far less controlled here.  Diana never quite seems totally sure what note she’s going to land on, and Ballard, Wilson, and Martin likewise never really come together behind her.  That said, it’s hard to harshly judge the work of four young, excited girls taking a shot at their dreams; there’s an endearing quality to a song like “Never Again,” especially in light of the great achievements still in store for The Supremes.

11.  (He’s) Seventeen:  Meet The Supremes closes with this cute, bopping little number that serves as a virtual blueprint for the theme song to the hit cartoon “Muppet Babies” more than twenty years later.  That I’m comparing this song to one featured in a cartoon should pretty much sum things up; it’s catchy and silly, without much depth.  Diana Ross gives an unusually bland vocal performance; nobody could ever accuse the singer of not working hard in the studio, but she doesn’t project much energy or personality this time around.  Florence Ballard is just about the only other audible singing voice and unfortunately, in this celebratory song about being a teenager, her loud soprano sounds more like that of an older aunt.  Perhaps the most notable aspect of the song is that Barbara Martin is featured on a brief spoken interlude (something that probably really confused fans at the time, considering her picture wasn’t featured on the album cover), which at least gives us a chance to hear something extra from the lady considered for years as the “lost” Supreme.  It’s interesting that Motown decided to place this song on the album (likely only because it had already been placed on a single); the unreleased song “The Boy That Got Away” is similar in style, but a superior recording, and would have made a better closer. (NOTE: “The Boy That Got Away” was actually listed on some pressings of Meet The Supremes, but never included on the album).

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Had Meet The Supremes been the only album ever released by The Supremes, it almost certainly would have faded into obscurity; this isn’t an album of lost classics, and the material isn’t close to the best Motown was churning out in the early part of the decade.  There’s undeniable talent in the four young voices featured, but it’s young and unformed talent.  In the wake the LP’s release, Diana, Mary and Florence would tour the country, opening for and learning from more seasoned performers; they would continue to practice their harmonies and refine their style.  Dick Clark later remembered, “They were smooth, their choreography was down, the costuming was good, they were ladies, they were impressive” (The Supremes box set booklet).  Less than two years after the release of this album, with all of those elements firmly in place, The Supremes would change the course of history, both for themselves and for the pop music.

Time Changes Things, indeed.

Final Analysis: 2.5/5 (An Uneven Start, But Going “The Right Way”)

Choice Cuts: “Your Heart Belongs To Me,” “Let Me Go The Right Way,” “Baby Don’t Go”

Meet The Supremes 2nd Cover

“Lady Sings The Blues” 1972 Promotional Featurette

LSTB Diana Ross Photoshoot

“To me, acting is about truth, and it can’t be a lie.”

Diana Ross — for as much as she’s given her fans over the past fifty years — can be maddeningly vague when discussing her career.  Perhaps this is more the fault of interviewers than of the artist herself, but Miss Ross tends to talk about her projects in big, broad strokes, glossing over specific songs and albums in favor of generalizations about her work.  Over and over we’ve heard her talk about “moving mountains” and the importance of believing in the lyrics she’s singing; these things are great, but they don’t shed much light on Diana’s artistic process.  Thus, when “behind-the-scenes” footage of Diana Ross at work surfaces, it’s a rare treat for those who’ve followed her body of work.

American cable television network Turner Classic Movies recently aired an amazing 10-minute promotional featurette filmed on the set of Diana’s film debut, Lady Sings The Blues.  This was probably originally released to theatres in advance of the film’s 1972 premiere, an “extended trailer” of sorts to generate excitement for the project.  What makes this featurette truly remarkable is that not only does it contain clips of Diana and director Sidney J. Furie working on the film — it also features shots from scenes ultimately cut from the film!  And back to the original point, there are also some audio snippets of Diana discussing the movie, something that offers further insight into her ability to “become” Billie Holiday — a transformation which earned her an Academy Award nomination.

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Crews filming Diana Ross

The featurette opens with footage of Diana Ross being photographed in character as Billie Holiday, a photoshoot that would produce the famous shot used for the VHS and DVD covers.  Diana, by the way, is singing along to her own recording of “My Man” — and doing it with such intensity that sweat can be seen running down her arms.  Next comes footage of the camera crew filming on the set which represents the Harlem city block where Billie Holiday lives and works in a brothel.  It’s hard to really tell in the finished movie, but it’s obvious here just how massive and detailed this set is, an indication of how much everyone involved (especially Berry Gordy, Jr.) invested in this film.

In the finished film, the familiar song “Don’t Explain” is heard during a scene in which Billie Holiday sings along to her own record late one night, having pledged to end both her career and her drug addiction.  This featurette, however, includes a beautifully-shot scene in which Diana (as Billie) is recording the song — a scene that didn’t make it into the final cut.  Miss Ross wears an eye-popping red outfit with draped headpiece; behind her, the shadow of a man playing the piano is visible.  The camera slowly closes is on her, before she removes her sunglasses and the lights around her fade to black.  It’s a visually stunning scene, likely cut for time — but what a shame.  (That costume, it should be noted, is undoubtedly more glamorous and expensive than anything the real Billie Holiday ever wore.  But just look at the pictures – has Diana Ross ever looked like more of a movie star?)

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Diana Ross singing “Don’t Explain”

After the “Don’t Explain” scene, there’s more behind-the-scenes footage, including a revealing moment in which director Furie says to Miss Ross, “It would be ridiculous, obviously, for me to discuss this scene with you, right? You know what I mean?”  He’s talking about the lynching scene, during which Billie Holiday sees the horrifying image of an African-American man hanging from a tree.  And what he’s saying, of course, is that he thoroughly trusts her instincts as an actress.  Although Billie Holiday and Diana Ross lived in different times and led very different lives, they shared something very deep — the experience of being an African-American woman.  This is something her director clearly understood.  Diana, meanwhile, appears to be totally “in the zone” as Furie talks to her; she is quiet and serious, and is then heard discussing her approach to the scene:

“I had never seen a man hanging on a tree with a rope around their neck.  In all the research that I did of Billie Holiday and the South at that time, I happened to find one picture of a tree with about ten men hanging on it, and I reacted, and then I thought about how I reacted to the picture.  I had never understood the song ‘Strange Fruit,’ and from the picture I got more of an understanding what the song was about.”

Diana Ross filming LADY SINGS THE BLUES

Diana Ross filming LADY SINGS THE BLUES

Of course, anyone who has seen her performance in this particular part of the film knows that she managed to convey a stark realism in her reaction to the lynching, and her performance of the song remains one of the great recordings of her career.  She goes on to make an interesting comment, which I believe is about the scene in which Holiday’s tour bus is attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan:

“I’ve never disliked or hated anyone, I mean, I don’t know the emotion hate that well.  I’m angry for a minute or something but I haven’t really hated anyone.  In this particular scene I found that I do have a lot of that emotion inside of me.”

LSTB Sidney Furie

Director Sidney J. Furie

Of her approach to acting, Miss Ross continues:

“I read somewhere that acting is believing, and that’s exactly what it is.  So it’s not acting, because you always think of acting, ‘Oh, she’s just acting silly,’ but that’s wrong.  She’s acting, she’s really being believable, she’s really being real.  To me, acting is about truth, and it can’t be a lie.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise for viewers of this promotional short is footage of Miss Ross (clad in all white, with the classic gardenias in her hair) singing along to her recording of the song “He’s Funny That Way.”  That song never appeared in Lady Sings The Blues, nor was it included on the accompanying #1 soundtrack album.  In fact, “He’s Funny That Way” would go unreleased until 2006, when it was included as a bonus track on the release of Blue, Diana’s “lost” jazz album.  Thus, between 1972 and 2006, this featurette inadvertently contained an otherwise unheard Diana Ross track!  It’s too bad this couldn’t have been lifted from the vaults and used to help promote the release of Blue, as something of a “music video” to accompany one of the newly-released songs.

Diana Ross He's Funny That Way

Diana Ross singing along to “He’s Funny That Way”

More than anything else, this vintage promotional featurette serves as a reminder of what a remarkable achievement Lady Sings The Blues remains.  This is a film full of intimate, dramatic scenes for its leading lady, and the footage of Diana engaged in these scenes while surrounded by crew members and giant cameras demonstrates the incredible focus possessed by this novice actress.  More than forty years later, this remains one of the great debut performances in film history, and there is no doubt that Miss Ross richly deserved her Oscar nomination.  What Diana Ross also deserves is far more credit for what resulted from her work.  She was only the second (along with Cicely Tyson, nominated the same year) African-American woman nominated for a Best Actress Oscar; it would be nearly thirty years before one actually took home the award (Halle Berry in 2001).

Diana Ross and Lady Sings The Blues helped make that possible.

LSTB_End

(And one final note for fans, of course — wouldn’t it be great for more of these deleted scenes to surface somewhere?  The DVD release of the film did include several deleted and extended scenes, but it’s long been reported that the original cut of the film ran something like four hours.  Here’s hoping there’s more surviving footage out there somewhere.)

To Set Things Right: Top 5 Diana Ross “Vault” Tracks

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Considering the pace of Motown’s release schedule during the 1960s and 1970s (remember, there were three Diana Ross studio albums released in 1973 alone), it’s hard to believe there was anything left over that didn’t make it to the public. But indeed, in the past decade or so, Diana Ross fans have been treated to some stellar reissues from Motown Select, which typically include at least a few previously unreleased tracks.   Some of these songs, like 1970’s “Stoney End,” had been talked about by fans for years, and even leaked in low-quality, bootlegged versions. Others, like “Room Enough For Two” from the recent Baby It’s Me: Expanded Edition, seemed to come out of nowhere.

It’s always interesting to ponder why certain songs were left behind in the Motown vaults and others plucked for release on an album or as a single. Quality is often an issue; certainly nobody would mistake “Alone” (cut from Diana & Marvin) for being a hit, and while the bizarre “Go Where Your Mind Is” might be an interesting listen, it definitely didn’t need to knock anything off of Diana Ross (1976). But there are other reasons why certain tracks were held back; the superb jazz album Blue apparently went unreleased for more than thirty years simply because Diana Ross didn’t win an Oscar for her performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings The Blues, and Motown wanted to move her back into pop territory.

Although most of Diana’s albums have now been re-released in expanded formats, there’s always hope for more “lost masterpieces” in the Motown vaults, just waiting to be unearthed for fans.  Until that happens, here are my personal top five favorite Diana Ross tracks that waited for decades in the “dark side of the world” before finally being given a chance to shine.  (NOTE: The bulk of the discussions here come from previous reviews on The Diana Ross Project; click on the links to read more information.)

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5. What A Diff’rence A Day Makes (Released on Blue, 2006)

Diana Ross Blue

This is an achingly beautiful, delicate reading of the classic most closely identified with Dinah Washington (who won a Grammy for it in 1960).  This recording is so good — so absolutely perfect — that it’s really quite surprising it never managed to find its way onto an album earlier; it would’ve fit well on Touch Me In The Morning, and would have been a better choice for 1976’s Diana Ross than the dreadful “Smile.”  Opening with swirling strings and driven by a lovely acoustic guitar, the instrumental here is languid, relaxed, sophisticated, and sexy.  Diana Ross’s performance is all of those things, too; she displays a stunning mix of youthful optimism and mature wisdom.  Listen, for example, to Ross begin the second verse, crooning “What a diff’rence a day makes…there’s a rainbow before me…” with a skillfully restrained joy; as sluggish as the lyrics come, the listener can’t help but notice a “smile” in Diana’s voice.  This transmission of emotion through tone is something Miss Ross excels at; it’s what makes her such an outstanding vocalist.

4. Home (Released on The Motown Anthology, 2001)

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Diana’s Motown version of “Home” surfaced in 2001, with the release of the beautifully-produced The Motown Anthology, a 2-CD collection featuring hits, rare songs, and alternate mixes.  This recording is credited to producer Lee Holdridge (the incredibly prolific composer and arranger) and features a lovely arrangement, taking the drama and whimsy of the film version and mixing in more pop-oriented instrumentation, notably a fabulous acoustic guitar accompanying Diana during the opening few lines.  The vocal performance here is sublime; Diana’s voice is sure and controlled during the opening, her lower notes strikingly husky and appealing.  As the song builds, she retains the sense of wonder she’d discovered as the character of Dorothy, while imbuing the performance with a warmth more characteristic of classic Diana Ross ballad work.  She uses her voice in new, interesting ways on lines like “I have had my mind spun around in space” — listen to the slight edginess in her vocal (especially on the word “mind”), a little roughness surfacing just long enough to give the song a sense of realness in the midst of its fantasy elements.  The sustained belting during the final minute of running time is dead-on and impressive; there just a slight wobbliness as she holds “world” for several bars, but she really delivers the lyrics, “…so it’s real…real to me!” from her gut, growling out a few words.  The musical track finally swirls to a delicious close, finishing off a truly strong recording that showcases Diana at a personal peak.

3. You Build Me Up To Tear Me Down (Released on diana Deluxe, 2003)

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In tone, “You Build Me Up…” is similar to Diana’s brilliant reading of the Bill Withers tune “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” off of Baby It’s Me; both offer a refreshing complexity to Diana’s dance discography.  This is a sexy, sultry number with an instrumental intro that recalls Stevie Wonder’s 1972 hit “Superstition” and a wonderful vocal that’s as moody and shaded as anything else Diana turned in during the period.  Written by Holland, Holland and Ronald Dean Miller, the producers utilize a soulful bass and dark keyboard work to create an atmospheric song that manages to be danceable without sounding like disco camp to contemporary listeners.  From the very start, Miss Ross’s vocal is perfectly done; her hushed delivery on “Something’s troublin’ you…it’s gonna mess up your mind…” and the rest of the first verse sets a tone of anguish and complexity that’s extremely compelling.  Listen to her starting around three minutes in, as she sings the chorus along with the powerful group of background voices; there’s an excitement to the song that’s almost soul-stirring here, with Diana confidently leading the way but never forcing her vocal or hitting a false note.  It’s a real shame this track wasn’t featured on Ross; it would have made a far better single than that album’s “What You Gave Me.”

2. Kewpie Doll (Released on Touch Me In The Morning: Expanded Edition, 2009)

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A revelation and a masterpiece; written and produced by Smokey Robinson, this is a fabulous recording that languished in the Motown vaults for far too long.  Diana Ross and Robinson, of course, shared a long history; Robinson was responsible for helping the Supremes obtain their first audition at Motown, and he’d written and produced several songs for the group over the years.  Incredibly, Robinson and Ross really never collaborated after she went solo (save for the song “Pops, We Love You” in 1979), which makes “Kewpie Doll” such a spectacular find.  The track here is sublime, driven by a soul-stirring guitar; the composition shifts from major to minor key in a unique way that gives is far more complexity than much of Diana’s other work of the period.  But best of all is the vocal arrangement; Smokey Robinson provides the background vocals here, and they are so prominent that the song is pretty much a collaboration between him and Diana Ross.  This turns out to be a great thing, as both are in fine voice; Diana Ross is as smooth and soulful as she’d ever been on record here, delivering the same kind of youthful passion heard on her earliest solo albums without any of the rawness that crept through.  Robinson’s layered backgrounds are just breathtaking; they work with Diana’s vocal rather than detract from it, adding an aching and tenderness to the recording that it really needed to have.  The end result is such a classic, timeless song that it really doesn’t sound that dated; it could easily be a “neo-soul” tune by a contemporary artist.

1. Let Me Be The One (Released on Last Time I Saw Him: Expanded Edition, 2007)

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I hate to keep throwing around the word “masterpiece” here — but Miss Ross’s version of this oft-recorded hit made famous by The Carpenters is one of the single best recordings of her 70s discography.  An incredibly brief recording (running under 2:30!), there is not one unsatisfying moment here; the laid-back, dreamy production is matched by a smooth and soulful vocal by Diana and a gorgeous, inspiring choir of voices backing her up.  The production here is credited to Lar Mar – whoever or whatever that is, this is the perfect mix of toe-tapping percussion and sweeping strings.  Diana gets to really showcase her lower register on the verses; she sounds warm and mature singing “…if you should find yourself alone…” at :15 – the perfection of these lower tones is made even more acute when Diana jumps up an octave to sing “Let Me Be The One!” at :56.  Her higher singing here (especially the section beginning with “Come to me…”) is among the best of her mid-70s work; it’s powerful and emotional while still sounding full and round in tone.  Had this not been a big hit for The Carpenters, this could have been a #1 hit for Diana Ross; this is light soul/pop at its best, and still sounds good today.  Though it’s a shame the song never got a chance back in the 70s, it’s a blessing for fans to hear something this incredible come out of those fabled Motown vaults.

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It was tough to narrow this down to a list of five; songs like “Share Some Love” and “Stoney End” also feature stellar production and vocal work and rival anything else released in their respective years.  And of course, I couldn’t end this article without a shout-out to Harry Weinger, George Solomon, Andrew Skurow, and everyone else responsible for “sharing some love” with Diana Ross fans and lovingly re-mastering these songs.  For those of us who’ve memorized every nuance of hits like “Upside Down” and “Endless Love,” it’s such a treat to hear these previously unreleased tracks, if only to gain a greater understanding of what Motown wasn’t looking for when crafting a Diana Ross hit.

Now…let’s hear it.  Which “vault tracks” have become essential parts of your Diana Ross playlist?

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 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).

An Evening With Diana Ross Playbill2

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