“Hey, y’all, here I am…”
The breakneck pace of Diana Ross’s early solo career continued with her first television special, aired on ABC in early 1971, and the accompanying soundtrack album. Ross was more than a proven television attraction, having made dozens of appearances with the Supremes on popular variety programs and in two smash TV specials with the Supremes and the Temptations. 1968’s TCB in particular produced a #1 hit soundtrack album, so it’s not a big surprise that Motown would hope to duplicate that success with Diana!
In the days before music videos and YouTube, I suppose television specials like this one were often the only chance the public had to see an artist perform his or her songs. The Diana! special not only gave fans a chance to see her sing hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Remember Me” – it also featured several skits, including a prolonged sequence in which Diana imitated famous comedians like Charlie Chaplin. These segments provided Diana Ross an opportunity to show off the acting skills that would come into clear focus the next year, when her Oscar-nominated film debut, Lady Sings The Blues, was released.
Of course, the soundtrack album centers on the musical performances, although we do get two dialogue sequences featuring guest stars Bill Cosby and Danny Thomas. Along with Diana’s songs, we also get two medleys by The Jackson 5, who were at the height of their popularity following a run of four #1 hits. The album, then, isn’t really a “Diana Ross album” – nor is it a full live concert album like the ones she’d later release in the decade. For the Diana Ross fan, Diana! more than anything serves as a chance to hear some of her early recordings with alternate vocals; songs like “(They Long To Be) Close To You” and “I Love You (Call Me)” weren’t chart hits for the singer, and thus would never show up on a Diana Ross release after this one. Although according to J. Randy Taraborrelli’s book Diana Ross: A Biography the recordings here are not actually the ones that were broadcast on the special (look up “Remember Me” on YouTube, and you’ll see she actually lip-synched to the original recorded version of the song on special, while the one here is totally different), the album does capture the kind of energetic, vibrant performances that Diana Ross was probably giving early in her solo career, as she continued trying to establish herself as a single entity and not part of a group.
1. Intro: The announcer calls out Diana Ross and her guest stars; hearing “Diana! starring Diana Ross” is kind of thrilling, since it’s the first time on a live or soundtrack album that she’s been announced as a full-fledged star and not part of the Supremes.
2. Don’t Rain On My Parade: Diana Ross would kick off her shows with this song for awhile; it’s also the opener on 1974’s Live At Caesar’s Palace. The popular song from Funny Girl is certainly a good fit for Diana, and she’s at her energetic best here, especially as she belts out the final, “Hey y’all, here I am!” While the song lasts for less than two minutes, it serves its purpose, which is to create an excitement that will carry the listener through the rest of the album. Her short patter with kids in the audience following the song is cute, especially since I’m assuming the little boy Kennedy she banters with is actually Berry Gordy’s son, and would grow up to become Rockwell, singer of the hit “Somebody’s Watching Me.” That song, 13 years later, would feature Michael Jackson on backing vocals. Here, little Kennedy helps introduce his future collaborator, then the lead singer of The Jackson 5…
3. Medley: Mama’s Pearl, Walk On By, The Love You Save: The Jackson 5 rock the house on this medley, featuring the expected dynamic vocals of Michael and the rest of the gang. The instruments are particularly funky on “Walk On By” and Michael is great on “The Love You Save” although, admittedly, hearing the studio applause makes you wish you were watching the performance rather than listening to it.
4. (They Long To Be) Close To You: An absolutely beautiful performance of the song first recorded for and released on Everything Is Everything, her second solo LP. She follows her recorded vocal pretty closely, but sounds slightly dreamier here, and is far more powerful in the last minute and a half of the song. Listen, particularly, starting at just about two minutes in, when she begins the line, “From the day that you were born,” belting in a much more full-bodied voice than she used in the studio version. This is the first case of great singing by Diana Ross on Diana! and because she (as far as I know) would never perform the song live again, it’s a real treat to hear here.
5. Bill Cosby Segment: A comedy sketch between Diana and Bill Cosby with the two playing neighborhood kids in love. The running joke here is that Diana (as you can see on photos featured in the LP) is supposed to be overweight and is wearing a costume that kind of looks like a giant beach-ball under her dress! Without the visuals, the jokes fall a little flat. The two have good chemistry, though, and the segment is a nice showcase for Diana’s comic timing, something she rarely had the chance to use in her big-screen career (which was largely devoted to heavy-hitting dramatic roles).
6. Love Story: That this song was written by Randy Newman is all you really need to know; it originally appeared on his 1968 debut album and sounds exactly like a Randy Newman composition usually does. Here, it’s done by Diana and Bill Cosby as a continuation of their previous skit as two kids in love. The two certainly sound like they’re having a good time, but again, it’s hard to really enjoy the song without seeing the performance, given that there are clearly some sight gags (“I can touch my toes…”) that are completely lost on an audio recording. If nothing else, it again demonstrates Diana’s ease with light comedy and is a good representation of the kinds of comedy/musical skits she performed on shows like “The Hollywood Palace” in the late 60s/early 70s.
7. Remember Me: An interesting, alternate vocal of her then-current hit, a Top 20 record that would soon be featured on her next release, Surrender. Miss Ross sounds slightly more subdued for much of the song than on the released version, but delivers some powerful vocals during the last minute or so of running time. I like the way she’s a little less crisp when reaching for high notes in this version; rather than nailing the notes spot-on, she runs up the scale a little bit, not something normally heard from a singer as precise as Diana Ross. Not a radical change from the single version, but a nice change of pace.
8. Medley: I’ll Be There, Feelin’ Alright: The second medley from The Jackson 5, who turn in a nice performance of the hit “I’ll Be There” followed by a rousing rendition of “Feelin’ Alright,” during which Diana Ross is called onstage by Michael Jackson. Here’s another case where not seeing the performance means missing out on a large part of its charm; during the televised special, Michael and Diana engage in a mock dance-off, each pulling the other back so that they can respectively take center stage. On record, it’s actually tough to tell which voice is Diana’s and which is Michael’s, continued proof of just how much the young singer was inspired by her in the development of his career.
9. Danny Thomas Segment: Diana welcomes the star of TV’s “Make Room For Daddy” and “Make Room For Granddaddy” and asks him to teach her how to tell a funny story. Personally, I think this is the stronger of the two skits featured in this album, because this one doesn’t rely on sight gags that we miss out on a record. Again, Diana Ross sounds totally at ease with a seasoned comic and the two have a nice rapport.
10. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: One of the highlights of the album is hearing Diana sing her signature solo song, which had been a #1 hit in the year before. In future shows, Diana Ross would truncate the song, singing variations of the single edit and omitting much of the spoken verses. On this album, however, she performs the entire piece, and it’s a thrill to hear her devote nearly six minutes to the song. This is certainly no substitute for the original recorded version on Diana Ross; the strings and soaring backing vocals which add so much to the track are noticeably missing. It is, however, fantastic to hear Diana Ross really throw herself into the ad-libs at the end. In shows such as “Live At Caesar’s Palace” and “An Evening With Diana Ross,” she tends to let the band and backing singers do the work during the song’s climax; here, she wails much like she does on the album version. This is the side to Diana Ross that so many casual listeners still don’t know exists; her vocals could skyrocket with the best of them.
11. I Love You (Call Me): A shortened, “encore” version of the song she’d released a few months earlier on Everything Is Everything (and would win a Grammy-nomination for). Though there’s as much speaking as singing here, it’s nice to hear her do the song, since it didn’t stay in her live act for long and would never show up on a Diana Ross recording again. The few lines she does sing as just as soulful as the album version, and the piano line behind her is phenomenal.
Clearly there’s nothing on Diana! that would really appeal to a casual fan – the hits here can all be found on other albums, and the skits are dated and not particularly noteworthy. However, for a die-hard fan and collector of the Ross discography, this soundtrack does offer some minor treasures. Again, it’s always nice to hear some alternate vocals from Diana Ross, especially on lesser-known songs. This is also one of the few times Diana Ross and Michael Jackson would show up on record together (though their collaboration from The Wiz, “Ease On Down The Road,” would earn them a Grammy nomination several years later). And because (as of this writing) none of Diana’s television specials have been offically released on DVD, this album gives at least a basic understanding of her ease and charisma as a live performer. Thus, while Diana! isn’t a Diana Ross essential, it is strong snapshot of the singer during an essential part of her career.
Final Analysis: 3/5 (“Close”…But Not Perfect)
Choice Cuts: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “(They Long To Be) Close To You”
The original album was a Gatefold LP, which featured several pictures from the television special inside…