“Hey, ya’ll, here I am!”
There is no denying the importance of television when it comes to the career of Diana Ross; long before the days of music videos, appearances on television programs including “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show” allowed groups to essentially introduce themselves “in-person” to potential record-buyers. The Supremes, of course, became masters of the televised performance, pioneering the use of fashion, tasteful choreography, and song choice as a way to expand their audience; Miss Ross, in particular, used the visual elements to her advantage, finding a way to “pop” through the screen and draw attention to herself. In 1968, Motown joined together with Schlatter-Friendly Productions to create TCB, an hour-long special starring Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations, and the result was a blockbuster ratings success and a #1 soundtrack album. They quickly followed it up with a second special starring the two groups, entitled On Broadway.
When Diana Ross went solo in 1970, it made sense to immediately begin planning a television special to showcase her talents as a singer, actress, and comedienne; Billboard magazine carried a December announcement that Motown Productions would invest $15 million in entertainment projects, beginning with just such a special. The article noted that Diana! would also be Motown’s first major solo television project, produced without the help of Schlatter-Friendly of any other production company; clearly, then, there was pressure on the television special to succeed in a big way. To ensure a wide audience, Motown surrounded Miss Ross with popular guest stars including The Jackson 5 and sitcom star Danny Thomas; the special itself was recorded on December 5, 1970 (interestingly, that’s two weeks before the article announcing the special was even published), although it wouldn’t air until Sunday, April 18 on the ABC network.
The lag time between the recording and the eventual airing of the special helps explain the formation of the show’s setlist. Her first #1 hit, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” was included, of course, as was the Ashford & Simpson-penned “Remember Me,” which was released as a single December 8 and ended up becoming the singer’s third straight Top 20 hit. Two selections from the singer’s Everything Is Everything LP also made the cut. Notably, Diana Ross didn’t perform a single Supremes hit; clearly, the intent of the special was to establish the singer as a star in her own right, and thus to move her away from her legacy with the female trio. Unfortunately, Motown missed a major opportunity to promote Diana’s latest single, “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” (released ten days before the airing of Diana!) by including it in the special, but the song hadn’t even been recorded when the bulk of the special was taped.
The real highlights of Diana! were (and still are) the comedy sketches, particularly the famed sequence in which Miss Ross impersonated classic comedians like Harpo Marx and Charlie Chaplin; Reggie Goodwin raved about her skills in Jet magazine, writing, “In her first TV opus, Diana Ross mirrors camera motion so innovative and transitions so smooth and effective that one is drawn into the flow of magic.” And therein lies a key issue with the soundtrack album: Much of the special’s success depended on its visuals, something that can’t be captured on a record album. Instead, listeners are left with an energetic collection of songs, most of which are available on other albums in alternate versions. It’s not an essential album in the singer’s discography, but the special was an important step in establishing Diana Ross as a solo entity, and thus the album exists today as something of a historical record of this heady, exciting time in the singer’s career.
1. Intro: Although the special opened with a really cute introduction in which a glamorously-gowned Diana walks along a beach singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — only to “miss her mark” and end up standing in three feet of water — the album starts with this brief spoken introduction. A male announcer proclaims “Diana! Starring Diana Ross!” before running through the special’s guest stars; it’s a throwaway moment when listened to today, but it’s worth remembering that back in December of 1970, having Miss Ross introduced as the solo star of her own television special was a really big deal. Not only was this a milestone in Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr.’s dream to take Diana to the heights of superstardom, but it was also rare (and, let’s face it, still is) for an African-American female to gain this kind of primetime exposure.
2. Don’t Rain On My Parade: The album’s introduction immediately bursts into this energetic opener, a song with which audiences would have been extremely familiar in 1971. “Don’t Rain On My Parade” is one of the most memorable (and frequently covered) songs from the musical Funny Girl, which opened on Broadway in 1964 and became an Oscar-winning film in 1968; both starred Barbra Streisand, who had become something of an entertainment role model to Diana and Berry Gordy. Gordy, in fact, famously had Miss Ross record the Funny Girl score for the 1968 album Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl” in a failed attempt to steal the thunder of the upcoming film’s soundtrack album; though the Motown LP flopped, it did contain some of Diana’s finest work of the decade, featuring boisterous versions of the songs that were praised by composer Jule Styne. Miss Ross would keep “Don’t Rain On My Parade” in her stage show for awhile; she’d use it during a successful overseas tour of 1973 (while promoting Lady Sings The Blues) and it also opens her 1974 album Live At Caesar’s Palace. It’s easy to understand why the song stayed; it’s a dazzling, high-energy showcase for the singer, fitting her brassy voice in the same way that “The Lady Is A Tramp” (another song that remained in her stage show for many years) does. She really tears into it here, belting out the lyrics with impressive power and closing with a roof-lifting “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 really fun, especially since the little boy Kennedy she banters with is actually Berry Gordy’s son, and would grow up to become Rockwell, singer of the 1984 hit “Somebody’s Watching Me.” That song would feature background vocals by none other than Michael Jackson, who shows up next to perform a medley of hits with his brothers.
3. Medley (Mama’s Pearl/Walk On By/The Love You Save): At the time of taping, there was no hotter group in the country than The Jackson 5; the Motown youngsters had just scored four consecutive #1 hits with their first four singles, a feat that wouldn’t be equaled until 1990, when Mariah Carey’s first four singles also hit the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 (her fifth single also went to #1). The opening song in this medley was released as the group’s fifth single in January of 1971, and it ended up peaking at #2 on both the pop and R&B charts. “Mama’s Pearl” certainly isn’t one of the strongest Jackson 5 singles; it’s peppy and features another energetic lead vocal from Michael, but it feels too familiar and the lyric is nowhere near as memorable as those from the group’s previous hits. Still, the group blasts through the song with its trademark bounce and dynamic vocals, before transitioning into a quick instrumental snippet from “Walk On By,” the Burt Bacharach-Hal David classic which had just been turned into a funky hit by Isaac Hayes the previous year. Finally, the young men begin their third #1 hit, which had just topped the Billboard Hot 100 in late June/early July, “The Love You Save.” This is a standout performance, with 12-year-old Michael tearing into his vocal with an awe-inspiring soul and confidence. Interestingly, The Jackson 5 would perform a truncated version of this medley (“Mama’s Pearl” is lopped off and “Walk On By” gets more time) on their own television special, titled Goin’ Back To Indiana, which aired in September of 1971. That special was clearly modeled on the successful formula of Diana!, right down to having Miss Ross guest star.
4. (They Long To Be) Close To You: This is a gorgeous, dreamy performance of the song Diana Ross first covered on her Everything Is Everything album, released just a few months before this soundtrack album. Producer Deke Richards made the decision to have Diana record the number, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and turned into a hit by The Carpenters; it is a standout of the Everything Is Everything album thanks to the singer’s tasteful and sincere vocal performance. She basically replicates that performance on this version, although she puts some more muscle into her vocal during the final minute or so of running time; she sounds particularly strong following the climactic key change, as she sings the lines, “From the day that you were born/The angels got together…” Motown would place this cut as the b-side to Diana’s single “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” in a smart effort to promote the soundtrack album; that single peaked at #29 on the Billboard Hot 100, and topped out at #17 R&B. (NOTE: According to J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana Ross: A Biography, some radio disc jockeys did flip over the single and give “Close To You” airplay.)
5. Bill Cosby (Segment): A comedy sketch between Diana and the then-popular comedian 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 basically amounts to a giant beach-ball under her dress. Without the visuals, the jokes fall a flat, although Miss Ross plays with a refreshing lightness and a clear ease with the material.
6. Love Story: The previous skit continues into this Randy Newman song, which the composer recorded in a radically different interpretation for his 1968 debut album. It’s actually fascinating to listen to Newman’s version side-by-side with this one, to hear how many laughs Diana Ross and Bill Cosby mine from the material; the writer’s original version of the song is reserved and satirical, whereas the lyrics are turned into obvious punchlines within the context of the television special. Ross and Cosby play off of each other well, although listening to the song in 2017 is a much different experience than it would have been in 1971, for obvious reasons concerning the male comedian. Purely as a track on this soundtrack album, “Love Story” is slightly more successful than the preceding sketch, although it suffers from the same problem of lacking important visual cues.
7. Remember Me: Written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, this song was released as Diana’s third solo single on December 8, 1970; because the duo had delivered the #1 hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” they were given priority on producing a new Ross single over Deke Richards, who had already cut the singer’s second album. The song peaked around Valentine’s Day, topping out at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #10 on the R&B side; ads had promoted the fact that “Remember Me” would be performed on Diana!, but the song was already off the charts by the time the special finally aired in April. It’s unfortunate that the timing worked out that way; had “Remember Me” been released a little later, to better coincide with the special, it almost certainly would have been a bigger hit. That said, the song remains a favorite and is certainly considered a Diana Ross classic, although the singer has only intermittently kept it as part of her live act. Viewers of the 1971 television special will note that Diana Ross merely lip-synced to the “Remember Me” recording; strangely, the soundtrack album features an alternate vocal performance, one that wouldn’t surface again until it was included on the 2008 reissue of Surrender. This inclusion of an alternate studio vocal (with overdubbed applause) is a treat; although it doesn’t differ radically from the hit single version, it does boast some moments of nice vocal power from Diana and shows how willing she was to push herself into the studio under the direction of Ashford & Simpson. “Remember Me” is a song that requires a complex range of emotions of its vocalist; there is resignation, longing, wistfulness, and even some bitterness embedded in the lyrics, and Diana Ross nail every one during this alternate take.
8. Medley (I’ll Be There/Feelin’ Alright): The Jackson 5 make a return to Diana! to perform a mash-up of their biggest hit single with a brief, rousing version of a song made popular by Joe Cocker in 1969. “I’ll Be There” was released as the group’s fourth single in August of 1970 and in October, it became their fourth #1 hit in a row, topping the Billboard Hot 100 for five consecutive weeks (incidentally, it knocked Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie” from the top spot…the song which had de-throned Diana’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” from #1). “I’ll Be There” was a welcome change of pace for The Jackson 5, a sweet ballad that sounded more mature than the previous three “bubblegum” pop songs, while also retaining the group’s youth appeal. They deliver a nice version here, with young Michael Jackson again offering up a spirited, pitch-perfect vocal performance and Jermaine Jackson solidly supporting his little brother. Next up, the young men tackle “Feelin’ Alright,” a song first recorded by the group Traffic and then covered by Cocker for his debut LP in 1969; during this performance, Michael calls on Diana Ross to come join them, and she wails a few lines, her voice and Michael’s sounding eerily alike. 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. “Feelin’ Alight” was released in April as a promo single to radio stations, backed by the earlier “Love Story,” and both cuts would later be included on The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 11A: 1971.
9. Danny Thomas (Segment): Diana Ross next 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. After taping this segment in December, Miss Ross repaid the favor by appearing in a guest spot on “Make Room For Granddaddy,” which aired on February 4, 1971 and featured Ross playing singer “Diana Hendrix” and performing the popular song “For Once In My Life.” Of the two skits featured on the Diana! soundtrack album, this one is the more successful, due mainly to the fact that it doesn’t rely on sight gags for the jokes to land. Ross and Thomas also share a nice rapport, and Diana sounds totally at ease with the light comedy material, further proving her natural talent as a performer and actress.
10. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: One of the highlights of both the Diana! television special and the accompanying soundtrack album is hearing Miss Ross deliver her signature song, which had topped the pop and R&B charts only a few months before the special was taped. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was the final song recorded for Diana’s debut album, 1970’s Diana Ross, and when it was released as the second single, became a smash and confirmed her decision to leave The Supremes and go solo. The original album version, written and produced by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, ran more than six minutes in length, building slowly through a series of spoken passages until the explosion of a fiery, gospel-ish climax; when the song was released as single, it was truncated down to about three-and-a-half minutes. In future shows, Diana Ross would generally perform this shorter version of the song, omitting much of the spoken material, and so it’s a thrill to hear her sing the entire thing here. This is certainly no substitute for the original recorded version, but the band and background singers here do an admirable job of supporting Miss Ross and creating a dramatic atmosphere; Diana also rises to the occasion, really throwing herself into the ad-libs at the end of the song rather than coasting on the energy of the accompaniment. Although this version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” works perfectly well as an album cut, it’s absolutely worth finding a video of Miss Ross performing it on Diana! — her moves during the climax prove that, perhaps, Diana Ross is the original “headbanger.”
11. I Love You (Call Me): A shortened, “encore” version of the Aretha Franklin song that Diana had recorded and released a few months earlier on Everything Is Everything, and for which she would eventually earn a Grammy-nomination. 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 too long and would never show up on an “official” 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.
Diana! Original TV Soundtrack (Motown 719) was released on March 29, 1971, three weeks ahead of the premiere of the television program (according to Motown, due to “advance word-of-mouth interest”); it peaked at #46 on the Billboard 200, and climbed all the way to #3 on the R&B Albums chart. But far more important than the success of the album was the success of the special; by all accounts, it garnered strong ratings and it helped establish Miss Ross as a well-rounded entertainer to be reckoned with. It’s long been said that director Sidney J. Furie was convinced Ross was capable of playing jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Sings The Blues in the wake of seeing her perform the comedy sketches in this special; in fact, Diana’s deal to star in the major motion picture was actually announced in Billboard prior to the airing of Diana! (in a brief item dated April 3, 1971), so it’s likely Furie saw a preview of the special.
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 now, YouTube is really the only way to view Diana’s television specials of the 1970s, 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: 2.5/5 (Nonessential Album, But A Special To “Remember”)
Paul’s Picks: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “(They Long To Be) Close To You,” “Remember Me”