“Feel like I wanna shout, give the piano player a drink because he’s knockin’ me out!”
After showing off a new power/emotion in her soulful first three albums as a solo artist, Diana Ross made a complete transformation for this, the soundtrack to her first film. Much of the passion of her earliest solo work –“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Remember Me” for example – was likely due in part to her desire to create a new identity, one that didn’t include being the lead singer of the Supremes. However, once Lady Sings The Blues hit theatres in 1972, Diana Ross was done proving anything. The movie was a smash, and not just with audiences; Ross won a Golden Globe as “Most Promising Newcomer” and was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award and a BAFTA (British Academy Award). This double-LP soundtrack album, meanwhile, hit #1 on the album charts and won the Favorite Pop Album American Music Award.
Getting there, however, wasn’t so easy. As Diana writes in her memoir Secrets of a Sparrow, “When the announcement was made that I would be playing Billie Holiday, my mere acceptance of the role sparked a great deal of criticism….We hadn’t even started shooting and the press had already turned against me” (164). The divide between Billie Holiday – drug-addicted jazz singer – and Diana Ross seemed too great for people to fathom. This is especially true when it came to the music each woman sang. Billie Holiday’s was (and still is) one of the most instantly-recognizable voices in all of music, her unique and throaty vocals often conveying a deep sadness and pain. How could Diana Ross match that?
Miss Ross answered the question in her book: “During my nine months of research, I made some important decisions…one of them being that I would not try to sound like Billie….I would work to bring through my own sound. Strangely, since I listened to almost nothing else during that time, I took on the same phrasing she used, and in this way, I ended up sounding a lot like her after all” (166). This approach – mixing the essence of Holiday’s often understated, relaxed approach to music with her own sound – led to some of the finest work of Diana’s career, and what is one of the great collections of music from the decade. Even today — perhaps especially today, with so many contemporary singers released “standards” collections — the double-album soundtrack more than stands the test of time. So much of this success is also due to the musical direction of Gil Askey, whose wonderful arrangements (and team of top-notch musicians, some of whom apparently played with Billie Holiday) are classy and timeless.
Most of the first LP is filled with dialogue and song snippets from the movie. Though Diana’s vocals are featured on some of these – notably “Them There Eyes” and “The Man I Love” – they are overdubbed with applause and lines from the film. Some of the songs also come at points during the film where Billie Holiday is under the influence of drugs, and thus Diana Ross is not only singing, but “acting” her way through them. The second LP, however, features the studio recordings of several Billie Holiday songs, and is what I’ll discuss here.
1. Fine & Mellow: The studio recordings open, fittingly, with a song written by Billie Holiday herself, and recorded by her in the late 1930s. The loud, blaring horns of the introduction herald the arrival of a new, laid-back Diana Ross, who sings with a resigned swagger about the man who treats her “oh, so mean.” One of the bluesiest songs on the soundtrack, the arrangement here is also one of the most exciting instrumentals, featuring top-notch rhythm and horn work. It’s a relatively repetitive song, but Diana’s wise reading is perfect, especially when she reaches into her higher register to plead, “But if you treat me right, daddy…” The lyrical content here is much more mature than what Diana Ross had been recording thus far in her career (the song covers drinking, gambling, and, basically, lots of sex), and had she covered it while with the Supremes, it probably would have been a complete mess of cute affectations. Now, she has a perfect understanding of the song, and the tone she presents on the performance is one that sets the bar high for the rest of the album.
2. Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?): A gorgeous song with an absolutely beautiful instrumental track and arrangement by Gil Askey, this tune was apparently written for Billie Holiday in the early 40s, and relaxes the atmosphere after the much more brash “Fine & Mellow.” Diana’s smooth, almost fragile reading of the bridge does really recall Holiday’s sound, especially when hitting the higher notes required by the song. Her performance here is downright miraculous when compared with the singing she displayed on her solo work with Ashford & Simpson; she truly sounds like a different singer, and yet this song was probably recorded mere months after the soul/gospel tracks on Surrender.
3. You’ve Changed: Easily one of the strongest tunes on the soundtrack, this is a perfect example of how Diana Ross merged her own sound with that of Billie Holiday. Her performance here is frail and stark, matching the essence of much of Holiday’s later output (in particular her work on the LP Lady In Satin, on which she recorded this song) while still retaining the crisp Diana Ross tone. This is a masterful, haunting performance and one of the highlights of the soundtrack.
4. Gimme A Pigfoot (And A Bottle Of Beer): One of the few up-tempo, swinging songs on the soundtrack, it’s nice to hear a little joy in the music, especially after the dark “You’ve Changed.” Notable is the way she handles the lyrics; by staying completely honest to the feeling of the period, the song sounds authentic. It would have been easy for this song, with such dated lyrics, to almost sound like a parody, but Diana Ross easily sidesteps that trap by keeping the performance simple and light.
5. Good Morning Heartache: The only song released as a single, this has probably become the most well-known song from the soundtrack, and managed to make the Billboard Top 40. Diana does sound more like “herself” here than on songs like “You’ve Changed” and “Strange Fruit” – so it makes sense that Motown chose this one for a radio release. The vocal here is relaxed and mature, with Diana’s soprano as clear and clean as it would ever be on record. Often included on “Greatest Hits” compilations, the song easily stands beside hits like “Touch Me In The Morning” even though it was written decades earlier, thanks to a timeless track by some master jazz instrumentalists and pitch-perfect performance from Diana Ross.
6. All Of Me: One of the catchiest, most swinging songs on the soundtrack, this is the second time the song is featured (it’s also on the first LP in a shorter version, featured as part of the scene where Billie auditions in a club to be a singer). If “Good Morning Heartache” hadn’t been released as a single, I think this could have been, as Diana evokes not only traditional jazz singers, but also her expertise in delivering a good pop lyric. It was probably rejected as a single candidate because the arrangement is a little too “big band” and features a somewhat lengthy instrumental horn break.
7. Love Theme: Not a Diana Ross performance, this is Michel Legrand’s musical composition that punctuates many scenes in the film. It’s a beautiful tune, and would later get lyrics by Smokey Robinson and be released as a single by Michael Jackson as “Happy” (…how weird is it that Diana didn’t record and release it as a song?).
8. My Man (Mon Homme): One of the best performances on the album, and one of Diana’s most thrilling performances on record ever. She has done this song many times over the years (she even recorded it as part of the Supremes final show two years earlier), but there’s no substitute for her recorded version here. Diana’s voice sounds almost choked with emotion on the first 1:30 of the song, as she sadly sings about the love for a man who’s no good to her. Sometimes when she performs the song live, Diana overdoes this portion of the song, forcing it to be a little too dramatic; here, the simple, sad loneliness in her voice here is more than enough. Of course, after the first 1:30, the song eases up a notch, as the rhythm section kicks in, followed by the strings and horns, and culminates in a stunning final 45 seconds with Diana leading the way. Though unfairly compared with Barbra Streisand’s reading of the song in Funny Girl, the two are very different performances; while Streisand totally lets loose and belts out the final portion of the song, Diana Ross never really lets go completely. The tension that remains in her voice through the end provides a different reading to the song and meaning to the lyrics; Diana Ross sounds like someone struggling until the very end to maintain some sense of command, rather than totally giving in to love (which Streisand seems to be doing)…which makes this an extremely complex and interesting recording. One of Diana’s best.
9. Don’t Explain: Another song actually written by Billie Holiday, Diana’s smooth, understated performance is a great showcase for her skills as a singer. Listen to the way she carries notes down to the lower edges of her range, and smoothly pushes them up again; she truly sounds like a jazz siren here. She still performs this song in concert, and sounds just as a great in 2012 as she does here.
10. I Cried For You (Now It’s Your Turn To Cry Over Me): Another uptempo, swinging tune, this one again shows off the mastery of the jazz musicians recording the track. The rhythm section, piano, and horns are absolutely superb, and Miss Ross does a nice job swinging along, although I prefer her slightly-more joyful performance on the similarly-paced “All Of Me.”
11. Strange Fruit: Probably the most challenging song on the album, featuring a haunting lyric about the lynching of African-Americans in the south. The sad, disturbing words paint a vivid picture and the arrangement — featuring only a piano and Diana’s voice — is perfect. For her part, Diana Ross holds back the emotion, letting the lyrics speak for themselves; she keeps it simple and stark, which is the right choice. It’s a beautiful performance, but not an easy listen.
12. God Bless The Child: This is the vocal performance that closes not only this album, but also the film, and it’s a dazzling finish. This, like “My Man,” is one of the best efforts of Diana Ross’s entire career; her crystal-clear voice is irresistible, and gets the best possible treatment thanks to what I’d say is the best instrumental track on the entire soundtrack. If I had to choose one song off the soundtrack that best represents Diana’s work on it, this would be it; the way she incorporates Billie Holiday’s technique into her own is what makes the album as a whole so successful, and again, that it came so soon after the soul belting of Surrender is absolutely amazing. Diana Ross sounds completely mature and capable with the material here, in a way that I just don’t think most other popular singers would. This is a masterpiece.
13. Closing Theme: And Michel Legrand’s instrumental theme brings it home!
I truly believe that this album, coming right on the heels of the triumph of Surrender, is the definitive proof of why Diana Ross is in a class of her own as a vocalist. Again, I cannot think of a single contemporary pop/R&B star — or even many of Diana’s contemporaries in the 1960s/70s — who could have successfully recorded a masterpiece of soul, then immediately followed it with a jazz album capturing the flavor of one of the genre’s best-loved singers. The versatility is really incredible and what sets Diana Ross apart as a singer. There is an ease and effortlessness to the performances here that most people who record “standards” albums (Rod Stewart, I’m looking at you…) just don’t get. Diana Ross’s recordings of the Billie Holiday catalog here never feel like a novelty, they feel like a totally natural progression of her career as a singer.
Final Analysis: 5/5 (“Fine & Mellow” & Perfect)
Choice Cuts: “My Man (Mon Homme),” “God Bless The Child,” “You’ve Changed”
The nominees for Favorite Pop Album at the American Music Awards were:
Diana Ross, Lady Sings the Blues (Winner)
Seals & Crofts, Summer Breeze
War, The World Is A Ghetto