“First I had you, in the palm of my hand, but I let you slip through, like grains of sand…”
Just a few months after the release of her smash album Touch Me In The Morning, Diana Ross was back on record store shelves, this time as part of a duo. Diana & Marvin teamed her with Marvin Gaye, who was on a similar winning streak with his back-to-back classic albums What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On. Both were Motown royalty. Both had been with the company since the early 1960s. Both had scored previous hits with collaborations, and both had enjoyed major success with singer/songwriters/producers Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson.
Unfortunately, in 1973, both were also moving in completely opposite artistic directions. Much of Marvin Gaye’s early career had been built around the idea of him as heir to the Nat King Cole throne. Marvin had been known as a “smooth” singer, his gorgeous voice tailor-made for pop standards. As the 60s progressed, however, Gaye’s music became darker and more soulful, culminating in sizzling classics like “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” and What’s Going On. Diana, on the other hand, had come out of the gate as a solo star with soulful albums like Diana Ross and Surrender, featuring complex grooves and emotional singing. But with 1972’s Lady Sings The Blues, she’d begun incorporating jazz and pop techniques into her vocals, which quickly became more controlled and low-key.
Thus, both had experienced similar music phases in their careers, but at completely different times. Had the Marvin Gaye of 1960 and the Diana Ross of 1973 recorded an album together, it could have been a smooth, classy mix of jazz and pop standards. Had the Marvin Gaye of 1973 and the Diana Ross of 1970 recorded an album together, it could have been a fiery soul classic. However, Diana & Marvin features both artists firmly set in their own 1973 styles, which makes for an interesting but very unsatisfying album. Making matters worse, the two stars apparently had a falling out early in the recording process, and ended up singing their parts separately (according to many written accounts, the rift had to do with pregnant Diana not wanting to be in a studio with Marvin, who insisted on smoking pot while recording). Though there’s a convincing chemistry on a few tracks, it’s definitely lacking on others. Therefore, while it’s easy to wish this album had been a blockbuster for the artists, the moderate success (two singles in the Top 20, but neither even close to #1) seems deserved.
1. You Are Everything: Diana & Marvin opens, smartly, with one of the strongest songs of the entire LP. The classic Stylistics track – a hit for the group just a few years earlier – is given a slow-burning, soulful treatment here, featuring some of the sultriest vocals Diana will turn in on the project. Her first few lines in particular – “Today I saw somebody, who looked just like you…” – evoke the Diana Ross of Everything Is Everything and Surrender; that is to say, the breathy and sexy songstress who had by now transformed into a jazz/pop queen. Marvin also sounds fantastic on the track; his vocals are more controlled, especially on the familiar chorus, than on many other offerings here. More than anything, the song lends itself to being a duet nicely, and the two vocals (whether they were recorded together or separately) blend beautifully, as they should on a true duet. The instrumental track is a nice mix of Motown musicality and Philly soul, blending the two styles with a beautifully shuffling percussion line. This song was a big hit in the UK – hitting the Top 5 – but never released in the US, likely because it had already been a hit for another group (and another record company) in the states. This is too bad, because it would have been an extremely strong single and sounds like it could have become something of a classic for both Diana and Marvin. Certainly it would have sounded better on current compilations by both artists than the three songs that were actually chosen as singles. This is, I think, the strongest vocal from Diana Ross of the entire LP.
2. Love Twins: A bizarre, dated song that nonetheless is quite enjoyable and one of the more listenable songs on the album. The lyrics are straight-up psychedelic 70s, with lines like “Let’s be as one, darlin’, like the sign of the Gemini,” laughably sung with conviction by both artists. Both Marvin and Diana, as with the previous track, at least sound somewhat invested in the song, but neither overdo it; Marvin’s falsetto impressively matches Diana’s soprano and the two sing much of the tune in unison. Though the pseudo-funky (and very 70s-sounding) track certainly isn’t what Diana was doing best at the time, her voice doesn’t sound bad here; there are some nice, breathy deliveries, especially when she whispers, “I love you, too, Marvin.” There’s also some fun vocal interplay here that hint at what might have been…had circumstances provided better timing and material for a duet album.
3. Don’t Knock My Love: This is far from being a highlight of the LP, which is why it’s so surprising that Motown execs chose to release it as a single (though it didn’t even make the Top 40). The real killer here is the instrumental track; there have been some good arrangements of this Wilson Pickett song over the years, but this Vegas-y, overblown, brassy version isn’t one of them. Marvin Gaye belts and growls his way through the first verse, sounding energetic and into the song, and helps make the arrangement a little more palatable; unfortunately, Diana Ross joins in during the second verse and doesn’t come off nearly as well. Perhaps some of her performance problems were out of her control; in J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana Ross: A Biography, producer Hal Davis is quoted as saying, “Because she was expecting and, also, because she was sitting down, she was having trouble singing and breathing correctly” (273). This was also, apparently, the session during which Diana walked out due to Marvin’s insistence on smoking marijuana. No matter what was going on behind the scenes, though, Diana does sound extremely weak when compared to Marvin. There’s a distinct lack of passion, especially during the verse she sings solo, and it makes one long for the kind of raw vocal energy she displayed on early songs like “Remember Me” and “I Can’t Give Back The Love (I Feel For You)” from Surrender.
4. You’re A Special Part Of Me: This was the first single released from Diana & Marvin, and it was a decent-sized hit, making the Pop Top 20 and even the top 5 on the R&B charts. Produced by Berry Gordy, Jr. (Mr. Motown himself!), the song is a pretty good, low-key showcase for the two singers, but suffers from the lack of a strong hook and memorable lyric. The instrumental and vocal performances are actually similar to “You Are Everything,” but that song is a far superior composition – it is so much more memorable that including both songs on the album almost kills this one. Both Marvin and Diana do sound reasonably relaxed on the song, and neither particularly outshines the other; their ad-libs at the end work quite well together. This is far from being a classic for either artist, but it wasn’t the worst choice for a single, and at least they both sound good and well-matched…
5. Pledging My Love: …unlike this disaster of a song. Okay, maybe “disaster” is a bit harsh, but this popular vintage ballad is easily the weakest song on the album. A big part of the problem, I think, is that it’s cut in a key so high that neither of singers sounds particularly good. Diana, on her solo verse, is reaching so far that her voice sounds thin and sometimes shrill; Marvin, meanwhile, sounds awkward in the use of his falsetto at about two minutes in, when singing “I’ll never part from you”…and this is from one of the great male falsetto singers! He’s also seemingly trying to outsing his partner, displaying absolutely no regard for the fact that he’s not on the record alone. Aside from the issue of the high key, the track is extremely over-dramatic; there’s a heaviness to the instrumental and backing vocals here that almost feels stifling, especially when compared to the enjoyably light and lilting tone of songs like “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart).” There were better songs left in the vaults, and it’s a shame that they were left off in favor of this, one of the least enjoyable performances of the period from either singer.
6. Just Say, Just Say: This is the only track on the album written and produced by Ashford and Simpson, who were the masters of the Marvin Gaye duet and the team that had pushed Diana Ross to new heights as a vocalist over the past few years. Therefore, this would seem a match made in heaven – if anyone could produce a classic on Marvin and Diana, it would be them, right? Well, unfortunately, in this case the answer is no. “Just Say, Just Say” is a pretty ballad with some interesting guitar work both on the intro and during a vocal break, but it’s just not a very strong or memorable song overall. Ashford and Simpson had provided Diana with dynamite tunes on the two albums they’d done with her – tracks like “And If You See Him” (originally worked on with Marvin in mind) and “Dark Side Of The World” (also recorded but unreleased by him) would have made great duets for the duo. Again – timing probably has something to do with the lack of success here; this is reportedly the last song by Ashford and Simpson done while they were under contract to Motown, and soon they would leave for Warner Bros. records. Chances are the songwriting/producing team just weren’t into the work they were doing at Motown – and coupled with two artists who clearly weren’t that into this project, the results aren’t really terrible…just bland.
7. Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart): This is the highlight of the entire album, a beautifully produced and sung piece of 70s soul. Like “You Are Everything,” this was also a hit for the Stylistics in the early 70s, and as a composition it is so far superior to the originals on this LP that it really sounds like it should have been on a totally different album. The instrumental track is lush and gorgeous; it appropriates the sound of Philly soul while avoiding the trap of becoming a campy copy. Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross both offer expert vocal performances; they match each other perfectly, both singing with the comfort of seasoned pros. Diana, in particular, sounds sexy and confident on her solo verse, using a lower register that comes as a relief after the high, thin vocals of songs like “Pledging My Love” and “Don’t Knock My Love.” Never once does Marvin sound like he’s trying to outshine his female counterpart, either, which makes this a far more balanced duet than several other songs on the collection. This was a decent-sized hit in the UK when released in the 70s, and found a new audience when it was included on the soundtrack to the 2001 film Bridget Jones’s Diary. The “new life” for this song is completely deserved, as it really is the best work the two would record together. It’s a shame it wasn’t chosen as a single in the states, as it — along with “You Are Everything” — could have been a big, lasting hit for the duo.
8. I’m Falling In Love With You: In terms of the original compositions on Diana & Marvin, this is by far the best-written; it comes only after the two Stylistics covers in terms of quality here. As with the previous song, both singers sound relaxed and well-matched on this soul ballad; Diana sounds more confident than on some earlier tracks, and Marvin isn’t quite as out-of-control here. In a battle of the original songs here, “I’m Falling In Love With You” is far superior to “You’re A Special Part Of Me” — it’s odd that the latter was chosen as the first single, when this is a catchier, better-produced song. There’s a quality to the lyrics (“You sting like a bee, but you’re sweet as honey…”) that recalls Motown hits of the 60s, and provides some nice nostalgia while listening to the singers.
9. My Mistake: This was the album’s second single and a moderate hit; it still turns up on compilations and is probably the best known tune on the LP. This is unfortunate, because while it’s a pretty catchy song, it doesn’t show Diana Ross in a very good light at all. While Marvin Gaye is a good match for the uptempo, energetic track, Diana Ross just don’t sound into the song at all; there’s a laziness to her vocal performance, and she actually sounds a little flat (for example, in her ad-libs at 1:42 in). The kind of raw energy of her vocals on Surrender are what she needed to carry the song, and it doesn’t happen. This is probably one of her worst efforts on the album (though better than “Pledging My Love” and “Don’t Knock My Love”), which is why it’s so strange that it was released as a single. Obviously Diana Ross didn’t need to prove herself as a singer to anyone at this point; still, you’d think Motown would have wanted to show her off in a better light than this.
10. Include Me In You Life: Another low point of the album, this song is a sad final impression to leave listeners with; it’s a weak, odd song that features another set of lethargic vocals from Diana Ross, as well as Marvin Gaye in this case. The vocals actually sound like “scratch” vocals — in other words, a practice run to use as a guide for later. Both singers actually seem to go off-tune during sections of the song, and there’s some pretty lame speaking from each one. But even with better performances from Ross and Gaye, the song would still be a hard sell; the repetitive “Darlin’…darlin’…darlin’…darlin’…darlin’…” is a pretty irritating hook. This song is pretty representative of the problems with this project as a whole: sub-par material and a lack of enthusiasm from the two singers involved.
Note: For information on bonus tracks from this album, click HERE.
This is an album that’s at once frustrating and also kind of hard-to-dislike. The trio of best tracks — “You Are Everything,” “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart),” and “I’m Falling In Love With You” — are incredibly satisfying and showcase both artists well. But the worst songs — “Pledging My Love,” “Include Me In Your Life,” and “Don’t Knock My Love” — are probably among the worst either singer released in the entire decade. Though there was obviously behind-the-scenes drama (and that drama can be heard in the finished product), the lack of great material is, in the end, the biggest problem with Diana & Marvin. Gaye himself was writing some of the best soul songs ever during this period — and had even provided Diana with the stellar “Baby It’s Love” on Everything Is Everything — and it’s a shame he didn’t submit any originals here. And had Ashford and Simpson not been on the brink of leaving the company, perhaps they could have handled the entire LP, which could have resulted in a soul classic. Instead, listeners are left with a lot of “what ifs…” and “could have beens…” — and while Diana & Marvin is still listenable, it’s way too uneven to be considered a truly memorable project.
Final Analysis: 3/5 (Not Quite “Special” Enough)
Choice Cuts: “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart),” “You Are Everything,” “I’m Falling In Love With You”