“First I had you in the palm of my hand, but I let you slip through like grains of sand…”
“Are Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye recording an album together with Valerie Simpson and Nick Ashford producing?????” This tantalizing question asked in the September 2, 1972 issue of Billboard was the first clue that two of Motown’s top stars would be teaming up for a joint project; it would be a full year before music fans would get a definitive answer, with the release of the pair’s first joint single. Certainly a Ross-Gaye collaboration made perfect sense, especially under the direction of Ashford & Simpson; the producers were responsible for Gaye’s legendary duets with Tammi Terrell before moving on to produce Diana’s solo debut, 1970’s Diana Ross, and both Ross and Gaye had scored a major success with the same Ashford & Simpson song, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Both singers were also at the peak of their powers in late 1972; Mr. Gaye had released the landmark LP What’s Going On a year earlier, while Miss Ross was about to achieve unprecedented success with the release of her first film, Lady Sings The Blues, and it’s accompanying soundtrack album.
Gaye, by all accounts, wasn’t particularly motivated to record the album given the fact that he wouldn’t have creative control over the project. He’s quoted in Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye by David Ritz as saying, “At first I refused. After Tammi, I promised there’s be no more duets. But the notion intrigued me…with the success of What’s Going On, Berry [Gordy, Jr.] saw this as an opportunity for me to help Diana. The prince was in a little stronger position than the princess.” This might have been true during the earliest sessions, but by the time Lady Sings The Blues was released and the soundtrack album climbed to #1 on the Billboard 200, it was Ross who was back in the stronger position, commercially speaking. In any case, the pair recorded two songs with Ashford & Simpson (“Just Say, Just Say” and “I’ve Come To Love You So Much”) before the project suffered its first major blow; the producers chose to leave Motown for a deal with Warner Bros., releasing their own LP Gimme Something Real in 1973.
With Ashford & Simpson gone, producer Hal Davis ended up helming most of the album, eventually titled Diana & Marvin (Motown 803) and released in October of 1973. Recording sessions were strained from the beginning, with Marvin Gaye reportedly smoking marijuana in the studio, much to a pregnant Diana’s chagrin. Eventually, the two would end up cutting their vocals separately, a practice not uncommon but, in this case, often resulting in a clear lack of chemistry between the two singers. Executive Producer Berry Gordy, Jr. put together an assortment of ten tracks that fall mainly in the laid-back pop/R&B vein, a sort-of middle ground between the introspective soul pioneered by Marvin and the sophisticated balladry identified with Miss Ross. Gordy himself produced the album’s first single, “You’re A Special Part Of Me,” which released in September of 1973, hot on the heels of Diana’s #1 hit “Touch Me In The Morning” and Marvin’s chart-topping “Let’s Get It On.” Billboard raved of the new single, “Let’s have more from the pair, lots more” (September 22, 1973).
But Diana & Marvin is nowhere near the classic album many expected and wanted it to be. 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 then-current styles, which makes for a sometimes-interesting but ultimately unsatisfying album. David Ritz writes in Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, “The problem…was that Gaye sang against Diana rather than with her. There was nothing of the effortless romantic rapport he shared with Tammi, Mary [Wells], or Kim [Weston].” It’s true; Gaye seems to be working hard to ousting his partner, while Ross sounds unengaged and uninterested on half of the album. Despite a few strong cuts, it’s clearly not a match made in heaven, and ends up sounding more like a wasted opportunity than anything else.
1. You Are Everything: Released as a single in the U.K., this song gave Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye a major hit there; it peaked at #5 on the singles chart, amazingly besting both “Touch Me In The Morning” (#9) and “Let’s Get It On” (#31). “You Are Everything” was first recorded by The Stylistics, who took it to the Top 10 on the pop and R&B charts in the United States in 1971; it’s given a slow-burning, soulful treatment here, featuring some of the sultriest vocals Diana will turn in on the project. The instrumental track, arranged by Dave Blumberg for producer Hal Davis, is a nice mix of angular Motown musicality and lush Philly soul, smoothly blurring the lines between the two styles atop a beautifully shuffling percussion line. Diana Ross sets the bar for herself high here; her first few lines (“Today I saw somebody/Who looked just like you”) evoke the young woman who burst through the speakers on Diana Ross and Surrender, the breathy and sexy soul songstress who had yet to transform into a restrained pop queen. Marvin also sounds gorgeous on the track; his throaty vocals are controlled and considerate of his partner, certainly moreso than on most of the later offerings. When then two artists sing in harmony, it reveals a really nice contrast in their tones; Diana’s high, piercing voice provides a perfect counterpoint to Marvin’s rough, gravely performance. The real key to success, though, is that “You Are Everything” is simply a superb song; written by Philly soul architects Thom Bell and Linda Creed, it’s a passionate, melodic tune with instantly memorable lyrics, and is perhaps the single best composition on the album. It’s unfortunate that Motown chose not to give “You Are Everything” are chance on the stateside charts; it’s a far better showing for both Ross and Gaye than any of the singles that were released, and likely would have done much better than them, too.
2. Love Twins: This tune was penned by Motown stalwart Marilyn McLeod (“Love Hangover”) and Mel Bolton, and — against all odds — emerges as one of the album’s best, thanks to a superb meshing of voices which results in a convincing chemistry between Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye. The song itself isn’t exactly an undiscovered classic, saddled with clunky and dated lyrics including, “Let’s be as one, darlin’/Like the sign of the Gemini,” but the instrumental track is undeniably superb; set to a mellow groove with calypso-inspired guitars atop a lovely bed of strings, there’s a fullness and lushness to the sound here that masks some of the problems with the lyrics. Clearly inspired by the great track, Ross and Gaye offer up relaxed and soulful performances; the two sing much of the tune in unison, something that works surprisingly well thanks to the balance of Marvin’s brassy falsetto and Diana’s silky soprano. Mr. Gaye gets a chance to do some soulful ad-libbing, especially during the song’s funky final fade, and Diana gets to show off that iconic speaking voice when she purrs “I love you, too, Marvin” so convincingly you’d never believe there was tension between the two. In fact, it seemed to convince Marvin, too; in Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, David Ritz quotes the male singer as saying, “In spite of everything, she loves me. Listen to ‘Love Twins.’ She actually says the words, ‘I love you, Marvin.’ That’s proof, isn’t it?” Whether Diana was sincere in her sentiment or just displaying her gifts as an Academy Award-nominated actress, it is a terrific little addition to the song, spicing it up in a way that’s subtle but effective. Although the song was never issued as a single, Marvin Gaye did end up including it during some live shows; recordings of the singer performing the song are available today. If Motown really wanted to release something soulful and funky on the pair, this song would have been a better choice than the inferior “My Mistake (Was To Love You)” or “Don’t Knock My Love.”
3. Don’t Knock My Love: Considering either of the album’s previous two tracks were solid enough to get a single release, it’s a mystery as to why Motown chose to push this one. Released as the album’s third single on June 18, 1974, “Don’t Knock My Love” deservedly struggled on the charts, stalling outside the Top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 (peaking at #46) and topping out at a disappointing #25 on the R&B chart. The tune was written by Wilson Pickett and Brad Shapiro and first recorded by Pickett, who took it to #1 on the R&B chart in 1971; producer Hal Davis keeps the same basic arrangement for Diana and Marvin here. The track is fast and energetic, foreshadowing the coming wave of disco in a way; when Mr. Gaye jumps in on the first verse, he perfectly matches the tone set by the musicians, tearing into the melody with no discernible effort. The problems really set in when Diana enters at the second verse; there is a sudden drop in the energy level, with the singer seemingly struggling to keep up. It’s not that Ross sounds bad, but she displays little enthusiasm, her voice settling into the lower end of her range and sorely missing the character that made her a star in the first place. 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 of this session, “Because she was expecting and, also, because she was sitting down, she was having trouble singing and breathing correctly. The smoke from [Gaye’s] marijuana wasn’t helping. But Marvin just told her, ‘I’m sorry, baby, but I gotta have my dope or I can’t sing'” (273). Whatever was happening behind the scenes, the end result is a song that lacks any semblance of chemistry or fire between the two singers; Marvin comes off much better than Diana in the end, but even his performance is far from his best on the album. Not only should this recording never have been released as a single, it probably should have been left off the album.
4. You’re A Special Part Of Me: In its September 22, 1973 issue, Billboard raved of this song, “Could two artists whose last singles have both been no. one chart records create a stiff by teaming up for a duet? The answer is NO! This Ross-Gaye duet revives the early Motown sound with great energy and verve.” Although “My Mistake (Was To Love You)” was apparently scheduled to be the first single from Diana & Marvin, this song ended up preceding it, released to the public just ahead of the album itself. Perhaps a reason this song got the coveted “first single” slot is that Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. produced it himself; although Gordy is credited as the album’s Executive Producer, this is the only cut on which he’s specifically listed as producer. It ended up charting fairly well for the singers, although it was nowhere near the hit many likely predicted; “You’re A Special Part Of Me” peaked at #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #4 on the R&B chart. Considered today, these chart statistics seem deserved; the song is solid and a decent showcase for both singers, but it certainly doesn’t sound like a #1 hit. The song (written by Greg Wright, Harold Johnson, and Andrew Porter) suffers from the lack of a strong hook and memorable lyric; compared to something like “You Are Everything,” this tune is far less-focused. That said, Diana and Marvin offer up appealingly relaxed performances; neither particularly outshines the other, although if a choice must be made, Marvin Gaye sounds more invested in the material and delivers some gorgeous ad-libs, while Miss Ross pays it a little safer. The production is a little overblown, bordering on bombastic at times, but because the song itself is a bit thin, the arrangement works, lending the song more gravitas than it would have otherwise. In the end, although it’s not a truly great track, “You’re A Special Part Of Me” is one of the stronger cuts on the album; in terms of the original compositions here, it’s hard to fault Motown for choosing this one to release as a promotional single.
5. Pledging My Love: This is an ultimately unnecessary cover of the classic ballad, written by Ferdinand Washington and Don Robey and first made a hit by Johnny Ace in the mid-1950s. The most notable aspect of this duet version is the fact that it was produced by Bob Gaudio, known best as a member of The Four Seasons and later immortalized in the Broadway smash Jersey Boys; Gaudio and The Four Seasons came to Motown in the early 1970s and released a 1972 album (Chameleon) along with several singles, though none met with success. Gaudio would write and produce some sterling cuts for Diana Ross which would prove highlights of her next studio LP, Last Time I Saw Him, but this duet doesn’t even come close to equalling the quality of those tunes; with a laborious arrangement that’s cut much too high for Miss Ross, “Pledging My Love” emerges as her weakest moment on Diana & Marvin. Mr. Gaye leads off the duet, and his vocal is solid (if not a bit overwrought); that said, as the song progresses, the male singer moves up, down, and all around his partner’s voice with seemingly no regard for the fact that he’s not on the record alone. For her part, Diana strains so high that her voice sounds thin and sometimes shrill; she doesn’t seem to be supporting her voice with breath, and the resulting sound is small and unimpressive. Aside from the issue of the high key, the track is admittedly 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 the best few songs on the album. 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 sole track on Diana & Marvin written and produced by the team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson; the producers had crafted a clutch of classic duets for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell and launched Diana Ross to new heights as a solo vocalist, and thus would seem the perfect team to handle the pairing of Ross & Gaye as a duo. Unfortunately, after working on this and one other track (“I’ve Come To Love You So Much”), Ashford & Simpson bolted from Motown for a deal with Warner Bros., leaving this rather bland track as the only glimpse of what might have been. Unfortunately, “Just Say, Just Say” sounds more like a “practice” track for the talented foursome; it certainly doesn’t fulfill the promise the partnership held, due mainly to the fact that the song just isn’t that memorable. “Just Say, Just Say” is very a pretty ballad with some interesting guitar work both on the intro and during an instrumental break, but the bulk of the song is so low-key that it lacks a necessary passion; it softly sways back and forth like a rocking hammock, a good thing save for the fact that a rocking hammock is likely to put you to sleep pretty fast. Even the gentlest of ballads produced by Ashford & Simpson (think of the dynamite “I’m Glad About It” on the Supremes-Four Tops LP The Return Of The Magnificent Seven) produced sparks, something that just never quite happens here. Both Marvin and Diana sound good; they provide laid-back vocals which nicely match the tone set by the musicians. Again, timing probably has something to do with the lack of fire here; considering Ashford & Simpson were at the end of their Motown rope at this point, chances are the songwriting/producing team’s attention was focused elsewhere, which coupled with two artists who clearly weren’t that into this project, resulted in a competent but bland recording. (NOTE: This song would eventually be placed as the b-side to the “Don’t Knock My Love” single, released in June of 1974.)
7. Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart): This is the album’s second Stylistics cover, and like “You Are Everything,” was written by Thom Bell and Linda Creed and included on the group’s 1971 debut album. It was a modest hit for The Stylistics, peaking just inside the pop Top 40 (#39 on the Billboard Hot 100) and making it all the way to #6 on the R&B listing. Hal Davis returns to the producer’s seat for this recording, and crafts another lush, gorgeous instrumental which appropriates just enough of the Philly soul sound to suit the song but avoids falling into the trap of becoming a campy copy. The vibe here is totally laid-back, as gentle and relaxing as “Just Say, Just Say” but besting that track by weaving in a warmth and passion missing from the earlier inclusion. The instrumental is a perfect setting for Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross to do their best work of the entire album; this is a rare case of the two singers really working together (even if they weren’t physically together in the studio), complementing each other while also showing off the unique textures in their own voices. 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. In another head-scratching move by Motown, this song was passed over for single released in the United States (in favor of three inferior recordings), but was serviced overseas; it was a decent hit in the U.K., topping out at #25 on the singles chart there, and did well in other markets, including hitting #1 in Brazil. Decades later, the song got something of a second life when it was included on the soundtrack to the hit 2001 film Bridget Jones’s Diary and featured in a very memorable love scene during the movie; in its review of the soundtrack, Billboard would comment, “Factor in vintage tracks by Chaka Khan and Diana Ross with Marvin Gaye, and the listener winds up with a soundtrack that begs for widespread attention” (April 21, 2001). This renewed interest in the track was completely deserved, as “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)” is easily the best recording featured on Diana & Marvin, and among the best duets every recorded by either singer; it’s one of the few indications of just what a potent combination the pairing could have been given a different set of circumstances.
8. I’m Falling In Love With You: This was the original b-side for Diana & Marvin‘s first single, “You’re A Special Part Of Me,” released a few weeks before the album; interestingly, the song got a mention in the October 20, 1973 issue of Billboard under the “Jukebox Programming” section, indicating that perhaps “I’m Falling In Love With You” got some play on its own. It makes sense, as this song is stronger in every way than its flipside; in terms of the original compositions on Diana & Marvin, this one is the best and is certainly a better duet than any of the singles which ultimately made the charts in the United States. “I’m Falling In Love With You” is a gentle, slow-burning ballad written by Margaret Gordy, a girlfriend of Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr.’s and a woman who’d already penned a few songs for Diana Ross; she wrote the brilliant and bluesy “The Beginning Of The End,” included on the final Supremes studio LP (1969’s Cream Of The Crop), and the bouncy title track to Diana’s second solo record, Everything Is Everything. As with the album’s previous track, a big key to the success here is the fact that Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye give relaxed, complementary performances; both seem fully invested in the lyrics, and their velvety vocals perfectly carry the song’s dreamy message. For her part, Miss Ross sounds more confident than she does on several of the album’s other tracks, and she even strays from the melody a little bit here, offering up a few pleasant ad-libs; Marvin counters with a nicely modulated vocal, respecting his partner and resisting any temptation to get unwieldy with his singing. It helps that Margaret Gordy gives the duo some great lyrics to deliver; lines like “You sting like a bee, but you’re sweet as honey” recall the very best of the Motown poetry of the 1960s, something both Ross and Gaye were pros at interpreting. Aside from the two Stylistics covers, this track is the best Diana & Marvin has to offer, again hinting at the much better project that might have been.
9. My Mistake (Was To Love You): This song was scheduled to be the album’s first single, but was eventually released as the second; hitting store shelves in January of 1974 (just weeks after the release of Diana’s solo single “Last Time I Saw Him”), the duet climbed into the Top 20 of both the pop and R&B listings, peaking at #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #15 on the R&B chart. Interestingly, although it charted lower than first single “You’re A Special Part Of Me,” this song tends to get more attention today; more often than not, this is the one that will show up on compilations. The simple reason is likely that this is an uptempo recording and features a more memorable hook; written by Gloria Jones and Pamela Sawyer, the bouncy number is undeniably catchy and could have made for a superb recording for Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye. Unfortunately, the execution isn’t quite up to par, with several elements working against the song. First among those is the harmonica-heavy production by Hal Davis; there’s a sharpness to the track that’s abrasive and robs the song of any warmth that could be generated by the two singers. That said, Miss Ross also again offers up an underwhelming vocal, coming in flat on some notes and sounding tired overall; the contrast between her detached delivery and Marvin’s energetic (sometimes over-the-top) performance is audible oil and water. It’s strange that Motown would push such a lackluster effort from Diana Ross as a single; the singer certainly didn’t have anything left to prove as a vocalist at this point, but you’d think Berry Gordy, Jr., etc. would have wanted to show her off in a better light than this. In any case, the label further hurt any chances at major success by releasing “My Mistake (Was To Love You)” so quickly after “Last Time I Saw Him,” forcing the two singles to compete with each other at radio (ironically, the b-side to “Last Time I Saw Him” was Diana’s cover of “Save The Children”…a song written by Marvin Gaye).
10. Include Me In Your Life: Diana & Marvin ends, appropriately, with a song that sounds like an unfinished demo; written by Marilyn McLeod and Mel Bolton and produced again by Hal Davis, there’s the kernel of an interesting, soulful number here, but it’s obscured by what feels like an incomplete lyric and rushed vocals. The instrumental track is quite good, with a nice groove and some slicing strings, but the song features a rather unimpressive hook, forcing both Diana and Marvin to repeat the word “darlin'” over and over again; both singers struggle with it, especially Mr. Gaye, who actually seems to have trouble finding the right notes at about 20 seconds in (and when a song makes Marvin sound off-key, you know there’s an issue). During the verses, Diana at least sounds assured and comfortable, although there’s not much of a melody for her to work with; she and Gaye both seem to be delicately singing around each other, rather than with each other, which once again proves a frustrating listening experience. Interestingly, Motown singer G.C. Cameron (former member of The Spinners) ended up covering this song for his 1976 self-titled LP; his version works far better thanks mainly to a slower, unstructured arrangement, and he handles the “darlin'” repetition much more smoothly. Motown would end up issuing “Include Me In Your Life” as the b-side to the “My Mistake” single, backing one lackluster recording with another.
In his book Divided Soul: The Life Of Marvin Gaye, David Ritz quotes Gaye as saying about Diana Ross, “[She] is a fine singer. All you have to do is listen to her Billie Holiday stuff. It’s marvelous. But during this album, she was on pins and needles.” For her part, Ross writes of Gaye in her 1993 memoir Secrets Of A Sparrow, “I had a lot of feeling for Marvin Gaye, particularly in the later years. He was such a talented man, but he had so many personal problems and he seemed to confused.” There is no doubt the two singers had respect and reverence for each other; certainly both understood the pressures of being African-American pop stars and working within the sometimes-stifling confines of the Motown machine better than just about anyone else. And perhaps this common ground could have provided the foundation for a classic duet album. Instead, with so many elements working against the stars, Diana & Marvin emerged an uneven and largely forgettable album.
Released on October 26, 1973, the album peaked at #26 on the Billboard 200 and #7 on the R&B Albums chart; these chart statistics certainly aren’t the worst either singer ever experienced, but considering each had just enjoyed a Top 5 pop and R&B album (Gaye’s Let’s Get It On was still #1 R&B when the duet album hit stores), it was clearly a disappointment. It’s tempting to lay the blame solely at the feet of Diana and Marvin, especially in light of the now-infamous studio difficulties; it is undeniable that the lack of chemistry is detrimental to almost every track. But both artists were also underserved by inferior material; coming on the heels of superb tracks like “Let’s Get It On” and “Touch Me In The Morning,” this album’s singles sound impossibly dated and uninspired. There are some very sweet moments to be found on Diana & Marvin, but those are so good they only spotlight just how lacking the rest of the project really is.
Final Analysis: 3/5 (Not “Special” Enough)
Paul’s Picks: “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart),” “You Are Everything,” “I’m Falling In Love With You”