“All those sweet sensations, let me feel them now…”
Diana Ross returned to the top of the charts on August 18, 1973, when “Touch Me In The Morning” hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100; produced and co-written by Michael Masser, the song would not only reestablish Miss Ross as one of the top female vocalists in the world, but also launch Masser’s long and distinguished career as a writer and producer of sophisticated pop. It’s no surprise that Motown would immediately pair Masser and Ross again, and on August 17, 1973 — just one day before “Touch Me In The Morning” was revealed as the top-selling record in the country that week — Masser was cutting the track for his follow-up song on Ross. Titled “Last Time I Saw Him,” the single was released on December 6, 1973, and was accompanied by a full-length album of the same name. The album is something of a sequel to Touch Me In The Morning, made up of ten tracks from five different producers, most of whom had contributed to the earlier album.
What sets Last Time I Saw Him apart from Touch Me In The Morning (or any record in the Ross discography thus far, for that matter) is the exhilarating experimentation with musical styles. The title track and “Behind Closed Doors” (produced by Diana herself) lean heavily toward country-pop, while producer Bob Gaudio gives the singer two of the funkiest and hardest-edged songs she’d ever released. Although Miss Ross was never a gospel singer in church, she shows a real affinity for the style on Ron Miller’s “You,” and Miller also turns in the moving “Sleepin'” — an underappreciated ballad which features one of the great Ross vocal performances of all time. Although the musical styles are all over the map, the album is held together by the high quality of the material and Diana’s performances, which are far more energetic than just about anything she’d offered up on Diana & Marvin, the singer’s duet album with Marvin Gaye which had just been released in October.
Motown’s decision to release Last Time I Saw Him (Motown 812) so closely on the heels of Diana & Marvin likely hurt its chances of major success; although the album’s first single was a solid success (it was the #1 Easy Listening single of the year), the marketplace had simply been flooded with Diana Ross material over the past several months. Internally, attention was also shifting back to Diana’s movie career; the same month Last Time I Saw Him and its title song were released to the public, news of the singer’s second motion picture project also surfaced. “Motown’s next film project is to be ‘Mahogany,’ a musical starring Diana Ross and written by ‘Funny Girl’ composer Bob Merrill,” announced Billboard on December 15, 1973. “Story of a black girl’s search of identity while traveling the world’s glamour cities is to go into production in the spring of 1974.” Although filming on Mahogany wouldn’t begin until November of 1974, preparations for the film had dominated attention for months, leaving Diana little chance to promote her music.
Consequently, Last Time I Saw Him would become one of the lesser-known albums of Diana’s career, fading fairly quickly and never even getting a CD release in the United States until 2007. Although Miss Ross would perform “Last Time I Saw Him” on episode 424 of “The Muppet Show” in 1980 (you can read more about that episode here), songs from this album disappeared quickly from her act, never to surface again. This is unfortunate, because the album contains some very strong material and performances, not to mention some much-needed variety from the singer during this period in her career. Perhaps more than any other album released by Miss Ross during the 1970s, this one serves as a testament to her strength as a stylist and her skill in breaking the stereotypes that can come with being a female vocalist, particularly an African-American female vocalist.
1. Last Time I Saw Him: “Diana sings softly about a man ‘who’s Greyhound bound’ with an arrangement which fuses banjo and a happy almost two-beat feeling. It’s a jazz-razz-matazz tune in the Dawn dixieland mold,” wrote Billboard of this song in its December 15, 1973 issue; although the review is nearly incomprehensible today, favorably comparing the song to the work of Dawn Featuring Tony Orlando was intended as high praise, considering the group had recently dominated the pop and Easy Listening charts with hits including “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” and “Say, Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose.” Written by Michael Masser and Pam Sawyer, the track for “Last Time I Saw Him” had been cut in August of 1973, with arrangers Michael Omartian and Gene Page creating a country/pop confection featuring banjos, strings, horns, and glossy backing vocals that sound like they’re performed by a chorus line of Dolly-impersonators at the Grand Ole Opry. It’s big, bold, and certainly tongue-in-cheek; there’s no denying the camp woven into both the instrumental performance and Diana’s vocal, but it’s all quite palatable thanks to the fact that everyone seems to be having such a ball. Interestingly, Masser says cutting the song with his vocalist was the exact opposite of having a ball; he recalls in the liner notes to the album’s 2007 reissue, “When we were working on ‘Last Time I Saw Him,’ I felt that she (Diana) hadn’t worked on the song at home enough, that she hadn’t done her homework. I made my feelings known to her and she was pretty insulted. The session ended abruptly…and in a huff.” That said, Masser praises the singer’s “artistic conscience,” remembering that Ross went back into the studio early the next morning and re-cut her vocal by herself. Perhaps the turmoil helped Miss Ross produce such a spirited vocal; whatever it was, she seems far more alive on this track than she had in quite some time, especially when compared to her unenthusiastic work on Diana & Marvin. Released as a single on December 6, 1973 (and backed with “Save The Children” from Touch Me In The Morning), “Last Time I Saw Him” peaked at #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #15 on the R&B listings; in February of 1974, the song reached #1 on the Billboard Easy Listening chart, where is remained for three straight weeks. At the end of the year, Billboard named the song as the top Easy Listening single of the year, besting “The Way We Were” by Barbra Streisand and “Annie’s Song” by John Denver. Meanwhile, proving the song’s country appeal, singer Dottie West covered the song in 1974, taking it to the Top 10 of the country charts.
2. No One’s Gonna Be A Fool Forever: This Michael Masser-Pam Sawyer song had already been released by Motown singer Thelma Houston by the time Diana recorded her version. Houston’s was first issued as a b-side on the MoWest label in March of 1972, and another version was cut by vocal group The Friends Of Distinction for that group’s 1973 album Love Can Make It Easier. According to session notes included on the Last Time I Saw Him 2007 reissue, Masser cut the track for this version of the song way back in July of 1972, although Diana didn’t lay down her lead vocal until November 6, 1973, just a month before the album was released. It’s not a surprise that Diana’s version of the song falls squarely into the pop side of the music spectrum, as opposed to the more soulful renditions by Houston and The Friends Of Distinction; Masser’s vision of Diana Ross positioned her as an interrupter of sophisticated pop ballads, and he would continue to provide her with such material straight through into the next decade (and then, when Ross stopped working with the producer, he would shift that vision onto Whitney Houston). Here, Masser and arrangers Michael Omartian and Gene Page craft a mid-tempo track that weaves in Alpert-style horns and country-tinged guitars with swirling, symphonic strings, therefore tying together elements from Diana’s previous hit “Touch Me In The Morning” with those featured on “Last Time I Saw Him.” Diana’s vocal performance here is very strong, with the singer offering up relaxed and deeply-felt vocal during the verses and spirited work on the catchy refrain; the original Billboard review of this album noted the song’s “pretty multiple voicings all by Diana,” and the multi-tracking of her voice is indeed a nice touch. Best of all, Miss Ross gets to do some ad-libbing during the final 40 seconds of the song which allows her a chance to finally put some muscle back into her singing; the singer hadn’t ad-libbed in this way since 1971’s Surrender, and it’s a relief to here her break out from the laid-back pop/jazz mold a little bit. Although the song does sound dated today due mainly to the rather busy orchestration, it’s a superb album track that likely could have generated solid airplay at the time; it’s interesting that Motown didn’t try this one out as a single, especially considering it was written and produced by Michael Masser. “No One’s Gonna Be A Fool Forever” was eventually placed on the b-side of Diana’s 1975 single “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To),” which became the singer’s third #1 hit.
3. Love Me: This ballad was chosen as the album’s second single in the U.K., where it eventually peaked at #38 on the charts; strangely, it was never given a push in the United States, although it probably would have done quite well had it been promoted. “Love Me” was written by the trio of Nick Zesses, Dino Fekaris (who would go on to write one of Diana’s favorite songs, “I Will Survive”), and Tom Baird; the latter also produced the cut, having previously worked with Miss Ross on Touch Me In The Morning and the unreleased To The Baby. Over the years, “Love Me” has become a fan favorite, and deservedly so; it’s a standout album track that features lush instrumentation and a sensual performance from Miss Ross, who demonstrates her fortitude as a melody singer with an absolutely gorgeous vocal. The lyrics here are notable for their mature and rather frank nature; there are a few eyebrow-raising moments, although the dreamy strings and ringing background vocals never allow the song to cross any lines or feel like a novelty tune. Diana sings with bell-like precision, tossing in a few breathy coos as she dances over the melody line; the final minute of the song features particularly strong work from the singer, who again seems to be waking up after her lengthy foray into more restrained pop/jazz stylings. Billboard would also list this song as an album standout in its original review of Last Time I Saw Him, writing that the song “has her standing out in front of some soft gushing female voices playing the supporting role which the former Supremes did for her. Only this sound is much sweeter.”
4. Sleepin’: Over the years, this song has become one of the most divisive in the Diana Ross discography; ask fans if this was the right choice for release as the album’s second single, and you’re in for some passionate debate. Written by Ron Miller and Terry Etlinger and produced by Miller, “Sleepin'” was released as a single in April of 1974; it managed a dismal peak of #70 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #50 on the R&B charts before disappearing quickly, never to be heard from again. This was only the second time a Diana Ross solo single hadn’t made the United States Top 40 (the first time was “I’m Still Waiting,” although that song had been a massive hit in the U.K.), an embarrassing showing for Miss Ross and Mr. Miller. There were probably many reasons contributing to the failure of the song on the charts, but quality is not one of them. “Sleepin’” is, simply put, a striking masterpiece; it’s one of Diana’s best performances of the entire decade. The song’s lyrics deal with a woman in denial that her lover has died of a drug overdose; the incredibly morose story is perhaps a reason for the lack of radio play, as this is definitely not a ballad anyone was dancing to at weddings or other celebrations. Still, the sad story portrayed here is a perfect match for Diana’s skills as an actress and an interpreter of lyrics. Miss Ross is in full command of her voice here, lending just the right balance of dramatics and subtlety, and utilizing the jazz techniques from Lady Sings The Blues on her phrasing (in particular, the line “My man’s sleepin’ nice now…” sounds like it could have come from that film’s soundtrack). She also belts out several lines with a passion she hadn’t shown since her work with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, reminding listeners just how powerful her voice can be when she’s putting her all into a performance. In the album’s reissue liner notes, Ron Miller remembers Diana summoning that same kind of emotion while performing the song live in Las Vegas: “She sat there and sang that song and cried her eyes out. I cannot remember a more singularly beautiful moment in my entire life.” Aside from the vocal performance, the production here is perfect (the great Gene Page is credited with the arrangement), with a gorgeous instrumental track highlighted by a complex bassline and haunting strings. Diana Ross reportedly loved the song, which is likely why it ended up being released as a single; in retrospect, “Love Me” would have probably been a better choice for radio, as it featured a catchier track and more relatable lyrics. Still, “Sleepin’” is the better song overall; it’s one of Diana’s best singles and deserves re-evaluation by music fans unaware of this beautiful tune.
5. You: This track is something of a companion piece to the previous one, although it’s very different in tone and message; still, it was written by the same team (Ron Miller and Terry Etlinger), the track was recorded on the same day (September 18, 1973), and Diana Ross laid down her vocal at the same session (October 25, 1973). If “Sleepin'” is a sad, distressing meditation on a wasted life, “You” is a joyous celebration of life; constructed on an interesting framework of single words (“Me/Find/Body/Mind,” etc.), the message here is one of intimate love and self-discovery. Although the team of Ashford & Simpson had undeniably woven elements of gospel into its work with Miss Ross on Diana Ross and Surrender, those elements were always placed squarely within the realm of soul music; here, Ron Miller makes a much more overt attempt at giving Diana a gospel showcase. The end result doesn’t exactly rival Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, although it does stretch Miss Ross a bit and provides and interesting change of pace for the album. Opening with a churchy piano line and classic gospel organ, the introduction consists of Diana singing that series of words, which will then figure into future verses; her voice grows stronger on each verse, from light and breathy during the introduction to a bit more powerful during the final minute. In later years, Diana would prove herself more than capable of a good gospel workout, blowing the screens off TV sets in 1987 while singing “Ninety-Nine And A Half” on Diana Ross: Red Hot Rhythm & Blues; she doesn’t quite hit those heights here, but she still turns in a nicely-pitched performance. The song itself is well-produced but almost killed by a long spoken verse which is so wordy and overdone that it’s almost impossible to understand. Still, “You” is unique enough in the Diana Ross catalog to be a standout, and fits in quite well with the flow of the album thus far. (NOTE: “You” would be placed on the b-side to the “Sleepin'” single, released in April of 1974.)
6. Turn Around: This Tom Baird-produced track was originally recorded for Diana’s long-unreleased To The Baby album, a themed project she worked on in the wake of becoming a mother; Diana would later remember these sessions in a 1976 interview with Don Pietromonaco, “I recorded them while I was pregnant and they were for my children, but we had to split them up…those were recorded for an album, you know, for a total children’s kind of album.” A few of the tracks ended up on the Touch Me In The Morning album, and “Turn Around” surfaced here, a head-scratching inclusion given how mismatched the song feels in the context of Last Time I Saw Him. “Turn Around” was written by Malvina Reynolds, Allan Greene, and the legendary Harry Belafonte, who first recorded the song for his Love Is A Gentle Thing album way back in 1959. Duo Dick and Dee Dee covered the song in 1963 and took it to the Billboard pop Top 40, and several other artists also recorded the time through the rest of the decade, including Sonny & Cher. Opening with these wistful lyrics — “Where are you going, my little one, little one?/Where are you going, my baby, my own?” — the song is written from the viewpoint of a parent watching his/her child growing up too quickly; Belafonte’s original recording is given a stripped-down folk arrangement that’s incredibly effective. Unfortunately, Baird’s arrangement here is anything but stripped down; instead, the producer whips up a syrupy track absolutely swamped by whipped cream-strings and ringing female voices. The whole thing sounds overblown and even more dated than the pair of Dawn-styled opening tracks; compared to the contemporary pop ballads that precede it, “Turn Around” comes off like a production number from a Disney cartoon. Diana’s vocal is a warm and sugary, like a sheet of cookies right out of the oven; as part of the To The Baby album, it would have been a perfect performance, but it doesn’t sound right coming after her mature, accomplished work on the previous tracks. Considering some superb tracks were left in the vaults (especially Diana’s cover of “Let Me Be The One,” recorded in August of 1973 and finally released on the 2007 Last Time I Saw Him: Expanded Edition), it’s strange that this tune was resurrected for release; the overall album would have been stronger and more cohesive without it.
7. When Will I Come Home To You: This is the first of a trio of tracks produced and co-written by Bob Gaudio, best known as one of The Four Seasons and who had then-recently signed with Motown Records. Although The Four Seasons with Frankie Vallie didn’t score any hits at Motown, Gaudio got some prime writing-producing opportunities, including working up a track for the Diana Ross-Marvin Gaye duet album Diana & Marvin (“Pledging My Love”) and working on the soundtrack album to the Motown-produced Broadway hit Pippin. Written with follow Four Season Al Ruzicka and Kathy Wakefield (who’d penned the 1971 Supremes hit “Nathan Jones” from that group’s Touch LP), “When Will I Come Home To You” is a shuffling mid-tempo ballad that’s cut rather high for Diana; the singers spends much of the song toward the upper end of her register, which results in a unique performance. Although some might hear a weakness in the singer’s voice, given that she’s pushing so high, she actually displays real skill in the way she nails the notes with such sweetness and precision. She’s let down a bit by the material; this isn’t a bad song, but it’s not particularly memorable, and there’s a heaviness to the wah-wah guitar-laden track that restrains any excitement that might have bubbled up from it. For an artist as fresh and full of life as Diana Ross (even during this rather subdued phase in her career), there’s a lack of fire here that’s disappointing. That said, the song certainly fits within the context of the album; the arrangement here is pop/soul, but the song could also work beautifully as a country ballad given a slightly different orchestration.
8. I Heard A Love Song (But You Never Made A Sound): This is the real surprise of Last Time I Saw Him, a rocking number produced and co-written again by Bob Gaudio; led off by a thunderous piano and slamming live percussion, Diana Ross gets the hardest-edged song of her solo career thus far, and she brilliantly delivers. As for the song’s origins, Shannon Gaudio is quoted in the Last Time I Saw Him: Expanded Edition liner notes, “My mother Brit co-wrote the song. She was a housewife and mom, not someone famous. It was the first song she ever wrote. Diana liked it but wanted to change some lyrics. My mother said, ‘No changes will be made.’ I think that Miss Ross showed the utmost in class and respect to my mother by doing the song and not changing anything.” Diana recorded her lead for the song on October 30, 1973, an appropriate date given that she sounds possessed by some kind of Halloween spirit here; the laid-back style she’d appropriated since her work on Lady Sings The Blues is completely thrown out the window here, and the singer instead attacks her vocal (in the words of the song) “like a bat out of hell.” Thanks to the her forceful but simple reading of the lyrics and the funky but never over-the-top instrumental track, the tone here is never campy; certainly Diana Ross doing a rock song had the potential to be laughable, but she more than rises to the occasion. Perhaps the ultimate key to success here is Mr. Gaudio’s willingness to push Diana and force her to meet the demands of his song; he seemingly didn’t push her at all while producing the dreadful Marvin Gaye duet “Pledging My Love” (from Diana & Marvin), and previous track “When Will I Come Home To You” sounds like the producers attempt to recreate her sound from the Touch Me In The Morning LP. Like Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson before him, Gaudio here gives the singer a meaty, rangy song and clearly doesn’t let her coast. The end result is fresh and surprising, and it’s a song awaiting discovery by listeners only familiar with Diana’s stately, sophisticated ballad work.
9. Stone Liberty: The third Bob Gaudio-produced track in a row is another incredible piece of work, one that gives Diana her best opportunity as a vocalist on the entire album. Opening with a cascading waterfall of electric guitars, the track blossoms into a dramatic, rocking funk ballad; Diana sings the verses in husky, low-key voice, but does some forceful belting during the hard-hitting refrain. The song itself, written by Gaudio with Kathy Wakefield, bears some lyrical similarities to those of Lauro Nyro; in a way, “Stone Liberty” could be a street-smart cousin to Nyro’s “Stoney End” (recorded by Diana several years earlier, but unreleased for decades). This is a good thing; it’s nice to hear Miss Ross get some complex, clever lyrics to deliver, and the singer sounds completely engaged and invested in the story of “a mama unwed, alone in her bed.” The real joy of the song, however, is hearing Diana vocally push herself during the final minute of running time; the song forces her to put some real muscle into her performance, and she delivers with a brassy vocal that’s probably her most powerful since 1971’s Surrender. In its review of the album, Billboard immediately noted the difference between this song and most of the singer’s recent work, pointing it out as “a much more demanding tune and consequently the arrangement is much more funkier than the other tunes” (December 22, 1973). It’s easy to imagine this song blasting from radio speakers in early 1974; I’d argue it had as much of a chance at becoming a hit as any other tune on Last Time I Saw Him, and should have gotten that chance to make a run for the charts. The blend of soul, funk, pop, and rock here is a potent one, and could have led to airplay on multiple formats. (NOTE: Interestingly, when the song “Gettin’ Ready For Love” from Baby It’s Me was released as a single in the U.K. in October of 1977, this song was placed on the b-side.)
10. Behind Closed Doors: This is a perfect closing track for Last Time I Saw Him, a lovely cover of the country tune written by Kenny O’Dell and first recorded by Charlie Rich. The song had only just recently been a hit when Diana minted her cover; Rich’s version topped the country charts in late April/early May of 1973 (it also crossed over and peaked at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100). Miss Ross not only laid down her vocals in November of 1973, just weeks before the release of her album, she also produced the entire recording; “Behind Closed Doors” is then just one of a handful of released tunes produced by the artist during her tenure on Motown Records (she would start self-producing more frequently during her stint with RCA in the 1980s). Miss Ross does a superb job of crafting an easygoing, country-lite vibe here; the track boasts a nice, gentle bounce, but is restrained enough that it never becomes a campy caricature of country music (something of which there was certainly a real danger). Ross sings most of the song in her lower register, her voice full of gravitas and sinking into the instrumental track nicely; her delivery is wise and knowing, perfectly capturing the spirit of the song. In its original review of the album, Billboard noted the song as “the kind of groove she is best suited to – easy, relaxed singing over a powerful, yet restrained beat” (December 22, 1973). Indeed, Ross the producer showed a keen understanding of her strengths by choosing this song, and the simple, unfettered track is an intelligent way to end an album that’s covered so much of the musical spectrum.
After its release in December of 1973, Last Time I Saw Him sputtered on the charts, topping out at a paltry #52 on the Billboard 200 and peaking at #12 on the R&B side. The failure of “Sleepin'” led Motown to quickly move on from the album, pushing out the live LP Live At Caesar’s Palace in May of 1974 and heavily promoting it with the proclamation of “Diana Ross Month” in June. Interestingly, Miss Ross didn’t immediately abandon the country-pop sound; her next solo single would be the Michael Masser-penned “Sorry Doesn’t Always Make It Right,” released in February of 1975; the song is as country as anything found on Last Time I Saw Him, and a very good recording, but it failed to even make the Billboard Hot 100 or R&B charts (Gladys Knight & The Pips would fare a bit better with the song in 1977, taking it to the Top 30 of the R&B listings). Diana’s next single after that would be the theme from her motion picture Mahogany, and it would finally take the singer back to #1.
While Touch Me In The Morning featured a cohesive, dreamlike vibe that makes it feel like a complete statement, it lacks the peaks and valleys of Last Time I Saw Him, which is something of a musical rollercoaster; from the exhilaration of “I Heard A Love Song (But You Never Made A Sound)” to the mournful “Sleepin'” to the sensual “Love Me,” Diana Ross takes a real musical journey here, and she deserves points for the effort even when the execution isn’t totally successful. The singer wouldn’t experiment this much within the confines of a single album again until 1982’s Silk Electric, and it’s probably no coincidence that Miss Ross produced the bulk of that album herself; Diana the artist clearly enjoys exploring different musical styles. Lucky for fans, her voice is a perfect instrument to carry such broad musical tastes, and the variety on Last Time I Saw Him makes it an album that remains interesting decades after its initial release.
Final Analysis: 4/5 (A Unique, Exciting “Turn”)
Paul’s Picks: “Sleepin’,” “Stone Liberty,” “I Heard A Love Song (But You Never Made A Sound)”