“You made me believe I could believe in me once again, I’m free once again…”
One of the least-heard Diana Ross albums (and one of the most under-appreciated), this eclectic mid-70s offering is nonetheless one of her more challenging and complex works of the decade, building off the foundation laid by Touch Me In The Morning in the same way that Surrender built upon that of Diana Ross. The song choice here is certainly all over the place — tracks run the gamut from country to pop to R&B to gospel. Such a varied lineup makes sense, however, when one takes Diana Ross’s career at the time into account; she’d gone from girl group singer to soul belter to jazz singer to pop queen. There is little doubt that by the time Last Time I Saw Him was released, Motown was intent on proving that Diana Ross could conquer every musical genre and every facet of entertainment imaginable.
The heart of the album, of course, is its title track, a Top 20 hit and #1 Adult Contemporary record. If record buyers were slightly confused by the shift from “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to “Good Morning Heartache” to “Touch Me In The Morning”…their heads were probably spinning with the release of this tune, a country/pop novelty that features a bouncy intrumental track and a welcome energetic turn from Diana (after some virtual “sleepwalking” on her previous release, Diana & Marvin). “Last Time…” is the work of Michael Masser, as is the second song on the LP, “No One’s Gonna Be A Fool Forever,” but the rest of the album is the work of a variety of songwriters and producers, including Bob Gaudio of “The Four Seasons.”
Though Diana Ross albums are generally far more successful when written/produced by a single entity (i.e. Ashford and Simpson, Richard Perry, and Rodgers and Edwards), the variety here works, thanks to uniformly strong performances from Diana Ross and some interesting material. Diana’s vocal work on Touch Me In The Morning, while good, was extremely low-key, and many of her performances on Diana & Marvin sounded weak and thin. On this album, for some reason, she sounds younger and re-energized, bringing a vitality and drama to many of the recordings that had been missing since her 1971 masterpiece, Surrender. Hearing Diana push herself again is a thrill, and while there aren’t necessarily any classic songs here, the album is definitely a worthy addition to her discography and an essential listen for fans.
The variety here also continues to prove just how talented Diana Ross was (and is) as an interpreter of lyrics. Just as Lady Sings The Blues proved that Miss Ross could master the subtelties of jazz, this album continues to showcase her ease in crossing genres. There aren’t many female singers of the time who could have a #1 hit on the R&B charts, a #1 album of jazz standards, and then a #1 AC hit with what is essentially a country song (and would end up in the Top 10 of the country charts when released by singer Dottie West a few months later). Diana Ross could.
1. Last Time I Saw Him: Easily one of the strangest singles in the Diana Ross catalog, this Michael Masser song certainly doesn’t sound “Motown” by any standards. “Last Time…” is 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. Now, I realize that none of this sounds appealing, but the song really is fun; after her quiet jazz performances, smooth (and somtimes bland) ballads, and less-than-energetic Marvin Gaye duets, Diana Ross finally sounds a little more like herself again. This is another one of those “story-songs” — with Diana playing the role of the woman left behind at the Greyhound bus station (and really…can you really imagine Diana Ross ever hanging at a Greyhound station??). Because it requires such a suspension of disbelief, the song is undoubtedly a novelty; there’s a definite camp element here, and Miss Ross seems to be winking at her listeners through the entire performance. Still, it’s an enjoyable and unique addition to her list of hit singles, having surprisingly made the Top 20 on both the pop and R&B charts, and apparently becoming the #1 Adult Contemporary (or Easy Listening) song of the entire year — it also helped win her an American Music Award for Favorite Female Soul Artist. This isn’t a song Diana Ross would perform often in concert, but she did dust it off for an episode of “The Muppet Show” years later, and it worked brilliantly in that context; watching Miss Ross perform with the Electric Mayhem is pretty cool.
2. No One’s Gonna Be A Fool Forever: Another Michael Masser pop tune, this one also has some elements of country woven into its musical structure, and the melody is vaguely similar to “I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love)” — which the duo would come up with a few years later. Diana’s vocal performance here is nice; she sings with a similar ease as on “Touch Me In The Morning,” but her ad-libs during the last 40 seconds are more powerful than anything she turned in on that song or the album it came from. The song sounds dated today; something about the melody and production feel very mid-70s (in the same way that “All Of My Life” and several other songs from the Touch Me… album did). Still, this is a good album track that grounds the listener a little bit after the over-the-top antics of the first song on the album.
3. Love Me: A beautiful ballad that has become a favorite of many fans, this is one of the stronger album tracks of Diana’s output at this time. Her voice sounds youthful, and she sings the melody with the clarity and purity of a bell; this really is a great demonstration of her skill as a melody singer. The last minute of the song features some of the better singing Diana had done in awhile; she reaches back into the upper stretches of her range, and sounds full-bodied during the bridge on lines like “I know exactly just where you’re going, let me come with you…” The production on the track is lovely; the percussion line and the dreamy strings provide a perfect bed for Diana and the backing singers.
4. Sleepin’: This song was the second single pulled from Last Time I Saw Him, and it was a total flop, becoming only her second or third single as a solo artist to miss the Top 40 completely. 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 likely a big 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 Ashford and Simpson, reminding listeners just how powerful her voice could be when she was putting her all into a performance. Aside from the vocal performance, the production here is perfect, with a gorgeous instrumental track highlighted by a complex bassline and haunting strings. Perhaps Motown pulled this Ron Miller-penned song as a single because it fell into a similar socially-conscious vein as Marvin Gaye’s singles of the era; 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 soul fans unaware of this beautiful tune.
5. You: Another Ron Miller-penned tune, this one takes Diana into uncharted territory thus far in her solo career: light gospel. Opening with a bluesy piano line and classic gospel organ, the introduction consists of Diana singing a series of words (“Me…find…body…mind…”) which will then figure into future verses. Her voice grows stronger on each verse; she’s light and breathy during the introduction, but her voice is more powerful during the final minute. Diana is more than capable of a good gospel workout, and would blow the screens off TV sets in 1987 while singing “Ninety-Nine And A Half” on her Red Hot Rhythm & Blues television special; she doesn’t quite hit those heights here, but she still turns in a nice performance. The song itself is well-produced, but is almost killed by a long spoken verse which is so wordy and overdone that it’s almost impossible to understand. Diana Ross is a master of spoken passages in music – play “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” again for proof – but the words here are so clunky that even she can’t deliver them convincingly. Still, “You” is unique enough in the Diana Ross catalog to be a standout, and fits in well with the flow of the album.
6. Turn Around: After five really good songs, Last Time I Saw Him comes to a screeching halt with this, one of the weakest tracks on a Diana Ross album since “The Long And Winding Road” from Everything Is Everything. Originally recorded for the unreleased To The Baby album, “Turn Around” doubtlessly would have worked better in the context of other child-themed songs; here, coming on the heels of youthful, contemporary, and energetic tracks, it’s far too saccharine and overproduced to be enjoyable. Part of the blame has to go to Diana Ross; her vocals are so syrupy and overdone that they become shrill and hard to listen to. Now – years after the original release of this album – we know that there were tons of songs sitting in the vaults that didn’t make the cut. Had one of those been placed instead of this one, Last Time… would have been a superior work.
7. When Will I Come Home To You: Not as weak as the previous song, this one is nonetheless another questionable inclusion, as it’s cut in a key so high that Diana Ross seems to be straining her way through the verses. After strong singing on so many of the previous songs, Diana’s voice sounds thin, as it had on much of the Diana & Marvin album. She’s not helped much by the dated production and overall unmemorable lyric. As with “Turn Around,” a stronger song in place of this one (such as her cover of the Carpenters’ “Let Me Be The One,” which went unreleased for decades) would have lifted the overall quality of the album.
8. I Heard A Love Song (But You Never Made A Sound): Finally, after two underwhelming tracks, Last Time I Saw Him gets a kick in the pants thanks to producer Bob Gaudio, who provides Miss Ross with a rock/soul track that’s got a harder edge than anything she’d recorded up to that point. The live percussion work and thunderous piano get the track off to a spectacular start, and Diana’s voice is strong and full-bodied from the classic opening line, “Like a bat out of hell, and a fire deep within ya…” 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. “I Heard A Love Song…” is one of the absolute highlights of the album, and is a perfect example of Diana Ross’s ease at crossing genres.
9. Stone Liberty: This funk/rock track continues the vibe set by “I Heard A Love Song…” and features another strong vocal from Diana Ross. This is also another Gaudio-produced track, and he has to be given credit for coming up with songs that advance the artistic growth of Diana Ross without sounding forced or inappropriate. Diana’s vocal work on the chorus of this song, especially during the last minute, is probably her most powerful on the entire album; she’s pushing the upper limits of her range here as she had on her first three solo album. She also sounds far looser than she ever did on Diana & Marvin, which is a shame; had she brought this kind of vitality to those recordings, the duets would have been far superior. Motown execs probably never ever considered this song or the previous one for single release; they were likely considered too rock-oriented to get radio play. I’m not sure that’s the case however; “Stone Liberty” likely could have gained strong R&B-airplay and showcased a different side of the singer to her public who mainly ignored this album.
10. Behind Closed Doors: Last Time I Saw Him, which opened with the country-ish title track, comes full circle with this song, a Charlie Rich classic produced here by Diana Ross herself. While never given much credit as a producer (or songwriter…or anything else other than an entertainer), Miss Ross showed a keen understanding of her strengths by choosing this song, which is a low-key, catchy number that allows her to show off a confident, soulful lead vocal. Her voice is deep and full of gravitas here; she never reaches too high or tries to do anything fancy with the lyrics. This simple, unfettered track is a perfect way to end the LP, which has been all over the musical map; it grounds the album and returns the focus on Diana the singer.
Note: For information on bonus tracks from this album, click HERE.
Last Time I Saw Him is something of a roller-coaster for listeners, soaring to exciting highs and, unfortunately, hitting some pretty low lows. But the variety of tracks and versatility of Diana as a performer are always impressive, and provide a sort of cohesion to the set; the theme here is that of musical exploration. Diana Ross had done a lot of things in the few short years she’d been a solo artist, and this album served as a chance for her to try a few new tricks. While nowhere near as successful as the Touch Me In The Morning album in terms of sales, this one is a more challenging record. Songs like “Sleepin’” and “I Heard A Love Song…” give Miss Ross a chance to explore deeper, more complex lyrics, and there’s an excitement and a fire to many of the recordings here that had been lacking on her last few projects. This, more than any other LP released by Diana Ross in the 70s, 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.
Final Analysis: 4/5 (A Unique, Exciting “Turn”)
Choice Cuts: “I Heard A Love Song (But You Never Made A Sound),” “Sleepin’,” “You”
The nominees for Favorite Female Soul Artist at the American Music Awards (in early 1975, after “Last Time…” had ridden the charts) were:
Diana Ross (Winner)