“Lady Sings The Blues…she tells her side…nothing to hide…”
By 1974, Diana Ross had been a star for a full decade. Her first #1 hit with the Supremes – “Where Did Our Love Go” – had been released in 1964, and set off a string of five consecutive chart-toppers for the group. Diana had gone solo at the start of the new decade, and in four years had watched two songs soar to the top of the charts, garnered three Grammy nominations, and starred in an Oscar-nominated hit film. The sort of success she’d achieved in ten years – and the fact that her career was still gaining momentum – is still staggering to consider (perhaps now more than ever, when many music careers don’t last five years), and made that year a perfect one for a live album, capturing Miss Ross at a career peak.
Unfortunately, Live At Caesar’s Palace stands as an uneven record of Miss Ross and her career in the early to mid 1970s. The first problem has to do with timing. The LP was recorded in early 1973 – but held nearly a year before release. This means there is absolutely no material from her previous three studio albums – Touch Me In The Morning, Diana & Marvin, and Last Time I Saw Him – included here. Of her seven Top 40 solo hits, only “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Reach Out And Touch” are featured. The heart of the album is the medley of songs from Lady Sings The Blues, as would be expected, since the concert was probably being recorded while the film was still in theatres and still raking in awards.
And as good as that medley is, the second problem with the album lies with the structure of the show itself. There is no denying that Diana Ross is a master of live performance – even those who don’t acknowledge her enormous vocal talent have to agree that she possesses a rare charisma that makes her a spectacular live entertainer. But her best shows come when they’re built around a distinct theme, whether it be promoting a new album (like her concerts focused on The Boss and Take Me Higher) or, as with An Evening With Diana Ross, an entire storyline tracing her musical career. Here, other than the material devoted to Billie Holiday, there’s no immediately discernable theme to the show. Miss Ross performs a Supremes medley, a song from Broadway’s Pippin, and even Kermit the Frog’s theme song, “Being Green” — in other words, she’s all over the musical map.
Of course, seeing an actual concert and listening to a concert album are two very different experiences. There’s every chance that the order of material – and even the material itself – was different than what is presented on the album (according to J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana Ross: A Biography, some songs were edited out). The LP, however, is what we have to judge today, and while it’s a good demonstration of some of Diana Ross’s greatest strengths as a live performer (her voice, in some cases, sounds as good as it ever would on record), it’s also far from a Diana Ross essential.
1. Overture: Weird as it may be, I actually really love this 50-second long overture, led by Diana’s musical director, the brilliant Gil Askey. The blaring horns and jamming percussion have just the right mix of razzle-dazzle and soul, and set the right tone for the wide mix of music to follow…
2. Don’t Rain On My Parade: This is the second Diana Ross solo album to feature this Funny Girl classic (the first being the sountrack to her Diana! TV special); it had become her standard concert opener, and she’d also performed it while with the Supremes. At this point in her career, Diana could belt out this song while sleepwalking, and it was — to be honest — starting to sound a little tired. Though she still turns in an energetic, vibrant vocal here, it doesn’t quite match the fever-pitch reached on the Diana! special. Perhaps the problem is that while the “Hey, y’all, here I am!” lyric was a perfect way to introduce audiences to her solo act in 1970 and 1971, by this point she was an established solo act, and the lyrics didn’t quite have the same impact anymore. Nonetheless, her voice does sound strong, and her patter following the song (“This is another first for me…the first time onstage in two-and-a-half years that I haven’t been pregnant”) is cute.
3. Big Mable Murphy: A real surprise and treat of the album, this song — written and recorded in 1971 by country singer Dallas Frazier — is arranged for Diana Ross as a glitzy blues number complete with a finger-snapping beat, honkey-tonk piano, and fantastic background vocals (which consist of a grunting “huh-huh” punctuating certain lyrics). The song itself changes key several times, scaling higher and higher, and Diana’s voice impressively leads the way; her belting on the last few verses (especially her last “…knuckle-bumps on his head!”) is full-bodied and even a bit gritty, which is perfect for the song. Though the tune is a silly novelty — the lyrics tell the story of Big Mable Murphy and her boyfriend “little Melvin,” who she beats up! — it’s a fun addition to the concert and gives Diana a chance to really stretch her voice out.
4. Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand): Everyone knows that Diana Ross considers this song — her debut single and first solo Top 20 hit — an audience interaction song; for years she used it as a chance to walk amongst her fans, letting them sing along into the microphone and calling on everyone to hold hands and sway along to the music. She’d done the same thing with the song “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” while with the Supremes, and a highlight of the Farewell LP is listening to her hand off the mic to other celebrities, like Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson, to sing a few lines. Unfortunately, for her Live At Caesar’s Palace recording, there apparently weren’t any singers as talented as Marvin and Smokey in the crowd. Therefore, your enjoyment of this song will depend a lot on your tolerance for hearing tone-deaf people sing along with Diana Ross. In person, the charm of this section is actually seeing the bashful faces of the fans that she allows a few moments in the spotlight, not to mention witnessing the complete ease with which Diana conducts her audiences and gets them to do what she asks. This is what makes her a superstar. Unfortunately, without actually seeing what’s happening, the effect is lost.
5. The Supremes Medley: Stop! In The Name Of Love/My World Is Empty Without You/Baby Love/I Hear A Symphony: Miss Ross returns to her roots here, with a medley of some of the hits that made her famous in the 1960s. It’s nice to hear her revisit songs like “Stop! In The Name Of Love” — and she sounds youthful and fun as she makes her way through the fast-paced medley. The songs, of course, sound nothing like the original versions, thanks to Askey’s big-band, Vegas-y arrangements — but Supremes medleys had sounded like that since the mid-1960s, so this really isn’t a surprise. What might surprise some casual fans is hearing Diana Ross acknowledge her former group-mates, calling them each out by name. Though she now has a reputation as a fame-obsessed diva who left her singing partners in the dust, Diana Ross always gave credit to the other Supremes during her shows, and often spoke of how much she loved and missed “the good old days.” Whether or not that was completely sincere, it shows a large amount of class on her part, considering she was no longer with the group and really had no obligation to mention the other women by name.
6. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: Diana’s first #1 hit is always a high-point during her shows; it has become her anthem and is one song that she performs in just about every single concert and television special she appears in. However, it’s a bit odd that it’s placed directly in the middle of this album, as the song has such an emotional and dramatic climax that it makes much more sense as a closing number. Though not as strong as the “live” version featured on the Diana! TV special, it’s always a treat to hear Miss Ross perform the song, and she’s especially sounds strong on the encore — after she shouts “Stand up and do it!” She belts out the high notes confidently and nails them, and rather than let the background singers do all the work (as she sometimes would in future shows), she leads the way with her powerful singing.
7. Corner Of The Sky: The Broadway musical Pippin opened on Broadway in 1972 and became a Tony Award-winning hit; because it was partially financed by Motown, it’s no surprise that one of its most famous songs — “Corner Of The Sky” — ended up as part of Diana Ross’s repertoire (it was also recorded by The Jackson 5; another song from the show, “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man,” was recorded and released by the post-Diana Supremes). The Stephen Schwartz tune is a memorable one, but it’s not a standout on this album; Diana sounds nice, but she never quite sounds as deeply “into” the lyrics in the way she does on the jazz songs at the end of the show. Her high notes also sound a little bit thin compared to the singing she’d already done on songs like “Big Mable Murphy” and “Ain’t No Mountain…” Still, this isn’t a bad version of the Broadway standard.
8. Bein’ Green: Yes…this is the same “Bein’ Green” that was made famous by Kermit The Frog on “Sesame Street” in 1970. It’s actually been recorded by dozens of artists; everyone from Frank Sinatra to Van Morrison has tackled the song, and the line “It ain’t easy bein’ green” is part of pop culture, so maybe it’s not as bizarre an inclusion as it first seems. This was apparently part of a “Sesame Street” medley which was cut down to one song for the LP, and it’s too bad, because in the context of the medley, the song probably would’ve made much more sense; placed between “Corner Of The Sky” and “I Loves You Porgy,” it feels a little jarring — as a stand-alone song, the sentimental tone would’ve fit better following the Supremes medley. That said, Gil Askey’s band sounds partiulcarly gorgeous behind Diana (who speaks her way through most of the song, evoking a child-like voice) and the lyrics remain as potent and charming as ever, which make the song at least a pleasant surprise upon first listen.
9. I Loves You Porgy: A highlight of the album, Diana is in spirited voice on an upbeat version of the Gershwin classic from Porgy and Bess. The band is swinging behind her, and Diana’s vocals become almost trumpet-like as she reaches up an octave in the final 40 seconds of the song. This is one of her best live vocal performances ever captured on record; she’s confident and assured and the only problem is that it’s way too short (I’d much rather have heard a longer version of this than those out-of-tune people on “Reach Out And Touch…”)!
10. Lady Sings The Blues Medley: Lady Sings The Blues/God Bless The Child/Good Morning Heartache/T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do: Diana Ross follows up her brilliant vocal on “I Loves You Porgy” with some of the finest singing of her entire career on this medley of songs from Lady Sings The Blues. Opening with an extended, haunting rendition of the song “Lady Sings The Blues” — which is especially a treat considering she almost never sings more than the first few lines — her voice loses all of the brasiness of her earlier singing on songs like “Don’t Rain On My Parade” and immediately takes on the crisp, biting clarity of Billie Holiday. The last few lines of “Lady Sings The Blues” in particular, as she sings “She’s never gonna sing ’em no more…no more” are absolutely masterful; this is as good as Diana Ross ever sounded. She transitions into the classic “God Bless The Child,” sounding as relaxed and slightly mournful as she did on the studio soundtrack version, and her live vocals on “Good Morning Heartache” are, amazingly, even better than her original recorded version; her voice is stronger and more assured here. The medley finishes with the upbeat “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness…” — allowing Diana and the band to swing it on home with a crowd-pleaser. Again, this is such a standout that it makes one wish for an entire live album of Lady Sings songs (…of course, such a project would finally come…nearly 20 years later). Diana Ross had clearly spent so much time immersed in the life and music of Billie Holiday that she sounds much more natural singing these songs than even her own hits; this, as noted above, is the heart of the album and it alone makes the entire LP worthwhile.
11. The Lady Is A Tramp: Diana Ross had been performing this song for nearly her entire career; it was a standard in Supremes live concerts, and her rendition here isn’t nearly as fun as those she’d done with her former group. For me, her best recorded version of this song comes on the Supremes Farewell LP; the women sound amped up and energetic on that performance, and the contributions of Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong are important to the success, as their bawdy voices in the background help accentuate the devil-may-care tone of the lyrics. While with the Supremes, Diana also used this song as a chance to really belt; she basically growls through the ending of the song on the Farewell album. Here, while she ably handles the song solo, there’s a subtle lack of energy; perhaps, like “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” the song had just lost some of its freshness after being performed by the artist so many times.
12: My Man (Mon Homme): This song was perhaps the single best performance on the Lady Sings The Blues soundtrack; her original recorded version is a masterpiece of heartbreaking emotion. Here, there’s a little too much “show-biz” in her performance (like the dreaded “I think the ladies know what I’m talking about” line…which still makes me cringe) for it to be as impactful. Had Diana kept her performance simple, as she had the songs on the Lady medley, this probably would have been the single best track on the LP. Instead, while her voice sounds gorgeous, especially during the song’s climax, it feels a little too forced; you can almost feel her trying to emote, rather than letting it come naturally.
Being released on the heels of Touch Me In The Morning, Diana & Marvin, and Last Time I Saw Him, it would have been nice for Diana’s first live album to feature some of the interesting, diverse material covered in those albums. Again, this show had been recorded before those albums, but because it was released after, it feels like somewhat of a step backward for Diana Ross. She’d grown a lot as a vocalist, especially with some of her country and funk experiments on Last Time…, and it would have been interesting to hear how that affected her as a live performer. Live At Caesar’s Palace is by no means a bad live album; there are some fun surprises and some incredibly touching vocal performances. However, it never feels like a really important Diana Ross record, in the way that her next live album (An Evening With Diana Ross) does.
Final Analysis: 3/5 (“Live”…But Not Quite Alive Enough)
Choice Cuts: “Lady Sings The Blues Medley,” “I Loves You Porgy,” “Big Mable Murphy”