“Now, looking back at all we’ve planned, we let so many dreams just slip through out hands…”
“Do you know…”…where Diana Ross has been? Music fans may have been asking that question by the time Diana Ross hit store shelves in 1976. It had been a long time between this album and her last offering, the live LP Live At Caesar’s Palace — maybe not a long time considering today’s music industry standards, but two years without a Diana Ross album on store shelves must have seemed like an eternity at the time, considering she’d basically been averaging about two-per-year. Still, Miss Ross had spent late 1974 and early 1975 devoting time to Mahogany, her second film, in which she starred and also designed her own costumes. The movie, while not a critical hit like Lady Sings The Blues, was a big hit with audiences, and set her up for a major return to radio.
That return came via the film’s theme song, the ballad “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To),” another Michael Masser production that went to #1, becoming Diana’s third solo chart-topper. She then trumped that by releasing another, even bigger #1 hit, the now-classic “Love Hangover.” Those two songs, along with the Top 30 “Once Love In My Lifetime” and the beautiful single “I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love)” led this album to becoming one of Diana Ross’s biggest sellers. It soared to the Top 5 of both the pop and R&B album charts, becoming her first album since Touch Me In The Morning to do so (a Diana Ross album wouldn’t chart so well again until 1980’s diana).
This is, in a way, a shame, because as good as those songs are, I’d argue that Diana Ross is actually one of the more uneven albums Miss Ross would release in the 1970s. I know that statement will divide a lot of fans, but while the good songs here are great, and rank among her best…some of the others are among the most uninspired recordings of her career. There’s no doubt that Diana’s attention at this point was on other things; she’d been focused on her movie, her children, and preparing for An Evening With Diana Ross, her one-woman show that would conquer Broadway and earn a Tony Award. So while it’s understandable that some of the recordings here may sound more like afterthoughts than attempts to make great music, it’s too bad that an album that became such a huge hit couldn’t have been more of a consistent effort.
1. Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To): An Oscar-nominated, #1 smash hit, this is one of the great Diana Ross performances, and has become one of her most enduring hits. The song itself is a brilliantly written, instantly memorable composition by Michael Masser (who’d written hits “Touch Me In The Morning” and “Last Time I Saw Him” for Diana) and Gerry Goffin, and the soaring ballad is a perfect fit for the gorgeous vocals of Diana Ross. This is one of those deceptively simple performances that Diana Ross gives so well; it would be easy to say that song isn’t a particularly challenging one to sing, or that it doesn’t stretch her much as a singer. That, however, would be overlooking the skill it takes to put over the thoughtful, almost-abstract lyrics. This is not a song like “Last Time I Saw Him” or “I’m Still Waiting” or even “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” – there’s not a specific story being told here. Instead, Diana Ross uses her sensitivity to convey the sense of a story behind the words; her ability to interpret a lyric and bring such a dreamy, pensive quality to it is something that sets her apart as an artist (and something that she’d surely become an expert at with her work on Lady Sings The Blues). The production is also top-notch; the instrumental track is sweeping and dramatic, fitting for its place as the theme song to a film. Strangely, this song was overlooked for a Grammy nomination in the Best Female Pop Vocal Performance category; it certainly stands as one of the great female vocal performances of the year, if not the decade.
2. I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love): This was the second single released from Diana Ross, and made it to the Top 50 on the pop charts before stalling out. According to The Billboard Book of Number One R&B Hits, Motown had been promoting this track when it was forced to rush-release “Love Hangover” as a single to kill a version by The 5th Dimension. That makes sense, as this song is another stunning ballad from Michael Masser and seems like a natural hit for Diana Ross; had attention not shifted to “Love Hangover,” this one probably could have been at least a Top 10 record. “I Thought It Took A Little Time…” is just as beautiful a song as the “Theme From Mahogany,” and requires Diana to use more of her vocal range; she sounds controlled and relaxed here when using the lower end of her range as well as pushing herself higher during the song’s climax. Diana’s voice, particularly on the dramatic, string-laden intro, is also extremely mature here; though she’d turned in wise, sophisticated work on her past few studio albums, she actually does sound older and more seasoned here. The instrumental track, as on the previous offering, is dramatic and symphonic, with a prominent piano line, soaring strings, and dreamy, almost hypnotic background vocals. Though they turned out some amazing work together, and had much bigger hits than this, this is clearly one of the strongest collaborations between Mr. Masser and Miss Ross, and stands among her best work of the mid/late 1970s.
3. Love Hangover: If a song had to kill the chart success of “I Thought It Took A Little Time…,” at least it was a monster hit like this one. “Love Hangover” is, of course, a disco classic; it went to #1 on the pop and R&B charts, was nominated for a Grammy, and has more than stood the test of time, having now been sampled and remade by several artists in the years since its original release. The song is one of the most unusual of Miss Ross’s career; the album version runs nearly eight minutes long, as the slow-burning groove of the intro erupts into a feverish, guitar-popping beat at 2:45 into the track. The Diana Ross singing for those languid first two-and-a-half minutes is unlike any we’ve heard from her before; her vocals are breathy, sexy, mature, and relaxed. This is maybe the most effortless she ever sounded on record; it’s honestly as though she’s singing into a microphone straight from her bed. She’s helped immensely, of course, by the superb session players (consisting of Joe Sample of keyboards, James Gadson on drums, and Henry Davis on bass, according to The Billboard Book of Number One R&B Hits), who turn in a luxurious, sizzling groove that is completely irresistible. Of course, it’s the second part of the song that made it a dance-floor classic, as the beat suddenly kicks up with a fantastic guitar vamp that would later be appropriated for Thelma Houston’s similar “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” The second part of the song is particularly interesting in terms of Diana Ross as a singer because there are no actual lyrics; she ad-libs everything for the final five minutes of the track. This gives the singer a chance to completely cut loose in a way she rarely does on record; she actually sounds like she’s have a great time, changing up her voice and even laughing over the track at times. At 6:30 in the song, she goes from rumbling the lyrics “If there’s a cure for this” in the lowest section of her range to suddenly sounding like she’s channeling a jazz and blues singer again. The entire performance here is fun and surprising; this track was produced by Diana’s longtime collaborator Hal Davis, and this is probably their best collaboration.
4. Kiss Me Now: After three strong, dynamic songs that have all become Diana Ross classics, the high quality of Diana Ross comes to a screeching halt with this song, which gets my vote as one of the most irritating in the entire Ross discography. The song is written to sound something like a 1920s-era vaudeville piece, with rapid-fire lyrics and ragtime piano line that dominates the track. Unfortunately, the 1970s production values kill the song; the cutesy background vocals sound like something from a high school production of A Chorus Line. Diana Ross also gives a strange performance; though it’s a treat to hear her singing what might be the lowest notes of her career, and she easily keeps up with the challenging, fast-paced lyrics, she also breaks into a Louis Armstrong impression at about 1:45 in that’s unfortunate to say the least. Again, coming on the heels of three such great selections, this song comes off as something like a joke; it’s certainly a novelty tune that doesn’t add anything to the album.
5. You’re Good My Child: This is, at least, a stronger song and production than the previous track, but it’s still one of the weaker efforts on the album. Unfortunately, this time, it’s Diana herself who sinks the song; her vocals here are as affected and uninspired as some of her work on the Diana & Marvin album. The sexy and sophisticated performance she’d turned in on “Love Hangover” should have carried over to this song, which features a similar groove to the slow-burn opening of that #1 hit. Instead, her voice sounds a little out of control here; the raspy quality she affects makes her sound more tired than sexy, and there are moments where it sounds like she just plain goes off-key (for example, she doesn’t quite hit the “Move me!” at 1:20, nor does she quite nail the word “child” about twenty seconds later). The thunderous piano of this song is similar to that of Diana’s 1971 single “Surrender” – and it’s a shame that she can’t match her vocal performance from that earlier, far superior song. While she’s clearly trying to sound earthy and soulful here, it’s a forced performance that just doesn’t work.
6. One Love In My Lifetime: Thank God, after the previous two misfires, things finally click a bit again on Diana Ross with this, which became the fourth single from the album (and a moderate hit, peaking in the Top 30 of the pop charts and Top 10 R&B). An upbeat, funky, joyful love song, this is one of the catchiest on the album, and features a glorious, memorable chorus. Diana’s voice sounds pretty good here; her vocal at least features more energy and soul again, although she does sound like she’s straining a little bit at times — strange, consdering there’s nothing here out of her range. She trades vocals at the end of the song with a background singer, a nice and unique addition which adds some life to the already-spirited track. The instrumental is funky and rock-oriented, with prominent guitar work and a complex, popping bass-line. The joyousness here is a highlight of the album; it’s a shame it wasn’t an even bigger hit.
7. Ain’t Nothin’ But A Maybe: This song is a Nick Ashford/Valerie Simpson composition; it was recorded and released by the duo on their I Wanna Be Selfish album, and also recorded by Rufus for the funk group’s second album, Rags To Rufus. It’s actually interesting to listen to all three versions, as they’re remarkably similar — the song is a husky soul ballad, and all three artists perform it in the same way, keeping the pace relaxed and simmering. Diana sounds strong and confident here; her vocals aren’t quite as fiery as on her other Ashford & Simpson work, and it would have been nice to hear her do a little more “soul belting” toward the end, as she had on songs like “I Can’t Give Back The Love (I Feel For You)” from Surrender. Still, this is one of the better non-single additions to Diana Ross, and is a nice, mellow listen — it was also produced by Miss Ross herself, and is one of her best efforts in that regard.
8. After You: Originally released as an instrumental on the sountrack to Mahogany, this is another Michael Masser ballad that’s perfectly suited to the smooth, honeyed voice of Diana Ross. This tune is nearly as strong as the other two Masser-written and produced ballads on this album, which is saying a lot, considering just how good those songs are. As on “Theme From Mahogany,” both the production and vocals are gentle and soothing; to risk sounding too cliche, they really do have a “dreamy” quality. Diana Ross again turns in strong vocals that are never overdone; she matches her voice perfectly to the pitch required by the lyrics, but imbues them with a complexity that hints at a hidden subtext. This song, as with the other ballads featured on Diana Ross, is definitive proof of Diana’s gifts as an interpreter and storyteller. She was at the top ofher game in 1976 and getting to work with the best ballad material out there, and she easily made the most of it.
9. Smile: Unfortunately, after three strong tracks in a row, Diana Ross ends on another low point. “Smile” had originally been recorded in the early 1970s for the unreleased Blue album — a project proposed to have followed up the Lady Sings The Blues soundtrack. When finally released in 2006, the Blue album proved to be phenomenal, but this song is not nearly the strongest on it — making the choice of its inclusion here something of a mystery. Certainly the fact that it was written by comedian Charlie Chaplin continues the “Hollwood” feel of this album, and as always, the orchestration by Gil Askey is beautiful. Diana’s vocals, however, are a rare case of her overdoing a standard; rather than retaining the aching simplicity of her other Lady and Blue recordings, she lays it on pretty thick. There’s a saccharine and syrupy quality to her performance here that echoes some of the most pretentious of her Supremes recordings, and this is especially evident in light of her masterful readings of ballads like “Theme From Mahogany” and the previous track, “After You” — there’s a subtlety and understatement to those performances that she pretty much throws out the window here. Though I’m sure a lot of fans are fond of this particular recording, Diana Ross really was capable of so much better.
Note: For information on bonus tracks from this album, click HERE.
Though it remains one of her most popular and best-charting albums thanks to the huge hits it contains, Diana Ross is, as mentioned earlier, an uneven album. Had the three weakest songs — “Kiss Me Now,” “You’re Good My Child,” and “Smile” — been replaced with stronger inclusions, this could have been one of her definitive works; the singles and best album tracks are absolute career standouts. Unfortunately, that trio of songs keeps the album from truly being one of Miss Ross’s timeless works. Another issue keeping this from being a true Diana Ross essential, of course, is that just about every great song here is easily available on another album. All four singles would show up the next year on Diana’s first Greatest Hits collection, and “After You” would later appear on the All The Great Love Songs collection. Therefore, while Diana Ross is an important part of the Ross discography, it’s not a highlight in terms of her album output. Her next studio collection, Baby It’s Me, would prove that Diana Ross was still more than capable of turning out a cohesive, seamless collection of songs — it is, in fact, perhaps the single best album of her career. This one is much more reminscent of some of her albums with the Supremes — some really great singles, a few classic album tracks, and weak filler.
Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (“You’re Good” — But Not Great)
Choice Cuts: “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To),” “Love Hangover,” “I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love)”
The Grammy nominees for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance that year were:
Natalie Cole, “Sophisticated Lady (She’s A Different Lady)” (Winner)
Aretha Franklin, “Something He Can Feel”
Dorothy Moore, “Misty Blue”
Melba Moore, “Lean On Me”
Diana Ross, “Love Hangover”