“Once, we were standing still in time…”
Despite being one of the biggest stars in the world, the singing career of Diana Ross had cooled considerably by the fall of 1975. Since “Touch Me In The Morning” had hit #1 in mid-1973, none of the singer’s successive singles had made the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100; worst of all, the country-pop ballad “Sorry Doesn’t Always Make It Right,” released in early 1975, missed the Hot 100 completely, the singer’s first solo single not to make the chart at all. To be fair, Diana’s attention was elsewhere during this period, with preparations underway for the singer’s second starring role in a motion picture; Mahogany was crafted as a glitzy dramatic vehicle for Miss Ross, who’d scored an Oscar nomination for her debut as an actress in 1972’s Lady Sings The Blues. Principal photography on the new film began in November of 1974; by January of 1975, shooting had taken the cast and crew to Rome, with Miss Ross not only acting in the film but also designing her own glamorous costumes.
Mahogany finally opened in theatres in September of 1975; although it wasn’t the critical success Motown had hoped for, it was a smash hit with audiences and, in something of a side effect, helped revitalize Diana’s career as a popular music artist. The movie’s theme song, eventually titled “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To),” was also released as a single in September, and by January of the following year became Diana’s third solo #1 hit (count her work as lead singer of The Supremes, and she’d scored a whopping 15 chart-toppers). The song, which garnered an Oscar nomination, was featured on the Mahogany soundtrack album, but it also set the stage for Diana’s next album release, which would be her first full-length studio album since 1973’s Last Time I Saw Him. “I have a new album that’s coming out within a week. The name of the album is just Diana Ross,” the singer told Don Pietromonaco in a 1976 interview. “It’s a combination album of a lot of things that I like to do.”
Diana Ross (Motown 861), released in February of 1976, is indeed a combination album, featuring the work of several producers and crossing various genre lines over the course of its nine tracks. Writer and producer Michael Masser is prominently featured, not only with “Theme from Mahogany” but also with the album’s second single, a superb ballad entitled “I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love),” and “After You,” which originated as an instrumental piece on the Mahogany soundtrack. Diana herself produced “Ain’t Nothin’ But A Maybe,” written by her old friends Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, and the Charlie Chaplin standard “Smile” was lifted out of the Motown vaults, having been recorded with Gil Askey way back during sessions for the long-unreleased jazz album Blue. But behind the scenes, the person perhaps most deserving of top honors on Diana Ross is Hal Davis, the West Coast producer who’d worked off and on with Miss Ross (and The Supremes) since way back in 1964 with A Bit Of Liverpool.
“She liked the lyric…but people thought I was a little off for even suggesting that Diana do this song,” Hal Davis said (in J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana) about the unorthodox, eight-minute song that would help propel Diana Ross to major success on the pop and R&B album charts. “Love Hangover” became the singer’s unprecedented fourth solo #1 hit and also earned her a fourth solo Grammy nomination, and its parent album raced up the charts. Although the album remains one of the most commercially successful in the singer’s career, it’s also an extremely uneven effort; the good songs here, like “Love Hangover,” are great, but they’re bogged down by uninspired filler. Had the handful of weakest songs been replaced by stronger selections, and had the entire thing been re-sequenced to tell some kind of story, this could have been a career-defining album. Instead, with every great song here available on various other collections, Diana Ross stands as an interesting, but not wholly satisfying snapshot of the artist at a peak time in her career.
1. Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To): “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” is an apt title for a song that took some twists and turns before finally becoming the Oscar-nominated classic it is today. Writer-producer Michael Masser penned the song and it was initially recorded by Motown singer Thelma Houston; according to J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana Ross: A Biography, Motown film executive Rob Cohen heard the song one day and decided it would be a perfect love theme for Diana’s upcoming film. Masser and writer Gerry Goffin re-worked the song for Diana and the movie and it was recorded quickly; Masser recalls in Diana Ross: A Biography, “I think Diana did it in one take, maybe two. It was perfect.” Indeed, in many ways, this is a perfect recording; the song itself is an exquisitely-written ballad with an instantly memorable melody and enough repetition that it buries itself deep within the listener’s brain. Recorded with a full orchestra, the song is lush and certainly sounds cinematic; it ebbs and flows in all the right places, surrounding Diana Ross in a sweeping symphony and bringing forth a thoughtful, dreamy performance from the singer. This is one of those deceptively simple performances that Miss Ross delivers 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. But that would be overlooking the skill it takes to put over the interior lyrics. This is not a song like “Last Time I Saw Him” or “I’m Still Waiting” – there’s not really 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 pensive quality to it is something that sets her apart as an artist (for proof, listen to the covers of this song by Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez, which both come off antiseptic compared to Diana’s version). The quality of her voice is also outstanding; the singer’s voice is as smooth and creamy, and she effortlessly nails every single note. Released on September 24, 1975 (and backed with “No One’s Gonna Be A Fool Forever” from Last Time I Saw Him), the song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 in November; twelve weeks later, it topped the chart, becoming Diana’s third #1 pop hit and also topping the Easy Listening chart. It was eventually nominated for an Academy Award as Best Song, although not without some controversy; the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences initially deemed the song “qualitatively ineligible” for the award, a move that elicited such outrage from the entertainment community that AMPAS reversed its decision, paving the way for the song to score one of that year’s nominations. It ended up losing to Keith Carradine’s “I’m Easy” from the film Nashville, but “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” remains one of the decade’s definitive ballads.
2. I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love): Following the major success of “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To),” Motown decided to release another Michael Masser-penned ballad as the follow-up single; on February 20, 1976, the label serviced “I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love)” (co-written with Pam Sawyer and backed by “After You”) to radio and record-buyers. Ads at the time proclaimed it “Her Next #1 Single…” and, indeed, the company had every reason to be optimistic of the song’s success; this is a superlative ballad, a more challenging record than “Theme From Mahogany” and just as deeply moving. The song opens as a near-duet between Diana Ross and a violin, with the singer pondering “Am I really hard to please?” in a breathy, mature tone as the stringed instrument dances around her; with a deep, thunderous piano chord, the song opens up into another sophisticated slice of symphonic pop, slowly building in intensity until the dramatic crescendo of the song’s refrain. The melody here is far more complex than that of “Theme From Mahogany,” and it requires more range and power from its vocalist; Diana Ross more than delivers, her voice both controlled and surprisingly elastic as she shifts from the velvety vocals of her lower register to the ringing high notes during each chorus. Backed by a powerful chorus of hypnotic voices, Diana turns in one of her best ballad performances ever; it’s a shame that this particular recording was overlooked for a Grammy nomination in the Female Pop Vocal Performance category, as it was certainly worthy of the shortlist. Unfortunately, “I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love)” wouldn’t find the kind of success it deserved on the charts, either; although Motown predicted another chart-topper with this ballad, the label was forced to essentially kill it by rush-releasing Diana’s version of “Love Hangover” a month later, in order to compete with a version released by pop group The Fifth Dimension. Diana’s “Love Hangover” shot to #1, but “I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love)” died in its wake, peaking at a disappointing #47 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song did, however, make it to #4 on the Easy Listening chart, and it more than stands the test of time as a compelling piece of work. (NOTE: Coincidentally, former Fifth Dimension members Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. covered this song for their 1978 LP Marilyn & Billy, which also featured another notable Michael Masser ballad, “Saving All My Love For You.” Singer Stacy Lattisaw also covered “I Thought It Took A Little Time” for her 1985 LP I’m Not The Same Girl.)
“Her phrasing is simply remarkable, working out the tension between the sweetness of her voice and Gene Page’s explosive, mnemonic arrangement. When she hits the chorus, other interpreters, particularly the litany of white amateurs so often praised by critics, simply fade away. Ronstadt, Muldaur, Raitt and the rest simply could not handle material simultaneously so mature and overtly sensual. Which only proves what is easy to forget between hits: Diana Ross is a popular music artist of the most regal kind.” -Dave Marsh in Rolling Stone, reviewing “I Thought It Took a Little Time (But Today I Fell in Love)”
3. Love Hangover: “I needed a smash right away, because the Jacksons had left [Motown] and everybody said, ‘Well, it’s over, Hal doesn’t have a group, what’s he going to do?'” That’s Hal Davis, quoted in The Billboard Book of Number One R&B Hits, remembering the feeling just before he heard a demo of the Pam Sawyer-Marilyn McLeod song “Love Hangover.” Davis recalls cutting the track with ace musicians including Joe Sample (keyboards), James Gadson (drums), and Henry Davis (bass) late one night at Paramount Studios, and fighting them on changing the tempo halfway through; the producer’s vision for “Love Hangover” was something of a two-for-one, as the song begins with a languid, sexy groove before erupting into pure, popping disco. With the track finished, Davis played it for an initially unenthusiastic Diana Ross: “She said she didn’t want to do it, she didn’t like disco…She had just had her baby, she came in moody, and didn’t really want to get into anything” (The Billboard Book of Number One R&B Hits). Of course, eventually Miss Ross did get into it, and what she delivered would become one of her most iconic vocal performances ever; the Diana Ross singing for those languid first two-and-a-half minutes is unlike anything we’ve heard from her before, with vocals that are at once 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 those superb musicians who turn in a luxurious, sizzling groove that is completely irresistible; the track would return to the top of the charts again decades later, sampled in the hit song “The First Night” by Monica. Of course, it’s the second part of “Love Hangover” 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,” also produced by Hal Davis (and a song originally earmarked for Diana). 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. It’s a thrilling glimpse into Diana’s creative psyche, and a performance which garnered her a fourth solo Grammy nomination, for Female R&B Vocal Performance (Natalie Cole took the award that year). The song, meanwhile, nearly missed its chance at being a hit; pop group The Fifth Dimension also cut a version, and released it as a single first. Motown responded by rushing out Diana’s recording, and both versions debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on April 3, 1976; by May 29, Diana’s version was #1, where it remained for two weeks, becoming her biggest hit on the chart since “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and making Miss Ross the first solo female artist to collect four chart-topping records on the Hot 100.
4. Kiss Me Now: After the sophisticated balladry of the album’s pair of opening tracks and then the wickedly sexy duo-groove of the third, Diana Ross takes an odd left turn into vaudeville-pop, offering up a song that sounds like then-current Broadway smash A Chorus Line‘s “One” as done by Al Jolson. The names associated with “Kiss Me Now” make up a fascinating bunch; the track was written by Gwen Gordy Fuqua (sister to Berry Gordy, Jr.) and Kenny Lupper, a talented musician who worked with artists including Aretha Franklin and Billy Preston and to whom Fuqua was married for a time. Credited producers on the track are Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. and Don Costa, a prolific arranger known for working with artists including Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Sarah Vaughn. Costa’s arrangement for “Kiss Me Now” is described by Andy Kellman in his AllMusic review of Diana Ross as “a frisky, showbiz jazz number,” which is to say there’s a bouncy, ragtime-inspired track led by a tinny piano. But make no mistake, this is about as far from “jazz” as one could get; this is jazz through the lens of glitzy razzle-dazzle, tailor-made for one of Diana’s Las Vegas stage spectaculars. It doesn’t date well; the cutesy affectation of the arrangement and the milquetoast background vocals add up to pure novelty, and the song doesn’t make much sense following the mature, inspired productions which precede it on the album. Diana’s voice is really buried in the mix, but it must be said that she at least does a skillful job of keeping up with the rapid-fire lyrics and get a rare chance to mine the lowest reaches of her vocal range. Unfortunately, she also throws in a Louis Armstrong impression, which is probably better left unaddressed. The entire production just sounds forced; there’s a plastic sheen over the recording that renders it impenetrable and robs it of any soul. Interestingly, although “Kiss Me Now” is a real low point on Diana Ross, it was recorded a few other times; Thelma Houston and Jerry Butler sang it as a duet and included it on the b-side of their 1977 single “It’s A Lifetime Thing,” and Kenny Lupper recorded his own version, releasing it as the b-side to his 1978 single “Passion Flower” (his version, by the way, featured backing vocals from Motown vocal group High Inergy). Motown also placed Diana’s version as the b-side to the “Love Hangover” single; thus, “Kiss Me Now” is likely in rare company as a song that was featured on the b-side of three different singles by three different artists!
5. You’re Good My Child: The second side of Diana Ross picks right up where Side A left off, with a song again written by Kenny Lupper (by himself this time) and produced by Berry Gordy and Guy Costa. The song itself is much stronger, with a sexy and soulful production and a groove reminiscent of the slow-burn opening featured on “Love Hangover” — in fact, it’s odd that Motown didn’t place this song immediately following that one, as the two seem to flow together so well. Perhaps due to writer Lupper’s influence, there’s a funk-gospel feel to the arrangement here, especially in the thunderous piano work; the musicians create a slightly raucous, earthy vibe that perfectly bridges the emergence of disco with the danceable funk from earlier in the decade. Unfortunately, “You’re Good My Child” never delivers on its own promise, and the major culprit this time is Diana herself; affecting a raspy tone that makes her sound more tired than sexy, the singer’s voice comes off as uncontrolled and worn, worlds away from the velvety perfection of the album’s early ballads. There are moments here where Miss Ross plainly 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. This is clearly intentional; again, she’s forcing a certain sound here, creating a mood with her voice meant to match the tone set by the instrumental. It’s a choice, and Diana is admirably committed to it, but it falls flat; had the singer delivered the lyrics with the kind of satisfied confidence she’d displayed on “Love Hangover,” this song could have been one of the standouts on the album. Instead, it’s merely an interesting listen and an example of Diana’s willingness to experiment vocally, even when it doesn’t necessarily display the best her voice has to offer.
6. One Love In My Lifetime: Released in July of 1976, this was the fourth and final single pulled from Diana Ross; the song became the singer’s 13th solo Top 40 hit, peaking at #25 on the Billboard Hot 100 and climbing all the way to #10 on the R&B chart. Written by Terri McFaddin, Leonard Perry, and Lawrence Brown (and produced by Brown), this is perhaps the most upbeat single Miss Ross had released thus far in her solo career, featuring a funky and rock-oriented track with prominent guitar work and a complex, popping bass-line. Brown, it should be mentioned, was no stranger to creating driving Motown funk; he’s a credited co-writer on “I’m So Glad I Got Somebody (Like You Around),” a heavy-hitter from the 1969 Supremes LP Let The Sunshine In, and he also wrote and co-produced the superb “In And Out Of My Life” for Martha Reeves and The Vandellas in 1971. Much of Brown’s work as producer here is really strong, from the thumping track to the chorus of soulful background vocals; the song itself is one of the strongest on the album, thanks to a joyful, memorable chorus and smart, straightforward lyrics. Diana’s vocal is solid, although a bit restrained; she offers up a charismatic performance, but it’s missing the kind of explosive expressiveness she’d displayed on her earliest solo albums, and if any song calls for that kind of “letting go,” it’s this one. Had Miss Ross put just a bit more muscle into her voice and pushed herself a little further, it probably could have elevated the entire production. To be fair, the mix is also a little murky here, and at times Miss Ross gets swamped by this boisterous background vocals, so perhaps that’s part of the problem. Still, “One Love In My Lifetime” is an irresistible production and a great addition to Diana Ross; considering it was the fourth single from an album that so many people had already purchased, the fact that it climbed as high as it did on the charts is pretty impressive. Miss Ross was able to promote the single with her “An Evening With Diana Ross” stage show, which opened at Broadway’s Palace Theatre on June 14, 1976 and widely toured; although “One Love In My Lifetime” was edited off the live album of the show, released in January of 1977, it was kept as part of the accompanying television special (which aired in March). The song was also included on Diana’s first Greatest Hits collection, released the same month as this single; clearly Motown intended for “One Love In My Lifetime” to promote that collection as much as this one. (NOTE: In 2012, English soul singer Joss Stone would cover this song on the Deluxe edition of her album The Soul Sessions Vol. 2, in a version that stays very faithful to Diana’s original.)
7. Ain’t Nothin’ But A Maybe: Diana Ross produced this version of the Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson classic herself, making it one of just a handful of self-produced tunes Ross released during her tenure at Motown Records. The song had earlier been recorded by Ashford & Simpson (for the duo’s second joint LP, I Wanna Be Selfish) and the funk band Rufus, who included the song on its second studio album, Rags To Rufus. Both of these acts had close ties to Diana Ross; Ashford & Simpson, of course, had produced 1970’s Diana Ross and 1971’s Surrender for the singer, and Rufus was managed for a while by Diana’s first husband, Robert Ellis Silberstein. 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 the tone one of simmering passion. Diana’s voice, of course, boasts a texture very different from those of Simpson and Rufus lead singer Chaka Khan; Miss Ross sings with a compelling clarity, her voice smooth and supple and nailing every note dead-center. Ross as producer keeps the production tasteful, allowing the background vocalists plenty of room to shine (and they sure do sound like Ashford & Simpson, don’t they?) and even doubling her own voice to good effect. Miss Ross the producer never pushes Miss Ross the vocalist in the way that Ashford & Simpson would have had they helmed this particular track, but it doesn’t really matter; although a little more fire would have been a nice change from some of the more laid-back performances on this album, Diana’s easy, uncluttered vocal is too good to complain about. “Ain’t Nothin’ But A Maybe” still sounds good today, and probably could have picked up some airplay on soul stations had it been serviced to radio or placed on the b-side of one of the album’s singles.
8. After You: Michael Masser had already given Diana Ross a #1 hit with 1973’s “Touch Me In The Morning” when he was handed the monumental assignment of scoring the singer’s second feature film, Mahogany. The composer later recalled in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, “I read a book on scoring and it had all these real fancy words in it, but no meaning of music. So basically what I did was work it all out at home in front of a video machine. I played the entire film through with the dialogue turned off, so that I could get the feeling of expressions between Diana and Billy Dee [Williams]…I’d play the piano anywhere I thought there should be music.” The result of his work was a 15-track Original Soundtrack Album, released along with the film in October 1975; boosted by the theme song, the Mahogany soundtrack climbed into the pop and R&B Top 20, a real feat considering Diana’s voice was only featured on one track. In its original review of the soundtrack, Billboard called the album “fine music” and named the instrumental track “After You” as a standout; at some point, writer Ron Miller (who also co-wrote “Touch Me In The Morning”) put lyrics to the song, and it became another superb ballad for Diana Ross. That this tune is nearly as strong as the other two Masser-written and produced ballads on this album is saying a lot, considering just how good those songs are; as on “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To),” both the production and vocals are gentle and soothing; to risk sounding cliché, they really do have a dreamy quality and a bit of magic that’s hard to define. Diana Ross again turns in a strong performance that’s 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. Although it was never released as an a-side, “After You” was placed on the b-side of the “I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love)” single; in 1977, Roberta Flack covered the song for her Blue Lights In The Basement album.
9. Smile: During her 1976 interview with Don Pietromonaco, Diana Ross said of this song, “I just love it,” which is fairly obvious; Ross featured it in her Tony Award-winning one-woman show An Evening With Diana Ross and dug it out of the vaults to include it here. Ross initially recorded this track with producer Gil Askey back in 1972, intended for inclusion on the jazz album Blue; that album was shelved (it finally got a release in 2006), and the recording remained unreleased until Ross chose it to close out this album. The song’s music was composed by Charlie Chaplin for his 1936 film Modern Times; years later, John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added lyrics and Nat King Cole made it a popular hit. “Smile” made sense as part of the Blue lineup; it certainly wasn’t the strongest cut on the album, but it fit in well with the concept and surrounding material. That’s not at all the case here; coming after eight cuts of contemporary pop/soul, the song is the pin that pops the metaphorical balloon, killing the mood with its saccharine orchestration and comparatively weak vocals. Nothing about “Smile” works in the context of Diana Ross; the singer relies on Supremes-style affectations to sell the lyrics, and the arrangement is outdated. Had Diana recorded a new version of “Smile” with a contemporary arrangement, it might have served the album well; this one doesn’t. Interestingly, Diana’s protégé Michael Jackson would also cite “Smile” was one of his favorite songs, recording it and placing it as the final track on his 1995 collection HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I.
1976 will forever stand as one of the most commercially successful years in the storied career of Diana Ross; Diana Ross raced to #5 on the Billboard 200 and #4 on the R&B Albums chart, her best showings since 1973’s Touch Me In The Morning and among the best of her entire career. She also ended the year as Billboard‘s top pop singles artist, with four charting hits on the Billboard Hot 100. With the success of “Love Hangover,” she became the first solo female artist to collect four #1 singles, bringing her career total to a whopping 16 chart-topping hits, something that’s still astonishing to this day. Motown quickly capitalized on the rush of success by releasing Diana’s first Greatest Hits collection in July; the compilation peaked at #13 on the Billboard 200, impressive considering four of its tracks overlapped with Diana Ross, released five months earlier. It’s no surprise that in 1976, Billboard named Diana “Entertainer of the Century.”
While its singles easily stand the test of time, Diana Ross ultimately does not. The album is so front-loaded with classics that it could never be a balanced project, and the weakest songs here are tough listens. Had “Kiss Me Now” and “Smile” been left off and replaced with stronger cuts (such as Michael Masser’s superb ballad “To Love Again,” saved for 1978’s Ross) and “You’re Good My Child” been given a better vocal and mix, the album would have benefitted greatly. The good news is that with this album, Miss Ross embarked upon a wildly creative period in her career, touring the world with an ambitious stage extravaganza, recording a superb live album, and following that up with one of the best (if not the best) studio albums she’d ever release. For many artists, an album as successful as Diana Ross would have been a career pinnacle; amazingly, for Miss Ross, the bar would only get higher and higher.
Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (“You’re Good”…But Not Great)
Paul’s Picks: “I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love),” “Love Hangover,” “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)”