“All I ever wanted was the music, and the chance to sing for you…”
“Superstar!…The term fits Diana Ross like the form-fitting net body stocking she wears in her dazzling impersonation of the late super showgirl, Josephine Baker, as part of ‘An Evening With Diana Ross,’ her brand new stage show,” raved Jet magazine in its June 10, 1976 cover story on Diana Ross. Writer Bob Lucas described the “reverberating roar of applause” during the show’s engagement at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, which served as something of a “try-out” before the show moved to Broadway’s Palace Theatre for a sold-out run. After conquering popular music (both solo and with The Supremes), the upscale supper club scene, television, and motion pictures, Broadway was truly the last entertainment horizon left for the performer; when An Evening With Diana Ross opened on the Great White Way on June 14, 1976 to rapturous audiences and critical reviews, it proved once and for all that Diana Ross could — and seemingly would — do it all.
Ross designed An Evening With Diana Ross with Joe Layton, the legendary director who’d worked with Barbra Streisand on her early, groundbreaking television specials and on Broadway hits including The Sound Of Music and George M! In his book Call Her Miss Ross, write J. Randy Taraborrelli quotes Layton as saying about Evening‘s genesis, “We went through all kinds of emotional drama together. [Diana] was upset about her marriage and always in tears. I was upset because my wife had recently died, and also always crying my eyes out. Out of all these sobbing bouts, somehow came creativity.” Interestingly, Layton goes on to discuss Diana’s thirst for independence at this time, something that also undoubtedly added to her drive to make this particular act successful: “Even though she was still recording for Motown, she wanted to split from Berry, and that was very clear. His image of her was something she wanted no part of, so he wasn’t consulted about the show. I’m sure it must have made him crazy, but she was cutting the cord that was around her neck” (331).
The resulting two-act show was something of a tour through Diana’s life, from her time with The Supremes to her leap into motion pictures and even a segment dedicated to her three children. An extended sequence paid tribute to the women of color who came before her, including Josephine Baker, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and, of course, Billie Holiday, whom Ross had portrayed in the film Lady Sings The Blues. Along with songs identified with those legendary singers and Diana’s own hits, the show incorporated several selections from the Broadway hit A Chorus Line, which had opened at the Shubert Theatre in 1975; original cast member Baayork Lee would later tell The Telegraph how she knew the groundbreaking musical was a hit: “I was kicking at the end of the show and I saw Diana Ross, Jackie Onassis and Groucho Marx in the audience.” (February 26, 2013). Backing Miss Ross throughout the ambitious show were The Jones Girls (sisters Shirley, Brenda, and Valorie), who at the encouragement of Miss Ross would go on to their own recording success later in the decade.
After the show’s Broadway success, Diana toured with it extensively, including five-night engagements in major cities like Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Boston. Motown recorded the show in September of 1976 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles and released it in January of 1977 as An Evening With Diana Ross (Motown 877). Wisely, the label chose not to do any heavy editing, cutting only one song from the lineup (“One Love In My Lifetime”) and releasing the rest as a double-LP set. Unlike 1974’s Live At Caesar’s Palace, the incredible energy displayed Diana Ross in her vocal performances compensates for the lack of visuals, and the song choices are always explained and make perfect sense in context with one another. The nightly demands of doing this show clearly worked Diana’s vocal chords into tip-top shape; her performances are uniformly powerful, far more impressive than anything she’d displayed on her past few albums. Although nothing can probably compare to have seen An Evening With Diana Ross live and in-person, this album is a superb record of Diana Ross at the absolute peak of her powers.
1. Overture: The album opens with a brief instrumental overture made up of music from the Mahogany soundtrack; the memorable strains of the popular “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” receive warm applause from the audience before the band transitions into the fast-paced and exciting “My Hero Is A Gun,” a melody also composed by Michael Masser for the film. As with every live album Diana had released up to this point (both solo and with The Supremes), the musical director here is Gil Askey, the man who’d helped orchestrate the historic 1965 Copacabana engagement for The Supremes and eventually gained an Academy Award nomination for scoring Lady Sings The Blues. Askey’s sophisticated arrangements are essential to the concert’s success; he and the musicians provide a pulsing, electric energy off of which Diana clearly feeds. The credited rhythm section here includes Marty Harris (piano), Gene Pello (drums), John Collins (guitar), Louie Spears (bass), Jerry Steinholtz (congas), and Greg Wright (keyboards).
2. Here I Am/I Wouldn’t Change A Thing: By all accounts, the opening of An Evening With Diana Ross was a sight to behold, with Jet magazine describing, “the fluttering hands of an invisible mime become a butterfly that floats across a darkened stage to where Diana is suddenly spotlighted…The long, sheer gown she wears has sleeves that stretch out into a movie screen upon which film clips of her are unreeled” (June 10, 1976). To this visual spectacle, Diana sang a galvanizing medley of the Burt Bacharach-Hal Davis tune “Here I Am” (the title track of a 1965 Dionne Warwick album and a song featured in the film What’s New Pussycat?) and “I Wouldn’t Change A Thing,” written and recorded by Johnny Bristol for his 1975 LP Feeling The Magic. Aside from perhaps the electric “T.C.B.” on 1970’s Farewell, this is easily the best opening on a Ross live album; she’s in full, commanding voice, and there’s a real sense of excitement as she croons, “Here I Am/And here I’ll always stay/Wanting you/Needing you” to her audience, expressing appreciation that fans have been part of her life and assuring them she wouldn’t have it any other way. Her reading of “I Wouldn’t Change A Thing” is so energetic and engaging that it’s a shame she never released a studio recording of the song; while Bristol’s original is a funky cut full of swagger, Diana takes an aggressive attack on the lyrics, and as she belts out the final word of the medley she truly sounds like a Broadway star. More than anything, the medley serves as a kind of “thesis statement” for the show to follow; Miss Ross declares right from the beginning that “I’d do it all again/If I had to live my life all over,” and over the course of the evening, she’ll take audiences on that ride from Detroit’s Brewster Projects to Broadway.
3. The Lady Is A Tramp: Next up, Diana falls back into familiar territory, belting out a song which had been part of her act for a full decade. Ross first recorded “The Lady Is A Tramp” for 1967’s The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart, and it was then included on every single one of her live albums, both solo and with The Supremes; thus, the Rodgers & Hart classic is afforded more album appearances than most of the actual hits recorded by The Supremes and/or Diana Ross! The reason the upbeat, swinging standard (written for the 1937 music Babes In Arms) became such a go-to is obvious; the song is a Ross showstopper, giving the singer a chance to really belt and display her often-overlooked range. For my money, the best recorded performance of the song is found on the Supremes Farewell album, in which Diana, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong exhibit a staggering amount of energy and pizzazz during a medley of the song with “Let’s Get Away From It All.” That said, Ross delivers a fine version here, her vocal crisp and vigorous; the early placement of the song was likely a way to allow the singer to “warm up” her voice a little bit, stretching out her pipes on a song with which she was comfortable. Interestingly, when An Evening With Diana Ross was turned into a 90-minute television special for NBC-TV in March of 1977 (the first time in history a solo female headlined a 90-minute TV special), Miss Ross promoted the event by performing an absolutely spellbinding version of “The Lady Is A Tramp” on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” It’s a clip worth checking out.
4. Touch Me In The Morning: When Diana’s 1974 album Live At Caesars Palace was released, the singer was fairly fresh off the success of her 1973 #1 hit “Touch Me In The Morning” — unfortunately, because the Caesars Palace show had been recorded in early 1973, “Touch Me In The Morning” wasn’t featured on the live album. Thus, this is the first released live recording of this signature Diana Ross ballad. This is also the first of Diana’s own hits featured on An Evening With Diana Ross, and it’s greeted with an enthusiastic ovation; the brilliance of Diana’s and Joe Layton’s design for this show is that it really eases audiences into its theatrical structure, beginning as more of a traditional concert before breaking off into extended thematic segments. Miss Ross delivers a strong and spirited rendition of the Michael Masser-Ron Miller tune here, which had originally been released as a single in May of 1973 and finally peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in mid-August of that year. The velvety warmth of her performance of the studio version is replaced here by a brassy sharpness which seems appropriate for a live theatre setting; The Jones Girls also make some nice, quiet contributions in the background. During the actual live performance of An Evening With Diana Ross, “Touch Me In The Morning” was immediately followed by “One Love In My Lifetime,” which was the singer’s most recent single at the time; it had first been included on 1976’s Diana Ross and was remixed and released to help promote the singer’s Greatest Hits collection, which hit shelves in July of 1976.
5. Smile/Send In The Clowns: Diana introduces “Smile” as “one of my favorite songs,” something she’d also alluded to in promotion of her most recent studio album, 1976’s Diana Ross. “Smile” is that album’s closing track, although the singer had recorded it years earlier, back during the sessions for her long-unreleased jazz album, Blue; originally composed by Charlie Chaplin for the 1936 film Modern Times, the song was turned into a pop standard in the 1950s by Nat King Cole (interestingly, it would later by recorded by Diana’s protégé Michael Jackson, who would also call “Smile” a favorite song). Although “Smile” was the undeniable weak point on Diana’s studio album, it works far better here; the sugary, sentimental vibe certainly doesn’t sound as out of place in a live show as it did coming after the contemporary pop/soul of Diana Ross, and the singer offers up a more powerful vocal than she had on the studio version. After finishing “Smile,” Miss Ross transitions into a brief passage from “Send In The Clowns,” the famous Stephen Sondheim song written for the 1973 musical A Little Night Music; Glynis Johns sang it on stage, and singer Judy Collins turned it into a Top 40 pop hit in 1975 (her version returned to the Top 20 in 1977). Diana sounds great on the few lines she sings from “Send In The Clowns,” making one wish she’d recorded the entire song; however, she quickly transitions back into “Smile,” bringing the medley to a big, powerful finish.
6. Love Hangover: Next up, Diana thrills the audience with her then-latest #1 hit, the disco classic “Love Hangover” from 1976’s Diana Ross. Here, it serves as the climactic closing of the show’s extended “introduction” (and comes at the end of Side A of the original LP release); everything to this point has been handled in the fashion of a typical concert, something that will change as the numerous autobiographical segments begin. Much of “Love Hangover” consists of Diana’s pre-recorded vocals (which she jokingly points out to the audience by talking at the same time her voice is singing), giving her a chance to exit the stage and make a costume change. Hearing the enormous reaction of the crowd as the song begins is a nice reminder of just what a huge hit “Love Hangover” was for Diana at the time; Motown had rush-released Diana’s recording in order to compete with another version released by The Fifth Dimension, both debuting on the Billboard Hot 100 the very same week (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. When An Evening With Diana Ross was released in January of 1977, Miss Ross was a current Grammy nominee for “Love Hangover,” which was nominated in the category of Best Female R&B Vocal Performance; Diana would lose the award at the ceremony, held on February 19, when Natalie Cole won for “Sophisticated Lady (She’s A Different Lady).”
7. Girls: This song was written by John Phillips (of The Mamas & The Papas) for the notorious bomb of a 1975 stage musical, Man On The Moon; produced by Andy Warhol and directed by Paul Morrissey, the show apparently received scathing reviews and ran for only a couple of official performances before closing. In addition to singing the song in the musical, the composer’s then-wife Geneviève Waïte also recorded “Girls” for her 1974 solo album Romance Is On The Rise. Here, Diana Ross cleverly uses the song as a brief interlude in homage to her own three daughters, Rhonda, Tracee, and Chudney, all of whom were under the age of ten at the time of this concert. Her stage patter here is really funny and delivered with perfect comic timing (i.e. “I have girls in my bathroom, girls in my closet, girls wearing my shoes, my lipstick, my perfume, sleeping with my husband…”). She also explains that the next few songs come at the request of her daughter Rhonda, and comprise the child’s favorite story.
8. The Point (Everybody’s Got ‘Em/Me And My Arrow/Lifeline/Everybody’s Got ‘Em [Reprise]): Back in 1973, Diana Ross had included a medley of songs from the iconic children’s television show “Sesame Street” in her stage act, explaining at the time that she watched the show with her daughter Rhonda and had enjoyed the songs so much that she wanted to sing them herself (one of those songs, “Bein’ Green,” is included on the 1974 album Live At Caesars Palace). In a 1976 interview with radio host Don Pietromonaco, Diana commented, “With my first child Rhonda, I would spend a lot of time watching ‘Sesame Street’…I sit there and I’ll watch ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘The Point!’ and some of those other programs that come on and I enjoy it as much as they do.” The Point! was an album by Harry Nilsson, with an accompanying animated film which first aired on ABC-TV in February of 1971; Nilsson’s songs and story tell the tale of a round-headed boy named Oblio who lives in a village where everything and everyone has a literal point. Diana has a ball with the material, acting through it with energy and enthusiasm and using various comic voices to embody different characters. Probably the loveliest moment comes when Diana croons “Lifeline,” a wistful ballad on which The Jones Girls offer up some tender harmonies. In a way, the entire segment foreshadows Diana’s involvement in The Wiz; the story itself bears several similarities to that of The Wizard Of Oz, and the singer’s embodiment of Oblio could be viewed as something of a rough draft of her characterization of Dorothy the following year. Although “The Point” segment isn’t necessarily a standout of An Evening With Diana Ross (it would be cut from the subsequent television special), it’s a very smart way for the singer to give attention to her important off-stage role as a mother and to flex her muscles as a storyteller.
9. The Working Girls (Lady Sings The Blues/T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do/I Cried For You/Aux Iles Hawaii/Stormy Weather/Jump In The Pot [And Let’s Get Hot]/I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl/My Man): From her own three girls, Diana transitions to another set of girls — “the working girls” — Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker, Ethel Waters, and Bessie Smith. This is easily the most famous segment featured in An Evening With Diana Ross and it’s a real highlight of the live album, showcasing the singer’s affinity for jazz and blues music and also her versatility in incorporating the styles of four very different women, all of them African-American pioneers in entertainment. Miss Ross opens with a trio of songs by Billie Holiday, no surprise given that she’d portrayed Holiday in the film Lady Sings The Blues just a few years earlier. Her sensitive reading of “Lady Sings The Blues” is a superb place to begin, although it’s much too short (listen to her longer version featured on 1974’s Live At Caesars Palace for a better idea of what Ross could do with the song); Diana and the band then quickly move on and pick up the tempo with a jumpy rendition of “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” and a frisky “I Cried For You,” both songs also featured on the Lady Sings The Blues film soundtrack. Diana’s superb handling of these numbers is expected; she’d gained an Oscar-nomination of her work in the film and the soundtrack became a blockbuster #1 album. It’s what comes next that is particularly revelatory, as the singer embodies the other three “working girls” by delivering perfectly-pitched renditions of some of their most famous songs. First up is Diana’s tribute to Josephine Baker, bittersweet today given the knowledge that Ross attempted (unsuccessfully) to adapt Baker’s life story into a film for many years. Ross turns in an exuberant performance of Baker’s “Aux Iles Hawaii,” sexily murmuring the song’s French lyrics before growling her way through the boisterous chorus. Next up, Diana pays homage to “Sweet Mama Stringbean,” also known as Ethel Waters, with a high, breathy reading of the classic torch song “Stormy Weather,” which was written by Harold “Over The Rainbow” Arlen and Ted Koehler and first recorded by Waters in 1933 This is Diana Ross at her satisfying best and it’s a shame the singer never released a full-length version of the song, as she sounds stunningly gorgeous on it; this is perhaps her single strongest vocal moment of the entire live album, the singer’s voice sliding up and down the musical scale with ease and nailing some truly heart-wrenching high notes at the end. (NOTE: It’s worth searching online for the 1969 clip of Diana and Ethel Waters actually singing together on “The Hollywood Palace” — the two duet on “Bread and Gravy” and it’s an incredible performance.) Finally, Miss Ross takes her audience to Beale Street in Memphis, taking on the earthy and raunchy persona of Bessie Smith with a racy rendition of “I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl” much to the delight of the audience. To wrap up the extended segment, Diana returns to Billie Holiday, launching into a truncating version of “My Man” from the Lady Sings The Blues soundtrack; it’s always a treat to hear Ross dig into this ballad, one she often referenced as her favorite of the Holiday songs. This, then, ends Act I of An Evening with Diana Ross, and it’s a peak moment for Ross, who displays a breathless energy and ease in incorporating the styles of the four music legends. This is Diana Ross at her artistic best; it’s work like this with which the public ought to be more familiar, as it shows just how aware Ross was and is of her heritage as an African-American artist and how that legacy has impacted her own career. Miss Ross would take this segment a step further for her 1977 television special of An Evening With Diana Ross, not only using costumes and songs to evoke Baker, Smith, and Waters but allowing herself to be fully transformed through the Emmy-nominated makeup of Stan Winston (one of four nominations received by the special). Diana’s masterful physical transformations got a lot of publicity and praise at the time the special aired, but her vocal performances on this album are just as worthy of attention.
10. The Motown Story (Overture/Money [That’s What I Want]/Please Mr. Postman/I Want You Back/Fingertips/You Keep Me Hangin’ On/Baby Love/Someday We’ll Be Together): Act II of An Evening With Diana Ross begins with a slamming instrumental overture of Motown classics, Gil Askey and the band tearing into the music of The Funk Brothers with impressive energy; finally Diana returns to the stage, soulfully belting out a few lines from Barrett Strong’s classic “Money (That’s What I Want),” the first-ever hit to come from the Motown fold. Thus begins Diana’s musical tribute to Motown, the record company that launched her career and about a thousand others, and provided the soundtrack to the 1960s. Miss Ross sounds youthful and vibrant on her renditions of Motown’s earliest hits, moving quickly from the label’s first #1 hit (“Please Mr. Postman by The Marvelettes) to its second (“Fingertips” by Stevie Wonder). Next she flashes forward to Motown’s first #1 hit of the 1970s, “I Want You Back” by The Jackson 5; coincidentally, the song’s co-writer and co-producer Deke Richards had initially approached Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. about recording the song on Diana Ross, but Gordy had just signed the five brothers from Gary, Indiana and thought the song a better fit for the new group. Diana delivers a brassy and gutsy take on the song, her vocals nicely matching those of Michael Jackson (again confirming just how much the young boy modeled his style on that of Miss Ross) before bringing the song to a halt and launching directly into “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” a song she’d recorded with The Supremes back in 1966 and which had become the group’s eighth #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. The singer really belts out the song here, trading in the urgent, clipped style of the studio recording for a brassy and full-bodied vocal. After only about 25 seconds (far too brief), Diana and the band switch over to another Holland-Dozier-Holland composition, the 1964 #1 hit “Baby Love,” the opening chords of which the audience greets with cheers and applause. Again, Ross sounds youthful and energetic on the song, though it had been more than a decade since she’d first recorded it; her affection for the song and for her time with The Supremes rings through loud and clear, and The Jones Girls do a superb job of backing her up and filling in for Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard. Although the band moves on to “Someday We’ll Be Together,” the final #1 hit for Diana Ross and The Supremes, Diana doesn’t actually sing the song; instead, she takes the opportunity to introduce audience member Smokey Robinson, calling him “so important in my career” and even singing a snippet of the early Supremes non-hit “A Breathtaking Guy,” written by Robinson for the group.
11. The Supremes (Stop! In The Name Of Love/You Can’t Hurry Love/Reflections/My World Is Empty Without You/I Hear A Symphony): Watching and listening to various interviews given by Diana Ross around the time of An Evening With Diana Ross, it certainly seems that the singer was feeling quite nostalgic about her time as one of The Supremes; in a 1976 interview with Don Pietromonaco, she reminisced, “Florence [Ballard]…was just a creative, wonderful girl, you know, and she had something very special to offer to the group. And so did Mary [Wilson], Mary kept me on my toes all the time.” The fact that original Supreme Ballard had passed away shortly before Diana embarked on her An Evening With Diana Ross tour perhaps contributed to her sentimentality surrounding “the good old days,” as she often calls the early part of her career; in any case, she devotes a healthy portion of her show to her recordings of the 1960s. Straight from her introduction of Smokey Robinson, Diana launches in a high-octane rendition of “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” perhaps the most iconic Supremes song of them all and one that topped the charts in 1965. She swings through it with ease before the band switches over to the familiar bassline of “You Can’t Hurry Love,” another #1 hit from 1966. It’s a welcome surprise to hear the singer next take on “Reflections,” which had peaked at #2 back in 1967 and was the first single release to bear the name Diana Ross and The Supremes; because she didn’t generally include the song in her live medleys, it’s a treat to hear and the singer breezes through a few lines before moving on to the 1965 Top 10 “My World Is Empty Without You,” initially included on the I Hear A Symphony LP. That album’s title track wraps up the medley, and it’s a perfect closer; the sweet, sentimental lyrics seem to echo Diana’s feelings about The Supremes, and the song gives Miss Ross a chance to give credit to her backing voices, The Jones Girls (“Don’t they sound like the Supremes?” Diana asks). The Jones Girls, by the way, would go on to have hits of their own, and Shirley Jones would score a #1 R&B hit in 1986, “Do You Get Enough Love” — Shirley remembered Diana’s encouragement in The Billboard Book Of Number One R&B Hits, “’[Diana] told us we were ready to break out on our own and she was going to do everything she could to help us’” (369). The sisters offer up lovely harmonies behind Diana, who sounds thoroughly engaged during this entire sequence; Miss Ross clearly knows how much the songs also mean to the audience, and she feeds off of their energy, never letting the medley feel like a perfunctory run-through of old hits. During that same 1976 interview with Pietromonaco, Diana spoke about performing Supremes medleys during her live concerts: “I can change my show for stage over and over again, but I can’t ever change certain segments. That’s one that has to always be there, and it makes me feel good to do it. It brings me back to where I belong, my roots.” Miss Ross would delve even deeper into those roots when An Evening With Diana Ross was reworked into its namesake television special, including a humorous and bittersweet montage of actual Supremes performances from various television shows.
12. Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand): No Diana Ross concert would be complete without this, her first solo single and a song that’s become emblematic of her gifts as a live performer. Interestingly, the Broadway Playbill for An Evening With Diana Ross lists this song as the final number of the program, indicating some rearranging took place sometime between Broadway and Los Angeles. Moving the song directly after The Supremes medley makes sense chronologically…except for the fact that as she wraps up “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” Miss Ross returns to talking about The Supremes and her decision to go solo, giving the impression that the song had been recorded and released by the group instead of as a solo artist. No matter the placement, the Top 20 hit (first released in April of 1970) always serves as a way for the singer to connect with her audience; a nearly-seven minute extended version featured on 1974’s Live At Caesars Palace showcased Diana’s magnetic power over the crowd as she wove through the aisles and engaged patrons to sing along with her. This is a much shorter version with less audience interaction, which ends up being a good thing; a lack of visuals hurt the sing-along on Live At Caesars Palace (it’s hard to hear so many bashful audience members sing with Diana Ross without being able to see their physical reactions), but listening to the performer coerce the entire audience to sing in unison is magical and effective. Ross also reserves some of the power for her voice; her final ad-libs are strong and full-bodied.
13. One Giant Step: When A Chorus Line opened on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre in 1975, it immediately became a sensation; telling the stories of several dancers at an audition for a musical, the production racked up several Tony award wins and ran until 1990, making it the longest-running Broadway musical in history at the time. Critic Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times that the show was “one of those musicals you will sing about to your grandchildren. It is an occasion of joy, an affirmation of Broadway and a smoke‐signal to the world that the musical can touch unexpected depths in the human heart” (October 20, 1975), and Diana Ross must have felt the same way. Not only did Miss Ross see the show, she devoted an entire segment of An Evening With Diana Ross to it, using snippets of several of the musical’s songs to help illustrate her own journey on the path to success. Specifically, she uses four tunes to trace her “one giant step” away from The Supremes and toward motion picture stardom, and the result is a fun, touching, and downright electrifying segment, easily one of the highlights of the entire album (it helps, of course, that the songs by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban are superb). Miss Ross opens the segment with a story about playing the game “Mother, May I?” as a child, using it as a metaphor for moving forward in the career, and then transitions into “The Music And The Mirror” and “What I Did For Love,” two big ballads which have become of-covered Broadway classics. Both require a big voice, and Diana delivers a vocal performance as bold and brassy as anything you’d expect from a seasoned Broadway performer; she easily belts out the extended notes called for by both numbers, and especially soars at the climax of “What I Did For Love.” Next, Diana moves on to “Improvisations,” a light, upbeat tune about uneasiness in an acting class during improv exercises. As with some of her earlier segments, her comic timing here is impeccable, especially as she pokes fun at herself and her figure and segues into “Dance: 10; Looks: 3,” which features the famous refrain “Tits and ass!” – which Diana gleefully sings, lamenting the fact that to be a Hollywood star, she needs larger…assets! Hearing Diana utter a little profanity is pretty entertaining in and of itself, but her performance here really is a marvel; her voice is strong and elastic, and she makes the well-known songs completely her own. This is Diana Ross showmanship at its finest and an example of the power she was capable of displaying in her voice; it took guts to sings big Broadway numbers from a show that was playing to packed houses, but Miss Ross pulls it off effortlessly. Including songs from a hit musical also likely engendered some love within the New York theatre community, something that was solidified when Diana was presented with a special Tony Award for An Evening With Diana Ross in June of 1977; at the 31st Annual Tony Award ceremony, presenter Tony Randall commented, “I think it’s fair to say that the New York critics simply tossed their hats into the air.” Listening to Diana take on A Chorus Line, it’s easy to understand why.
14. Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To): Listing off some of her idols – African-American pioneers like Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry – Diana begins singing her then-recent hit, the theme from her popular 1975 film. Written by Michael Masser and Gerry Goffin, the song had been released as a single in September of 1975; it eventually topped the Billboard Hot 100 for a week in January of 1976. She performs a shortened version here, only about a minute or so, but it’s a nice vocal, and it’s fun to hear the crowd go wild as she begins the first few lyrics, a reminder that Diana Ross really was at the peak of her popularity here. As she would do for the rest of her career, Diana uses this song less as an actual concert inclusion than as an introduction to what remains her musical anthem…
15. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: Back on Diana’s first solo live album, 1974’s Live At Caesars Palace, this song had been included at the end of the record’s first side, a fatal mistake that absolutely killed any chance for the second side to pick up momentum. The reason? “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is a song so bold and dramatic that it would bring any concert to a screeching halt; it really has to be the final song in a Diana Ross concert, because it’s just too tough an act to follow. Here, Diana’s first solo #1 hit, initially released in July of 1970 and topping the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks in the fall, takes its rightful place as the brilliant climax to a superb show. After displaying her gifts as a performer and so easily interpreting songs from other artists, it’s appropriate that An Evening With Diana Ross ends with a song of her own (written, of course, by the great Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson), and the one that is perhaps Diana’s greatest achievement as a recording artist. What’s truly remarkable is that coming after more than an hour of high-voltage singing, Diana Ross still injects the song with the vigor it deserves; she must have been physically exhausted each night at the end of her show, but you’d never know it listening to her performance here. It’s always a thrill hearing Diana Ross perform this song, and it’s especially a thrill hearing it come at the end of on one of her greatest creations as an entertainer. (NOTE: In her next stage extravaganza, Miss Ross would take the importance of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” a step further, making it both the closing and opening song of the show and turning it into a multi-media experience in which the singer actually stepped out of a projection screen at the beginning of the show and disappeared back into it at the end!)
After its release in January of 1977, the double-LP An Evening With Diana Ross became a moderate success, peaking at #29 on the Billboard 200 and climbing to #14 on the R&B Albums chart. But the entire experience — from the Tony-winning Broadway run to the sell-out tour to the history-making television special — was nothing less than a triumph for Diana Ross. To listen to An Evening With Diana Ross is to be confronted by the enormity of talent possessed by Diana Ross; it’s impossible to listen to this double LP and not come away with the feeling of having heard something truly great. An Evening With Diana Ross manages to capture the staggering lengths the singer will go to in order to entertain an audience; there is never a single moment on when it sounds like Miss Ross is giving less than all of herself. This is her gift as an entertainer, of course, but that gift is likely amplified by the fact that this was such a seminal moment in Diana’s life and career.
Speaking to Johnny Carson in 1977, Miss Ross explained, “I sat down and I talked about all the things that I might really like to do for a change, for myself. I’ve been doing shows that were really produced for me, somebody decides which songs you sing and what you say.” Out of these conversations came An Evening With Diana Ross, making the show perhaps more of an artistic statement than anything the singer had ever done before. From here, Miss Ross would continue to carve out a career on her own terms, climbing to new peaks of success and, inevitably, faltering in some of her choices. But beginning with her very next studio album (1978’s superb Baby It’s Me, perhaps the finest of her career), Ross would exhibit a supreme self-possession missing from her earlier work. As she told the audience during An Evening With Diana Ross, paraphrasing author Lorraine Lansberry, “I was at a nice point in my life when I realized it was wonderful to be young and Black. But to be gifted, and to know what you wanted to do…that was doubly dynamic.”
An Evening With Diana Ross captures Diana Ross at her most dynamic, indeed.
Final Analysis: 5/5 (“One Giant Step” To Perfection)
Paul’s Picks: One Giant Step segment, The Working Girls segment, “Here I Am/I Wouldn’t Change A Thing”