“All I ever wanted was the music, and the chance to sing for you…”
If you asked several people on the street to name Diana Ross’s greatest achievement, you’d probably get a variety of answers. Some would surely say Lady Sings The Blues; others would name songs like “I’m Coming Out” or “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” A lot would probably say her time with the Supremes, or name one of the 12 #1 hits the group had with Diana singing lead. But chances are almost nobody would call out her one-woman show, An Evening With Diana Ross, which she toured with and won a special Tony Award for following its run at Broadway’s Palace Theatre.
This is a shame, because An Evening With Diana Ross really displays the artist at the very zenith of her accomplishments. The stage show – along with this double-LP recorded in Los Angeles and the Emmy-nominated television special built around it – is a masterful display of Diana Ross doing what she does best – putting on an energetic, versatile, fast-paced show filled with hit songs, standards, and some surprising inclusions. This is much more than a concert; it’s a song-and-story performance, in the same way that the more recent Elaine Stritch At Liberty is. Brilliantly directed by Joe Layton (known for his work on Broadway like Barnum and with Barbra Streisand on her early, successful television specials), the show tells the story of Diana Ross at various points in her life; she uses Harry Nilsson’s The Point! to talk about her children, songs from A Chorus Line to illustrate becoming an actress, and devotes sections to the story of Motown, the Supremes, and the great ladies of jazz and blues like Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker. It is a grand, overblown musical spectacular from start to finish, and never once loses the momentum set from the beginning with her mash-up of “Here I Am” and “I Wouldn’t Change A Thing.”
Best of all, the show is extremely successful as an album. Unlike Diana’s 1974 album release Live At Caesar’s Palace, the incredible energy displayed Diana Ross in her vocal performances compensates for the lack of visuals. There is so much more than music included here, which means the song choices are always explained and make perfect sense in context with one another (whereas certain sections of Caesar’s Palace seemed to come from out of nowhere). Diana is in fine voice throughout – in fact, she’s in more than fine voice. The nightly demands of doing this show clearly worked her vocal chords into tip-top shape; her performances here are extremely powerful, far more impressive than anything she’d displayed on her past few albums.
Because the album is long and includes many song-snippets as part of medleys, I’ll review it both track-by-track and also by section, depending on what makes more sense to me. It is, however, a work best listened to straight-through; as a whole, this is a brilliantly conceived show, and the album – thankfully – captures just how creative and dynamic Diana was at her peak of stardom.
Overture/Here I Am/I Wouldn’t Change A Thing: Aside from the exciting “TCB” at the beginning of the Supremes’ Farewell album, I think this is the best opening of a recorded Diana Ross show; the instrumental overture, made up of music from the Mahogany soundtrack, leads into Diana’s stunning medley of “Here I Am” and “I Wouldn’t Change A Thing,” in which she’s in full, commanding voice. The lyrics perfectly sum up the entire show that will follow; Diana sings “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. Again, her vocals are powerful and energetic; she sounds so much more vibrant than she had on Live At Caesar’s Palace. As she belts out the final word of the medley, holding “stay” for several seconds at the top of her register, she truly sounds like a Broadway star — in fact, her voice sounds far more powerful here than on most of her recorded work, which is competely opposite of most singers, who can’t always match their studio output in live performance.
The Lady Is A Tramp: Here we go again with this standard, which was pretty much a guarantee at a Diana Ross concert by this point. She’d recorded versions with the Supremes on Live At London’s Talk Of The Town and Farewell, and on her own Live At Caesar’s Palace. I imagine that for Diana, this was an easy inclusion that she knew would keep the energy pumping; certainly she could sing it in her sleep. For fans aware of her discography, the song is a little tired (I still think the best version is on Farewell), but she sounds good and again, it was probably a sure-fire way to help get her voice warmed up early in the show and to get audiences moving in their seats.
Touch Me In The Morning: After a quick welcome to fans (“Hello, LA!” she says, because the LP was recorded during the show’s stint at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles), she eases into her 1973 #1 hit. The tempo of the song is slightly increased, which it gives a nice groove, and Diana sings in a far more “show-biz-y” manner than she had on the original recording, which makes sense given the context. The placement of the song early in the show is clearly to please fans who were coming to hear Diana sing her hits; she’s still easing audiences into what will be an extended musical journey.
Smile/Send In The Clowns: Diana introduces “Smile” as one of her favorite songs, and turns in a lovely, effective performance of the popular tune written by Charlie Chaplin. The recorded version released on 1976’s Diana Ross was over-produced and overly saccharine, but it works far better here as part of a live show, and Diana’s vocals are more brassy and less syrupy, which makes the song more palatable. It then segues nicely into the Sondheim classic “Send In The Clowns,” from which Diana sings a few lines (including the great “Isn’t it rich…isn’t it queer…losing my timing this late in my career?”). There’s an extended musical break during which there’s clearly a visual performance going on, but it’s still a nice inclusion here and keeps things moving.
Love Hangover: This was, of course, Diana’s big hit at the time; the song had sailed to #1 on the pop and R&B charts in 1976 and had earned her a Grammy nomination. Here, it serves basically as the 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, and the songs have not been bound together by stories. However, from here on out, that will change, and the numerous autobiographical segments will 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) — I assume this was a chance for her to make a costume change and prepare for what comes next.
Girls: Diana sings a cute, short rendition of John Phillips’s “Girls” — which she uses to discuss her own three children, Rhonda, Tracee, and Chudney. 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 her favorite story…
The Point (Everybody’s Got ‘Em/Me And My Arrow/Lifelife/Everybody’s Got ‘Em [Reprise]): Rhonda’s “favorite story” (don’t you wonder if it really was?) is the tale of Oblio, the little “round-headed” boy in the Land of Point. The Point! had been an animated special and album written by singer Harry Nilsson; his album had been released in 1971 and the film aired on ABC the same year. Diana uses three of the album’s songs to tell the story, acting out the parts of various characters (her different voices are pretty entertaining) and weaving in narration and the songs. Diana Ross is obviously a gifted musical storyteller, and “The Point” segment here is a lot of fun; because it’s well-known just how much of a devoted mother she is and how fond she is of children in general, it makes perfect sense that she’d dedicate part of her show to them. “Lifeline” in particular is a lovely performance, showcasing gorgeous harmonies between Diana and her background singers, The Jones Girls.
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][Instrumental]/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. Diana’s tribute to these jazz and blues divas is a real highlight of the show, as she croons pieces of their most famous songs and tells the story of each lady. Her affection for Billie Holiday is a given, of course, as Diana had played Holiday in the Oscar-nominated film Lady Sings The Blues in 1972. Her rendetions of Holiday standards like “Lady Sings…” and “I Cried For You” are excellent as always. However, her interpretations of the other women’s work is particularly exciting, as it’s something totally new for Miss Ross. She turns in an exuberant performance of Baker’s “Aux Iles Hawaii,” sexily murmuring the French lyrics (her quick, French spoken interlude is inspired and hilarious), and her high, breathy reading of Waters’s “Stormy Weather” is surprising in its freshness — it’s a shame she never recorded a full version of this classic, as she sounds gorgeous on it, especially her stunning high notes at the end. Diana tackles Smith’s “I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl” with an unexpected raciness, sounding as earthy and raunchy as Smith must have in her day, before nicely wrapping things up with “My Man” from the Lady soundtrack. It’s impossible to listen to this section of Diana’s show and not become totally entranced in it; her breathless energy and the ease with which she takes on the different styles of four musical pioneers is impressive to say the least. This is Diana Ross at her artistic best; it’s work like this that the public ought to be more familiar with, for 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.
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 before Diana arrives on stage and begins soulfully belting out Barrett Strong’s classic “Money (That’s What I Want).” This begins her musical tribute to Motown, the record company that launched about a thousand careers (including Diana’s) and provided the soundtrack to the 1960s. Diana sounds youthful and vibrant on her renditions of songs like “Please Mr. Postman,” “Fingertips,” and “I Want You Back” — it’s fun to hear her take on famous songs by her colleagues. She nails “I Want You Back,” nicely matching little Michael Jackson’s vocals, before launching into her own Supremes classics “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and “Baby Love.” Though it had been more than a decade since she’d recorded either song, she sounds just as young and energetic as she had on the original recordings, and stays much truer to the spirit of the original studio recordings than she had when she sang them in her last few years as a Supreme (and turned them into big-band numbers that really didn’t sound like Motown at all). Her voice on “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” in particular sounds strong and full, and more soulful than it had in any recorded performance of the song before. Instead of singing “Someday We’ll Be Together,” she speaks over the instrumental, introducing Smokey Robinson in the audience and singing a snippet of the early Supremes non-hit “A Breathtaking Guy,” which he’d written for the group.
The Supremes (Stop! In The Name Of Love/You Can’t Hurry Love/Reflections/My World Is Empty Without You/I Hear A Symphony): The high-octane tribute to Motown continues with an extended medley of hits by the Supremes, which is lengthier than anything Diana generally included in her solo shows. It’s especially nice to hear “Reflections,” a song that hadn’t been included in her medley on the Live At Caesar’s Palace LP a few years earlier. It’s also a chance for Diana to call out The Jones Girls (“Don’t they sound like the Supremes?” Diana asks), her backing voices on this show. The Jones Girls, of course, 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 remembers 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). Diana clearly knows that much of her audience holds a strong sentimental attachment to her hits with the Supremes, and she milks that here; judging from its recorded reaction, the crowd was eating it up. But Diana also seems to be having fun with the songs; her breathless energy running through her hits is far more effort than some artists would probably give to songs they’d sung so many times.
Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand): Diana’s first solo hit again serves as a way for her to connect with her audience; as she’d been doing and would continue to do, she leads the crowd in a sing-along and asks them to join hands and sway along to the music. Thankfully, unlike on the Caesar’s Palace live album, she keeps the microphone to herself. On that earlier album, she’d allowed others to sing into the mic with her for nearly seven minutes, which – without the benefit of seeing the people and their reactions – made for a trying listening experience. The truncated version here is far more effective, especially since it’s still possible to hear fans singing along and clapping. Diana, meanwhile, sings the heck out of the song at the end; her ad-libs are probably the most powerful that she’d ever performed on “Reach Out and Touch.”
One Giant Step (The Music And The Mirror/What I Did For Love/Improvisations/Dance: Ten; Looks: Three): This – along with the “Working Girls” segment – is the unqualified highlight of An Evening With Diana Ross; it’s a fun, touching, and downright electrifying segment about Diana’s decision to go solo and embark on an acting career, all set to songs from the Broadway hit A Chorus Line. That show had opened on Broadway in 1975, won the Best Musical Tony Award, and became one of the most successful musicals of all time, thanks in large part to the strong songs by Marvin Hamlisch. Diana uses four of the most well-known (although she doesn’t use the musical’s signature song, “One”) to trace her “one giant step” away from the Supremes. Her performances of “The Music And The Mirror” and “What I Did For Love” and 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…” Next Diana moves on to “Improvisations,” a light, upbeat tune about her 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…well…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. It’s a perfectly crafted segment; this is Diana Ross showmanship at its finest and, again, is the kind of thing casual fans would likely be bowled over by. This is also another example of the power Diana Ross was capable of displaying in her voice; she sounds like she could have been part of the original A Chorus Line cast, and it kind of makes you wish that she had originated a role in a Broadway musical at some point in her career.
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 recent #1 hit, the theme from her popular 1975 film. She performs a shortened version here, only about a minute or so, but it’s a nice vocal, and it’s nice 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 to lead into her climactic song, and anthem…
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: A chief complaint of mine with Live At Caesar’s Palace was the fact that Diana’s first solo #1 hit had been placed in the middle of that show; the song, a glorious, dramatic classic, is so strong that it literally brought that album to a screeching halt from which is struggled to recover. Here, “Ain’t No Mountain…” is in its perfect place, a brilliant climax to an overwhelmingly 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, 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.
To listen to An Evening With Diana Ross is to be confronted with the enormity of talent that Diana Ross possesses in all its glory; it’s impossible to listen to this double LP and not come away with the feeling that you’ve just heard something truly great. There are lots of great singers in the world, and there are some impressive live performers, too. Diana Ross is both of these things, but she’s much more than that; An Evening With Diana Ross manages to capture the staggering lengths she will go to in order to entertain an audience. There is never a single moment on An Evening With Diana Ross when it sounds like Diana Ross is giving less than all of herself, and that is a gift that she shares with very few of her contemporaries. Though most casual fans have no idea anymore that Diana Ross was given a Tony, or that she even appeared on Broadway, this is one of the great moments in her career; thank God it was recorded and can still be enjoyed today.
Final Analysis: 5/5 (“One Giant Step” To Perfection)
Choice Cuts: One Giant Step segment, The Working Girls segment, “Here I Am/I Wouldn’t Change A Thing”
Diana Ross was given a Special Award at the 1977 Tony Awards for An Evening With Diana Ross. According to the Internet Broadway Database, on Broadway, the show played at the Palace Theatre from June 14, 1976-July 6, 1976.