“Wouldn’t it be fine just to believe, wouldn’t it be wonderful…if life were like a song…”
This is arguably the strangest entry into the Diana Ross Motown discography; it’s certainly a confusing album that has inspired much debate amongst fans and critics. At heart of that debate is one single question: “What is Ross?” Is this a new studio album? Is it a compilation? Was this a calculated attempt at getting sales and hits…or was it simply a time-filler between Baby It’s Me and the release of The Wiz movie and soundtrack?
The issue here is the fact that the lineup includes new songs on Side A, but Side B is a collection of previously released, remixed songs and tracks from the vaults that had been recorded for other projects. “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” for example, is included here — although it had been featured on Surrender in 1971, released as a single, and been a Top 30 hit for Ross! “Sorry Doesn’t Always Make It Right,” a country ballad released as a non-album, one-off single three years earlier, is also here…even though it would’ve made much more sense as part of her Greatest Hits album in 1976. The lovely Michael Masser ballad “To Love Again,” meanwhile, had been worked up initially as part of the Mahogany soundtrack sessions, and it would have been a natural to include on the 1976 Diana Ross album in place of some of the weaker choices on that LP.
So what’s the story? Well…I have no idea. But the seemingly random lineup does make this album an interesting and challenging listen. Most of the material here is strong ; songs like “You Were The One” and “Never Say I Don’t Love You” are standouts that are as good as any hits Diana had during the era — both, really, should have been big hits. But it’s hard to call this a “cohesive” album, especially in light of the fact that it comes on the heels of Baby It’s Me, which is probably the most seemless collection of her career. So, in the end, it feels akin to albums like 1970’s Everything Is Everything and 1976’s Diana Ross — both more uneven albums that feature dynamite songs alongside some questionable inclusions.
1. Lovin’, Livin’ And Givin’: Originally featured as part of the film and sountrack Thank God It’s Friday (a disco-themed movie that starred Donna Summer and introduced her Oscar-winning hit song “Last Dance”), this disco track got a synthesized-remix for the Ross album. There is no denying that the arrangement here had to be heavily influenced by Summer’s “I Feel Love,” which had hit Top 10 the year before. That song was a club sensation, and is credited as one of the first to take dance music and marry it with electronic sounds. Suddenly, “Lovin’, Livin’ and Givin'” — which was intially a much more typical disco track — got as similarly icy, repetative electonic background. While this may be a case of Motown trying to jump on someone else’s train, it works; the synthesizer track is actually quite good, and matches well with the song and with Diana’s vocal. She begins the song with a breathy, low-key reading which builds throughout the song; by the end, her voice is spirited and she gets a chance to belt out some pretty good ad-libs. Because she never really recorded another song like this one, it’s a nice addition to her recording output and remains notable; it’s strange that while Motown released the song internationally, this was never released as a single in the US. Though it does sound like the earlier Summer hit, it stands on its own and is a good song, and seems like it could have done well in clubs at the time.
2. What You Gave Me: This is another case of Diana Ross mining vintage Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson; this song had been written by the pair and was recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell for 1969’s Easy album. Though it’s an Ashford and Simpson composition, it was produced in this case by Hal Davis (of “Love Hangover”) — and has been given a full-on disco treatment for Diana. Coming on the heels of the sleek, modern sounding “Lovin’, Livin’ and Givin’,” this song sounds quite dated; it’s disco in the typical sense of the word, meaning lots of handclaps, strings, and other assorted 1970s instrumental flourishes. Though Diana gives a nice performance, she doesn’t sound nearly as comfortable as she would the next year on The Boss (which, coincidentally, would be written and produced by Ashford and Simpson). Though she belts a little toward the end, she never quite sounds like she’s fully pushing herself; this is often the case in her work with producer Davis, who seemed to favor more laid-back vocal work from Diana (and is thus the opposite of her Ashford and Simspon-produced output, especially The Boss, where Diana’s voice is constantly being pushed higher and higher). This was the sole single released from the album, and only charted in the lower reaches of the R&B listings. It’s not a bad song, but it’s certainly weaker than the other two new dance songs here.
3. Never Say I Don’t Love You: This is an absolutely gorgeous ballad written and produced by Greg Wright; it’s one of the great hidden treasures of Diana’s late-70s album output. The song is almost as good as the stunning ballad work on Baby It’s Me, it’s shimmering, lush background and vocals just about matching the feel of that superior album. Diana gives a pretty, delicate reading of the lyric here; her voice quietly rides the melody, never overpowering the words but never sounding thin nor weak. The song itself is a piece of well-written pop, with a memorable lyric and chorus. It’s a mystery why this wasn’t released as a single; possible Motown wanted to focus on pushing dance songs for Diana in the wake of “Love Hangover” and her Grammy nomination for “Your Love Is So Good For Me.” Still, this song is so strong it sounds like it should have been a hit, and it’s a shame that it’s not better known in the context of Diana’s discography.
4. You Were The One: Speaking of lost hits…if ever Motown completely botched a chance to have a massive hit on Diana Ross, this was it. “You Were The One” is, quite simply, one of the best dance songs ever recorded by Diana — a classy, funky club song with the best Diana vocal performance in years. As with the previous track, this was written and produced by Greg Wright — and again, the song is a perfect fit for Miss Ross. A popping bassline is the driving heartbeat of the song — much like in “Love Hangover” — and Diana’s voice rides along the beat comfortably until two minutes in, when her voice suddenly soars to a high note on the words “…you were THE ONE…” in a thrilling, soulful moment that foreshadows her elastic vocal work on The Boss. Unlike this album’s sole single, “What You Gave Me,” this song doesn’t sound like dated disco; it is, for sure, a dance song of the 1970s…but the lush, shimmering feel of the instrumental and the background vocals is more in line with the Richard Perry production work on Baby It’s Me — and this helps the song feel much more timeless than it might otherwise. Again, this song has “smash” written all over it — it’s stronger and more memorable than “What You Gave Me” and Diana sounds much better. Someone should be kicking themselves right now for letting this hit get away!
5. Reach Out, I’ll Be There: And here’s where Ross gets…strange. This song, of course, was initially recorded back in 1971, and had been released as the second single from Surrender. It wasn’t a huge hit, but it did manage to make it to the Pop Top 30; it was slowed down and stretched out in an obvious attempt to replicate “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and while it wasn’t as successful sales-wise, it’s a beautifully done production that was among the best on Surrender (and featured gorgeous vocal work from Diana Ross). The question is, of course, why is it here? Did Motown execs decide that since it was left off 1976’s Greatest Hits that it deserved a second life? Were they trying to capitalize off the fact that Gloria Gaynor had scored a hit with a disco version of the song in 1975? Or did someone behind-the-scenes just really like the song…perhaps Diana herself? I’d love to know the answer — but for now, all we can do is judge the song in the context of the rest of the album. This is a slightly remixed version — there are some minor changes in the instrumental track and it runs a little longer — but Diana’s vocal is the same one used on the earlier release. Therefore, it’s still a great performance; her voice is crystal clear on the relaxed opening, and soars dramatically during the song’s climax. The song is also strong enough that it doesn’t sound jarringly out of place coming after the previous four songs, especially given that “What You Gave Me” provides an Ashford and Simpson connection. For a listener unaware that this is a much older, recycled track, “Reach Out…” would seem like a strong addition to the album. For fans aware of its history, though, it does feel like an odd inclusion.
6. Sorry Doesn’t Always Make It Right: And here comes our second big question mark in a row. This song had been released as a single back in 1975 but never made it on an album before; it’s a soft, country-styled ballad written by Michael Masser and was a Top 20 Adult Contemporary record for Ross, though it didn’t chart elsewhere. But even if this had been a bigger hit, it would still be a questionable inclusion, because the style is unlike anything else found on the album. The tone of “Sorry…” matches well with Diana’s work on Last Time I Saw Him; the title track and album cuts like “Behind Closed Doors” placed Diana in country/pop territory, as does this ballad. Therefore, it would have been a perfect fit on that album. By 1978, however, Diana had left her brief foray into country far behind…and she and Masser had worked up for stronger, more contemporary songs together. Perhaps the most likely reason for including the song here is that in late 1977, Gladys Knight & The Pips had released their version of the song, which rose to the Top 30 of the R&B charts; maybe Motown execs figured they could get some mileage out of it being listed on the back of this LP. “Sorry…” isn’t a bad song; it features a very pretty, delicate performance by Diana, who sings in a startlingly high register at the beginning, sounding almost as youthful as she had on her earliest Supremes singles. The track is as well-produced as songs like “Love Me” and “No One’s Gonna Be A Fool Forever” from Last Time I Saw Him — both of which were nice album cuts — again, it would have been a great addition to that album. Unfortunately, on this album, it does feel out of place; the style doesn’t match with the disco cuts or the smooth pop ballads, and it sounds dated.
7. Where Did We Go Wrong: Ross gets back to business with this contemporary ballad co-written by Ron Miller — a “second try,” if you will, since an earlier version had been worked up during the Last Time I Saw Him sessions (but that didn’t make the album). This 1978 version stands as a fine addition to this album; the instrumental opening is absolutely lovely, and Diana’s voice is smooth and restrained throughout. There’s a nice, laid-back vibe to the song; it is, actually, quite similar to “Touch Me In The Morning” in sound and structure, albeit more sorrowful in lyric and overall tone (which makes sense, since Miller was also co-writer on that #1 hit). I think it’s a little too slow to have been a radio hit. but it is a nice album track that merits rediscovery, especially since it’s one of the lesser known ballads of Diana’s late-70s output. (Note: This song was also cut by Maureen McGovern for her 1974 Nice To Be Around album).
8. To Love Again: This is another lovely Michael Masser production, and was written by him along with Gerry Goffin; it was apparently first worked up during sessions for the Mahogany soundtrack. The European feel of the song may be a result of that, since much of the movie takes place in Rome; it probably would have fit in well had the soundtrack featured Diana’s voice on more than just the main theme. The ballad is one of the more unusual of Diana’s career up to that point, thanks to the atypical structure and the interesting instrumental with the very prominent mandolin and accordian. It does, however, feature a classic Diana Ross ballad vocal performance — which is to say, it has a control and subtlety so skillful that it sounds extremely simple. This, I think, is a reason that Diana is all too often overlooked as a vocalist; because she doesn’t run up and down the scales here, showing off her range with bombastic gynmastics, the casual listener might mistake her singing for being weak or “limited.” However — a song like “To Love Again” requires careful, multiple listens; only then is the complexity of Ross’s singing revealed. Her vocal control during the first minute or so is extremely impressive; she is singing a challenging melody line and is required to hold certain notes and words for several beats at a time, but never sounds like she’s putting any excess effort into her performance. I’d also say that Diana’s singing of the words “to love again” at 2:19 (when she takes them an octave higher than she had earlier in the song) is one of the single most beautiful moments in a Diana Ross recording; her delicate, crystal clear reading of the words, and her four-note improv following them, combine with the soaring strings of the instrumental track to create a breathtaking musical interlude. This song stands among the best ballads Diana ever recorded, and is a masterpiece of her Motown days.
9. Together: Another holdover from the early 70, this had been the b-side of the “Sorry Doesn’t Always Make It Right” single, but had never featured on a Diana Ross album until now. The song is a snappy, upbeat pop tune that sounds a lot like the title track on Ross’s 1971 album Everything Is Everything; the version on this album features prominent finger-snapping throughout the track, and is consequently hard to listen to without snapping along to it. That said, it’s not really a partiulcarly good song; this is probably Diana’s weakest vocal performance on the album, in that there’s a noticeable effort and strain in some of the higher notes and she doesn’t sound as controlled as on the previous track. The song is also so repetitive that it becomes a little grating on the nerves by the end, and it certainly sounds much more dated than some of the other work on this album.
The highlights on Ross are career highlights for Diana Ross; though only die-hard have likely ever heard the songs “You Were The One,” “To Love Again,” and “Never Say I Don’t Love You,” they are among the best work Diana Ross released in the 1970s. After several years of relying on the smooth, sophisticated singing she’d perfected in Lady Sings The Blues and on her mid-70s LPs, she’d begun taking chances again on Baby It’s Me and on this album; her vocals are still glossy, but there’s a strength that would emerge full-blown on her work on The Wiz soundtrack later that year, and then again on 1979’s The Boss. Had the older, outdated songs — mainly “Sorry Doesn’t Always Make It Right,” and “Together” — been left off and replaced with some of the dance tracks that had gone unreleased, this album could have stood alongside Baby It’s Me and The Boss as a 70s classic for Miss Ross. But even as uneven as the album ended up being, it still deserves wider recognition and a “second life” on CD thanks to some stellar moments.
Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (Great Songs “Together” With Some Weak Filler)
Choice Cuts: “You Were The One,” “To Love Again,” “Never Say I Don’t Love You”