“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if like were like a song?”
For someone who’d basically worked non-stop since signing her first record contract in 1961, Diana Ross was especially busy in the summer of 1977. Ross the actress was gearing up to film her third motion picture, The Wiz, in which she would play the central role of Dorothy; the $24 million production would be her biggest budget film yet and required extensive rehearsals to learn the music and choreography. Meanwhile, Ross the singer was recording two albums simultaneously; during the day, she worked with producer Richard Perry at his Studio 55 in Los Angeles on what would eventually become Baby It’s Me, and in the evenings she recorded with Hal Davis at Motown, working on disco songs to follow-up her smash 1976 hit “Love Hangover.” According to Rolling Stone writer Ben Fong-Torres, “She isn’t sure — and in fact doesn’t care — which Motown will release first. ‘Whichever they need,’ she says. ‘Whatever the market looks like it’s ripe for.’ She is pleased at the prospect of having enough product around to free her to pay full attention to The Wiz” (August 11, 1977).
As it turned out, the Richard Perry-produced album came out first; the superb Baby It’s Me was released in September of 1977 and became a moderate success for the singer, with singles from that album riding the charts into the spring of 1978. In May, one of the disco songs Diana recorded with Hal Davis was included on the soundtrack to the film Thank God It’s Friday; “Lovin’, Livin’ And Givin'” was never officially released as a single in the United States, but did end up climbing to #35 on the Billboard’s National Disco Action Top 40 chart. Other songs recorded by Ross and Davis included a dance cover of the 1969 Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell duet “What You Gave Me” (written by Diana’s old friends Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson) and “Sweet Summertime Livin’,” written by Kenny Stover. During the summer of 1977, Diana also recorded a batch of disco songs with Brian and Eddie Holland, two of the men responsible for most of her Supremes hits from the previous decade; after several years away, the Hollands had returned to Motown in 1975 to work with The Supremes again, producing a pair of albums for the trio in 1976, High Energy and Mary, Scherrie & Susaye).
But when Ross (Motown 907) was finally released in September of 1978, most of the new disco songs were left off in favor of older vault tracks and even a few previous releases. Only two of the Hal Davis productions were used (“Lovin’, Livin’ And Givin'” and “What You Gave Me”), and none of the Holland songs showed up; veteran Motown singer, songwriter, and producer Greg Wright turned in two new songs, the sleek ballad “Never Say I Don’t Love You” and the disco scorcher “You Were The One.” Meanwhile, likely in response to writer, producer, and frequent Ross collaborator Michael Masser signing a much-publicized publishing deal with Arista Records in late 1977, Motown dug up three of his productions for inclusion, including a never-before-released ballad and the failed 1975 single “Sorry Doesn’t Always Make It Right.” These tracks, along with a few others, result in a hodgepodge of an album, one that’s a strange hybrid of a studio LP and a compilation; nobody seemed to know what to do with it, least of all Motown, which only released one single — and waited nearly three months to do it!
The fact is, even if Ross had been the exciting, cohesive disco album many expected it to be, it likely would have been lost in the wave of publicity — mostly negative — surrounding The Wiz. The film debuted in October to lackluster reviews and business, and the soundtrack performed far below expectations. Although Diana launched an all-new stage extravaganza at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles on September 19, 1978 and performed a few of the songs from Ross during the show, the album slipped by many record buyers unnoticed and fell off the Billboard 200 after 17 weeks. It’s a shame that Ross feels like such a missed opportunity, because there are true moments of greatness to be found on the album; “You Were The One,” “Never Say I Don’t Love You,” and “To Love Again” showcase Diana Ross at her vocal best, and all three could have and should have been big hits. But there’s no denying that the seemingly random lineup makes the album a challenging listen, especially since it immediately follows the most seamless album of the singer’s career.
1. Lovin’, Livin’ And Givin’: This is one of the songs Diana Ross had been working on with Hal Davis during the summer of 1977, at the same time she was recording the Baby It’s Me album with Richard Perry. After scoring the massive #1 hit “Love Hangover” together in 1976, Ross and Davis were working on a batch of similar tracks; as Ross told Rolling Stone writer Ben Fong-Torres, “I wanted to follow up ‘Love Hangover’ with a disco type of album” (August 11, 1977). Written by Kenny Stover and Pam Davis, the initial version of “Lovin’, Livin’ And Givin'” as produced by Davis was a fairly traditional disco track, featuring a breathy vocal by Diana Ross atop a symphonic track of swirling strings, sparkling guitars, and pounding percussion. That version was included in the 1978 film Thank God It’s Friday, a motion picture celebrating disco and featuring the genre’s undisputed queen, Donna Summer, in her first movie role (Motown had partnered on the soundtrack, which is why songs by Ross, The Commodores, and Thelma Houston appeared in the film and on the three-LP soundtrack set). “Lovin’, Livin’ And Givin'” probably would have remained in that original form had something significant not happened in 1977: Donna Summer released a single she’d written with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte called “I Feel Love,” and it was a game-changer, marrying dance music with electronic sounds and essentially creating electronic dance music. As Tom Moulton described in his Disco Mix Billboard column, “[‘I Feel Love’] is…undoubtedly one of the best things Summer has done. The sound is built around two Moog synthesizers which play the same rhythm over and over again…The result is a hypnotic effect into which a second melody line is woven” (May 28, 1977). Suddenly, disco producers were rushing to release similar synthesized club tracks, and Motown completely remixed “Lovin’, Livin’ And Givin’,” giving it an icy, repetitive electronic backing track and placing it as the opening track on Ross. This new “modern” version of the track is truly an anomaly in the Diana Ross discography; there’s really nothing else like it, and although it’s a clear case of Motown jumping on a bandwagon, it’s a fairly successful experiment. Make no mistake: “Lovin’, Livin’ And Givin'” is no “I Feel Love,” nor is it anywhere near as good as “Love Hangover” or even Diana’s previous disco hit, “Your Love Is So Good For Me” (from Baby It’s Me). That said, the synthesizer track does its job well, creating a hypnotic background for Diana’s stylized (if a bit uninspired) vocal performance. Strangely, given the choice to remix the song, Motown chose not to release it as a single in the United States; it was released internationally, and ended up peaking at #54 in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, the song did pick up some club play stateside, and made it to #35 on the Billboard Top 40 National Disco Action chart, co-listed with “What You Gave Me.”
2. What You Gave Me: This is another Hal Davis-helmed disco track, likely also recorded during the summer of 1977; it would become the only single released from Ross (Billboard listed it as a “recommended” single pick in its January 13, 1979 issue) and surprisingly missed the Billboard Hot 100 altogether, only climbing to a dismal peak of #86 on the R&B chart and #35 on the National Disco Action chart (co-listed with “Lovin’, Livin’ And Givin'”). The song, of course, had enjoyed more success when it was originally released by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in late 1969; the duo took the Nickolas Ashford-Valerie Simpson song to #49 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #6 on the R&B chart, and featured it on their final joint LP, Easy. Of course, Diana’s version is radically different from the more familiar Gaye-Terrell recording, transforming the feel-good, swinging Motown song into a funky, club-ready track. The idea of updating older Motown songs for the disco era was something the label would experiment more and more with; Bonnie Pointer did it several times, scoring a massive dance hit with a cover of “Heaven Must Have Sent You” by The Elgins, and Mary Wilson’s 1979 solo debut single “Red Hot,” also produced by Hal Davis, interpolated part of “Beechwood 4-5789” by The Marvelettes. Obviously, this formula works better on some songs than others; it’s moderately successful for “What You Gave Me,” thanks mainly to the spirited production by Davis. Although Mr. Davis was quite adept at crafting classy dancefloor fare, he really goes for broke with this one, throwing in repeated handclaps, slicing strings, a choir of background voices, and other assorted funk-inspired instrumental flourishes. The result is a rather abrasive instrumental, which is what keeps the recording from feeling anything like a classic…but it’s also one with some character, which at least helps it stand out a bit from other disco cuts popular at the time. Diana gives a good performance, but 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); she belts a little toward the end, but doesn’t quite pushes herself the way the song seems to call for. The AllMusic review of this album by Jason Elias accuses Miss Ross of “going through the motions and feigning enthusiasm” on this and the previous cut; frankly, he’s justified in his assessment, especially in light of the much more engaging performances to come. (NOTE: Speaking of Bonnie Pointer, Motown promoted “What You Gave Me” with a 12″ single that featured Diana’s song on one side and Pointer’s “Free Me From My Freedom” on the other.)
3. Never Say I Don’t Love You: Back in 1973, while performing live at The Royal Albert Hall in London, Diana Ross sang a song called “Together,” written by members of Motown vocal group The Devastating Affair. That group happened to be singing background for Miss Ross at the time, and she told the audience, “Not only are they fantastic singers, but they are great songwriters and musicians, as well. In fact, I’m producing some of their things and, yeah, I have a record coming out pretty soon that was written by The Devastating Affair.” It’s likely she’s referring to the Marvin Gaye duet “You’re A Special Part Of Me,” penned by three of the five group members, Harold Johnson, Andrew Porter, and Greg Wright (Karin Patterson and Olivia Foster, the other two members, can be heard singing background on the track) and released in September of that year. Although the bulk of the material recorded by The Devastating Affair was never released, Greg Wright went on to write and produce quite a bit at Motown; with Karin Patterson, he gave The Supremes a disco hit in 1975 with “He’s My Man” (from the group’s “comeback” album, The Supremes). Here, Wright and Patterson turn in a smooth, supple ballad that’s one of the great hidden treasures of Diana’s late-70s album output, effortlessly combining the sparkling soul of Diana’s Richard Perry collaborations (Baby It’s Me) with glossy Easy Listening popular at the time. Wright crafts a shimmering instrumental track with a prominent steel guitar and pretty background vocals, and coaxes a velvety performance from Miss Ross, whose crystal-clear voice has rarely been used to better effect; it also helps that Diana is given such a strong, clear melody with which to work. Listened to today, “Never Say I Don’t Love You” sounds like a hit; it easily could have gained strong Easy Listening airplay at the time, and it’s a shame that Motown didn’t think outside the “disco club” and decide to push a ballad on Miss Ross. Instead, this superb production was relegated to being used as a b-side on some international releases of “No One Gets The Prize” from The Boss.
4. You Were The One: 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 her best vocal performance in years. As with the previous track, this tune was written by Karin Patterson and Greg Wright and produced by the latter; also like “Never Say I Don’t Love You,” it’s a shimmering, lush recording that both evokes the spirit of the late 1970s while never becoming mired in dated production elements. Wright produces the song with a popping bassline as the driving heartbeat, keeping instrumental flourishes to a minimum and emphasizing both Diana’s elastic vocal performance and the gorgeous, layered voices backing her up. This immediately sets it apart from dance cuts of the time, many of which justifiably emphasized beat over melody and vocals; here, Miss Ross remains front and center for the entire song, offering up a fully-engaged vocal that’s far more bright and alive than either of the previous two disco offerings on Ross. Diana really pushes herself here, especially at two minutes in, when her voice suddenly soars to a series of high notes (as she sings the song’s title) in a thrilling, soulful moment that foreshadows her powerful vocal run on 1979’s “The Boss.” It’s inconceivable that Motown passed over the chance to push “You Were The One” to radio and clubs at the time; the song has “smash” written all over it. The reality is that “What You Gave Me” likely got the single release because it was produced by Hal Davis, who’d given Miss Ross her last big smash with “Love Hangover” — it had long been Motown protocol that when a producer scored a hit single on an artist, he or she got precedence on releasing a follow-up. Still, Diana did add “You Were The One” to her live act; in its review of her September 19, 1978 opening at Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles, Billboard mentioned that Diana connected “You Were The One” to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” before closing with “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” Although the tune was dropped from the act by the time that The Boss came out in 1979, at least audiences got to hear it for a while; it’s a shame more didn’t, as this is one of Diana’s best.
5. Reach Out, I’ll Be There: The second side of Ross, beginning with this cut, is where the album gets a little strange. “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” wasn’t a new track in 1978, nor was it an old recording which had been lifted from the Motown vaults; amazingly, this song had already been released as a single by Miss Ross, and had garnered respectable chart positions back in 1971. Produced by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson and included on Diana’s third solo album, Surrender, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” (at the time, the song was listed without the comma) peaked at #29 on the Billboard Hot 100 and at #17 on the R&B chart; the Holland-Dozier-Holland song, of course, had enjoyed far more success when it was originally recorded by The Four Tops in 1966. Ashford & Simpson slowed down the song 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 of Diana’s early solo output, and featured a particularly gorgeous lead vocal. So…why is it here on Ross? It’s possible Motown was hoping to capitalize a bit off of Gloria Gaynor’s 1975 disco version of the song; the singer had included it along with another Motown song, “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and “Honey Bee” as an extended disco mix on her LP Never Can Say Goodbye. If that were the case, someone at Motown could have easily remixed the song and turned it into an uptempo dance cut (similar to the new backing given to “Lovin’, Livin’ And Givin'”); instead, it’s only slightly reworked here, with a longer running time and a few changes in the instrumental track. Diana’s vocal is the same take used in the previously released version, and this is good thing; her performance is astonishingly lovely, each syllable landing like a crystal-clear drop of water. In a way, her vocals during these first three minutes foreshadow her work on the Lady Sings the Blues soundtrack, as she lags behind the beat with the command of a seasoned jazz singer. Then, of course, things begin to build; Miss Ross, buoyed by the choir of background voices, repeats the phrase “You can always depend on me” over and over again until the track explodes into a soulful climax, featuring some of the best belting of Diana’s career. Because “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” is such a strong recording, it doesn’t sound jarringly out-of-place coming after the previous four songs; this is especially true given that “What You Gave Me” provides an Ashford & Simpson connection. Even though something previously unreleased would have been nice to kick off this album’s second side, it’s impossible to complain about a recording this good.
6. Sorry Doesn’t Always Make It Right: This is another previously released recording, although it makes its debut on a Diana Ross album here; the country-pop ballad had been released as a single back in February of 1975, basically to keep Miss Ross on the charts while she was busy filming Mahogany. Although the tune was written and produced by Michael Masser, who’d given Diana hits with “Touch Me In The Morning” and “Last Time I Saw Him,” it failed in its mission; the single missed both the pop and R&B charts, though it did peak at #17 Easy Listening. Because of this surprising lack of success, “Sorry Doesn’t Always Make It Right” was left off of Diana’s 1976 LP Diana Ross, and it probably would have disappeared forever had Masser not produced another version of the song for Gladys Knight & The Pips. Released in October of 1977, Knight’s recording climbed into the R&B Top 30; around the same time, Masser signed a publishing deal with Arista Records, with company president Clive Davis proclaiming, “No one is writing more beautiful songs, more lasting copyrights today than Michael Masser” (Billboard, November 29, 1977). With Masser now working for Arista, it’s likely Motown scrambled to find and release any and all unused Masser-Ross collaborations, and suddenly “Sorry Doesn’t Always Make It Right” and its forgotten b-side, “Together,” ended up on Ross. Although Diana’s “Sorry Doesn’t Always Make It Right” was released in February of 1975, it was recorded the previous year, as a follow-up to her country-themed hit “Last Time I Saw Him;” thus, the ballad leans heavily toward country music again, with a shuffling instrumental track made up of honky-tonk piano chords, a lilting harmonica, and guitars. Diana begins her performance in a startlingly high register, sounding more youthful than she had on the earliest of Supremes hits; her delivery is delicate throughout, and she nails each note with skillful tonal precision and crystal-clear enunciation. Overall, the track is every bit as well-produced as songs like “Love Me” and “No One’s Gonna Be A Fool Forever” from 1973’s Last Time I Saw Him, and it’s a shame this song wasn’t finished in time to be included on that album, on which it would have fit seamlessly. Unfortunately, as part of Ross, it does feel out-of-place; the style doesn’t quite mesh with the disco cuts or the smooth pop ballads, resulting in a pleasant but incongruous inclusion.
7. Where Did We Go Wrong: This slick ballad bears more than a few similarities to Diana’s 1973 #1 hit “Touch Me In The Morning,” both in terms of lyric and musical structure. This makes sense, given that Ron Miller co-wrote both songs, and this one was also co-written by Tom Baird, who co-produced and arranged that earlier hit. It’s obvious that “Where Did We Go Wrong” was created as a possible follow-up to “Touch Me In The Morning” in the wake of that single’s massive success; Miller and Baird began work on the song way back in April of 1973, and Diana added vocals to it during sessions for her 1973 LP Last Time I Saw Him, but that early version was shelved as attention shifted back to the singer’s acting career and her second motion picture, Mahogany (the first version would eventually be released on the 2007 CD Last Time I Saw Him: Expanded Edition). Meanwhile, singer Maureen McGovern, who’d enjoyed a #1 hit with the ballad “The Morning After” in 1973 (that song had topped the Billboard Hot 100 immediately before “Touch Me In The Morning”) covered the song for her 1974 LP Nice To Be Around. For Ross, “Where Did We Go Wrong” gets a contemporary makeover and a slight downshift in tempo; the musical track is soft and restrained, led by a lovely instrumental opening sorely missing from the earlier, unreleased version. Diana’s vocal is extremely accomplished; as with the earlier “Never Say I Don’t Love You,” the singer offers up a deeply-felt, velvety delivery, sounding totally engaged throughout and expertly navigating the significant changes in melody from the verses to the refrain. Better yet, she’s given a dramatic climax in which she gets to do a little belting, demonstrating the considerable power she possesses as a vocalist. “Where Did We Go Wrong” may not be as instantly memorable as “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” or as deliciously complex as “I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love),” but it’s a solid ballad that deserved more attention; it certainly could have gained strong Easy Listening airplay at the time. (NOTE: The following year, singer Marcia Hines would cover “Where Did We Go Wrong” for her album Ooh Child.)
8. To Love Again: This previously unreleased ballad was recorded back in 1975; written by Michael Masser and Gerry Goffin, it was considered for the Mahogany soundtrack before the decision was made to include only instrumental music on that album, aside from the popular theme song. It’s strange that “To Love Again” wasn’t then placed on 1976’s Diana Ross, on which it would have fit beautifully; perhaps Ross and Executive Producer Berry Gordy, Jr. didn’t want to overload that album with Masser ballads. In any case, “To Love Again” sat in the vaults until Ross, and it’s more than deserving of a place here; this is one of the singer’s best ballad performances ever, a tender vocal that displays Diana’s gifts for subtlety and control. The song itself is one of the more unusual in the Ross discography; Masser (along with arranger Lee Holdridge) crafts an instrumental that’s basically an homage to French cinema, utilizing a prominent mandolin, accordion, and romantic strings to set the mood. The European inspiration is likely a direct result of Masser’s scoring the film Mahogany, since a good portion of the film takes place overseas (although the movie is set in Rome, not France). Because the instrumental track is so ornate, it would be easy for Diana to get lost a little in the mix; thankfully, she rises to the occasion, minting a rather deceptive vocal that sounds far more simple than it actually is. This is, of course, 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 gymnastics, 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. And her singing of the song’s title 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. Although the song was likely too stylized to have been a radio hit, it’s a masterful recording; Miss Ross added the song to her live act, and actually performed it after being carried onstage in a giant pink shoe! A few years later, “To Love Again” would get a second life when it was featured on a collection of Michael Masser-Diana Ross recordings titled To Love Again and released by Motown in 1981; the song was also placed on the b-side of the “Cryin’ My Heart Out for You” single, released that same year.
9. Together: Ross closes with a final Michael Masser holdover; this snappy little song had been the b-side to the “Sorry Doesn’t Always Make It Right” single, first released in February of 1975. Masser wrote the song with Pam Sawyer, and it was also cut on Motown singer Thelma Houston; her version (along with her recording of “Theme From Mahogany“) was finally released in 2015, on a CD expanded edition of her album Any Way You Like It. “Together” certainly stands out when it comes to Masser-Ross collaborations, mainly due to the fact that it isn’t a love ballad; the recording sounds more like something that would have featured on Diana’s 1970 effort Everything Is Everything, bearing some musical similarities to that album’s title track. The bouncy song is pure 1970s pop; it’s simple and repetitive, and sounds like it could have been used as the theme to a sitcom of the era. It doesn’t date particularly well; there’s a timeless quality to the very best Masser productions, and this one doesn’t have it. That said, it’s a pleasant listen and certainly isn’t a bad recording; it doesn’t add much to Ross, but it at least serves as a reminder that Diana Ross and Michael Masser were capable of producing more than just big, romantic ballads.
Although it got little to no promotion and didn’t produce any hit singles, Ross did manage to make the charts in the wake of its release, climbing to #49 on the Billboard 200 and #32 on the R&B Albums chart. Amazingly, even with tons of promotion, The Wiz (Original Soundtrack) didn’t fare much better, only climbing to #40 on the Billboard 200 and #33 on the R&B listing. Coming off of the commercial smash Diana Ross in 1976 and the critical success Baby It’s Me in 1977, this double dose of disappointment must have been a surprise to Miss Ross and Motown; Diana quickly moved on from both lackluster projects, returning to the studio with her old friends Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson in 1979 and turning out a batch of thumping disco-soul tracks that would make up her next album, The Boss. That album returned her to both critical and commercial favor, and with its success, Ross faded into obscurity once and for all.
Still, there’s much to be rediscovered on this 1978 album; though only die-hard fans have likely ever heard “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 kind of smooth, laid-back singing she’d discovered while recording Lady Sings The Blues, Miss Ross had begun taking some chances again, and it’s nice to hear her push herself vocally, particularly on “You Were The One.” Had the older, outdated songs, particularly “Sorry Doesn’t Always Make It Right” and “Together,” been left off in favor of some unreleased tracks of the era (Greg Wright’s “Share Some Love” and the sterling disco cut “You Build Me Up to Tear Me Down,” produced by the Hollands, come to mind) Ross would have felt like a more fully-formed album. But even with such a strange, uneven tracklist, Diana’s consummate artistry and the incredible musicianship of those surrounding her shine through.
Final Analysis: 3/5 (Great Songs “Together” With Weak Filler)
Paul’s Picks: “You Were The One,” “To Love Again,” “Never Say I Don’t Love You”