“There’s nothing here but the fear of will I try? And can I stare it in the eye?”
As of 1978, Diana Ross’s film career had been brief but hugely successful, and had led her to new heights as a recording artist, as well. Her first film, Lady Sings The Blues, netted her an Oscar nomination as Best Actress and had produced a #1 soundtrack album, and her second motion picture, Mahogany, was popular with audiences and featured an Oscar-nominated, #1 hit love theme. Depite being her biggest budget and highest profile movie project to date, 1978’s The Wiz failed to duplicate her earlier successes on both the silver screen and on radio; critics just couldn’t accept Diana Ross as the “Dorothy” character in this urban take on The Wizard Of Oz, and the movie ended up losing money. The soundtrack, meanwhile, was only a minor success; though it gained Diana Ross a Grammy nomination (on her duet with Michael Jackson, “Ease On Down The Road”), it only managed to hit #40 on the album charts and certainly isn’t considered a musical soundtrack classic today.
That said, the talent on display on The Wiz soundtrack is pretty incredible. The original Broadway score by Charlie Smalls is here adapted and arranged by genius producer Quincy Jones, and features some new music written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Aside from Diana Ross, voices featured on the double-LP include Michael Jackson (playing the Scarecrow), Lena Horne (as the good witch), Tony Award winner Ted Ross, and a background choir including Luther Vandross, Cissy Houston, and Patti Austin. This is — aside from the all-star recording of “We Are The World” — the only time Diana Ross and Quincy Jones would team up, and the album is notable for being the project that brought together Jones and Jackson, who would collaborate the next year on the mega-hit Off The Wall album.
Though, like the movie, the soundtrack is long and at times laborious, it does emerge as an important piece of Diana Ross’s musical history. It may not technically be a “Diana Ross album,” but she offers some of the absolute best vocal work of her career here. After seemingly becoming re-energized during the recording of 1977’s Baby It’s Me, on which she sounded consistently fresh and vibrant in a way she hadn’t in years, she hits new (and literal) heights on her work here. In the liner notes of the LP, Jones writes: “Diana Ross, spelled S-T-A-R, gave us every drop – singing, dancing, and acting. She was singing a minor third higher than she’d ever sung in her life. Diana Ross is probably the hardest working performer I’ve ever worked with and just as beautiful a person.”
Indeed, Diana Ross under his direction becomes a singer of superb strength and range here; the raw power in her voice is on par with that exhibited during 1971’s Surrender. Even during the quiet moments of this album, Jones manages to bring out a rich, full sound in Diana’s voice that many other producers couldn’t seem to capture. Because this double-LP soundtrack is so long (26 listed tracks) and features so many instrumentals and different voices, I’ll narrow the track analysis down to just those songs that feature Miss Ross. That leaves ten songs to discuss — and among them are some of the most thrilling performances she’d turned in thus far in her career.
Can I Go On?: This is the song that introduces Ross’s character, Dorothy, a young Harlem school teacher who is cripplingly shy and afraid to move out on her own and establish a life for herself. The song’s lyrics (it was written by Ashford, Simpson, and Jones) explore her inability to relate to the feelings of those around her, “like caring, and sharing, being together.” Because this song exists solely to establish her character, Diana is “acting” her way through it as much as singing; it’s a somber, wavering, imperfect vocal performance, and she certainly sounds like a woman lost somewhere in the depths of emotional confusion (her character spends so much of the movie talking about “feelings” that she ends up becoming pretty obnoxious). That said, there is a clarity to her voice here that is striking; it’s the first indication of what Quincy Jones will capture with Diana’s vocals on the rest of the soundtrack. Even when her voice wavers and cracks, there’s a smoothness to the tone of her voice that is lovely, especially when she’s singing at the lower end of her range.
Soon As I Get Home/Home: Essentially an extension of the previous song, this is another exploration of Dorothy’s “feelings,” and incorporates pieces of the score’s climactic song, “Home,” which will come at the end of the album. Again, because this comes so early in the movie (Dorothy has just arrived in Oz), Diana is using her voice to convey the insecurity of her character, and she sounds extremely childlike in much of the song. This isn’t a standout of the soundtrack, because it’s a meandering song that’s hard to appreciate out of the context of the film. Again, this is more of an acting performance from Miss Ross, though it’s a great example of the beautifully rendered score by Mr. Jones; the instrumental features his trademark crispness and it perfectly compliments the vocal work.
Ease On Down The Road: One of the two most famous songs from The Wiz, this is a duet between Dorothy and the Scarecrow, which means it features the dynamic voices of Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, appearing on the same album for the first time since the early 1970s. This song was also eventually released as the first single off the soundtrack, and though it didn’t quite make the Pop Top 40, it was a moderate R&B success and garnered the pair a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. The song is an upbeat, joyous, and soulful celebration, and both Diana and Michael soar atop the funky, danceable track. Jackson, in particular, attacks the song vocally, displaying the kind of elasticity that would make him famous the next year with songs like “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” While his voice is piercing enough that it, at times, overshadows Diana’s, she also displays impressive range (listen to her belt out the words “…just FINE!”) and turns in some nice, soulful ad-libs on the chorus. The pair sing much of the song in unison, which makes for an interesting listen because it does reveal their vocal similarities. Jackson was always open about the influence that Diana Ross had on him as a singer and performer, and that influence is audible here. I’d also bet that Diana’s emotional and purposefully shaky vocals on songs like the “Soon As I Get Home/Home” were a direct influence on Jackon’s “She’s Out Of My Life” on Off The Wall; he uses the exact same technique as Ross on that song. Though “Ease On Down The Road” is not necessarily a career highlight for either artist, it is an extremely enjoyable song that probably would have had much more success had the film itself been a bigger hit.
Ease On Down The Road #2 and #3: The song is reprised twice, each time with addition of a new character (first the Tin Man, then the Cowardly Lion), and each only runs about a minute and a half. The third version is most notable here due to a brief vocal intro by Diana, who croons the line, “Oh there may be times, when you wish you wasn’t born…” in a jazzy high soprano that is so lovely you kind of wish the entire song could be sung at that slow tempo!
Be A Lion: This is one of the great hidden treasures of Diana Ross’s discography; it is easily one of her best ballad performances of all time. That this recording is pretty much unknown by the general public is a shame; anyone who doesn’t believe that Diana Ross has strong “pipes” or can belt out a song would surely change his or her tune after hearing her work through this song. “Be A Lion” opens the second LP; by this time, Diana’s character is becoming less shy and more confident, and thus her voice is changing (or, thematically, she’s “finding her voice”). She begins the song with a velvet-smooth vocal performance that is, technically speaking, perfection; the melody is a challenging one, and her voice glides along with Quincy Jones’s lovely orchestration with an ease and assuredness reminiscent of her work on Lady Sings The Blues. As noted earlier, there’s a rich, full tone to her voice here that is unlike much of her work in the 70s, and she holds sustained notes (like the word “storm” at 48 seconds in) with the ease of a seasoned Broadway star (likely helped by her own stint on Broadway in her one-woman show the year before). But at about 2:40 into the recording, when she repeats the word “trying” three times, her voice suddenly soars; you can actually hear her voice opening up and for the rest of the recording she displays what is possibly the strongest singing of her entire career. Ted Ross as the Cowardly Lion joins in, and the two trade off a few lines; perhaps the most thrilling moment here is Diana’s reading of the lyric, “You’re the bravest of them all,” during which she nearly screams out the words, belting higher than she had in years (probably since the Surrender album). Not only is she belting out the notes, but she sounds great doing it; there’s a power here that many people are unaware exists in her ablities, and she nails the notes spot-on. Though she was nominated for a Grammy for “Ease On Down The Road,” she was deserving of one for this performance; because the song was never released as a single and because it’s been outshined by the other big ballad of The Wiz, “Home,” this performance has been lost over the years. For me, however, it stands alongside 1984’s “Missing You” as her most satisfying ballad performance ever, and is a performance for which she and producer Jones should be proud.
Is This What Feeling Gets? (Dorothy’s Theme): Essentially a reprise of the earlier “Can I Go On?” this is a slightly longer, but less meandering version and allows Diana a chance to again demonstrate her virtuosity in interpreting lyrics while staying in character. As with the songs at the beginning of the soundtrack, this is a raw and imperfect performance; there are moments where Diana allows her voice to crack and fade to near silence. During the last minute of the performance, she practically screams while singing and it’s a thrilling show of emotion, true to the character of Dorothy and where the song falls in the context of the soundtrack. This, like “Be A Lion,” is an incredibly satisfying performance by Miss Ross that’s completely overlooked in assessments of her ballad recordings. It is, however, a powerful piece of work; the song itself may not be a “radio-friendly” or catchy composition, but the vocal is masterful.
A Brand New Day: This is a fascinating addition to the soundtrack, because it’s written by Luther Vandross and his immediately recognizable voice is featured at the beginning. The tune is a grandiose, joyous, celebratory track (it’s basically The Wiz’s version of “Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead) and the entire thing runs nearly eight minutes long. Several voices are featured here, but Diana leads the way in a dynamite, gospel-infused performance. This song may be what Quincy Jones had in mind when he wrote that Diana was singing a minor third higher than she ever had; she impressively pushes her voice above the rest of the powerful choir. It’s exciting to hear Diana trading off lines with so many other artists, including the gorgeous voice of Vandross, and (unlike the earlier “Ease On Down The Road,” during which she’s at times overshadowed) she easily remains at the forefront of the recording. Had this been edited down and cleaned up a bit, it might have made a good single, as it’s just as danceable as “Ease On Down The Road.”
Believe In Yourself: After showing off some vocal firepower on “Be A Lion” and “A Brand New Day,” Diana gives a quiet, restrained performance on this song, which is later reprised by the great Lena Horne. Diana’s reading of the song is wise and relaxed; again, she remains firmly in character, and believably sings to the other characters about the power of having inner confidence.
Home: This is the most famous song from The Wiz; it was the standout from the original Broadway production, and helped make Stephanie Mills (who originated the role of Dorothy) a star. Mills, incidentally, would record the song again in the 80s and take it to #1 on the R&B charts, and it remains the song most associated with her. Diana Ross, meanwhile, also appropriated the song into her career and performed it often, notably during the first of her infamous concerts at Central Park in 1983 (she sang it before the rain started falling!). “Home” is the closing tune on the soundtrack; it’s a classic “11 o’clock number” that provides an emotional climax and ends the musical on a dramatic high note, and Diana Ross’s recording of the song is certainly a highlight of the project. She takes every aspect of her vocal performances thus far – the rawness, the passion, the strength and power – and pushes each full-throttle here; this is the most natural and unrefined she would ever sound in her career. She’s not so much singing the song as she is experiencing it; as the instrumental track builds and builds, Diana’s voice gets rougher and rougher, as she growls and belts out certain lyrics (her repetition of the word “real” at 2:50, for example) in a way that’s downright shocking considering this is the same singer whose glossy vocals sold us “Touch Me In The Morning” a few years earlier. It’s not a classically “pretty” vocal performance, but it’s a captivating one and is one of the most striking vocals of Diana’s career.
Because The Wiz was basically a failure at the box office, the soundtrack never really gained any major traction; it was also quickly be eclipsed by the albums Diana Ross and Michael Jackson would release the next year, The Boss and Off The Wall, both of which were extremely well-received. It’s also, as noted before, a long soundtrack, and features so many instrumentals that it wouldn’t really appeal to anyone other than fans of the film or film score buffs. That said, the vocal performances featured are stellar, especially those offered by Diana Ross. No matter what you think of her performance (it wasn’t well-reviewed at the time…and I’ll reserve judgement, since we’re focusing on her music here), there’s no denying that she was feeling this role as she hadn’t felt either of her other two; she is completely committed to the character and clearly conveys Dorothy’s emotions. She’s using her voice here in a way she hadn’t used it thus far in her career, and the workout she gives her vocal cords can clearly be heard on The Boss, which makes full use of her willingness to push her voice. As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t a “Diana Ross” album, and thus is hard to rate against others in her discography. Rather than put the album on a 5-point scale, I’ll just say that her work on the album is easily worthy of a 5/5 and deserves to be re-discovered.
Choice Cuts: “Be A Lion,” “Home,” “Is This What Feeling Gets? (Dorothy’s Theme)”
The Grammy nominees for Best Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals that year were:
Earth, Wind & Fire, All ‘N All (Winner)
A Taste Of Honey, “Boogie Oogie Oogie”
Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, “Ease On Down The Road”
Commodores, Natural High
The O’Jays, “Use Ta Be My Girl”