“I’m here, and I won’t apologize…maybe at the end, there’ll be a surprise…”
To say Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson are essential fibers in the fabric of Diana Ross’s career would be a huge understatement; without the husband-and-wife writing and producing team, there’s no telling what Diana Ross’s solo career would have turned out to be. Ashford and Simpson, back in 1970, had been handed the monumental task of orchestrating Ross’s first post-Supremes album, and they’d delivered a stellar album and two hit singles, one of them the stirring #1 hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” A year later, they’d written and produced Surrender; while not a huge commercial success, the album was a masterpiece and stands as one of the very best Ross albums ever. In 1976, Diana chose the pair’s “Ain’t Nothin’ But A Maybe” to produce on herself, and placed it on her hugely successful Diana Ross album.
It makes sense, then, that in 1979 Diana Ross would team up again with the duo for a new album. Her sales had been spotty since last hitting #1 in 1976 with “Love Hangover.” Though 1977’s Baby It’s Me is one of her best albums, and 1978’s Ross featured some solid songs, neither was a big hit. 1978 also turned out to be a tough year when Diana’s third film, The Wiz, became her first big failure, and the soundtrack didn’t achieve the kind of sales one would expect from a work featuring stars like Michael Jackson and the behind-the-scenes magic of Quincy Jones. So a lot was probably at stake with Diana’s next album; she’d been a solo star for nearly a decade, and I’d be willing to bet there were those in the industry who were wondering if she was close to her expiration date.
The Boss, of course, turned out to be a solid success; it went gold and gave Diana some major hits on the dancefloor. Its two singles (“The Boss” and “It’s My House”) are considered Diana Ross classics today, and the singer still regularly performs both in concert. It modernized Diana Ross without straying too far from the ingredients that had made her a star in the first place; a younger crowd could appreciate the driving beats and catchy lyrics, while established fans could enjoy the attention paid to the vocals and overall production.
Those vocals, it should be noted, were some of the best yet on a Diana Ross studio album; her voice hadn’t sounded so consistently powerful and alive since Surrender. Such inspired vocal performances were likely the result of a couple of things – first of all, it’s clear that Ashford and Simpson as producers always pushed Ross in the studio. But more importantly, the singer was coming off of The Wiz, on which she’d delivered her most raw and emotional performances ever. Though the film and soundtrack hadn’t performed up to expectations, there’s no doubt that the project was a creative breakthrough for Diana, who has repeatedly said that she was deeply connected to the story. She’d also pushed her voice nightly during her recent challenging live extravaganzas, an experience that must have amounted to a singer’s boot camp, whipping her vocal chords into shape.
Ashford and Simpson also must have been at a creative high point during this time; they were now established recording stars in their own right, and had continued to cut classics on others, like Chaka Kahn’s “I’m Every Woman.” Smartly, they also apparently tapped into that creativity brewing in Diana; according to J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana Ross: A Biography, “[Diana] would meet with Nick and Valerie to discuss the songs and what she wanted to the lyrics to convey” (325). Thus, unlike some of her recent, more uneven albums (with the exception of Baby It’s Me, on which Diana also had strong input with producer Richard Perry), The Boss truly feels like a “Diana Ross album” from start to finish. Though the songs are undoubtedly of the disco era and sound somewhat dated today, they’re still much more listenable and far more complex than most of the repetitive dance hits of the late 70s, thanks to the intelligence of Ashford and Simpson as songwriters and the exuberance of Diana’s performances.
1. No One Gets The Prize: The Boss opens with one of its strongest and most infectious tracks, a slamming dance track that features absolutely stunning vocal work from Diana and some of the best writing on the album. The song is, in a way, an updated take on “Keep An Eye” (one of the standouts on Diana’s debut album, Diana Ross), with a similar story about two friends torn apart by competition for a man. The track opens with an almost primal call from Diana, who wordlessly belts out a 7-note intro before the bouncing beats kicks in. The instrumental here, while on the surface typical of 70s disco, is upon further listens much more challenging, with Valerie’s pounding piano and funky, New Orleans-ish horn work setting it apart from more generic dance hits of the era. Again, the vocal work here is stellar; Diana’s crystal-clear annunciation is necessary to make the rapid-fire lyrics of the second verse work, and she powerfully belts through much of the song, easily matching the impressive range she showed on songs like “Be A Lion” from The Wiz. During the last minute of running time, Diana is singing at the top of her range; her “I was denied a love that satisfied” at 4:00, for example, is real soul belting, and sounds almost Chaka Kahn-esque. To hear Diana sounding so committed to a challenging song is a thrill; it’s clear right from the start that she’s feeling the material – likely because she was creatively involved in it. “No One Gets The Prize” – while apparently a hit in clubs – was never released as a single, and thus never charted. It’s a mystery why; this song is one of Diana’s best in years, and a perfect way to open the album.
2. I Ain’t Been Licked: The high energy continues with this funky, upbeat song featuring the kind of uplifting message that Diana Ross obviously loves; I’d guess this is one of the songs written with Diana’s creative ideas in mind. The lyrics are instantly relatable to anyone who’s ever been kicked down, and from the memorable opening line (“Roll down the gangway so they’ll see that it’s me…”) until her inspired belting at the end, Diana again sounds completely invested in the song. As with “No One Gets The Prize,” the vocals here are strong and clear; Diana’s voice sounds full and vibrant, and she never once seems to strain to hit the high notes required of her on the choruses. The backgrounds by Ashford and Simpson soar behind Miss Ross, providing a musical springboard for her, and the classic instrumental track really pops thanks to some great guitar, bass, and horn work. Had this been released as a single, I imagine it could have gained strong airplay, at least on R&B stations; it’s every bit as anthemic as the similar “I’m Every Woman.”
3. All For One: A lovely ballad in the vein of “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” which had been Ross’s first solo hit and was also written by Ashford and Simpson. Of the ballads on The Boss, this is the strongest, thanks to a nice performance by Diana and an interesting song structure. Diana initially offers up a relaxed performance, but her voice becomes more and more powerful, especially at around 1:50, during the bridge, as she cries out the words “…won’t you try?” Though it’s not as memorable as “Reach Out…” or some of the ballads on Surrender, it’s a strong addition to this album and provides a nice break from the energetic tunes that surround it. Diana also apparently liked it; she used it in her shows promoting the album, and even performed it as the encore to the second night of her famous Central Park concerts in 1983.
4. The Boss: This is perhaps the most joyous, celebratory track Diana Ross has ever recorded (well, it’s at least tied with “I’m Coming Out”) — if ever a song could be called “feel good,” this is it. The LP’s title track and first single (it cracked the Top 20 and hit #1 on the dance charts) is an irresistible dance song that features an instantly-catchy hook, brilliant instrumentals, and one of Ross’s best vocal performances ever captured in the studio. This is a perfect example of what Ashford and Simpson were capable of drawing out of Diana Ross; her energetic vocals inch higher and higher as the track plays out, culminating in her famous vocal run at around 2:10 which even she seems to know people went crazy over: “I was listening to ‘The Boss,’ and it still sounds really good. I remember when I used to do the high part at the end of that song, and everybody thought that wasn’t me, that [it] was probably somebody else” (David Nathan’s The Soulful Divas, 157). Being that this song is still recognized as a “Diana Ross classic” and is featured on many soul and dance compilations, it’s hard to imagine why people still label her as a singer that didn’t have much range — one listen to this song immediately disproves that. The production here is superb, and a fine example of how 70s dance music didn’t have to be boring, repetitive, or campy; the song, in fact, has far outlived it’s life as a 70s dance classic, having been resurrected by other artists over the years and topping the dance chart TWO other times. Miss Ross herself still performs the song in concert, often as the first or second song in her set — her enjoyment of the song after all these years is still evident.
5. Once In The Morning: The most purely “disco” song on the album, this is not really a vocal or production showcase; the point here, clearly, is to get people out dancing. Diana turns in a sexy, subdued vocal that sounds very different from her turns on “The Boss” and “No One Gets The Prize” – her breathy performance is much more akin to Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” or Andrea True’s “More, More, More” than her more powerful work on other cuts here. She does get to do a little more emoting during the last 30 seconds, which is nice to hear, but again, this song is one of the few (if not the only) on the album that really seems to emphasize the beat over the lyrics and vocals.
6. It’s My House: This is probably the most unusual song on the LP, and was chosen as the second single. Though it only found moderate success on the R&B charts, it’s still remembered today, and often referenced in pop culture – proof that it made an impact on radio, even if the overall chart position was underwhelming. This isn’t a traditional dance song, and it’s not a ballad; it falls somewhere in between, a groovy kind of easy listening tune with an Island flavor and a finger-snapping beat. The song doesn’t require as much vocal energy by Diana, but she turns in a pleasant, relaxed vocal that perfectly fits the laid-back and confident theme. The lyrics here speak of an empowered woman inviting a man inside her house on her own terms (“…say you wanna move in with me…gotta follow the rules to get me…”), and Ross – who was a single mother at the time, and newly living in New York – was likely really feeling the idea; it sure sounds like she was, anyway.
7. Sparkle: Strangely, the longest song on the LP isn’t one of the dance tracks; it’s this tune, a light, classy pop/soul ballad that runs just over five minutes. The production work here is reminiscent of Richard Perry’s work on Diana’s Baby It’s Me; Valerie Simpson plays an almost jazz-influenced piano line and there’s a prominent sax featured, too. While this is a pleasant piece of easy-listening, it doesn’t pack nearly the punch of “It’s My House” or even “All For One” – it’s ultimately just not as memorable as the songs that have come before it. Diana offers up a performance not unlike that on some of her work with Michael Masser; there’s a softness and roundness to her voice here that’s very pleasing. This is by no means a bad song, but it’s a bit meandering and again, doesn’t quite match the excitement of the tracks that surround it.
8. I’m In The World: This song sounds like it could have come straight off of the soundtrack to The Wiz; the self-empowerment lyric is exactly the kind Diana Ross sang in character as Dorothy, and serves as almost a sequel to “Is This What Feeling Gets (Dorothy’s Theme)” – which, it just so happens, was also penned by Ashford and Simpson. There’s a cinematic quality to the entire production; the soaring strings could easily complement a film’s dramatic high point, and the long, slow fade-out at the end seems tailor-made for a movie’s end credit sequence. Diana’s inspiring performance foreshadows her work on the next year’s “It’s My Turn” (which, coincidentally, actually is a feature film theme song); again, I’d be willing to bet this one was written with Diana’s input, as she sounds completely invested in the words she’s singing. Though it’s not as full of hooks as “I Ain’t Been Licked” or as exuberant as “The Boss,” this is actually a perfect way to end the album – the lyrics are about finding one’s place in the world, and Diana Ross (by her own admission) was doing just that as she recorded the entire album.
The Boss is one of the most cohesive albums of Diana Ross’s career – and thus, one of the most consistently enjoyable. To me, the quality of the songs is just slightly more variable than on Surrender and Baby It’s Me, and thus isn’t quite as solid as those two offerings. Still, Ashford and Simpson prove once again that not only are they master writers and producers, but that they also know how to bring the very best out of Miss Ross. Allowing her creative input in the album clearly motivated Diana to push herself in the studio, and the vocals here reveal an artist with a depth and range that many people still don’t appreciate. Though The Boss went gold and was a hit for Diana, it wasn’t nearly the success that it should have been — it’s impossible to understand why she didn’t at least get a Grammy nod for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, considering her work on the entire album is stronger than on songs like “Your Love Is So Good For Me” and even “Love Hangover,” which had previously gained her nominations in that category. Of course, she wouldn’t have to wait long for a chart-busting, platinum LP…that would come the next year…
Final Analysis: 4.5/5 (Diana “Sparkles”)
Choice Cuts: “No One Gets The Prize,” “The Boss,” “It’s My House”