“I’m here, and I won’t apologize…maybe at the end, there’ll be a surprise…”
“After the meticulous but anemic Baby It’s Me and the careless patchwork of Ross, I’d just about given up on Diana Ross’ recording career, figuring that from here on, it’d only be an adjunct to her movie stardom.”
So began Stephen Holden’s review of The Boss in the August 9, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone, and while his assessment of Miss Ross seems harsh, it’s safe to say many fans were probably feeling the same way. At the dawn of 1979, Miss Ross hadn’t scored a significant hit in nearly three years; though “Love Hangover” had been a smash in the summer of 1976, none of the singer’s six subsequent singles had even cracked the pop Top 20; worst of all, 1978’s “What You Gave Me” missed the Billboard Hot 100 completely. Her albums had fared progressively worse, too; 1976’s Diana Ross was a Top 5 smash, but neither 1978’s Ross or The Wiz (Original Soundtrack) even made the Top 40. None of this means that Diana wasn’t turning out great work; despite its so-so chart fortunes, 1977’s Baby It’s Me (despite what writer Holden said) remains one of the finest albums ever released by Ross, and there are career-best moments to be found on both of the 1978 releases. Still, there must have been frustration from both Ross and Motown that none of the singer’s recent music had really clicked with listeners.
Meanwhile, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who’d helped launch Diana’s solo career back in 1970, were enjoying more success than ever as 1978 turned into 1979. After leaving Motown in 1973 (just after producing the Diana Ross-Marvin Gaye duet “Just Say, Just Say”), the pair signed with Warner Bros. and began releasing their own albums; 1977’s Send It was a turning point, giving the duo its first Top 10 R&B hit, and in 1978 they were featured on the #1 R&B hit “Stuff Like That” with Quincy Jones and Chaka Khan. That same year, Ashford and Simpson wrote and produced Khan’s debut solo single, “I’m Every Woman,” which also shot to #1 on the R&B listing; their own 1978 single, “It Seems To Hang On,” topped out at #2. A November 9, 1979 cover story in Jet magazine called them “the hottest husband-and-wife music team in the U.S.” and described them as “rich and talented, yet they carry the sweetness of success so casually, so comfortably, with the same simple assurance and humbleness of old pros.”
It makes sense, then, that Diana Ross would partner up with Ashford & Simpson again; they’d experienced massive success together before (1970’s #1 smash “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” for starters) and the writing-producing team was certainly in a position to give the singer a much-needed boost. The trio hit the studio in early 1979 in New York (Diana had moved to the city to film The Wiz), turning out a neat batch of eight tracks which blended the gospel-influenced soul of Ashford and Simpson with Diana’s glossy pop sophistication. With disco music still the driving force behind R&B at the time, most of the cuts boasted a heavy dance beat; that said, Ashford and Simpson also ensured that each bore their stamp of a strong melody and lyric. Looking back on the recording process in 1993, Diana would tell writer David Nathan that The Boss was crafted “as a complete album…It was not a ‘go and record’ and do different songs and put them in the can…I selected the songs and…I was taking a little more responsibility as an artist” (The Soulful Divas 157).
Released on May 23, 1979, The Boss (Motown 923) was an immediate critical hit; Billboard called it “Ross’ best album in years” (June 9), and after that rather searing start to his Rolling Stone review, Stephen Holden gave it a rave, pointing to how the “excellent, custom-made tunes by songwriter/producers Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson underline the renewed joy and self-reliance that infuse [Diana’s] singing on The Boss.” Indeed, The Boss is an album filled with joy; even when she’s singing about heartbreak, Diana sounds like she’s having a ball in the studio. Better yet, her voice had never been stronger; The Boss contains some of the singer’s best most impressive vocal performances on record ever, displaying a power and range many weren’t convinced she possessed. This new, emboldened Diana Ross led fans straight to the dance floor, and by the end of August, the entire LP sat on top of Billboard‘s Disco Top 80 chart. Even though The Boss eventually became Diana’s first gold-selling album, its real achievement is there, in the grooves; this is Diana Ross at her exuberant, incandescent best.
1. No One Gets The Prize: “The best cuts here are funky and rhythmic, with the same earthiness exhibited in the bold, natural cover shot.” One of those cuts considered a highlight of The Boss by Billboard (in its May 23, 1979 review) is “No One Gets The Prize,” a slamming dance track that features absolutely stunning vocal work from Diana Ross and some of the best writing on the album. The song is, in a way, an updated take on Ashford & Simpson’s own “Keep An Eye,” which had been a standout on Diana’s debut album, Diana Ross; both tell a similar story about friends torn apart by romantic competition, and both do so with sly, clever lyrics. Interestingly, UK magazine Blues & Soul likened the songs to another previous Ross recording: “From every aspect, this is a cut that is deliberately planned to recreate the mood set on ‘Love Hangover’, Diana’s recent giant hit.” This track, however, is really a far different animal than Diana’s 1976 #1 disco hit; that earlier recording featured a laid-back, self-satisfied singer languidly being pulled along by the beat. Here, Ashford and Simpson push Diana ahead of the beat, and it seems to be chasing her, as she attacks her vocal beginning with an iconic, wordless 7-note primal call before the bouncing beats kicks in. The instrumental, while on the surface fairly typical of 70s disco, is upon further listens much more challenging, led by Simpson’s pounding piano and a funky, New Orleans-ish horn section (arranged by Robert Mounsey) setting the song 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 final 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 Khan-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. (NOTE: A previously unreleased 12″ mix of “No One Gets The Prize” was eventually included on 2001’s The Motown Anthology.)
2. I Ain’t Been Licked: When Stephen Holden wrote in Rolling Stone, “Something — the failure of The Wiz? competition from Donna Summer? — has put the old fight back in her,” he might have been specifically referencing this song. With “I Ain’t Been Licked,” Ashford and Simpson give Diana Ross a triumphant anthem, the kind of tough, gritty declaration that must have had fans absolutely euphoric in discos as the time. The song seems to be a direct descendant of both Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” (also written and produced by Ashford and Simpson) and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” which had topped pop and dance charts earlier in 1979; coincidentally, “I Will Survive” was co-written and produced by Dino Fekaris, who’d worked at Motown during the same time as Ashford and Simpson (both wrote several duets for 1971 The Supremes and The Four Tops LP The Return Of The Magnificent Seven). This isn’t to say “I Ain’t Been Licked” is a anything close to a copy of either of the two earlier recordings — musically, they are all very different songs, and Ashford and Simpson clearly tailored “I Ain’t Been Licked” directly to the vocal talents of Diana Ross, creating a song that feels totally authentic to her. Still, had “I Will Survive” not been such a massive hit earlier that year, it’s interesting to ponder if “I Ain’t Been Licked” could have been released as a single and become the anthem for self-empowerment that Gaynor’s recording remains to this day. In any case, the lyrics here 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 (along with Ullanda McCullough and Raymond 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. As with “No One Gets The Prize,” Diana immediately added “I Ain’t Been Licked” to her stage show at the time, and it was enthusiastically received by audiences; Ross can be seem performing it on her 1980 HBO television special Standing Room Only: Diana Ross. It’s too bad it didn’t remain in her live repertoire; Miss Ross currently closes her act with a cover of “I Will Survive,” but her own “I Ain’t Been Licked” could easily be just as effective. (NOTE: James Simpson gave this song a 12″ remix in July of 1979, which was eventually released on 2003’s diana: Deluxe Edition.)
3. All For One: The album’s first ballad is an uplifting tune in the same vein as Diana’s first solo single, 1970’s “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” which also happened to be written and produced by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Although this song was never released as a single, it became fairly well-known thanks to its inclusion in Diana’s live act; not only did she perform it while promoting The Boss, she also named a 45-day tour of smaller cities in 1983 “For One And For All,” inspired by this song (“For One And For All” was also the name given to Diana’s pair of infamous Central Park concerts that same year, and she sang “All For One” at the close of the second day). This is the third cut in a row featuring horn and string arrangements by the prolific Robert Mounsey; his work on The Boss, and this song in particular, is lush and full, creating an earthier sound than on much of Diana’s earlier, crisper solo work. Instruments including the Fender Rhodes and Clarinet on the album are handled by Ray Chew, a man who would figured prominently into Diana’s work early in the next decade, when she moved from Motown to RCA Records and began writing and producing her own work; it is perhaps no coincidence, then, that “All For One” bears some sonic similarities to songs from Diana’s RCA debut, Why Do Fools Fall In Love (especially the sound created on the album’s second track, “Sweet Surrender”). In any case, “All For One” is a gentle song, softly swaying back and forth and occasionally erupting into powerful moments which allow Diana to stretch out her voice; the melody is nowhere near as exciting as that of “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” nor is it as memorable, but it’s pleasant and Diana’s crystal-clear vocal really sells the inspirational message. Lyrics such as “There’s no need to live on an island/’Cause everyone here respects your opinion” must have really resonated with Miss Ross, who was actively seeking more creative input into her own career. As she would tell Ebony magazine in November of 1981, “Things that I had never concerned myself with before — questions I may never have asked before, that I never needed to be concerned with before — I have to ask now. I think it is a natural process, like growing up.”
4. The Boss: Rolling Stone called this song “the album’s only hardcore disco song” and, indeed, it’s an irresistible dance song with a popping beat and undeniable energy; that said, it’s much more than a disco song, and has more than stood the test of time since first being released as a single in May of 1979. Interestingly, like its parent album, it took “The Boss” a long time to peak on the Billboard Hot 100; the song didn’t even make the Top 30 until September, at which time Motown was already heavily pushing lablemate Bonnie Pointer’s “Heaven Must Have Sent You.” Even with a lack of support from the label, “The Boss” climbed to a respectable #19 on the pop listing, Diana’s highest charting single since “Love Hangover” hit #1 in 1976, and topped out at #12 on the R&B chart. “The Boss” certainly got a boost when Miss Ross performed it on “The Tonight Show” during a guest-hosting stint on July 16, 1979; her rendition surely ranks among her best live television performances ever, at least in terms of vocals. “The Boss” is perhaps the most joyous, celebratory track Diana Ross has ever recorded; if ever a song could be called “feel good,” this is it. Featuring an instantly-catchy hook, brilliant instrumentals, and one of Diana’s best vocal performances ever captured in the studio, the album’s title track is a perfect example of the magic created by the trio of Ross, Ashford, and Simpson; it’s also definitive proof that the producers are hands-down the best match for the singer in terms of pushing her in the studio and expanding the limits of her vocal range. Stephen Holder perhaps put it best in his Rolling Stone review, writing of the album, “The finest compositions here hitch nifty catch phrases to neat hooks and build them step by step into towering climaxes.” That’s exactly what happens in “The Boss,” as Diana’s energetic vocals inch higher and higher as the track plays out, culminating in her famous vocal run at just more than two-minutes into the track. Miss Ross would later tell writer David Nathan, “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” (The Soulful Divas 157). In subsequent live performances, especially that “Tonight Show” appearance, Diana would prove she indeed could hit each and every note of the gymnastic vocal run; after expanding her range by singing the challenging songs of The Wiz and extensively touring with exhausting stage shows, the artist’s voice was stronger than ever. To be fair, much of the credit of the song’s success goes beyond the lead vocal; Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson offer a superb example of how 1970s dance music didn’t have to be boring, repetitive, or campy. To that end, the song has far outlived the disco era, topping the Billboard dance charts not one, but two other times; R&B group The Braxtons covered the song in 1997 and hit #1 on the Hot Dance Club Play chart, and Kristine W did it again in 2008. Miss Ross herself still performs the song regularly in concert, and her enjoyment of it after all these years is more than evident.
5. Once In The Morning: If any song on The Boss comes close to the disco stereotype, “Once In The Morning” is probably it; although most of the album’s cuts feature dancefloor-ready beats, this one emphasizes the beat over lyrics and melody, which was a chief complaint of many critics of the genre. Considering almost every track on The Boss showcases explosive melodies and vocal performances, it’s not a bad thing to include something a little lower-key; Ashford and Simpson were master record producers, of course, and knew that a great album needs some peaks and valleys, giving listeners a journey to travel from the first song to the last. Unlike the quartet of songs on the album’s Side A, “Once In The Morning” doesn’t carry a strong message or tell a specific story; this is a hyper-sexy song in which Diana breathily cries out for “good, good lovin’ stuff” once in the morning and once in the evening. In this way, the song is much more like Diana’s own “Love Hangover” than any other track on The Boss; more than that, it’s a musical cousin to Donna Summer’s infamous disco classic “Love To Love You Baby” and the 1976 hit “More, More, More” by Andrea True Connection. If the stirring strings on “Once in The Morning” sounds familiar, it’s likely because the arrangement is the work of the great Paul Riser, who’d previously arranged Motown classics including Diana’s own “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” In the end, if “Once In The Morning” isn’t the most musically exciting track on The Boss, it is certainly a well-produced chunk of disco-soul that served its purpose of getting people out on the floor; had the entire LP not topped the National Disco chart, this song probably would have found a way there on its own.
6. It’s My House: This track was an immediate critical favorite upon release of The Boss, with Billboard naming it one of the album’s best cuts and Blues & Soul calling it the favorite. Diana also immediately added it to her show and it became a standout, giving her a chance to add some playful, sexy camp to her live act. But when Motown finally released “It’s My House” as the album’s second (and final) single in October of 1979, it didn’t even make the Billboard Hot 100, and stalled out at #27 on the R&B Singles chart. These chart positions, however, don’t tell the full story of the song’s reception by fans; although it got very little promotion by Diana’s record label, the song absolutely resonated with audiences, especially African-Americans; it’s been referenced in many other songs and even films, and is so closely identified with Miss Ross that it’s rarely left her live act since (and, indeed, was included on her 2017 hits collection Diamond Diana, earning a spot over many songs that fared far better on the charts). Along with the lack of promotion, the fact that the album had already been on shelves since May likely hurt the single’s sales potential, since many fans already owned the album; The Boss would eventually be certified gold by the RIAA, Diana’s first to earn such a certification. “It’s My House” is easily the most unusual song on the LP, being that it isn’t a traditional dance song and it’s not a ballad, either; it falls somewhere in between, an easy-going, mid-tempo number with a light Calypso flavor and a snappy beat. More than any other tune on The Boss, “It’s My House” puts into words Diana’s emerging independence at the time; the lyrics speak of an empowered woman inviting a man into her house on her own terms, something Diana, newly living in New York and single herself, certainly identified with. Her vocal here is light and carefree; she sounds confident and relaxed as she delivers Ashford and Simpson’s clever lyrics. The production, meanwhile, is superb; horn & strings arrangements are handled by John Davis this time around, and the syncopated instrumental track is irresistible. Along with a gifted vocalist and writing-producing team, The Boss really benefits from top-notch musicians on every single track. In terms of the material crafted for Miss Ross by Ashford and Simpson over the years, “It’s My House” must be considered as one of the must unique and satisfying. (NOTE: “It’s My House” was also released as a 12″ promotional-only single, with a remix by Jimmy Simpson.)
7. Sparkle: The original album’s longest song isn’t one of its dance tracks, it’s this light, classy ballad which runs just more than five minutes long. “Sparkle” was eventually released as the b-side to the “It’s My House” single in October of 1979; the production here is actually reminiscent of producer Richard Perry’s work on Diana’s superb 1977 effort Baby It’s Me, thanks mainly to Valerie Simpson jazz-inflected piano playing and Grammy-winner Michael Brecker’s prominent sax solo. The sound here is lush and tasteful, and Miss Ross mints an absolutely gorgeous vocal; it’s one of the least-challenging songs on the album in terms of required range and power, but it serves to showcase that inimitable crystal-clear tone. In terms of genre, the song would probably be considered “Quiet Storm” today; had it been released during the next decade, as deeply-felt jazz-soul tunes by Anita Baker, Regina Belle, and others began to break through to mainstream success, “Sparkle” might have been able to do the same thing. If it’s not the most memorable cut on The Boss (aside from the gentle “Everything must live/Everything must breathe” refrain) it’s still a worthy inclusion that stands up several decades later.
8. I’m In The World: The Boss closes with another declaration of independence from Diana Ross, this time in the form of a big, cinematic ballad which also happened to be placed on the b-side of “The Boss” in May of 1979. It’s worth mentioning here that although The Boss was the first full-length studio LP produced by Ashford and Simpson for Diana Ross since 1971, the trio had worked together during recording sessions of 1978’s The Wiz; music for the motion picture was handled by the great Quincy Jones, and he drafted Ashford and Simpson to help write some new material to expand the original Broadway score. The primary contribution of Ashford and Simpson was a stirring ballad called “Is This What Feeling Gets? (Dorothy’s Theme),” and that song could easily be considered the prologue to “I’m In The World.” In the soundtrack cut, Miss Ross sings with an emotional fragility about fear, nearly screaming the lyrics “There’s nothing here but the fear/Of will I try?” — while on “I’m In The World,” she takes her first, small steps out of her shell, crooning, “I’m In The World/For some reason or another.” Diana has been very vocal over the years that she closely identified with the journey to self-discovery taken by Dorothy in The Wiz, and it’s likely that she felt the same about the lyrics of “I’m In The World,” written for her so perfectly by Ashford and Simpson: “I’m In The World/Though odds don’t break even/I’ll take my chances/’Cause it ain’t about leaving.” Miss Ross delivers the song with a soulful vocal performance, fully engaged in the material, her voice full-bodied throughout; she’d aided by a lovely instrumental track with Paul Riser’s swirling strings as the absolutely standout. If there’s an issue with “I’m In The World,” it’s only that there’s no real hook to the song; it’s fairly meandering, which makes it less memorable than the earlier “All For One” or the similarly-themed “It’s My Turn,” which she would record with Michael Masser the following year. Still, it’s smart to end The Boss with a declarative statement like this; it perfectly sums up the space occupied by Diana Ross during the recording of the album, and likely resonated with a large portion of her fan base.
The Boss eventually climbed to #14 on the Billboard 200 and #10 on the R&B Albums chart, and the entire LP topped the magazine’s Disco Top 80 chart, a major success for Diana Ross given the underperformance of her previous few projects. In an astounding move, the album was knocked from the #1 disco spot by none other than Ashford and Simpson, with the cuts “Found A Cure,” “Stay Free,” and “Nobody Knows” from the duo’s Stay Free album. The fact that Ashford and Simpson were able to craft eight superb tracks for The Boss while also doing the same thing for their own album (which bettered The Boss on the R&B Albums chart, peaking at #3) speaks to how incredibly prolific the duo was; the following year, they would turn in another single for Chaka Khan (“Clouds,” featuring background vocals by a young Whitney Houston), and produce the album About Love for Gladys Knight & The Pips. It’s safe to say nobody was creating as much high-quality disco-soul at the turn of the decade as Ashford and Simpson.
The Boss is one of the most cohesive albums of Diana Ross’s career – and thus, one of the most consistently enjoyable. 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 songs are undeniably of the disco era and several sound somewhat dated today, they’re still far more complex than some 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. It’s poetic that Nick and Valerie launched Diana’s solo career with Diana Ross, and then helped her make a major move toward independence with The Boss. The downside, of course, is that as Diana took on more and more of her own producing, it kept her from teaming up again with Ashford and Simpson. In the same way that Holland-Dozier-Holland were the perfect match for Diana and The Supremes, so must Ashford and Simpson be credited with bringing the very best out of Diana Ross.
Final Analysis: 4.5/5 (Diana “Sparkles”)
Paul’s Picks: “No One Gets The Prize,” “The Boss,” “It’s My House”