“I think this time around, I am gonna do it like you never knew it…”
“Edwards and Rodgers are now excited about the album which they just produced for Diana Ross, to be released next month. ‘When we met Diana,’ recalled Rodgers, ‘she said she wanted to get back to having fun. She said when she walks onstage now she has all these heavy tunes and heavy musicians; it makes her crazy sometimes with so much going on.”
Jet magazine carried that mention in its December 27, 1979 issue, priming fans for a new Diana Ross album produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of the music group Chic. Miss Ross was fresh off of her most successful album in years, 1979’s The Boss, but even with its gold-selling status, her album was nowhere near the hit that Chic’s Risqué had been that year, thanks mainly to its blockbuster cut “Good Times.” According to Rodgers in his memoir Le Freak: An Upside Down Story Of Family, Disco, And Destiny, it was Motown executive Suzanne de Passe who came up with the idea to pair the duo with Miss Ross, in hopes of returning her to the kind of chart success she’d enjoyed earlier in her solo career: “Before [de Passe] moved up [within the Motown corporation], her last order of business at the record label was to reignite the musical career of Motown’s top superstar…and that meant making a radical move by going outside the company. And we were the people she had in mind to do it” (159).
Rodgers and Edwards had racked up some major hits since releasing their first Chic single, “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” in 1977. More than that, the pair created an entirely new sound in the process, a lean, muscular, hypnotically rhythmic sound led by Rodgers’s explosive guitar work and the Edwards’s powerful bass playing; as Adam White wrote in Billboard, “What is most fascinating about Rodgers and Edwards’ work is their devotion to space, to sparseness, to the sound in between their chosen instrumentation and vocalists (September 1, 1979). Although they’d turned out hits for their own group and Sister Sledge, Rodgers and Edwards had never worked with a star of Diana’s caliber; according to Rodgers, “Before we started composing, our plan was to have a few interview sessions with Diana…we wanted to get a broad range of subjects that she was interested in” (166). Those interviews revealed an artist ready for a major change in her life and career; Ross told the producers that she wanted a new, New York-style sound and songs that her children could sing along to.
The result of those talks was a batch of eight strikingly original tracks, all of them far less glossy than anything Ross had recorded during her solo career. Rodgers and Edwards expanded their own musical boundaries while simultaneously forcing Diana into the confines of their angular productions; they drew an appealing swagger out of her, tapping into the Detroit girl who’d long been hidden by the Los Angeles movie star. Although Nile Rodgers had told Jet that the album would be released in January, recording actually continued through March, and the original version of the album was mixed late that month. Unfortunately, Diana Ross and virtually everyone around her had major reservations about the album, which resulted in Motown engineer Russ Terrana remixing the entire thing. “It seemed like a Chic album with a Diana Ross voice,” Terrana says in the 2003 release diana: Deluxe Edition. “I’d worked with her for so long, so I came in knowing the kind of person she is and the kind of excitement she lies to create.”
The final mix of diana (Motown 936) was released in May of 1980; its first single, “Upside Down,” was issued the following month. Reviewing the album in Rolling Stone, Stephen Holden wrote that it “evokes the out-door rough-and-tumble of a playground jungle gym…Ross’ reedy soprano conveys the spirit of child’s play with amazing ease as she converts the emotion of The Boss, her last record, into pure rhythmic energy.” Indeed, even with Terrana’s remix, the Chic groove exploded from speakers, led by a tougher, street-smart diva calling on everyone to “Give up your love to me.” The public listened; diana became an unprecedented success for Miss Ross, giving her a pair of Top 5 singles (including the Grammy-nominated “Upside Down”) and topping the Billboard R&B Albums chart for eight consecutive weeks, her first #1 LP on that chart since 1973’s Touch Me In The Morning. But make no mistake; this is a very different album from that 1973 effort, and a very different woman singing on it; the Diana Ross who once cried out “We Need You” was now grown, coming out, and taking charge.
1. Upside Down: Despite oft-repeated rumors that this song had originally been written by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards for Aretha Franklin, Rodgers remembers getting the idea of “Upside Down” during his interview with Diana Ross, and tailoring the song specifically to her. “The first single…was different from anything we’d written before,” says Nile Rodgers in Le Freak: An Upside Down Story Of Family, Disco, And Destiny. “We included excessively polysyllabic words like ‘instinctively’ and ‘respectfully’ in the lyrics, because we wanted to utilize Diana’s sophistication to achieve a higher level of musicality. Along with the complicated verse, we deliberately made the chorus rhythmically more difficult to sing than the catchier, one-listen song hooks for Chic. We weren’t working with talented session singers this time, we were working with a star…Despite the departure from our tested style, we knew ‘Upside Down’ was a monster hit” (169). Although there was considerable concern around Motown about “Upside Down” and just how radically different it was in terms of Diana Ross records, Motown eventually released the song as diana‘s first single on June 18, 1980, a month after it parent album had hit store shelves. Motown’s indecision on issuing a first single had hurt Diana Ross in the past; “Gettin’ Ready For Love” came out a month after 1977’s Baby It’s Me, something which injured the performance of both the single and the album. But in the case of “Upside Down,” Rodgers and Edwards were right; the public freaked out over the song, and it climbed up the Billboard Hot 100 until it finally hit the #1 spot in September, where it stayed for a full month. The song did the same thing on the R&B chart, also camping out at the top spot for a month; over on the Disco chart, co-listed with “I’m Coming Out,” Diana did herself one better, sitting at #1 for five non-consecutive weeks. It’s hard to believe today that executives ever doubted the song’s potential; it remains as dazzling as it must have been upon initial release, a dizzying, hypnotic soul-dance track made up of striking Chic strings, Rodgers’s dynamic guitar, and Bernard Edwards blasting out his bass. Atop the head-spinning instrumental is a lyric that’s vague and repetitive, qualities that wouldn’t likely be a good thing on another song, but that are perfect (and frankly necessary) here; with such a strong, percussive background, a simple lyric is exactly what’s needed to ground the song and keep it accessible. Diana’s performance here is crisp, clean, and down-to-earth; the vocal runs and powerful belting of “The Boss” are gone, replaced by a punchy, staccato performance. She sounds tougher here; even though she’s singing about being cheated on by her man, she’s not weepy or over-emotive. Of Diana’s performance, Rodgers writes, “We wanted to give her more ambitious, intricate material to work with and interpret, to fill with her own intelligence and skill” (169). Indeed, despite the nursery-rhyme lyrics, it takes real skill to pull a performance like this off, to remain mature and sophisticated and to not get swamped by the complex instrumental track. Miss Ross brilliantly succeeds, and her effort was rewarded with another Grammy nomination for Best Female R&B Vocal Female Performance; the competition that year was tough (including Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, and Minnie Riperton), and although Diana was favored to win, Stephanie Mills took home the award for her dance hit “Never Knew Love Like This Before.” Still, “Upside Down” remains a classic, still covered and sampled by new artists to this day, and is one of the best singles ever to be released on Miss Ross.
2. Tenderness: It is perhaps ironic that a song called “Tenderness” gets one of the least-tender arrangements on the entire album; Diana sings about needing kindness over a track that jabs and punches around her, as if she’s stuck in the middle of a street-fight. Much more than “Upside Down,” this song really sounds like a Chic tune; the recognizable backgrounds by Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin are loud and robust here, the voices identical to what you hear on songs like “Good Times” and “I Want Your Love.” The instrumental track, however, is tougher than much of that group’s released output; Rodgers and Edwards arrange the “Tenderness” instrumental as a kind of call-and-response between slicing strings and an abrasive guitar, and the result is a recording that’s extremely angular. Diana’s performance is at least little more vulnerable than on the previous track; she’s singing in a higher key, resulting in a more youthful sound, but she still sticks to the melody here, singing each note clearly and with strength, but no embellishments whatsoever. It’s to her credit that even in such a spare, staccato performance, Ross is able to convey the emotion of the song; she doesn’t sound on the verge of tears, as is the case with some of her Michael Masser work, but she convincingly puts across the idea of a woman looking for a different kind of love. In an interesting way, a song like this is much more reminiscent of Diana’s work with The Supremes than anything she’d done in her solo career; Miss Ross had taken to letting her vocals lag behind the melody ever since her relaxed work on Lady Sings The Blues, but here, she’s anticipating the beat much more again, vigorously hitting her notes as she did on many of the urgent Holland-Dozier-Holland hits from the beginning of her career. In the wake of the massive success of “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out,” Motown considered “Tenderness” for single release in the United States; it placed the song on 1981’s All The Great Hits in anticipation of such a move. That never happened, but the single was released internationally, hitting #17 in Belgium and stalling at #73 in the United Kingdom (diana had already produced three Top 20 hits in the UK).
3. Friend To Friend: Discussing his work on the diana project, Motown engineer Russ Terrana says in the Deluxe Edition booklet, “There was plenty of excitement in the tracks. I tried to create the dynamics that seemed missing, so you could feel the emotions change, and hear the subtleties already in the music.” diana‘s only true ballad is perhaps the clearest example of Terrana’s vision in remixing the album; Terrana stripped “Friend To Friend” way down, leaving behind the sparest of instrumentals to accompany Diana’s stunningly controlled performance. The original Rodgers and Edwards mix (finally released on CD in 2003) is laden with echoing effects, giving the song a kind of space-age solitude, as if Miss Ross is singing from a lonely planet somewhere deep in space. Terrana removed many of these effects, shifting the focus solely onto Diana’s voice; having worked with Miss Ross since back in her Supremes days, the engineer likely understood how special her performance was on the track. Again sticking to Diana’s desire for songs her children could sing along with, Rodgers and Edwards penned the singer a sleek lullaby with “Friend To Friend,” changing out her more familiar florid “love song” lyrics for simplistic fragments (i.e. “Good to you/Good to you/Is what I’m gonna be”). As with other lullabies, the melody here is rather repetitive, and in a refreshing change, it forces Miss Ross to dig down toward the bottom of her vocal range, something she pulls off with alluring ease. The singer’s performance is quiet but confident; she sounds like she’s singing the song directly into the listener’s ear, brilliantly controlling her pitch and possibly urges to oversing. Although both mixes of “Friend To Friend” are beautifully done, Terrana’s really does help break the recording free of any genre constraints, giving the song a timelessness by keeping the focus on the album’s true star. (NOTE: “Friend To Friend” gained a wide audience when it was placed on the b-side of the “Upside Down” single, which topped the pop and R&B charts.)
4. I’m Coming Out: “One of the biggest light-bulb moments of my life happened at the G.G. Barnum Room, a club in the West 40s in Manhattan…I was using the bathroom and three transvestites dressed up like Diana Ross came in…And it hit me: ‘Oh, my God! What would it be like if Diana Ross walked up on stage and sang, ‘I’m coming out!'” That question, asked by Nile Rodgers in the booklet accompanying the 2003 release diana: Deluxe Edition, has been answered time and time again; in the years since “I’m Coming Out” first blasted out of radio speakers, the song has taken on a status few others have in popular music, becoming an anthemic, iconic classic that opens nearly every live show performed by Diana Ross. According to Rodgers in his memoir Le Freak: An Upside Down Story Of Family, Disco, And Destiny, that was the goal; he writes, “We originally envisioned the song as the opening to Diana’s live show for the new album. The horns in the song’s intro were a soul fanfare for the pop diva” (168). Indeed, from the opening vocal announcement atop an absolutely smoking guitar line and vibrant horn section, this song has “hit” written all over it; although the message would later worry Motown executives, it’s hard to imagine anyone denying it as a viable single. “I’m Coming Out” was eventually lifted as the album’s second single (after being scheduled as the first, then cancelled), hitting record stores in August of 1980; the song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 in the September 6 issue of the magazine, the same week that “Upside Down” finally hit #1. Although “Upside Down” took some time to climb the charts, “I’m Coming Out” raced up the listings, eventually peaking at #5 on the Hot 100 while “Upside Down” was still in the Top 10! Then song topped out at #6 on the R&B side, but it fared best of all on the Disco Top 100, which it led (co-listed with “Upside Down”) for five non-consecutive weeks. Indeed, with “I’m Coming Out,” Rodgers and Edwards wrote one of the great dance songs of the modern recording area, and certainly one of the best singles Diana Ross ever recorded and released. As upbeat and joyous as “The Boss” and as anthemic as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” this is Diana at her best; the memorable lyrics (“There’s a new me coming out/And I just have to live”) are delivered with fiery certainty by Miss Ross, who clearly felt a close connection with the lyrics. The melody line here is much more complex than on any of the previous songs on the LP, so it’s nice to hear Diana use a little more of her range, in particular her shout during the word “out” at 5:10. The song structure is brilliant; almost the entire first minute of running time serves as the intro, with Diana’s signature “I’m Coming Out!” repeated as the instrumental line builds until the track finally bursts alive with Bernard Edwards’s booming bassline. Speaking of the instrumentals, “I’m Coming Out” also features a memorable jazz trombone solo performed by Meco Monardo; the musician would later remember recording just four takes of the solo at the end of a three-hour session. Though the song is considered a gay anthem for obvious reasons, the lyrics truly are universal; Diana Ross has said that the song had a deep, personal meaning for her in terms of taking creative control of her career. It’s hard to believe “I’m Coming Out” didn’t gain Miss Ross another Grammy nomination; it is one of her most vivacious vocal performances, and deserved the recognition. It probably could have done even better on the charts had it not been competing with both “Upside Down” and “It’s My Turn,” the Michael Masser-penned theme song to the film of the same name which was released before “I’m Coming Out” had even peaked on the charts. Still, “I’m Coming Out” has become a deserved classic, famously sampled on the 1997 #1 hit “Mo Money Mo Problems” by The Notorious B.I.G. featuring Puff Daddy and Mase. It’s rare that a recording captures the excitement of an entire movement in its words and music, but this one does.
5. Have Fun (Again): At one point, this song was considered for release as diana‘s first single; considering the turmoil surrounding the project and its release, it’s no surprise that there was so much waffling back and forth behind the scenes. Although “Upside Down” was eventually chosen and became a monster hit, co-writer and producer Nile Rodgers remains a big fan of the song, saying in the liner notes to the CD re-issue of diana, “I think the track that someone’s gonna have a No. 1 sampled record with is ‘Have Fun (Again).’ That is one of the coolest grooves we have ever thought of. It kills me when the track fades back in.” Listening to the cut, it’s easy to understand why Rodgers is so fond of it; instrumentally, it’s one of the heaviest-hitting songs on the album, with an aggressive guitar accompanying Diana on the verses, and one of the strongest bass lines on the entire LP. Sonically, “Have Fun (Again)” is an unusual exercise in contradictions; although Miss Ross sings about letting loose and finding relief from the pressures of life, the track is a tightly-wound and repetitive; meanwhile, the background vocals (the most prominent since “Tenderness”) are sung in a clipped, staccato manner which, when given a slight echo, makes them sound like voices from outer space. In a way, that memorable track and the odd, generic voices foreshadow “Genius Of Love,” a hit for Tom Tom Club the next year (and, coincidentally, one that already does have a #1 sampled record, “Fantasy” by Mariah Carey). As much as “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down” reflect Diana’s yearnings for change and independence, this song clearly comes from the singer’s desire to let loose a little bit; as Rodgers had told Jet back in 1979, “‘When we met Diana…she said she wanted to get back to having fun.” That said, the singer sounded like she was having much more fun on “I’m Coming Out” than she is here; although Miss Ross works hard to show some personality on the track, there isn’t much room for her to do more than offer up some growls and rather uninspired repetitions of the title. It’s not the singer’s finest hour on diana, but the song itself is funky and memorable; the stars here are Niles Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, who again prove what masters they are of energetic, angular rhythms.
6. My Old Piano: This song was an international smash, hitting the upper reaches of the charts in many countries including the United Kingdom, where it peaked at #5 (besting “I’m Coming Out,” which topped out at #13). It was eventually released as diana‘s third single in the United States, but it came right on the heels of “It’s My Turn,” the singer’s Michael Masser-penned theme from the film of the same name; while “It’s My Turn” climbed right to the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, becoming Diana’s third in a row, “My Old Piano” stalled in its wake, barely registering at #109. This lackluster chart showing certainly in no way reflects the quality of the song; “My Old Piano” is a standout track which injects some dazzling personality into the album. Although Ross would later say this was the album’s only track that wasn’t directly inspired by her life at the time, she certainly sounds engaged by the song; aside from “I’m Coming Out” and the forthcoming “Give Up,” this is the loosest Miss Ross sounds on diana. “My Old Piano” also happens to be one of the album’s most energetic cuts, with a bouncy instrumental and rather silly lyrics celebrating a baby grand piano with an “international style” and “eighty-eight key smile.” There is a basic piano featured on the track, of course, although it’s nowhere near as prominent as the guitar and bass, not to mention the ringing organ-toned keyboards which lend the song its most unusual touch; still, there’s a real, electric energy running through “My Old Piano” that becomes far more important than the actual message of the song. In terms of vocal, this is one of Diana’s strongest moments on the album; rather than using the Chic voices for background, the singer’s own voice is layered on the refrain, which makes this more of a showcase for her. Though it doesn’t require as much range as some other tunes on diana, the vocal here is a powerful one, especially during the verse roughly two-minutes in, during which Diana puts a lot of force into her readings of lyrics like “He demands/The middle of the room.” Due to the song’s success internationally, it remains a popular recording in the Diana Ross discography; it’s also well-remembered for its promotional video clip, Diana’s first, which was filmed in London and features the singer gleefully dancing around — what else? — a piano.
7. Now That You’re Gone: On an album filled with hard-edged, muscular tracks that explode from speakers like fireworks, it’s necessary to mix in a few lower-key moments; not only does this provide some respite for listeners, but it also helps make those aforementioned explosions even more vibrant. That said, lower-key certainly doesn’t mean lower quality; as with the earlier “Friend To Friend,” “Now That You’re Gone” is a smooth, spare song that adds a little variety to diana while still managing to showcase the best of what Ross, Rodgers, and Edwards have to offer. In this case, the song is arranged almost as a duet between Diana and Bernard Edwards, whose heartbeat of a bass makes up a big chunk of the instrumental track; they’re joined by a soft bed of strings, which helps give the slow-grooved cut some softness. The producers once again leave off any background vocals, letting Diana provide her own harmony on the staccato refrain; her delivery throughout the song is cool and haunting, a perfect match for the sorrowful lyric. The prominent bass gives the song a strong urban slant; “Now That You’re Gone” is another song that sounds like it could be successfully sampled by contemporary Hip-hop artists, if it hasn’t been already. Interestingly, while Rodgers and Edwards never produced another album for Miss Ross, the singer would work with them separately; in 1984, Diana would team up again with Bernard Edwards for the song “Telephone” from her Swept Away album. In some ways, “Now That You’re Gone” is a rough draft for “Telephone,” which features a similarly bass-heavy track and stark vocal performance; the latter song became a Top 20 R&B hit in 1985, and “Now That You’re Gone” likely also gained some spins on R&B radio. (NOTE: “Now That You’re Gone” was issued as the b-side to the US release of “My Old Piano.”)
8. Give Up: diana ends with one of its most dynamic tracks, a high-energy dance cut with boisterous background vocals and a playful lyric. Nile Rodgers and his guitar strike like white-hot lightning, forcing Diana to turn in her gutsiest vocal performance of the entire album; opening with a trademark Diana Ross “Ow!” — the singer sounds completely alive on this song, which gives her a more complex melody line than any other song aside from “I’m Coming Out.” The Rodgers and Edwards-penned lyrics are something of a clever and modern take on “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” which Diana had taken to #1 with The Supremes back in 1965; in this case, however, Ross isn’t pleading for love as much as she’s demanding it, sexily boasting “I have not met a man yet/To escape from my dragnet.” The vocalist appropriately attacks the vocal, anticipating the beat rather than lagging behind it, and the result is a forceful and full-bodied performance; she’s more than supported by the famous Chic voices and strings, which swirl around but never swamp her. Although “Give Up” was never given a shot as a single, it did end up as the b-side to “I’m Coming Out” in the United States and likely picked up some spins in dance clubs at the time; this is a terrific showcase not only for the musicianship of those playing on the album, but also for the album’s star.
diana was an unprecedented success for Diana Ross and Motown; at the time, “Upside Down” was one of the company’s longest-running #1 singles, and the album peaked at #2 on the Billboard 200, Diana’s highest-charting studio album ever (only the soundtrack album to Lady Sings The Blues did better, hitting the top spot in early 1973). Aside from its two major hit singles, diana likely would have produced even more hits had Motown not been forced to release “It’s My Turn,” due to the imminent release of the film of the same name. Still, the album gave Diana her first platinum certification and exposed the star to an even wider audience, likely gaining her a set of fans who hadn’t even been born yet when she’d first topped the charts as a member of The Supremes. Although she inexplicably failed to gain any Grammy Awards for the album (a project with the same amount of success today would be showered with awards), Miss Ross did win a pair of American Music Awards, including Favorite Soul/R&B Single for “Upside Down.”
Although the rush of success for diana likely surprised Motown and Miss Ross herself, it’s not at all surprising when listened to today; there’s a freshness and energy to each and every cut that’s akin to capturing the proverbial lightning in a bottle. Rodgers and Edwards were clearly at the top of their game here, and much credit must also go to Russ Terrana for turning in a crisp, clean mix that brought Diana to the front but never once sacrificed the musicians playing behind her. While many fans doubtlessly prefer 1979’s The Boss, with its glossy soul and powerhouse performance by Diana Ross, diana is the stronger album from start to finish, with a lasting impact on R&B/soul and dance music that’s obvious nearly 40 years later. Some will bemoan the fact that diana sounds more like a Chic album than a Diana Ross album, but the fact remains that the singer’s chameleon-like ability to fit into any musical style is what makes her such a unique and exciting artist.
Final Analysis: 5/5 (Diana “Comes Out”)
Paul’s Picks: “I’m Coming Out,” “Upside Down,” “Give Up”