“It’s Never Too Late to hold the power in your hands…”
In late 1981, Diana Ross began the third act of her career. Act I, of course, had been her rise to stardom as lead singer of the Supremes, the Motown supergroup that scored 12 #1 hits. Act II came with the 1970s and solo success, during which time she notched six more #1’s and made three feature films. But in 1981, in a quest for creative control of her career (and a way bigger paycheck), Diana Ross left Motown and signed with RCA Records. She apparently talked with a couple of producers about working with her on this important first album, but ended up in the hot seat herself, not only producing the album but also co-writing one song, the first case of Miss Ross being credited in helping to write her own music.
Sales-wise, Why Do Fools Fall In Love was a huge hit; it went platinum, and continued Diana’s string of hit singles with two Billboard top 10 singles, the title track and “Mirror Mirror.” A third single, “Work That Body” (the one featuring a writing credit from Miss Ross) nearly made the top 40. This is, then, one of the few solo Diana Ross albums to feature two top 10 hits; diana did it the year before (“Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out”) and so did 1976’s Diana Ross (“Theme From Mahogany” and “Love Hangover”). This success must have given Miss Ross great confidence; surely there was a lot of uncertainty about leaving Motown — the only record company she’d ever been part of — and striking out on her own.
Creatively, the album is largely successful, too. Though her RCA years would be marked by some very uneven albums to come, this one is a cohesive set; whether you love or hate the songs, they do have a very distinct sound and form a seamless collection. The high points here are the big hits; “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” and especially “Mirror Mirror” are vibrant, exciting recordings that sound still sound like hits today. Though some of the album tracks are pretty vanilla — “It’s Never Too Late” and “Two Can Make It” cry out for the harder edge of Diana’s work with Chic — they’re certainly not bad songs, and are pretty representative of pop/R&B music in the early 80s. Why Do Fools Fall In Love doesn’t necessarily break any new ground for Diana Ross, but as her first full-length producing effort, it’s not the mess it could have been, given that her imagination was finally allowed to run wild. Clearly Diana Ross was looking to continue the success she’d found in The Boss and diana as a high-energy dance queen, and in that respect, this album works.
1. Why Do Fools Fall In Love: From the opening, machine-gun-like drum roll, the bar is set high with the album’s title track, a remake of the 1956 Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers hit. Diana has often remarked that she’d been influenced by Lymon when she was a child in Detroit, so her choice to cover it isn’t really a surprising one, although it probably seemed strange at the time that she was pulling from the past while trying so hard to establish her “new” identity apart from Motown. Still, the song was a top 10 pop and R&B hit, and remains a staple in Diana Ross concerts; her version here would also stand as one of the strongest singles she’d ever release while signed to RCA. The song is given a brassy, swinging treatment here, with the driving percussion line, blaring horns, and a great guitar solo reminiscent of some of the work on diana. Diana’s vocal is superbly done; her crystal-clear delivery is perfect for the sing-song quality of the melody, and the choice to layer her voice and feature her as her own background singer adds an exciting complexity. This isn’t the most challenging or interesting song ever recorded by Diana Ross, but it’s got a joy and vibrancy that makes it a stand-out for the singer; she truly sounds happy and invigorated here, likely a reflection of her feelings about producing and being so creatively involved in the project.
2. Sweet Surrender: When appearing on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in 1981, Diana specifically mentioned this song, noting that it “…is a song that was sent to me a writer, young writer, and I kept it for years, and finally when I did decide to do it, I couldn’t find the writers, and we almost didn’t use it because we couldn’t find them, but we did find them in the last minute.” Clearly Diana liked the song a lot, since she was probably hearing hundred and hundreds of songs a year as recording possibilities and chose to keep this one. It’s an interesting piece, with a bass-heavy, slowed-down track and almost hypnotic strings. The track is, in a way, similar to Issac Hayes’s classic reading of “Walk On By” — both songs are sexy, slightly dark, and feature hushed, husky vocals. What’s interesting to note here is the blurred, strangely echoed quality of Diana’s recorded vocal; while it works well in the context of this song, it’s a treatment that would feature heavily on this album and the next (Silk Electric) — often to very lackluster results. As she was producing these albums herself, clearly there’s a deliberate reason Diana was choosing to make her voice sound that way, but it often robbed the songs of the distinctive personality that made Diana such a recognizable voice to begin with. In any case, again, in a provocative setting like this, the almost-dulled sound of Miss Ross’s voice works well, and this is a memorable addition to the album. And back to the “Walk On By” connection, it’s surprising “Sweet Surrender” hasn’t been sampled by contemporary R&B artists like the Hayes song has — the distinctive instrumental here seems destined to be used again someday!
3. Mirror Mirror: The album’s second single was another major pop and R&B hit, and aside from “Missing You” later in the decade, I’d say it’s the best song Diana Ross would release during her tenure with RCA. This is slamming piece of pure funk, nearly as good as the best work on diana, and features a searing instrumental and vocal performance that probably should’ve gotten Diana another Grammy nomination (although she was well-represented at the awards for her work in 1981 due to “Endless Love” with Lionel Richie). As on the album’s title track, there’s a strong horn and guitar component here, but this time the instrumental is far more complex and haunting, and seamlessly combines a harder rock sound with the pop/R&B/dance vibe of the surrounding songs. Diana’s vocal, meanwhile, is also a more challenging continuation of her work on “Why Do Fools…” — she again layers her voice, providing her own background vocals, but this time puts far more emotion into them, portraying the agony of a woman “trapped in this mirror forever.” There’s also a nice display of strength and power in Diana’s voice during the final minute of the song, as she belts “Tell me Mirror Mirror, on the wall…thought you said you had the answer to it all…” The lyrics here are fascinating, featuring the classic opening line “You have turned my life into a paperback novel,” which seems completely appropriate for a woman’s of Diana’s star power to be singing, and the incredibly visual and startling, “You have nailed my heart upon the wall for your pleasure.” Not only is “Mirror Mirror” a top-notch track from her 1980s output, it’s also one of the best singles of her entire career.
4. Endless Love: The “Endless Love” included on this album is not that same “Endless Love” that became Diana’s biggest hit single ever; that one was a duet with Lionel Richie, who wrote the song as the theme to the movie of the same name. When released in 1981 (before this album was released), it shot to #1 and stayed there for an astounding 9 weeks, becoming one of the longest-running #1 hits in Billboard history. It also garnered Diana and Lionel several Grammy nominations (of which, incredibly, they won NONE) and the song was nominated for an Oscar. Miss Ross re-recorded the song solo for this album, probably a very wise move in that record-buyers seeing the name “Endless Love” on the sleeve might assume it was the duet that was included. The problem, of course, is that it’s impossible not to compare the two versions, since they came so closely together. The duet version was simple and clean, driven by a piano and acoustic guitar; Diana and Lionel both turned in crisp but powerful performances, their voices blending seamlessly. In the solo version on this album, everything is cranked up a notch; the instrumental track is embellished by a prominent flute and is far more glossy in nature, and Diana’s vocal is much showier and more emotive. While there are those who prefer this more dramatic reading of the song, I think this is a case of “less is more” — the simplicity of the original duet was a perfect counterpoint to the saccharine lyrics, whereas here it’s all just a little too much. There’s no denying that Diana’s voice sounds very powerful in this solo version; she’s extremely committed to this performance, and her voice soars. However, the over-production nearly kills the song; the instrumental is so clouded and muddled and overdone that it sounds more like elevator music than an appropriate track for Diana Ross. And as much as Diana’s voice displays impressive range here, she does tend to over-annunciate, turning the word “sure” into “shee-ooooore” and so forth, which can be a little grating. Though the original duet is an undeniable highlight of Ross’s career, the version on this LP is just okay.
5. It’s Never Too Late: One of the catchiest songs on the LP, “It’s Never Too Late” — as a composition — sounds like it could have been an outtake from The Boss; it’s a much more typical pop/dance tune than the funkier “Mirror Mirror” and title track. Though it was never released as a single, Diana did perform it on “Soul Train” to promote the album, and it certainly sounds like it could have gotten some radio play, too. That said, the simplicity of the song’s production, especially coming after the strangely compelling “Sweet Surrender” and the spectacular “Mirror Mirror,” is a little disappointing. Though Diana sounds nice here, she doesn’t push herself vocally; this is an extremely laid back, almost icy performance from her. The instrumental lacks fire as well — there’s no distinct edge to the music here (in the way that the drums give an edge to “Why Do Fools…” and the guitar does so on “Mirror Mirror”), and it sounds just a little too glossy to be truly exciting. Again, this is a well-written, catchy song, and it’s not a bad inclusion…it’s just not a standout.
6. Think I’m In Love: An unusual mid-tempo number that features another strangely hypnotic chorus, this one also layers Diana’s vocals to good effect. The song itself isn’t very memorable; the instrumental track is a kind of hybrid of “Sweet Surrender” and “It’s Never Too Late,” though it’s not as strong as either of those two. The most notable thing about the song is, again, the layering of Diana’s voice on the chorus, as she repeats “…think I’m in love…” in a dreamy, almost staccato manner reminiscent of the Chic background vocals on her diana album. Her vocal performance on the verses isn’t particularly inspired (she reaches a high note a few times on the word “love” — though it doesn’t sound as effortless as one might hope, like on “The Boss” and other earlier work); it’s not bad, it’s just not that impressive. Overall, I’d say this is the most “Easy Listening” tune on the album…which, if that’s what she was going for, is fine.
7. Sweet Nothings: Diana reaches back a few decades again, covering the popular Brenda Lee song from the late 50s, and finally brings back a little fire to the album in the process. This is a nice, swinging pseudo-Rockabilly number in the vein of Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock And Roll,” with Diana turning in a playful performance that’s at once youthful, energetic and wise. Aside from the two hit singles, this is really the most energy Miss Ross displays on the album, and the instrumental may be the best, with a superb sax solo and a pulsing bass that helps elevate the song out of the “campy remake” territory that it easily could’ve fallen into. The only real flaw here is the vocal production; again, Diana turns in a fun and coy performance, but this song is another case of her voice sounding muddy. There are moments in which Diana almost seems to be singing into a tin can; the clarity of her voice on something like “I’m Coming Out” or “Give Up” from diana is noticeably missing. This is a shame, because had her voice been cleanly brought to the forefront — like the saxophone is — this would have been an even stronger entry than it already is.
8. Two Can Make It: Another mid-tempo pop tune that, if a little bland, is nicely produced and features a nice vocal performance from Diana Ross. She sounds confident and controlled here during the opening verse, with a nice dip to her lower register at 40 seconds in on the word “chances.” I’d compare her work on this song to some of her work in the early 70s, post-Lady Sings The Blues; she sounds relaxed and really doesn’t push herself vocally, but because the song doesn’t call for it, the laid-back vibe works. The production here sounds as dated as on songs like “It’s Never Too Late” and “Think I’m In Love,” but it’s still a pleasant listen.
9. Work That Body: Ah, “Work That Body”…this, the album’s third single, may be one of the most maligned of all Diana Ross releases; it wasn’t a big hit at the time (it just missed the top 40, though it did better in the UK), and in the years since has gained a reputation for being a “Physical” (Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 hit) knock-off and nothing more. It is notable in that it’s the first Diana Ross single ever to credit her as writer, along with Ray Chew. Personally, I kind of like this ode to aerobics; it’s as campy as The Weather Girls’s “It’s Raining Men” and incredibly catchy; Diana doesn’t so much sing as kind of speak along in a raspy voice, but at least she sounds like she’s having a good time. The choice to include another voice actually acting out the role of aerobics teacher during the dance break is actually kind of genius, as well. The lyrics are completely ridiculous, with the opening, “Every morning when we wake, to make up for that piece of cake, we ate last night…” ranking among the most brainless Diana ever released. But, again, this isn’t supposed to be a serious song; this ain’t “Theme From Mahogany” after all. This is a song about the joys of looking good, and if nothing else, it remains a completely entertaining listen, if only to sing along with Diana Ross about being the “hottest girl in town!”
In terms of Diana Ross’s career, Why Do Fools Fall In Love did exactly what it was supposed to do, which was to prove that Miss Ross could turn out a hit album and singles without the association of Motown Records. Although many have intimated that the success of the album and singles was due mainly to the fact that it closely followed diana and “Endless Love,” and therefore rode on the coattails of those Motown successes a bit, I think the two top 10 hits completely deserved to be recorded and released; “Why Do Fools…” and “Mirror Mirror” both still sound like hits today, and are great examples of Diana Ross’s talent at bridging the pop, R&B, and dance genres. While some of the tracks here are muddled and perhaps a bit bland, they are no more so than some of the songs on the Touch Me In The Morning, Diana & Marvin, and Diana Ross (1976) albums. And again, the fact that the songs do form a seamless collection qualifies the album at least as one of the more sonically smooth of her career, especially in light of the disjointed album that follows this one (1982’s Silk Electric).
Final Analysis: 4/5 (Diana “Can Make It” On Her Own)
Choice Cuts: “Mirror Mirror,” “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” “Sweet Surrender”
The Grammy nominees for Record of the Year that year were:
Kim Carnes, “Bette Davis Eyes” (Winner)
Christopher Cross, “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)”
John Lennon, “(Just Like) Starting Over”
Diana Ross & Lionel Richie, “Endless Love”
Grover Washington, Jr. With Bill Withers, “Just The Two Of Us”
The Grammy nominees Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals that year were:
The Manhattan Transfer, “The Boy From New York City” (Winner)
Hall & Oates, Private Eyes
The Pointer Sisters, “Slow Hand”
Diana Ross & Lionel Richie, “Endless Love”
Steely Dan, Gaucho