“Comin’ back on, comin’ back strong, turnin’ back on…”
1983 would bring Diana Ross some of the most widespread publicity of her career, although very little of it would have anything to do with her latest studio album. First, on the evening of March 25, Ross joined many of her ex-labelmates at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium for a concert celebrating Motown’s 25th anniversary; when it aired on television in May, it would be a major ratings success, with millions of viewers watching Diana’s climactic performance of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and her brief reunion with Supremes Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong. At the same time, Ross was busy planning a major show of her own; way back in the fall of 1982, news had broken that Ross wanted to perform a free concert in New York’s Central Park, which was eventually set for July 21, 1983 and televised live on cable network Showtime. Little could the singer have guessed that a massive rainstorm would sweep in the evening of the concert, resulting in headlines and news coverage around the world; Ross re-staged the show the following day, performing before an estimated crowd of 700-800,000 fans total over the two shows.
Although 1982’s Silk Electric went gold and produced a Top 10 hit with Michael Jackson’s “Muscles,” the album’s follow-up single (“So Close”) failed to generate much heat and Ross moved on fairly quickly; the artist probably realized that an event as big as a free concert in Central Park would be a brilliant way to promote a new album, likely a reason she returned to the studio so quickly. After self-producing the bulk of her RCA work so far, Diana engaged Steely Dan producer Gary Katz to work on her upcoming project; Katz had recently scored with Steely Dan’s 1980 effort Gaucho and lead singer Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, released at the same time as Silk Electric. Katz would later tell writer Dustin Fitzharris how the collaboration with Ross came about: “I was mixing a record downtown in New York with a group called Eye II Eye. I remember it was the middle of the summer. It was like 105 degrees. It was just one of those days, and someone said, ‘You have a call; Diana Ross is on the phone’…She said, ‘I really like your work, and I’d like to talk to you about a record. I left the studio right then. She asked to meet me.'”
Though Katz would later say that choosing songs wasn’t his strongest suit, he ended up finding and producing at least five of them for Ross, including lead single “Pieces Of Ice.” According to Steely Dan: Reelin’ in the Years by Brian Sweet, Katz also asked Donald Fagen to write a song for Miss Ross; the result was the synth-driven “Love Will Make It Right.” Another of the Katz-produced numbers was co-written by Franne Gold, who’d written Diana’s superb 1977 single “Gettin’ Ready For Love.” To round out the album, veteran artist and musician Ray Parker, Jr. turned in a pair of tracks, including second single “Up Front.” Aside from experiencing his own success both solo and with the group Raydio, Parker had played as a session guitarist for many of Diana’s earlier releases; according to a 2015 interview with Michael P. Coleman, Parker said of producing Miss Ross, “She called me up and asked me to do it. I used to play on all of her records in Detroit. We had a lot of history. She asked me to write her a song, and I thought those songs were the right messages for her at the time.” The album’s eighth and final track would be co-written and produced by Ross herself.
RCA issued new single “Pieces Of Ice” to coincide with the Central Park concerts in June, then rushed out the singer’s album, simply titled Ross (the second bearing just her last name, after a 1978 LP for Motown), immediately after. Unfortunately, the album was completely lost in the publicity surrounding the concerts; RCA didn’t seem to do much in terms of promotion, and the second and third singles sank without a trace. The real surprise, then, is just how good the album actually is; in terms of the singer’s RCA output, it’s arguably the most seamless and cohesive collection Ross would release. The poor vocal production which had married parts of the singer’s previous two projects certainly isn’t an issue here; Diana’s voice is crystal-clear and completely unfettered, and she’s never lost in the mix or competing with the instruments for attention, The cool, synthesizer-heavy sound has turned off fans and critics over the years (the AllMusic review of the album notes the “precise, icy sound…not a sound that meshes well with Ross”), it actually ages quite well; more than three decades after its release, Ross stands as a fresh and unique entry into the Diana Ross discography, certainly better than its reputation would have you believe.
1. That’s How You Start Over: Way back in January of 1982, Billboard magazine predicted that Diana Ross and Doobie Brothers singer Michael McDonald might be “the newest hot-shot songwriting ream,” reporting that the pair had met up to work on songs for Diana’s second album for RCA Records. McDonald’s first solo album If That’s What It Takes showed up later that year, followed shortly thereafter by Diana’s Silk Electric, but neither project included any collaborations between the two; if the singers did ever pen any songs together, they’ve never surfaced (coincidentally, both albums contained a tune titled “Love Lies,” although they are not the same song). Thus, “That’s How You Start Over” is the closest thing to a Ross-McDonald collaboration fans would ever get; McDonald wrote the song with Ed Sanford (of the Sanford-Townsend Band), and his unmistakable voice is quite audible in the background. Although it’s not the strongest song on the album, “That’s How You Start Over” is a terrific way to open it; the song is a bouncy slice of pop-soul, with an extremely tasteful production by Gary Katz and classy vocal performance by Miss Ross. Diana’s lead comes as a refreshing relief after the syrupy aftertaste from Silk Electric; it’s not her most engaging or full-bodied work, to be sure, but there’s a lightness and an effortlessness to her delivery that’s very appealing, and her voice is always front and center here, rather than becoming buried in the mix. The instrumental track is really the star of the show; fine piano and horn work bring a joyousness to the track recalling Diana’s 1979 hit “The Boss,” and the soulful background vocals lend an undeniable energy to the production. Katz’s work is slick, to be sure; there’s not a single rough edge to be found, and the result is a recording that leans further toward the pop spectrum than true soul, which may disappoint some Ross fans a bit. But “That’s How You Start Over” emerges as one of the better Diana Ross album tracks in a long time, and certainly sets the tone for the collection to follow.
2. Love Will Make It Right: According to Brian Sweet in Steely Dan: Reelin’ in the Years, Donald Fagen was already working on songs for his second solo LP when Gary Katz asked him to write a song for Diana Ross. Fagen’s first album away from Steely Dan, 1982’s The Nightfly, had been a major critical and commercial success, spawning the memorable hit “I.G.Y. (What A Wonderful World)” and receiving several Grammy nominations that year. Because Katz had produced both Fagen’s solo album and his work with Steely Dan, it makes sense that he’d ask the artist to write a song for Ross, and the result is perhaps the most striking entry found on Ross. Described by Sweet as a “menage a trois song” that “boasted the customary thick, squeaky synth sounds and washes of keyboards of early-Eighties Fagen,” the song does indeed sound like a close cousin to the tracks released on The Nightfly; it’s a mellow, synth-heavy tune and features a repetitive chorus of voices chanting the song’s title in an eerie, staccato manner that becomes hypnotic. Diana actually matches the tone well with her restrained vocal performance, and the song gives her a chance to sing in her lower range a little bit, which is nice to hear. Though the synthesizers might be deemed dated by some modern listeners, the song overall has such a cold, remote feel that it seems to be beamed in from the future. The jazzy harmonies that surround Diana’s voice periodically are classic Fagen and a nice touch, subtly nodding to Diana’s own past forays into jazz. Interestingly, Brian Sweet writes in his book that the mix found on Ross is not the original worked up by the behind-the-scenes players: “Fagen, Katz, and [engineer] Daniel Lazerus spent plenty of time on the song, working on some experimental drum sounds with Jeff Porcaro at Media Sound Studios, which used to be an old church….After all their diligent work they had a superb mix, but it was lost to the computer. They worked on a second mix and that was also lost. Finally a third mix survived to make it onto the album. But Lazerus maintained that third mix in no way matched up to their original.” It’s too bad we’ll never hear that original mix; still, “Love Will Make It Right” is unusual enough to be a standout on the album, and a unique entry into Diana’s vast catalog.
3. You Do It: The album’s third song is a terrific, feel-good pop song that plays directly to Diana’s strengths as a vocalist; it’s hard to believe RCA didn’t push this one as a single, as it arguably stood the strongest chance at giving Ross a solid pop hit. Written by Deborah Allen, Eddie Struzick, and Rafe Van Hoy, “You Do It” would end up being recorded by several popular singers of the day; the song first surfaced on the 1982 Sheena Easton album Madness, Money & Music, and it would show up on the Rita Coolidge album Never Let You Go shortly following the release of Diana’s version. Songwriter Deborah Allen, a successful country singer herself, also recorded her song, including it on her 1984 album Let Me Be The First. It’s surprising that nobody turned the song into a major hit; there’s a pleasant simplicity to its lyric and structure, and the melody is engaging and memorable. Katz delivers a sterling production here, led by Larry Carlton’s easygoing guitar and the warm undercurrent of Julian Marshall’s Hammond organ, and highlighted by the sparkling synthesizer playing of David Paich. Miss Ross is backed by singers Clydie King and Sherlie Matthews, two women who sang on dozens of Motown albums including Diana’s own Touch Me In The Morning a decade earlier; the women lend the song just the right amount of softness to sweeten Diana’s crisp vocal. Ross is at her breathy best here; her voice drifts over the melody, touching on each note with such lightness that she evokes a ballet dance in pointe shoes. This sort of light, unfettered vocal performance is what made Diana Ross a star in the first place; it brings to mind her iconic work on early Supremes hits like “Baby Love” and “Come See About Me.” It’s a sound that always cut through the clutter of radio; again, had “You Do It” been serviced to radio and released as a single, it’s hard to imagine it being ignored.
4. Pieces Of Ice: “I wanna do my new record for you,” Diana Ross announced to the massive crowd gathered at Central Park on July 22, 1983, before launching into a lip-synched, intricately choreographed performance of “Pieces Of Ice.” Just about a week later, on August 6, the single peaked at #31 on the Billboard Hot 100, giving the singer another Top 40 hit but falling far below expectations as the album’s first single. Although it’s far from her most successful single, it’s still surprising that the song has virtually disappeared from the Diana Ross discography, failing to gain a spot on her collection Greatest Hits: The RCA Years or her box set Forever Diana: Musical Memoirs or basically anywhere else aside from the original album. Whether that’s because Diana doesn’t really like the song, or because someone else doesn’t, it’s too bad, because it’s a dazzling, moody piece which still sounds sophisticated and fresh today. Considering the word “ice” is right there in the title, it makes sense that the track would be a chilly, sparse affair, evoking a barren landscape caught in the grasp of winter; the eerie solo organ chord is a brilliant way to open the recording, leading to drummer Jeff Porcaro’s driving beat and spare but effective synthesizer and electric guitar work. Written by John Capek and Marc Jordan, “Pieces Of Ice” has been criticized over the years for its abstract lyrics, which don’t seem to mean anything. It’s true that lines like “Nights are long entropic” are tough to decipher, but countless of popular songs feature puzzling lyrics, and this is one that clearly favors style over substance; the writers and producer Katz are concerned with creating an atmosphere here, one that tells as much of a story as any lyrics could, and they absolutely succeed. Diana’s vocal, meanwhile, is incredibly focused; the singer skillfully projects a simultaneous somber and sexy vibe, rendering a far more mature and accomplished vocal than on her hit from the year before, “Muscles,” in which a similarly hushed vocal came off as one-note. She also provides her own backing vocals on the chorus, and the layering of her voice adds to the strangely off-kilter vibe created by the musicians behind her. All of this adds up to a cool, memorable production which, despite its quality, probably shouldn’t have been chosen as the album’s first single. Something so muted and low-key didn’t lend itself to live performance well (Ross didn’t even sing it on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” when she appeared immediately following the Central Park concerts) and likely just wasn’t dynamic enough to generate the kind of interest needed to boost the album. Although it performed respectably on the R&B (#15) and dance (#17) charts, “Pieces Of Ice” would have better served Miss Ross as a second or third single. (NOTE: Miss Ross did film an expensive music video for the song, directed by Bob Giraldi and choreographed by Michael Peters, both of whom had worked with Michael Jackson on his “Beat It” video earlier that year.)
5. Let’s Go Up: The fifth and final track on Ross selected and produced by Gary Katz is the album’s triumph, a sterling cut that ranks among the finest Diana Ross would record throughout the entire decade. Written by Franne Golde and Peter Ivers, “Let’s Go Up” is a swinging slice of pop-soul with a generous side of light jazz; it’s not unlike an earlier Diana Ross single co-written by Golde, 1977’s “Gettin’ Ready For Love” from Baby It’s Me. Both songs are shimmering, sophisticated recordings, with “Let’s Go Up” in particular featuring a gorgeous and powerful lead vocal; this is a case where producer Gary Katz’s lower-key, precise sound and Diana’s emotional interpretive abilities come together perfectly. Interestingly, two other popular vocalists cut “Let’s Go Up” around the same time as Diana Ross; pop singer Helen Reddy released version on her 1983 LP Imagination, and Diana’s former labelmate Dennis Edwards included it on his 1984 Motown album Don’t Look Any Further. As with “You Do It,” it’s surprising that the song never became a solid hit, given how enjoyable it is as a composition; both the melody and lyrics are memorable, particularly when delivered by a spirited Diana Ross. Her performance here is easily one of her best of the decade, as the song makes full use of her range; she mines her lower register to sound wise and relaxed on the verses, but the choruses build to exciting heights in which she does some powerful singing on par with her late-1970s work with Ashford & Simpson. Ross actually expands the melody a bit when compared to the Reddy and Edwards versions; she reaches higher on the big refrain, nailing each note with a full-bodied belt. Better even than her thrilling performance on record is the fact that Diana sounded just as good on the song when she sang it live; when the vocalist appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” to promote Ross, this is the song she chose to perform, and she also sang it live at both her rain-shortened Central Park show and the follow-up concert the next day. It’s clear that the singer intended for “Let’s Go Up” to be released as a single; unfortunately, RCA waited to do so until any momentum for the project was gone. Lifted as the album’s third single, “Let’s Go Up” stalled on the charts, peaking in early 1984 at #77 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #52 on the R&B side. If ever RCA missed a chance to deliver Diana Ross a major hit, this was it; this should have been the first or second single from the album, and it should have been pushed hard.
6. Love Or Loneliness: After five very strong selections offered up by producer Gary Katz, Ross switches over into the hands of musician Ray Parker, Jr., who not only wrote and produced “Love Or Loneliness” but also plays almost every single instrument on the track. Parker’s lengthy list of credits stretches way back to the 1960s, when he played guitar with Hamilton Bohannon at Detroit’s 20 Grand club (watch my television interview with Bohannon here) and performed on tracks for many notable Motown artists; he then scored several successes with the group Raydio, including the singles “Jack and Jill” and “A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do),” which hit #1 on the R&B charts in 1981. Parker had recently scored his first solo hit with 1982’s “The Other Woman” when he got a call from Diana Ross asking him to produce some tracks; Parker would later tell Michael P. Coleman, “[Diana’s] always been nice to me. I never had a bad day with her. She’s always kind to me, very friendly.” Of the two songs Parker contributed to Ross, this one sounds the most like something he would have recorded with Raydio; in fact, listeners can’t miss the striking similarities to “A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do)” — the guitar line here is lifted almost directly from that earlier hit. This isn’t a bad thing; one certainly can’t fault the writer for borrowing from himself, and he crafts an easygoing and sexy vibe for Diana Ross here, giving the singer rather frank lyrics about the dilemma faced by a woman in a “sometimes love affair.” Diana’s vocal performance is warm and relaxed; as with the best of her work, she sings with an emotional connection to the lyrics, as though she’d written them herself. Ross has always openly considered herself an “interpreter” of lyrics, and a song like this, which tells a very specific story, makes tremendous use of her gifts as an actress and storyteller. It’s interesting to ponder what might have happened had “Love Or Loneliness” been released as a single (instead of as the b-side to “Up Front”); Ray Parker, Jr. was certainly experiencing great success at the time, and this is clearly recognizable as one of his productions. It might not have been a huge pop hit, but it probably would have gained significant R&B and Easy Listening airplay.
7. Up Front: The second Ray Parker, Jr. production was released as the album’s second single; following the underwhelming performance of “Pieces Of Ice,” this one basically bombed, missing the Billboard Hot 100 completely (Diana’s first RCA single to do so) and only managing an R&B peak of #60. It’s hard to believe that a Ross-Parker collaboration was so roundly ignored, especially given the popularity of both artists at the time and Diana’s near-constant publicity at the time; Parker would later chalk it up to Diana’s label, telling Michael P. Coleman, “For some reason, RCA really didn’t push that album for her, even though it had me and Gary Katz from Steely Dan on it.” Then again, Miss Ross didn’t even sing the song during her Central Park concerts, nor did she perform it on television, choosing instead to promote what would become the album’s third single, “Let’s Go Up” — so perhaps part of the blame lies with the singer, too, who apparently wanted “Let’s Go Up” to be the album’s second single. Although “Up Front” is a strong, in-your-face recording with a dynamic performance from Miss Ross, it does feel like an odd single choice in retrospect; the rock-themed tune isn’t the catchiest on the album, nor does it immediately sound like a Diana Ross or Ray Parker, Jr. song in the way that “Love Or Loneliness” does. That said, “Up Front” is a terrific addition to the album; it’s led by Ray Parker. Jr.’s tangy guitar performance and a shimmering synthesizer, also performed by Parker. That clean synthesizer work, aside from being very strong, also serves to tie the song to the earlier tracks by Gary Katz, lending the album a cohesion is might otherwise have been missing in the hands of multiple producers. Diana is backed by a boisterous choir of voices, notably including J.D. Nicholas (of Heatwave and the Commodores) and Valorie Jones of Diana’s former backing group, The Jones Girls; Ross herself offers up an engaging, muscular performance, digging into the melody and demonstrating how powerful her pipes can be when a song calls for it. Repeated listens reveal just how much Miss Ross was pushing herself here; listen to her belt out the words “Get it straight!” at around 1:55 and again at 2:55, and hear just how much she’s attacking the words. Although “Up Front” was probably the wrong choice for single release, it is a welcome entry into the Diana Ross canon.
8. Girls: The album ends with a song both co-written and produced by Miss Ross herself, her first production on this album after handling just about every track on both Why Do Fools Fall In Love and Silk Electric. The crew of musicians featured on “Girls” is basically the same as on Diana’s previous album; she wrote the song with Bill Wray (co-writer of song including “So Close” and “Fool For Your Love”) and frequent collaborators Ray Chew and Rob Mounsey are also featured on the track. Also credited with co-writing the song is Marc Jordan, who co-wrote the fascinating “Pieces Of Ice” and likely contributed some of this song’s more abstract lyrics; Jordan’s writing partner John Capek would later tell Dustin Fitzharris, “The best way you can understand Marc’s lyrics is that he went to school to become a film guy. He thinks in pictures. Everything that he writes is related to visual images.” This certainly relates to “Girls” in terms of lyrics like, “You want to taste the fast life/And fall in love through the camera’s eye” — in fact, the entire production really does evoke vivid images of powerful, sexually-liberated women in a big city, a kind of foreshadowing of “Sex In The City.” In terms of Diana’s output as a record producer, “Girls” is one of her stronger efforts; the frantic, jazzy guitar line and the jamming percussion work are both as accomplished as anything else on the album, and Diana offers a confident vocal that once again allows her to display some range and power. Certainly this song isn’t strong enough to have been pulled for single release, and is more dense than the clean-sounding tracks at the beginning of the album, but it’s a fine way to end the LP and stands as one of the more interesting Diana Ross contributions as a credited songwriter. (NOTE: “Girls” was eventually released as the b-side of the album’s third and final single, “Let’s Go Up.”)
Lost in the hubbub surrounding “Motown 25” and the Central Park concerts, not to mention less-than-enthusiastic critical reviews, Ross became the singer’s first RCA album not to even go gold, let alone platinum; it peaked at a decent #32 on the Billboard 200 and #14 on the R&B Albums chart, but disappeared from the rankings far too quickly. Though Diana did tour to support the project, she quickly shifted focus to her next album; clearly determined to come up with a major hit, she teamed up with a roster of big names including Daryl Hall, Lionel Richie, Bernard Edwards, and Julio Iglesias, with whom Ross would score a pop and Adult Contemporary hit just a few months after “Let’s Go Up” failed on the charts. By the time her new album’s title track, “Swept Away,” was burning up the charts at the end of the summer of 1984, Ross and its singles seemed little more than a distant memory.
This is a shame, because Ross is arguably the singer’s single strongest collection released during her tenure with RCA Records, and certainly her most sonically cohesive set since 1980’s diana. Love it or hate it, there’s a distinct feeling that carries through to every song on the album; it’s not a warm album like 1973’s Touch Me In The Morning or 1977’s Baby It’s Me, but it’s not supposed to be. This isn’t an album to be judged against Diana’s other works, but rather a singular, daring bit of modernity for a singer who’d dominated the music industry for nearly two full decades. There’s also an abundance of technical skill here to be appreciated the more the album is listened to; it certainly sounds far better and less-dated today than most of the other albums she worked on during the 1980s. With better marketing and a different succession of singles, Ross probably would have enjoyed a stronger commercial performance; without that success, it’s a work that cries out for rediscovery by those who have written it off for decades (including, most likely, Diana Ross herself).
Final Analysis: 4.5/5 (Ross Is Just “Right”)
Paul’s Picks: “Let’s Go Up,” “You Do It,” “Pieces Of Ice”