Red Hot Rhythm & Blues (1987)

“It’s in the very same heart that loved you from the start…”

Although Diana Ross signed a multi-million dollar, seven-year contract with RCA Records in 1981, there was already speculation as early as 1985 that the singer could be leaving the label; in its review of her fifth album for the label, Eaten Alive, UK magazine Blues & Soul included this interesting and, it turns out, prescient statement:  “Certainly this is an interesting album, and if it’s true what people are saying will be her last for Capitol/RCA.  Should the lady return to Motown in the near future I hope she allows some of its soulful roots to influence her once again for the market is still there waiting patiently for her to return.”  Although it was an international hit, Eaten Alive was the first major stateside disappointment of the singer’s solo career in quite some time, and her first RCA album not to produce at least a Top 40 pop single.  Rather than immediately release a follow-up, Miss Ross would wait more than a year to put out new product, something that likely increased speculation about her future with her record label.  Still, in the spring of 1987, Diana Ross would return with another studio album, her sixth on RCA.

After working with major producers including Michael Jackson (“Muscles”), Gary Katz (Ross), Daryl Hall (“Swept Away”), and Barry Gibb (Eaten Alive), it was anyone’s guess what direction Ross would decide on next.  An early contender was R&B crooner Luther Vandross, an unabashed fan of Miss Ross; of the possibility for a collaboration, American magazine Jet reported, “They talked about the possibility of him producing her next album backstage during the recent ‘Motown Returns to the Apollo’ TV special” (June 17, 1985).  Although Vandross had already produced full-length albums for Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick, he ended up helming only one song for Diana, a lovely soul ballad called “It’s Hard For Me To Say.”  For the rest of the album, Ross turned to recording engineer and producer Tom Dowd, the man who’d been behind the audio board for such classic hits as “Mack The Knife” by Bobby Darin and “Respect” by Aretha Franklin.  Dowd had co-produced Robin Gibb’s solo album Walls Have Eyes, recorded around the same time that Eaten Alive was released, which might have provided a connection between Miss Ross and the veteran producer.

Although the album’s concept initially revolved around covers of classic soul tunes, it quickly became a less-focused collection of both classic and contemporary pop and R&B.  According to biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, Diana herself suggested first single “Dirty Looks,” which had been recorded and released a year earlier by Warp 9 for their Motown album Fade In, Fade Out.  Pastor Wintley Phipps, a personal friend of Diana’s, had sung at her 1985 wedding to Norwegian shipping magnate Arne Naess and gave her the sweeping ballad “Tell Me Again,” which would be released as the album’s second single in the United States.  “Shine,” written by Simply Red frontman Mick Hucknall, had been included on his group’s second album, Men And Women, released a few months before Diana’s new album; Miss Ross herself co-wrote the album’s closer, the spirited and retro “Shockwaves.”  As far as the classic soul tunes left over from the original concept go, the final album featured covers of “There Goes My Baby” (The Drifters) and “Selfish One” (Jackie Ross) in the United States, and added “Mr. Lee” (The Bobbettes) and “Tell Mama” (Etta James) for overseas pressings.

Released in May of 1987, Red Hot Rhythm & Blues got a major bump in publicity thanks to an accompanying Emmy-winning television special, aired on ABC-TV on May 20 and featuring performances of several of the album’s songs.  Unfortunately, pop radio completely ignored “Dirty Looks,” and although the single was a decent success on the R&B charts, the album became the lowest-charting of the singer’s career up to that point.  This is too bad, because even though it’s undeniably unfocused, the album does feature some of the singer’s best vocals of the 1980s; Diana’s performances on “Summertime” and “It’s Hard For Me To Say” rival the strongest of her ballad work from any decade, and she sounds every bit the mature, confident artist on “Selfish One” and “Cross My Heart.”  Whereas Miss Ross’s voice was lost in the production on Eaten Alive and sounded downright weird on a few of Swept Away’s tracks, she always sounds like herself on Red Hot Rhythm & Blues.  It may not have been a commercially stellar way to end her contract with RCA, but the LP does offer some extremely satisfying moments.

***

Jet: August 3, 1987

1.  Dirty Looks:  The AllMusic review of Red Hot Rhythm & Blues refers to this song as “another of Ross’ patented cute, quasi-sophisticated numbers,” which seems like a rather unfair assessment of the tune thirty year on; in fact, “Dirty Looks” is a sexy, mature number that incorporates elements from the burgeoning Hip-hop genre with the kind of glossy soul Diana Ross had perfected over the past two decades.  The song was written by Lotti Golden and Richard Scher, who’d first produced the song on their electro Hip-hop group Warp 9 for the 1986 Motown album Fade In, Fade Out; that album’s “Skips A Beat” was a dance club hit the same time as Diana’s “Chain Reaction (Remix).”  Diana and producer Tom Dowd arranged their “Dirty Looks” nearly identically to the Warp 9 original; there’s an expected rougher edge to the earlier recording, with deep male background vocals and a tough, youthful lead performance, but the percussive, almost tribal beat and the well-placed, shimmering synthesizer chords sound just about the same on both versions.  Because Diana Ross apparently suggested the song to producer Dowd, credit must go to the singer for understanding what a good fit she could be for the tune; she offers up a sizzling performance here, her breathy vocals filled with passion and sensuality but never once coming across as weak (as they so often had on Eaten Alive) Ross adds in some nice spoken moments, something at which she always excels, and the song does require more of a vocal range than it’s often given credit for, stretching the singer’s voice when she’s forced to match the powerful choir of soulful background vocals.  It’s no surprise that “Dirty Looks” gained some success in the R&B market; the song eventually peaked at #12 on the Billboard R&B chart (her 30th Top 20 solo hit on that chart!) and also made it to #13 on Jet‘s Top 20 Singles chart in the magazine’s August 3, 1987 issue.  However, it’s also not a surprise that “Dirty Looks” failed in the pop marketplace; this isn’t a pop song, even with Diana’s velvety vocals front and center, and it doesn’t sound anything like the songs dominating the pop landscape at the time (including Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and Madonna’s “Who’s That Girl”).  Though it was considered a disappointment at the time, “Dirty Looks” is one of Diana’s best singles in quite some time; the recording still sounds fresh today, something that certainly can’t be said for even some of the singer’s biggest hits at RCA.

2.  Stranger In Paradise:  Not to be confused with the pop standard of the same name, recorded by Diana as a Supreme for 1966’s I Hear A Symphony, this atmospheric pop tune was written by John Capek and Amy Sky.  Capek had previously co-written Diana’s 1983 single “Pieces Of Ice,” and teamed up with Canadian lyricist Sky shortly before Diana recorded their song; as Sky told Billboard in 1996, “I hadn’t planned on staying in Los Angeles.  I’d gone there to do some writing and talk to MCA about what to do.  Then John Capek and I started writing amazing songs.  Within four weeks we had the Diana Ross cover” (April 13).  It’s not a major surprise that both “Stranger In Paradise” and “Pieces Of Ice” share a writer; they’re very different songs, but share a cool, abstract sensibility in their musicality and both place Miss Ross squarely within a modern pop framework.  There’s a nice, laid-back beat to the track, which is produced by Tom Dowd with a heavy echo that seems to blur the edges of both the instruments and Diana’s voice; the sounds here swirl in and out with a dreamlike intangibility unlike anything else on the album.  Diana’s vocal is suitably mysterious, delivered in a breathy and sexy voice that seems to meld right into the instrumental track while never becoming completely upstaged by it.  The song requires Diana to utilize a decent portion of her range, and while she doesn’t sound particularly powerful on the recording, she reaches all the required notes and ably sells strange, vivid lyrics like, “What remains when night has gone/Cover me in shades of dawn.”  If there’s a problem with “Stranger In Paradise,” it’s that it really doesn’t fit on an album with the title Red Hot Rhythm & Blues; if anything, it should have featured on something called Cool Pop.  Still, “Stranger In Paradise” is a unique piece of work, and accomplished enough that it deserves its place here.  

3.  Summertime:  This is, without a doubt, one of the great ballad performance in the long and storied career of Diana Ross; it also happens to be one of the best songs she’s ever recorded, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with superb compositions including “Missing You” and “To Love Again.”  “Summertime” was written by the great singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who penned the tune with his longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson; Miss Ross would be the first to release a version of the haunting ballad, although it would later be covered by Roberta Flack, for 1991’s Set The Night To Music, and Robinson herself, on 2008’s Everybody Knows.  Diana’s version is exquisite, beginning with the breathtakingly beautiful orchestration; the musical track here is constructed of swirling strings and ethereal wind instruments, ebbing and flowing like ocean waves and perfectly matching the lyric as a mournful ode to the warm summer months.  But above all, this song is a masterwork of a vocal performance; Diana Ross becomes one of the instruments here, gliding along as effortlessly as the violins and sparkling harp behind her.  This is a song with a challenging melody; like 1978’s “To Love Again,” it never allows for Miss Ross to oversing, lest she become completely tangled up in the words and kill all emotion.  Thankfully, Miss Ross is a singer for whom subtlety comes naturally, and her performance is one of emotional complexity disguised in simplicity.  As with the best Diana Ross recordings, it’s almost impossible to imagine another singer doing a better job with the material; she truly paints a vivid, detailed picture with her performance, and it more than stands the test of time, sounding just as affecting some three decades later.  It’s a shame “Summertime” was never released as a single; it likely stood little chance at getting much airplay (aside from Adult Contemporary stations), but it would have been a far superior choice to second single “Tell Me Again” and any exposure for this gem would have been welcome.  What should be regarded as one of her seminal ballads today remains a criminally ignored recording, although someone had the presence of mind to include it on the 1997 CD release Greatest Hits: The RCA Years.  Thankfully, Miss Ross also included a lovely performance of it on her Diana Ross…Red Hot Rhythm & Blues television special, a video worth seeking out.

4.  Shine:  In what seems at first a strange twist, Diana Ross takes on Simply Red with “Shine,” which the British group recorded for the album Men And Women, released just a few months before Diana’s album.  The song was written by Mike Hucknall, lead singer of Simply Red, and it certainly has the feel of his other work; Hucknall was strongly influenced by American soul music and even wrote a few songs on Men And Women with Lamont Dozier, who’d been part of the team who wrote/produced most of the #1 hits for the Supremes.  With this in mind, it’s not as strange an inclusion as it might seem initially; “Shine” is an upbeat pop tune with obvious roots in the Motown formula of driving instrumentals and catchy lyrics and melodies.  Producer Tom Dowd provides an edgy arrangement for the song, featuring angular bass and guitar work that pulses with energy; the arrangement is quite close to that of Simply Red’s original recording, but is leaner in terms of its instrumentation.  Credit goes to Diana Ross for bringing her own dynamic and phrasing to the song; her performance is an interesting one, as she sings with a remoteness and resignation that brings a different perspective to the lyrics of someone “trying to fight” feelings of love.  The song is certainly not a vocal showcase for the singer, especially when compared to the album’s previous track, but it does add some variety and breaks up the flow of ballads and mid-tempo cuts that make up the album’s first side.  “Shine” is unlikely to be anybody’s favorite Diana Ross recording, but it’s solid filler.

5.  Tell Me Again:  In his 1995 book The Power of a Dream: The Inspiring Story of a Young Man’s Audacious Faith, Wintley Phipps writes, “I first came to know Diana Ross as the result of a television program on which I sang. I sang ‘Tell Me Again,’ a song that I had written when needing God’s assurance that he still loved me. When she heard the song, she was so moved that she wept. Immediately after the show ended, she called her secretary and said, ‘Find that guy.'”  Not only did Ross fall in love with the song she heard, she and Phipps also established a long-running relationship; the pastor ended up singing at the singer’s 1985 wedding with Norwegian shipping magnate Arne Naess in Switzerland.  It’s no surprise that Miss Ross would be attracted to the song; it’s a tender, sweeping love ballad, the kind of which she’d mastered in the previous decade thanks to her work with writer-producer Michael Masser.  By 1987, Masser had moved on to Whitney Houston, providing her with the #1 hit “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” that year, and aside from 1984’s “Missing You,” Diana hadn’t scored with a big ballad at RCA Records; it’s likely the singer was looking for something to fill the void in her output, considering she was so identified with sophisticated love songs.  Unfortunately, “Tell Me Again” didn’t add to Diana’s impressive list of hit ballads; released as the album’s second and final single in the United States, it failed to make either the pop or R&B charts, a dismal and sad end to her RCA career.  In retrospect, “Tell Me Again” was an odd choice for a single; it’s a beautifully written song and well-produced, but it lacks real punch or power, particularly in the lead vocal performance.  Miss Ross certainly delivers a delicate, vulnerable vocal, but she’s straining to hit certain sections of the song, and its rather high refrain exposes a weakness in her voice; had the singer really been pushed in the studio, there’s no doubt she could have laid down an emotional, raw performance that would have resulted in a stronger recording (think “Be A Lion” from The Wiz, for just one example).  If RCA and Diana Ross really wanted a ballad release from Red Hot Rhythm & Blues, “It’s Hard For Me To Say” was the obvious choice; even “Summertime,” while not a particularly commercial piece, would have been a better option.  In the end, this is a very pretty song with a pretty vocal, but not necessarily the big power ballad that it probably wanted to be.

Billboard: August 29, 1964

6.  Selfish One:  In August of 1964, just as Diana Ross was scoring her first-ever #1 hit with The Supremes and “Where Did Our Love Ago,” another Ross was making major moves on the Billboard Hot 100.  Jackie Ross was a young artist with Chess Records when her swinging soul tune “Selfish One” soared into the pop Top 20, eventually peaking at #11 on the chart.  Unfortunately for that Miss Ross, “Selfish One” would be her only hit single; thankfully, it’s a terrific one that more than stands the test of time.  Producer Tom Dowd arranges this version as a lush tribute to the original, retaining the classic, swinging beat (which is more than a little reminiscent of the tunes Smokey Robinson was cranking out for Motown in the early 1960s) while giving it a real freshness with the bright, orchestral instrumental track.  But it’s really Diana Ross who shines here, offering up sexy, polished performance that stands as one of the best of her RCA output; there’s a joy and confidence to her work here that makes the song a pleasure to listen to, and an easy to one to enjoy repeatedly.  Just listen to the singer’s opening words, as she coos, “Selfish one/Why keep your love to yourself?” — she rides the melody with a touch that’s light as air, her shimmering voice brightening the track the same way it did back in 1964, when Miss Ross crooned songs like “Where Did Our Love Go” and “Baby Love.”  Because “Selfish One” seems so influenced by the pop-soul mastery of Motown, it’s really a perfect song for Diana; not only does she display the charm and innocence of her early Supremes days, but she also gets to incorporate the expanded range and power of her solo career, particularly when she nails the high notes at roughly 1:40 in (“Is it really you?”) and during her soulful ad-libs toward the end.  As with the earlier “Summertime,” it’s hard to say if there would have been any commercial appeal for a single like “Selfish One,” but it’s a track that deserved more exposure at the time; at least Miss Ross included it on this album’s accompanying television special.  Still, it’s a shame “Selfish One” didn’t become more closely-identified with Diana, because it would have made a terrific addition to her live show; it’s every bit as a good as her hit remake of “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” and is a song she’d probably still sound superb singing today.

7.  Cross My Heart:  After a brief detour to some actual “Red Hot Rhythm & Blues”…Diana goes right back to contemporary pop again; the good news here is that “Cross My Heart” is a perfect song for Miss Ross, and she and producer Dowd nail it.  “Cross My Heart” comes courtesy Sharon Robinson (who’d co-written the previous “Summertime”) and Hamish Stuart, who’d been a member of Average White Band and played with artists including Chaka Khan and Paul McCartney; together, the pair also co-wrote a song called “I Called Your Number,” recored by Diana’s former labelmates The Temptations for 1987’s Together Again.  As produced by Tom Dowd, “Cross My Heart” is a light, mid-tempo Adult Contemporary track with just a little soul sprinkled in, thanks mainly to the popping bassline; the entire production is so cleanly-done and fresh that it could be a modern take on “Selfish One.”  Robinson and Hamish certainly seem to be influenced by the Motown formula of singable melodies and relatable lyrics; the “Cross My Heart” refrain is immediately memorable, and hard not to sing along with.  Thus, as with “Selfish One,” it’s a perfect song for Miss Diana Ross, one of the best melody singers in music history;  her voice throughout is smooth as cream and sensual, and there’s a confidence and energy here again that make for an irresistible performance.  The artist sounds particularly strong following the jazz-inflected bridge, when the key changes and her vocal soars higher; she’s still quite breathy in her delivery, but her voice never sounds weak, and it’s nice to hear her deviate from the melody line a little at 3:43 when she sings the song’s title.  It’s hard to believe this is the same singer who’d completely lost her own sound on 1985’s Eaten Alive; here, she sings with a supreme self-assurance, proving definitively that when Diana Ross uses the sum of her gifts, she’s unmatched as a popular music vocalist.

8.  There Goes My Baby:  As she’d done with her very first RCA single, 1981’s “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” Diana Ross returns to her roots with this song, one she’d sung with The Supremes long before they were even The Supremes.  According to Mary Wilson’s memoir Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, the then-Primettes performed “There Goes My Baby” in 1960 at the Detroit/Windsor Freedom Festival, a contest in Canada at which the young ladies took first place.  Diana Ross says the same thing in her television special Diana Ross…Red Hot Rhythm & Blues, although she recalls it happening in the late 1950s.  In any case, winning the contest was a major confidence-booster for the group, and by January of 1961 they were signed to Motown with a new name: The Supremes.  Clearly, “There Goes My Baby” holds a special place of significance for Mary Wilson and Diana Ross; it had been a major hit for The Drifters in 1959, hitting #1 on the Billboard R&B chart in July of 1959, and was later covered by Donna Summer, who took a dance version to the pop Top 40 in 1984.  “There Goes My Baby” is given a rather restrained production by Tom Dowd; everything feels a bit muted, from the instrumental track to the soulful background vocals, which leads Diana Ross to give a very pretty but rather laid-back performance.  The singer sounds great, make no mistake, but she lacks some of the passion and energy you’d hope for; when she finally lets loose with a full-bodied “Where is my baby?” at 2:22, you realize just how much she’s been holding back thus far.  On the television special and the international version of this album, Miss Ross performed the Etta James song “Tell Mama,” and it’s a much more energetic and fiery performance than this one; it’s too bad that listeners in the United States didn’t get to hear that recording on the album.  In a lukewarm review of Red Hot Rhythm & Blues in American magazine Spin, Barry Walters would call much of this album’s material “pretty, but inconsequential too.”  That’s probably a decent description of “There Goes My Baby,” although knowing the song’s historical significance to the career of Diana Ross doesn’t enhance the experience of listening to it.

Jet: June 17, 1985

9.  It’s Hard For Me To Say:  RCA and Diana Ross lost a major hit for the singer by not releasing “It’s Hard For Me To Say” as a single; frankly, although “Dirty Looks” is a good song, this one probably should have been the first single lifted from the album.  Although it might not have been a big pop hit, it would have dominated the R&B airwaves; this sparkling love song, written and produced by the incomparable Luther Vandross, is as good as any soul ballads being released in the late 1980s (it also should have garnered Miss Ross a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female).  Vandross had long been vocal in his idolization of Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, and Aretha Franklin; eventually the singer produced full albums on the latter two, and admittedly wanted to do the same for Diana, telling Ebony in December of 1985, “I’ve always loved her, and I want to do a whole album.  So I’ll just hold off for now.  I hope she reads this.”  Fans longed for the two to pair up, as well; published in the “Letters to the Editor” section of Ebony in March 1986, reader C. Greene wrote, “I, too, would like to experience the collaboration of Luther and Diana Ross.  Along with the lyrics of a Luther Vandross composition, her sometimes sultry yet always assertive soprano voice would melt the shackles of any man’s heart.”  Unfortunately, for whatever reason, Vandross and fans never got their wish, a missed opportunity made all the more bitter considering how beautiful “It’s Hard For Me To Say” turned out to be.  This is a passionate, slow-burn soul ballad, with Diana turning in a crystal-clear vocal that showcases the very best qualities of her vocal abilities; she sounds relaxed and comfortable throughout, and her voice blends beautifully with her producer’s backgrounds on the chorus.  Her repeated “ooh” after the line “It’s in the heat…” is a the kind of flourish that only Diana Ross can do and get away with; she sings with deep feeling and an obvious appreciate of the material.  The tune itself is a beautiful one with a nice, thoughtful lyric; Luther’s talent for tapping into purest truths of love are evident in lyrics including, “Insecure, very shy/Are the only reasons I have why/I never say the things/That you would love to hear.”  It makes sense that Luther would be a perfect producer for Diana Ross; he’d studied her music for years, and clearly understood better than most producers that her crisp phrasing and tonal warmth were keys to her inimitable sound.  At the time Red Hot Rhythm & Blues was released, critics praised this song; Barry Walters called it a “quiet storm swayer in the understated Vandross tradition” the reveals “what Ross is still capable of,” while Ron Wynn would later called it “the first heartache tune Ross had done in many years with a real, poignant edge to it” in his AllMusic review of the album.  Although it was inexplicably never released as a single, Vandross later recorded it himself on his 1996 album Your Secret Love and Miss Ross started performing it again in concert years later, after Mr. Vandross passed away, and even performed it on her final appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”  This is a heartfelt, lovely song and a real treasure of her solo career.

10.  Shockwaves:  Featuring a beat ripped from Supremes classic “My World Is Empty Without You” and the background vocals of the Martha and The Vandellas hit “Quicksand,” this is an on-the-nose ode the classic Motown sound.  It’s fitting that the final song on Diana’s final RCA album is not only one that brings her full-circle to her girl group roots but is also co-written by the singer (with frequent collaborator Bill Wray and musician Mark Cawley); after all, the whole reason she left Motown Records for RCA early in the decade was for more creative control, allowing herself the opportunity to do things like write her own music.  Her songwriting track record was admittedly spotty over the decade, but “Shockwaves” falls on the winning end of the spectrum; this is a fun, upbeat tribute to the Holland-Dozier-Holland school of songwriting, led by that urgent beat and a memorable, repetitive refrain.  The retro feel of the song makes it a good fit for the album, somewhat bridging the classic soul covers and the contemporary pop-soul tracks; Dowd does a nice job creating an obvious Hitsville feel while still using modern instrumentation.  Diana offers up a fun, energetic performance here, drawing a little on the early, cooing style of her Supremes recordings and adding in the surprising and humorous “brrrrrrrrrrr” sound toward the end; if it’s not her among the strongest vocal performances on the album, it’s still well-done and suits the song.  Interestingly, “Shockwaves” was remixed by Shep Pettibone, perhaps known best for his work with Madonna, and released as a single internationally; though not a big hit in the United Kingdom, it did manage a peak of #76 on the charts there.

The Three Dianas:
“Mr. Lee” Music Video

Mr. Lee:  Although not included on the stateside release of Red Hot Rhythm & Blues, Diana Ross recorded this cover of the 1957 hit by The Bobbettes and added it to the international release of the album; it was also given some remixes and released as a single overseas, where it peaked at #58 in the United Kingdom.  It’s a cute, bouncy number that harkens back to Diana’s pre-stardom days, when she and the Primettes sang on street corners and amateur talent contests; you have to wonder if this is a song the young ladies rehearsed together while dreaming of “making it” as singers.  Tom Dowd provides a jumpy track led by a jangling guitar, and layers voices behind Diana’s lead vocal to replicate the sound of a girl group.  Miss Ross offers up a youthful and energetic performance, racing through the track with minimal effort and a breathy sexiness that lends just the right amount of sensuality to the schoolgirl crush lyrics.  It’s too bad Diana didn’t include “Mr. Lee” as part of the album’s accompanying television special, as it would have been nice fit.  She did, however, film a music video for the song’s international release, which is a lot of fun and worth seeking out; Supremes fans will enjoy Diana’s updated version of her former group, which features three Dianas gathered around a single microphone to chirp the background vocals!

Tell Mama:  This song was also cut from the American release of Red Hot Rhythm & Blues, although it was released on the international version of the album; it was also featured in the 1987 television special Diana Ross…Red Hot Rhythm & Blues.  The song was made famous by Etta James, who took it onto the pop and R&B charts in 1967; Ross has long cited the blues singer as one of her major musical inspirations.  In an interview published in Billboard in October of 1993, Ross commented of Etta James, “I used to go see her at these little clubs in Detroit.  I used to watch her, and I used to try and sing like her when I was little.  I must have been 12 or 13 and I’d stand in front of the mirror singing ‘At Last.'”  Speaking of “At Last,” Ross made a very public show of admiration by having Etta James perform her signature song on the Red Hot Rhythm & Blues television special, ending with a fun little scene involving Ms. James, Miss Ross, and Billy Dee Williams.  Back to “Tell Mama,” it’s a mystery why the song was cut from the album in the United States; it’s a fabulous rendering of the song, featuring a spirited vocal from Diana Ross and energetic production by Tom Dowd.  Although Diana Ross and Etta James are two very different kinds of singers, Miss Ross really digs into the song, pushing herself to give a sexy, knowing performance which displays some impressive range and power.  “Tell Mama” is certainly a much better representation of “red hot rhythm & blues” than much of what made the album in the U.S., and it should have found a place on all pressings of the project.

***

Although it marked a major improvement in quality over 1985’s Eaten AliveRed Hot Rhythm & Blues was an even bigger commercial disappointment when it was released in May of 1987.  It was the singer’s lowest charting solo album ever, peaking at #73 on the Billboard 200 in June, and stalling at #39 on the R&B Albums chart.  Although the accompanying television special was well-received (it won a pair of Emmy Awards, for costume design and lighting direction, electronic), the failure of “Dirty Looks” to gain widespread acceptance and a lack of promotion from RCA fatally hurt the prospects for commercial success.  It’s also not a coincidence that the review of the album in American music magazine Spin unfavorably compares it to work by artists including Anita Baker, Jody Watley, Janet Jackson, and Miki Howard; by the late 1980s, Diana Ross was a facing increasing competition from pop-soul female artists, all of whom she’d directly inspired and for whom she’d laid out a specific blueprint for success.

Red Hot Rhythm & Blues, then, became a rather anticlimactic end to Diana’s tenure as an artist on RCA Records.  Although it’s a period of her career derided by some fans, it was a relatively consistent era for the singer in terms of commercial success, producing eight Top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 and nine Top 20 R&B hits between 1981 and 1987, certainly a solid showing by any measure.  While her overall output was wildly uneven throughout the decade, Red Hot Rhythm & Blues is one of Diana’s most sonically cohesive collections of the period; although the album’s title isn’t at all indicative of the material found within, there’s quality and attention to detail in the productions and Miss Ross gives uniformly strong performances.  Unfortunately, the obscuring of the album’s original concept hurts the end result, and there’s a lack of fire and excitement in some of the selections.  But the best songs here — songs like “Summertime,” to name one — remain standouts in the singer’s vast discography, and demonstrate the lasting power of her artistry.

Final Analysis: 3.5/5 (Diana “Shines” On Uneven Material)

Paul’s Picks:  “Summertime,” “Selfish One,” “It’s Hard For Me To Say”

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About Paul

Album-by-album, track-by-track, a look at the entire Diana Ross discography...
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55 Responses to Red Hot Rhythm & Blues (1987)

  1. Antje says:

    I agree with you a 100%, Paul. This album is among my favorite ones of all. And the cover too …

    • Paul says:

      Yes, the cover’s a great one! And of course, Diana must have liked it too since she re-used some of the shots for “I Love You” years later!! 🙂

  2. wayne2710 says:

    This is the one I’ve been waiting for Paul ! Actually this is the Diana Ross album I’d seemingly been waiting for all of the 80s, a return to her roots, an album unambiguously ‘Diana Ross’. While I’m all for experimenting, she seemed to have spent the entire decade experimenting on new sounds and direction. Finally she returned to recordings that were unashamed stereotype Diana Ross songs. There is not a single track on this album that I can honestly say I dislike, and even better for us that we had two more tracks on our release than what RCA released in the States. I love the mix of new songs and long forgotten old songs.
    Dirty Looks was strong choice to lead off with, I used to love hearing her sing it in concert too. I take your point on Stranger in Paradise, it probably is the weakest track here, but i still love listening to it today. I’d always been under the impression that Mick Hucknall had written Shine for Diana then just released it on Simply Red too. He’s always been very vocal in his praise for her, her influence on his music, and that Doobedoodn’doobe had been the first record he ever bought. Shockwaves is fun, a sixties throwback that works. Mr Lee is better than the Bobbettes original, especially good is the swing mix that was released on the cd single.Tell Mama a fitting tribute to her idol Etta James. There Goes My Baby is gorgeous, the song the Primettes sang at their Motown audition and the first song Berry ever heard her sing. Very special in her career. Summertime, as you say is a masterpiece. Cross My Heart is dreamy, and It’s Hard for Me to Say just wonderful. Tell Me Again a perfect end to a perfect collection.
    I’ve missed out one track on purpose, the sublime Selfish One. To me it’s timeless. Perfect vocals, perfect arrangement and production. It’s a typical example of just why I love her SO much, her voice is heavenly on this track. It reminds me so much of the late sixties sound, this track could be slotted into Love Child inbetween Does Your Mama Know About Me and I’ll Set You Free and not sound out of place. I’d been a fan for twenty years by this time and Selfish One underlined the reason why I’d always be a fan for the remainder of my days. There is no one to touch her.
    Oh and I never even mentioned Herb Ritts’ classy photography !

    • Paul says:

      Wayne — how cool — I had no idea Mike Hucknall was a big Diana fan, though I knew he was a Motown fan! I’m with you completely on “Selfish One” — there’s something about the song that is just sublime — Diana’s voice sounds so rich and full on it – I wish her version was better known.

  3. spookyelectric says:

    Agree with you Paul, this is a solid, enjoyable album from Diana. Vocally she’s more consistently in ‘classic Diana’ mode than any of other RCA albums. And when that’s at its best – on ‘It’s Hard For Me To Say’ for instance – it’s breathtaking and yes, amongst her very best of the era (if only a whole album had been produced by Mr Vandross!). On the other hand, taken as a whole I think ‘Red Hot…’ lacks the excitement and thrills of much of her best RCA work – though I can see why maybe some more conservative longterm fans would have welcomed this return to a less ‘experimental’ approach.

    Honestly I think the album would have been far more successful and focused if it had the courage of its convictions and been a whole-hearted homage to Diana’s R&B roots (despite the fact the Luther track and ‘Summertime’ are such glorious stand outs). I’m not totally sure, but I imagine that was the original concept (which makes more sense of the choice of Tom Dowd as producer) and the label got cold feet.

    On the full version of the album, ‘Tell Mama’ and ‘Mr Lee’ (both great energetic performances from Diana, full of spirit) form a retro sequence with ‘Selfish One’ and ‘There Goes My Baby’ that’s really the heart of the album. I wonder if the other covers from the TV special were originally considered for the album too.

    It’s a shame the album was edited and resequenced for the US market – it’s much weaker for it. This was the start of the US market being clearly secondary in the global picture, with singles and entire albums being released in the rest of the world remaining unreleased in the US, and some missing tracks when they were. On this album for instance ‘Mr Lee’ was issued as a 3rd UK single – RCA even splashed out on tacky but fun video for it. I guess the her labels made decisions on where her strongest selling markets were and so almost gave up on the US as it were. Sadly that became self-fulfilling with Diana scoring top 10 hits for a good 20 years in the UK after her last US entry in the mid-80s.

    • Paul says:

      I don’t know what RCA was thinking in the US, either — why in the world were those two great songs left off for us?? This album should have been released in the complete version, as it makes more sense as a tribute to R&B music that way. If the other soul songs from the special had been slated for the album, too, then it’s a shame they were also left off! Her gospel wailing on “99 And A Half” is some of her best singing of the 80s, period.

      • spookyelectric says:

        Hi Paul – I just read in Randy T’s last Ross biography that ‘Red Hot..’ was as suspected originally intended totally be a R&B homage with Tom Dowd – not sure how he knows this – maybe Diana talked about it in interviews at the time? Apparently ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ was begun and scrapped. If you think about it, Diana was recording old R&B covers or pastiches throughout her RCA years (Sweet Nothings, So Close, Rescue Me etc) so it makes sense she’d want to do a project like that.

        According to Randy T, it was Diana who heard a demo of ‘Dirty Looks’ and wanted to record it as the first single leading to the whole concept going awry. Which seems odd given the TV special Diana produced still focussed on the original concept of an R&B homage. Who knows exactly why the decisions were made. I’d guess the US label were never 100% behind the concept and encouraged more contemporary tunes to be added. That would certainly explain why they ended up cutting the two most obviously ‘old school’ tunes from the record. (I suppose ‘There Goes My Baby’ had a contemporary hook having just been a decent hit for Donna Summer a few years before).

        But like you say ’99 and a Half’ is brilliant and I’d say ‘Tell Mama’ too is one of her most spirited vocals of the period – a shame it never happened the way it was intended. We can only guess at what other tunes were in the pipeline!

    • Paul says:

      I love “Tell Mama” and wish it was part of my original experience with the album — I didn’t know it existed for many years, other than the small piece I’d always heard on the TV special, and so even today it doesn’t “sound” like part of the album to me, even though I love the song…I’m just too used to the US sequencing.

      Reading Taraborrelli’s info on this album fascinated me when I first got his book. I can’t even imagine Diana doing “Try A Little Tenderness” and really wish we could hear how it would have come out. I’m also not surprised she liked “Dirty Looks” and wanted to cut it — again, I think it’s a really strong single, and it’s R&B enough that it doesn’t go as far against the album’s original concept as “Summertime” or “Cross My Heart” do, as great as those songs are.

      • spookyelectric says:

        There’s lots of things to like about ‘Dirty Looks’ I agree – the whole ‘sexy but mature’ vibe someone else picked up on (which doesn’t really exist in mainstream music anymore), a characterful vocal from Ross, the slick Herb Ritts’ video – but somehow I think it still lacks that extra something to make it a hit. I think it’s the chorus hook – it just doesn’t ‘lift’ enough. The 12″ Remix adds more percussion and feels more exciting I think. Wasn’t this recorded around the same time Michael released ‘Dirty Diana’ – supposed inspired by her? I wonder which came first?

      • Paul says:

        WOW — I had never, in all these years, made the “Dirty Diana” connection! How funny!!! According to Wikipedia — MJ’s “BAD” came out in August of 1987, and Diana’s LP was out in May — so it looks like Miss Ross was first…although it does seem a pretty big coincidence, doesn’t it? 🙂

  4. ejluther says:

    Great review as always – I loved this record when it came out and think it stands the test of time pretty well. As others have noted, it’s not as “exciting” as some of her other work, but it’s solid and lovely nonetheless. I was also a big fan of the tv special and hope we see a proper release of it someday. Until then, you can go here (around 3:00 in the video) and see Diana singing “99 1/2 Just Won’t Do” – Little Richard even plays the minister! (you can also hear the track on her box set):

    • ejluther says:

      Here’s the link to the video I was talking about in the post above

      • Paul says:

        I absolutely love the TV special — I remember it when it first aired — I was 7 years old and my parents taped it for me — I still have the VHS copy, and it’s been watched a thousand times!! Diana Ross proved herself a heck of a gospel singer.

  5. Tony Agro says:

    Again Paul – well done! I was very confused when the album came out…..it seemed to go against everything I had been saying about her fans wanting her to stop experimenting get back to a more classic Diana. This album really shines — it is gorgeous–it was the Diana I was longing to hear again, yet it did NOT put her back on the charts – or even cast her in a more favourable light with the public. I was so happy with this album…. like she had listened to her fans and returned home to her roots. I wonder if she was a little too late … and that perhaps too many fans left her, stopped paying attention to her and as a result the sales just we not there?

    Summertime is by far one of her very best – without a doubt. Actually her voice on the album is stunning. It almost seems like Diana Ross got some more vocal training. She seems much more in control of her voice…even in the moments when she was going for a raw sound. There certainly was something going on with her singing as I could hear the sheer confidence in her voice as she moved through the songs. I think from this point on her voice really began to round off and get a richness and depth that I just love. Like a beautiful Barolo wine from a light Chianti is how i describe her voice by the end of the 80’s and especially with this album.

    I love this album!

    • Paul says:

      Tony — I totally agree — her voice is completely controlled and she sounds consistently better than she had in years. I don’t know if it was too little too late for fans and listeners…I think it was just too late for radio and promotions, which had moved on to younger artists. Sad.

  6. markus says:

    Great job once again, Paul! Listening to RHR&B this week, I had a feeling most of us would have good things to say about it. This was an album that completely flew under the radar for me- I was 11 when it came out, but never heard any of the tracks on the radio (even “Dirty Looks”) and never got to hear anything from it until a couple years later (after Workin Overtime came out).
    As a whole album it is one of the more enjoyable of her RCA output, if a bit disjointed (agreeing with Wayne and Spooky’s comments, had “Mr. Lee” and “Tell Mama” been included on the US release it would’ve at least justified the title more). There are some fantastic vocal performances here. However, from a singles perspective I think pretty much all of the songs were either too slight or (especially in the case of “Summertime”) too mature to become a blowout hit at radio. Doesn’t make them bad songs, of course (most of them are quite good!), but at this point, a year after Mary Wilson’s book and over two years removed from her last substantial chart placing, Diana needed a hit single. Experimenting didnt do it…sadly, neither did going back to basics in this case. Oh well.

    I really like “Dirty Looks”: a sparse, sexy, shuffling, percussive delight. Even with more of a push from RCA I don’t think it would’ve done much on pop radio, but it deserved a higher R&B showing. (sidenote: I prefer the mix on the album much more than the one used in the video!)
    I think “Stranger in Paradise” has actually aged rather well- a decade ago I thought it sounded dated, but with the changes in music in the recent years it seems less and less an artifcat of its time. It doesn’t scream “EIGHTIES!!!” to me as much as “Shine” does. It’s a funky, airy tune that does sound like an improved continuation of certain production aspects of her previous albums. I think she sounds great on it- the hook is alot to take but she never lets it overwhelm her.
    Wonderful summation of “Summertime”…ahhhh…one of the undisputed album highlights. Too cerebral and heavy for mass consumption, she’s positively gorgeous on it. Haunting an atmospheric…I wouldnt immediately put Leonard Cohen and Diana Ross together, but she’s a perfect match.
    “Shine” is a song I’ve always enjoyed without ever really “loving” it- It’s fun and bouncy (no easy feat for such an unusually structured song) and Diana is once again giving a great vocal, but I always thought Mick Hucknall’s own version was the better of the two overall.

    “Tell Me Again”, for me is actually one of the disappontments of the album- I actually like the song (although it’s not Rythm and Blues, and certainly not Red Hot), but I was let down because this could’ve been another “It’s My Turn”, were it not for the vocal. Diana sounds fine on the verses (if just a tad affected), and she sounds good on the 1st chorus, but by the 2nd chorus she starts sounding as if she’s trying to sell it without going where we all know she can go. When she says “tell me again, that you love meeeeeeee…” holding the note, it should have been a fuller, more robust delivery (like on the 1st chorus), but it comes out thin and shrill. Then that final note, which sounds like it Diana either moved away from the mic, or it was manipulated to have her holding the note longer. I still like the song, but because of its flaws its one of the weaker entries on the album. 😦
    I think “Selfish One” is one of the better album tracks, although I still prefer Jackie Ross’ version (which I grew up with). Diana sounds good- her vocal is more subdued than Jackie’s version, but considering Jackie was a teenager when she recorded it and Diana was 43, thats totally appropriate. But the production is like a safe, santized echo of the 1960’s version that at times borders on Muzak and keeps me from really loving it. Ditto for “there Goes My Baby”.
    I fell in love with “Cross My Heart” at first listen and i still think it’s one of her best RCA performances. I thought it would’ve been a great single choice although my sister informed me 20 years ago that because the song shares it’s name with a popular woman’s brassiere it probably would’ve been viewed as “corny”. (damn! Why couldnt Diana shake that tag after 1985!?) Regardless, it’s a lovely song and Diana sounds amazing during the last minute or so. Surely this is the Diana that most of us fell in love with in the first place. 🙂

    I agree, had “Its Hard For Me to Say” been issued as a single it would’ve blown up on R&B radio (and dare I say, given Diana another #1 hit), but unfortunately it don’t think it would’ve done much on pop radio. I love the lush sound Luther surrounds Diana with on this song (and I love his background vocals!) It makes me regret Diana didnt just let him do an entire album on her. Perhaps because her last album (which had a producer who had helmed smash albums for other divas) had not done well, Diana didnt want to appear to be following in Aretha and Dionne’s footsteps. I think it would’ve been fantastic, especially to hear Diana let loose on one of Luther’s energetic uptempo numbers!

    I like “Shockwaves”! (although that BRRRRRRR was VERY off-putting back in the day…LOL). It’s definitely one of her best self-penned releases. Listen to that growl when she says “But no one ever told me what a man like you would do to me!”) A happy homage to her girl group heyday which closes the album on a nice note.
    (SIDENOTE: This is the fourth of Diana’s RCA albums to use one of her compositions as the closing track. Interesting…)
    So ends the RCA era (sigh). Although I’m sure next week will give us a very lively discussion! 😉

    • Tony Agro says:

      Markus, allow me to respond to your “Tell ME Again” review please. I also like it and totally agree with you. I wanted to mentions that the never ending last note, while a good idea to end the song with a long strong note ( almost Strisand like) but the mechanical fake extended note cheapens the song. Thoughts?

      • markus says:

        Yes, Tony! I dont want to knock it too badly- as this is, overall, a very good album- but I remember listening to “Tell Me Again” and being really surprised by that final note. It has a strange, muffled noise to it- almost like Diana’s singing through an empty paper towel roll- then it goes out and back in like I mentioned above, and then, instead of Diana clearly finishing the note, it just fades out before the song ends. Really? This is a woman we’ve all heard hold beautiful notes for several seconds. It’s abundantly clear from “Summertime” she was in full command of her vocal capabilities at this point (and would continue to be!) She hit that crazy note in “One Shining Moment” a few years later quite clearly, right? I think it was just an error in judgment from Dowd and Diana. I wish they’d rethought it. 😦

        By the way, I love the wine analogy you used in your comment above! Her recording career may have been in some trouble, but vocally Diana was really in a great place and maturing nicely. “Summertime” is proof that she had truly become a superior interpreter of song- I’d say, on a par with Nancy Wilson. I think the best of her 90’s work will also stand as proof of this.

    • Paul says:

      Markus — this one had a big place in my childhood — I was 7 when the special aired, and I made my parents tape it for me — as I mentioned in an earlier comment, I still have the VHS tape! My mom also bough both the album AND the single “Dirty Looks” to use in her aerobics classes, so the song was always one of the more played ones in my house 🙂

      As you see in my review, I agree with you on “Tell Me Again” — I like the song, but the last note to me just misses the mark. I want more power from her — other songs on the album prove she was capable of it. It was, I guess, just a choice she made.

      • spookyelectric says:

        Interesting what you say Markus about ‘Summertime’ being the kind of material someone like Nancy Wilson might record. I never thought of it that way before but you’re totally right. It’s shame Diana didn’t get to record more ‘mature’ material like this from time to time. Obviously in the 70s there was the ‘Lady’ soundtrack and some of the ‘To The Baby’ material but ‘Summertime’ at this stage was quite an unusual choice.

        I always assumed it was an old Leonard Cohen song but recently looked it up and the only other person that recorded it I could see was Roberta Flack (a dreadful version to be honest) in the early 90s, so I reckon Cohen must have written it especially for Diana.

      • Paul says:

        I wonder if Cohen did write it for Diana — wow — I always figured it was an old song of his, too. If it’s a Diana original…even more reason it should be better-known today!

  7. Lawrence says:

    As we discussed before, I definitely agree that “It’s Hard for me to Say” is the one that got away – in terms of a hit single. It still sounds so beautiful and fresh today (and she was great when she performed it in concert a couple of years ago). This might have been a difficult CD to market to pop radio. Still, I believe “It’s Hard for me to Say”, “Selfish One”, and “Summertime” might have done well with the right promotion.

    Perhaps this album alienated many people simply with the title? If this album had been named after one of the tracks (such as “Dirty Looks” or “Stranger in Paradise”) it might have been accepted as a work of pop. I seem to remember many reviews felt that it wasn’t quite the R&B collection as advertised.

    On a separate note, Paul why don’t you create a Fan Page for your blog on Facebook? It’s free and would be a great place to collect all the blogs and your fans. If you need any help with it, let me know. Best, Lawrence

  8. chris meklis says:

    The all but forgotten album of the RCA period- much like Last Time I Saw Him album became lost in the 70’s, so to has this consistent and satisfying album become one of those lost/ forgotten pieces of the Diana Ross discography.

    I enjoy this album immensely for the sheer joy that seems to resonate in all of the vocal performances.
    She did seem fresh and renewed- I am sure her recent marriage and subsequent pregnancies played a vital role in this renewed happiness.

    The big problem in my opinion is the title- why name it this? Obviously done to coincide with the special on TV which DID delve into the Rhythm and Blues genre, the title did not match the album really, and perhaps this factored in as a problem where people were expecting more grassroots R & B. Who knows?
    What I do know is this album is the most complete sounding in the RCA catalogue (well the European release anyway).

    I still come back to this album often and enjoy each song….I have a soft spot for her low register and sultry vocals on Shine- one of my best surprises on the album.

    • Paul says:

      Chris — I imagine you’re right in that her personal happiness is what really adds a layer of joy to so many of the vocal performances here. You can “hear” the smile on her face on songs like “Selfish One” and “Shockwaves” — and there’s a pure, rich emotion that echoes on “Summertime” and “It’s Hard For Me To Say.” Though her RCA albums had certainly been uneven on many occasions, this was a solid way to end her time there and an album that still sounds really good today.

      • I wish I could totally agree with you Paul but unfortunately I think the album suffers from that compromise made from the start. It ends up as quite a frustrating listen. If they had gone totally down the R&B homage route as originally conceived it may have been brilliant. Or if they’d developed the ‘big name contemporary songwriters contributing songs written exclusively for Diana’ and added to the Hucknall and the fantastic Cohen and Vandross tunes they may have been onto something too.

        As it is, it can’t help feeling like a miss opportunity. The additional tracks on the record are a bit of a waste of time I think. Yes ‘Cross My Heart’ is lovely and Diana sounds very comfortable on it, but it’s certainly not in the league of the Vandross or Cohen tunes. ‘Shockwaves’ always felt like a very poor cousin to ‘Chain Reaction’ to me, and an obvious attempt to repeat its mega success. ‘Stranger In Paradise’ is one of the weakest songs she recorded during the RCA era in my opinion – and it was written by John Capek who co-wrote one of favourites ‘Pieces Of Ice’ – and makes me think Tom Dowd may have been a great choice of producer on the vintage covers but is really unsuited for the more contemporary tunes (‘Shine’ suffers from bad production too I think). And as discussed several times in the comments above, ‘Tell Me Again’ really shouldn’t have got through quality control in the way it appears here.

        Great Herb Ritts photo session though!

      • Paul says:

        I’d never thought of “Shockwaves” as an attempt to capitialize off “Chain Reaction” before — but you’re probably right. It was released as a single in the UK, wasn’t it?

    • Antje says:

      As she said: “If you want to know what is going on in my life, just listen to my music.” So we may speculate about the previous RCA years.

      • spookyelectric says:

        That’s right – it gets confusing around this time when different singles and even videos were released in different territories. But yes ‘Shockwaves’ was the second single in UK and Europe and Australia as well – no video though, and no chart success. Then ‘Mr Lee’ was third and final single in UK only and with a video too! (Wonder what the thinking was there? I wouldn’t be surprised if Diana funded it herself).

      • Paul says:

        Soooooooooo confusing!!!

  9. Billy says:

    “Red Hot R&B” may be my favorite RCA album by Diana Ross. I think it combines beautiflly all the different styles Diana had done up that point, yet it sounds very cohesive. I’m really surprised that so many people like “Cross My Heart” so much. This is actually my least favorite song on the album!

    Although I’m still missing “Silk Electric,” “Red Hot R&B” was the cd that was the hardest to find, especially in a good condition and in a reasonable price. I was lucky enough to purchase a used copy that was basically brand new after all! I really wanted to get this album. I think it’s a very strong statement by Diana, especially combined with the tv special, as she was clearly a veteran by that point and knew what she was doing very well!

    I also dearly love “There Goes My Baby.” So delicate and tender.

    • Paul says:

      Billy — I’ve managed to get a few copies on CD in recent years at some used CD stores — but it isn’t easy to find anymore, sadly. If this one were still in print, it seems like it could sell — especially given the trend these days toward artists recording albums of soul standards (like Seal and Michael McDonald have done).

  10. Vicky says:

    It was a great album and the tv special was awesome!!!This is when here in America that Ross was being blacklisted on America radio- none of her work was played and dirty Looks was doing quite well when it was taken off the radio. I was told to stop calling to request the record becasue they weren’t going to play her music . This started to sour Diana on the American recording industry and I can’t say that I blame her.

  11. Luke says:

    Not my favourite album, it sounds so dated today.. The exception is indeed “Summertime” which is with no doubt her finest song around those years. The rest of the album, -“Dirty looks” included, is boring and compared to the contemporary Janet’s and Whitney’s huge and hot albums, it’s easy to understand why it flopped. The other Diana’s obsession that I cannot understand is the covers. Why so many covers during the 70s and 80s? Was it so difficult for a major star like Diana Ross to find new matterial for her albums and not fill the gaps with dated and forgotten songs from the 50s and 60s? I was 6 when this album came out, but I don’t think I would easily pay 20$ to buy an album like this, if I were old enough to buy music back then. In addition to the matterial and production problems, the bad publicity put an end to her domestic success. Not a wise choice to end a 7 year contract this album…

    • Paul says:

      Honestly, I think Diana’s big success with “Why Do Fools…” is the reason she kept hammering away at covers during the 1980s. That song remains probably her biggest self-produced hit single, and I think she tried to repeat that success as her sales slipped during the remained of the decade. Artistically, I think these covers succeeded sometimes, and didn’t succeed at others. “Selfish One” is a great choice for Diana; she sounds energetic and fantastic. “Rescue Me” on Swept Away doesn’t quite work as well, due to an obvious lack of energy.

      • spookyelectric says:

        That’s interesting thought – I guess it’s obvious really but I never made that connection between the huge success of ‘Fools’ and her repeated choices of covers through the 80s. (Though I guess you could argue she recorded more than her fair share of covers in the 70s too). I guess those covers in the RCA did more often than not focus on a certain period 50s/60s as exemplified by the ‘Red Hot’ album. Personally I like this album a lot. I don’t think its lack of commercial success was specifically down to the covers therein though, but other factors not least the the choice of singles pulled from it. Certainly competing with younger artists by adopting their sound was never the answer to her decline in commercial success during this period (as her follow-up ‘Workin’ Overtime’ resolutely proved).

  12. Luke says:

    Music industry changed dramatically between the early 80s and late 80s. Legendary pop singers of the 60s and 70s were still popular in the dawn of the 80s, but 8-10 years later newcomers such as Janet, Whitney and Madonna had already replaced them with their new, modern, pop sound. Diana Ross unfortunatelly didn’t survive in the charts in her homeland despite some good efforts during her RCA tenure. “Red Hot Rythm ‘n Blues” is not one of them, because it sounded too dated even in 1987. Covers of so old tracks were not the best choice to attract the young audience, though the were (and still are) loved by her die-hard fan base. In addition, the best way to sell music is a good music video, something which was never Diana’s strong card I think.

    Paul, allow me to say that I really enjoy reading this excellent work you’ve done here. I’m a Diana Ross fan since my early teen years, I like mostly her solo career and this blog is really the finest and most completed review of Diana Ross as a solo artist.

    • Paul says:

      Thanks for the kind words! It’s been a pleasure delving deeply into Diana’s discography. I’ve been a die-hard fan my entire life (my mother bought “Why Do Fools…” when it first was released, and as a 1-year-old I fell head over heels!) — but listening objectively as possible to her work has made me appreciate her artistry even more than before.

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  14. davidh says:

    wow,great review. I think this album and EATIN ALIVE r the two most consistent RCA albums Diana did. Swept Away was close as well. love most of the songs but TEL ME AGAIN it too syrupy for me although Dianas does a really good vocal on it and seems to make a bad song better,imo. sorry I just cant like the song yet but I will have another listen but I don’t think it should have been a single. I would have released IT HARD FOR ME TO SAY as the second single.

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  16. spookyelectric says:

    Just seen Diana’s RCA years are finally getting a full and overdue expanded CD reissue… ‘Red Hot R&B’ even contains one never-released track ‘Sweet Soul Music’… here they are in full…

    http://theseconddisc.com/2014/07/23/we-want-muscles-and-other-diana-ross-albums-for-rca-expanded-by-funkytown-grooves/

  17. spookyelectric says:

    Hi Paul – hope you’re good. Been a long time since your last post. Come back we miss you!
    Thought it’s work mentioning there’s an interesting snippet of rare Ross news from one the new RCA reissues. On the “Red Hot..” deluxe edition there’s talk in the booklet of an unreleased project from 1986 – a Harold Arlen tribute album. Apparently Diana recorded a full orchestra album with Paul Riser doing the charts – and included ‘Over The Rainbow’, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’, ‘I’ve Got The World On A String’ and ‘Out of This World’…
    Who knew?

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  22. pnyc1969 says:

    Hi, Paul–Well, Shine certainly is not my favorite Diana song, but it’s my favorite on this album. I like it even more than Summertime, which always seems a bit overrated by fans to me. I like it a lot but to me it’s no masterwork. It is definitely significant that she was the first to record a song by a songwriter the caliber of Leonard Cohen. Unfocused is the word for this album. What’s the connection between 80s-sounding songs like Dirty Looks, Shine, It’s Hard for Me to Say and all of those nostalgia numbers? It also seems contrived for Diana to push these old songs on listeners when she has a huge catalog of her own hits from the same time period. It was much more natural when she tackled classic Broadway and jazz standards since that was music from before her time that expanded her repertoire. All of these songs just sound gimmicky to me. Back to focus, both Eaten Alive and Workin’ Overtime were more pulled together than this odd collection. But the 80s was an experimental decade for Diana. Thanks for your fine thoughts, Paul. Best from Peter

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