Red Hot Rhythm & Blues (1987)

 “I wanna put my winter life away, Summertime I need a sunny day…”

This would be the 6th and final studio album by Diana Ross while signed to RCA records; the relatively short tenure began with 1981’s Why Do Fools Fall In Love and, for the most part, continued successfully through the decade.  Three of the six albums went gold (or better), and Miss Ross scored six top 20 pop hits and nine top 20 R&B singles (including this album’s “Dirty Looks”).  Certainly this is not a bad showing for seven years of recordings; most artists would love to have that kind of track record.  The problem for Diana Ross is that her work was (and still is) being judged against her ridiculously successful Motown years (1961-1981), during which time she hit #1 on the pop charts a whopping 18 times.  Had Miss Ross’s RCA output ended with a smash success, perhaps they would be better looked upon today.  Unfortunately, her final two albums for the label were her worst two showings chart-wise, which cast a shadow over just about the entire decade.

Red Hot Rhythm & Blues teamed Diana with legendary producer (and engineer) Tom Dowd, who’d worked for years at Atlantic Records, recording with artists like Rod Stewart, Chicago, the Eagles, and Aretha Franklin.  The songs the two chose for inclusion are an interesting mix of classic R&B, contemporary pop, and new soul, led by the first single “Dirty Looks,” which was an R&B hit.  That it didn’t find any success on the pop charts is somewhat surprising, given that Miss Ross promoted the single and album with a television special that featured the song’s video.  The one-hour program was an exciting and touching tribute to soul music, featuring Diana playing both herself and an elderly singer having flashbacks on her career.  Guest stars included Billy Dee Williams (the pair sang a duet, “You’ve Got What It Takes”), Etta James (singing “At Last”), and Bernadette Peters playing a singer re-recording pop versions of R&B songs (and, by the way, Diana turns in a thrilling rendition of the gospel song “99 And A Half” that abolsutely must be heard!).

Though this album was the lowest charting of her RCA years, it features some of the best performances of her years there.  Diana’s vocals 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 that she is on “Selfish One” and “Cross My Heart.”  It’s not her most consistent album in terms of styles or song quality — there are a few tracks here that don’t really seem to fit in very well — but her voice does sound consistently good, in terms of both performance and production.  Whereas Miss Ross’s voice was often 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 proving that more than 25 years into her recording career, Diana Ross was still taking chances and pushing herself.

***

1.  Dirty Looks:  The All Music Guide review of Red Hot Rhythm & Blues refers to this song as “another of Ross’ patented cute, quasi-sophisticated numbers,” a strange thing to say, considering it doesn’t really sound like any singles she’d released before.  This is a sexy, adult soul number, a far better first single than “Eaten Alive” had been from her previous album, for the simple reasons that Diana sounds really good and the song is much more focused.  It was a top 20 R&B hit but failed to chart pop-wise; though it should have been more successful across the board, the song really is an R&B tune and is probably a little too adult in tone to have crossed over to the pop charts, which in 1987 were dominated by songs like Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and Madonna’s “Who’s That Girl.”  Miss Ross offers up a sizzling performance here, her breathy vocals never once coming across as weak (as they often did on Eaten Alive) — she gets to turn in some nice spoken moments (“I love it when you look at me like that, boy….dirty”) and also displays some range, matching the powerful choir of background vocals when reaching for higher notes, especially on the bridge, when she sings (solo) “You know how it makes me feel inside…” at around 2:50.  The instrumental track is a nice, sparse one, dominated by a powerful bass and percussion line and well-placed, shimmering synthesizer chords.  As mentioned before, the background vocals are perfection — the chorus of soulful voices behind Miss Ross sound far more appropriate than the majority of the Bee Gee backgrounds on Eaten Alive.  The bottom line with “Dirty Looks” is that it really is a perfect fit for Miss Ross; in 1987 she was 43 years old, and the song allows her to remain confident, sexy, and classy without ever sounding like she’s trying to be younger.  Though it’s not one of her better-remembered singles, “Dirty Looks” still sounds good today and is one of her stronger releases from the 1980s.

2.  Stranger In Paradise:  An interesting, atmospheric pop tune that’s not necessarily the strongest work here, but does feature Diana in fine voice.  The song sounds a bit dated today, with an keyboard-and-percussion vibe not unlike some of the songs on Swept Away and Eaten Alive.  The difference here is that Miss Ross isn’t drowned out by the production as she occasionally had been on those albums; her breathy, cooing vocal continues the mature, sexy feel of “Dirty Looks,” and the chorus here allows her to stretch a little.  Her growl as she sings “I’m a stranger…” at three minutes in, meanwhile, is a nice reminder of how deep Miss Ross can dig when she wants to.  Again, this isn’t one of the album’s standouts, but it’s not a bad inclusion.

3.  Summertime:  Diana Ross’s performance on the Leonard Cohen-penned “Summertime” is one of her best ballad performances ever; it comes close to “Missing You” as her greatest vocal of the RCA years and is really one of the most beautiful, haunting songs she’d ever release.  The orchestration on this track is breathtakingly beautiful; the strings seem to ebb-and-flow behind her like ocean waves, matching the lyric, 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 easily as the string and wind instruments accompanying her.  This is a song with a challenging melody; like 1977’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 any other female singer doing a better job with the piece; she truly paints a vivid, detailed picture with her performance, and it more than stands the test of time, sounding just as affecting 25 years later.  I wish “Summertime” had been released as a single; I don’t think it ever could have stood a chance at being a hit, as it’s way too adult and somber for radio, but perhaps had it been part of her singles discography it would be a song more people referred to and remembered today.  This is truly a song that people unaware of Miss Ross’s vocal abilities should hear.

4.  Shine:  In what seems at first a strange twist, Diana Ross takes on Simply Red with “Shine,” which the British group recorded and released on the album Men And Women (which also came out in 1987).  The song was written by Mike Hucknall, lead singer of Simply Red, and certainly has the feel of his other work — he was by all accounts influenced by soul music and, coincidentally, wrote a few songs 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 perhaps not as strange an inclusion as it might seem initially.  The song itself is an upbeat pop tune that does seem to have its roots in the Motown formula of driving instrumentals and catchy lyrics and melodies.  The production, however, is similar to that of “Strange In Paradise” — it sounds dated today, relying on the electric-feel that was so in-vogue in the 80s.  That dated production hurts the overall product a bit, especially coming after the timeless “Summertime,” but Miss Ross does sound pretty good on it, although this isn’t the most challenging song on the LP for her.

5.  Tell Me Again:  This was second and final single pulled from Red Hot Rhythm & Blues, and it failed to chart at all — a sad end to her RCA career.  The song itself is a sweeping Diana Ross ballad reminiscent of her work with Michael Masser; she certainly knows how to sell this kind of song, and she sounds fine (although this is far from her most powerful ballad work).  It is, however, an odd choice for a single; there are much stronger songs on the album which probably would have sounded far better on radio and represented the album better, too (namely “It’s Hard For Me To Say,” which had the potential to be a huge R&B hit, especially thanks to its Luther Vandross connection).  This song was penned by Wintley Phipps, a pastor who actually sang at Miss Ross’s wedding (and, during a concert I attended in Florida during her I Love You tour, joined Miss Ross onstage for an impromptu rendition of “Amazing Grace” which was absolutely lovely).  Diana gives a delicate reading of the lyrics, and certainly sounds invested in them and committed until the very end.  I wish, however, that she’d injected just a little more power into her performance; this is the kind of ballad that builds and builds until an emotional climax, and it would have been nice to hear a little more of that rawness of which Diana was more than capable.  The last note, in particular, in which she reaches up an octave and holds it until the song’s fade, sounds a little weak compared to her gutsier work on songs like “Missing You” or those from The Wiz soundtrack.  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.

6.  Selfish One:  Because the album is called Red Hot Rhythm & Blues, and the television special was all about celebrating the history of R&B history, it does seem a little strange that thus far, most of the songs have been contemporary pop tunes.  That changes with this song, a remake of the 1964 Jackie Ross hit.  This is an absolutely perfect song for Miss Ross, and her version is every bit as strong as the original recording; it’s really one of the best songs on the album.  Mr. Dowd’s production here is extremely well-done; it sounds similar to the 1960s original while still managing to remain contemporary and not falling into the “campy remake” trap.  But it’s really Diana who shines here; she keeps her vocal simple and strong, and there’s a joy and confidence that rings through that makes this a really pleasurable listen.  I love her “Is it really you?” around 1:40, as she easily nails the high-note and proves again that she has a range many aren’t aware of.  Toward the end of the song, her ad-libs are soulful and spot-on as well.  Bottom line, this song is a real treat and a highlight of the LP; it’s another song that probably could’ve been lifted as a single, though I’m not quite sure what market it would have been aimed at — but it’s certainly adult R&B at its best.

7.  Cross My Heart:  Diana follows one great vocal performance with another, hitting a home run with this pop song (again, this isn’t exactly a “Red Hot R&B” number…but it’s still a good one!).  This is a nice, mid-tempo track that features a classic Miss Ross performance; her voice is smooth and sensual, and there’s a confidence and energy here again that makes it hard to resist.  If I’d been a label executive at RCA (oh, if only…), this would have been my choice for a single, as it’s a strong, adult pop song that would have sounded great on radio; had it been given a push, I think this could have charted and probably could have been a big overseas hit, too.  Miss Ross really sounds great after the bridge, starting around 3:20, when the key changes and her vocal soar higher; she’s still breathy, but her voice doesn’t sound weak, and it’s nice to hear her deviate from the melody line a little at 3:43 when she sings the “Cross My Heart” refrain.  This is another album standout, and an RCA recording that really stands the test of time.

8.  There Goes My Baby:  Miss Ross returns to the classic soul theme with her version of the popular Drifters song; on her TV special, Diana says this was the song she and the Supremes sang, pre-stardom, and won a talent contest in Canada with.  Therefore, it must have a very special meaning for her, and it’s not surprising that she chose it for this album.  Though the song is a good one and Diana sounds fine, it lacks some of the passion and energy you’d hope for; Miss Ross is very laid-back on her performance here, and thus it doesn’t quite stand-up next to the similar “Selfish One.”  On the special and on 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 US didn’t get to hear that recording.  Again, “There Goes My Baby” is a good inclusion, but she doesn’t push herself much on it, and thus it’s not quite as memorable as the songs that come directly before and after it.

9.  It’s Hard For Me To Say:  This is a sparkling highlight of not only the album, but Miss Ross’s career in general; the song was written and produced for her by Luther Vandross, who admittedly worshipped Diana and had always wanted to cut an entire album on her.  The results here are so satisfying that it’s too bad Vandross never got his wish; he’d created some strong works for Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick and probably could have worked up a stellar album for Diana.  This is a passionate, soulful 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 Vandross’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 truly sounds like she’s feeling the song and enjoying singing it.  The tune itself is a beautiful one with a nice, thoughtful lyric; Vandross later recorded it himself on his 1996 album Your Secret Love.  Miss Ross started performing this song again in concert years later, after Mr. Vandross passed away, and even performed it on her final appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”  It’s the kind of song that she sounds beautiful on live, and it’s a shame this was never released as a single.  Had it been, I believe it could have been a #1 R&B hit, and should have garnered her a Grammy nomination for Female R&B Vocal Performance.  This is a heartfelt, lovely song and a real treasure of her 80s output.

10.  Shockwaves:  It’s fitting that the final song on Diana Ross’s final RCA album is one that was co-written by her; the whole reason she left Motown Records for RCA early in the decade was for more creative control, allowing herself the opportunity to do thing like write her own music.  Her songwriting track record was admittedly spotty over the decade, ranging from silly songs like “Work That Body” and “We Are The Children Of The World” to stronger compositions like “So Close” and the b-side “Fight For It.”  “Shockwaves,” thankfully, falls on the better end of that spectrum; this is a fun, upbeat tribute to the Motown sound with a strong hint of the classic “Heat Wave” (by Martha & The Vandellas) here, which allows it to fit in nicely with songs like “Selfish One” and “There Goes My Baby.”  Diana offers up a fun, energetic performance here, drawing a little on the early “coo-ing” style of her Supremes recordings and adding in the surprising and humorous “brrrrrrrrrrr” sound toward the end.  Perhaps it’s also fitting that this “Motown-ish” song ends her RCA career given that her next move would be back to Motown; in that way, “Shockwaves” is a little prophetic.

***

As noted above, the idea of Red Hot Rhythm & Blues as a tribute to classic soul music really becomes lost due to the choice to include to many pop songs; the album probably should’ve just been called Dirty Looks or Shockwaves or something like that.  At any rate, it’s still a strong work from Miss Ross; she hasn’t sounded this consistently clear and strong since 1983’s Ross, and there are some cuts here that really do rank among her best work ever.  As much as I like “Dirty Looks,” it might not have been the best choice for a first single; I think “It’s Hard For Me To Say” could have made a bigger impact on R&B radio and “Cross My Heart” could have done better on the pop side.  Still, although this album made a middling impact on the music scene and on Diana’s career, it is an album for which she should be proud and on which she put forth some really strong efforts.

Final Analysis:  4/5 (Diana “Shines”)

Choice Cuts:  “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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48 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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