“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”