“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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Alive, Red 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”