“One idea can last forever…”
When Diana Ross left Motown Records in 1981 for a new, multi-million dollar contract with RCA, the music industry was stunned; Ross was the undisputed Queen of Motown, and it seemed inconceivable that she could exist without the guidance of Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. But the singer’s thirst for independence and creative freedom led her to a new era in her solo career, one which brought some major ups and downs in terms of both commercial and artistic success. After scoring eight Top 40 pop singles and nine Top 20 R&B hits with RCA Records between 1981 and 1987, Miss Ross began to feel it was time to move on again, especially after the commercial failure and lack of promotion of her final album for the label, Red Hot Rhythm & Blues. As she told Billboard in 1993, “My contract was up, but they had changed manpower there. [Former RCA President] Bob Summer was no longer there, new people had come in, and the truth is, they didn’t value me. It really felt like they were into this new, young crop, whoever was coming up at the time. I remember thinking I need to be somewhere where people would be happy to have me.”
And so, Miss Ross ended her relationship with RCA, and next made a move that she likely never could have predicted at the beginning of the decade: “MCA was interested in me, and I never thought I was going to go back to Motown,” she told Billboard. “Somewhere, in the meantime, Berry [Gordy, Jr.] sold the company to MCA, and they were buying it with the thought that some of the artists on MCA would move to Motown. I’d already made the deal when they approached me.” And so Diana Ross ended the 1980s exactly as she had begun them, as an artist on Motown Records; her only proper MCA release was the 1988 theme some to animated film The Land Before Time, a lovely ballad called “If We Hold On Together,” which hit #23 on the Adult Contemporary chart in the United States and was a massive #1 hit in Japan. The rest of that year, however, was a quiet one musically for Miss Ross, who took a hiatus to give birth to her two sons. During this break, Diana says she began watching more and more videos on the BET (Black Entertainment Television) Network, which would strongly influence her next project.
For her first new Motown album, Diana Ross turned to one of the men who’d produced her last major studio album for the label, musician Nile Rodgers. Along with his Chic partner Bernard Edwards, Rodgers had written and produced 1980’s diana, which remains the singer’s most successful studio album and gave her a pair of iconic Top 5 hits in “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out.” Since then, Rodgers had established himself as a major producer on his own, turning in hit albums for David Bowie (1983’s Let’s Dance) and Madonna (1984’s Like A Virgin), along with composing the music for the hit 1988 film Coming To America. Together, Ross and Rodgers aimed to make a solidly contemporary album, working up a batch of songs in the “new jack swing” style then-popularized by artists including Bobby Brown, Jacket Jackson, and R&B group Guy. According to writer J. Randy Taraborrelli, Motown pushed for a song called “Bottom Line” to be released as the album’s first single, but Diana wanted the album’s beat-heavy title track released instead. Miss Ross got her way, and “Workin’ Overtime” hit the airwaves in April of 1989.
As much as Ross and Rodgers might have hoped, and as hard as they might have worked, lightning did not strike twice. Workin’ Overtime was not a commercial nor much of a critical success, with most people focused on the fact that the music (and her image on the album cover) did not fit Diana Ross at all. The biggest issue with the album is that it’s so narrow in focus; there’s almost no variety here, which means if a listener isn’t a fan of one song, they probably won’t be a fan of any of them. As UK music magazine Blues & Soul wrote at the time of the album’s release, “She’s taken a giant determined step to shrug off her ‘comfortable’ music that we’ve come to love so much. That’s a shame; she could have combined the ‘new’ and ‘old’ to cater for everyone.” And it doesn’t help that the material doesn’t generally fit Diana’s vocal style well; although she does have some powerful moments here, the limited melodies make poor use of her singular voice. Ross certainly gets credit for throwing herself into each song with gusto, and bringing undeniable energy to each track; it’s just too bad it wasn’t on a better collection of songs.
1. Workin’ Overtime: Speaking to interviewer Barbara Walters in 1989, Diana Ross spoke of her connection to the message of her new album’s title track: “This is really about me and the people that I sing for, it’s dedicated to you, I hope you don’t disapprove, but I’m working overtime for you, I have something I wanna say to you,” she said, echoing the song’s lyrics. This explains, then, why Miss Ross reportedly stood her ground to have the song released as the album’s first single, rather than Motown’s choice (“Bottom Line”); when Ross got her way, “Workin’ Overtime” became the singer’s first new Motown single since “Endless Love” back in 1981. In terms of the production, this may be the “hardest” song on the album; it’s an angular, tough piece of work that’s light on melody and heavy on beat. That poses an immediate problem, as Miss Ross is a great melody singer; she’s a vocalist that generally sticks close to the notes as written, letting her voice glide along as the songwriter intended, interpreting the lyrics with subtlety and intelligence. In the case of a song like “Workin’ Overtime,” there’s not much “gliding” to be done; she’s required to really punch through the noisy and dense instrumental, which is made up of loud, electronic percussion and keyboards. This “punching” results in her voice sounding fairly raw and worn; those who prefer the velvety vocals of a song like “Touch Me In The Morning” probably won’t find much to like about the performance here. Despite not sounding particularly pretty on the song, there is an energy and determination in Diana’s performance that’s compelling; she’s certainly not coasting here, and she hits every single note she reaches for. Considering the song’s reputation today, it’s important to remember that it became one of her biggest hits on the R&B charts ever; peaking at #3 in July of 1989, it actually outperformed Ross classics including “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and “The Boss.” The song also did well in dance clubs at the time, reaching #11 on the Hot Dance Club Play chart in late June (just a few months after the singer had reached #3 on the same chart with “Love Hangover ’89,” a newly remixed version of her #1 hit from 1976). The problem, of course, is that pop radio completely ignored the song, and it joined previous R&B hits “Dirty Looks” and “Telephone” in missing the Billboard Hot 100 completely. This wasn’t terribly unusual at the time, but considering Diana Ross had then scored more pop #1 hits than any other female (18 total, counting her work with The Supremes), she was being judged against her own impossibly high standards of success; thus, “Workin’ Overtime” is largely considered a failure, despite the fact that it was a hit with some audiences. In the end, Motown was probably right in wanting the more melodic and subtle “Bottom Line” released first, but there’s a grit to Diana’s work on this song that remains admirable nearly thirty years later.
2. Say We Can: This is one of the tracks from Workin’ Overtime which Diana performed while promoting the album on tour; it was included on her September 1989 HBO special World Tour ’89: Workin’ Overtime, although it ended up being left off the accompanying Greatest Hits Live disc, released internationally. Written by Nile Rodgers with music educator Cathy Block, this is another hard-edged house number, opening with Diana ordering, “Hey now, put up the horns!” followed by the blaring replication of brass performed on a synthesizer. As with the album’s title track, this is a song that emphasizes beat over melody; this means Miss Ross is forced to nearly shout at times in order to break through the clutter of the production. She does this very well on the refrain, which requires her to belt toward the top of her range; she also holds some sustained notes, which reveal a significant power in her voice. The singer delivers the verses, however, with a breathy vocal that’s easily lost in the industrial noises banging around her (even when her voice is doubled), something that never would have happened to Janet Jackson in her Jimmy Jam-Terry Lewis productions of the same era. To be fair, this kind of house music is first and foremost intended to make people dance, therefore the beat has to be the most important element in the production; but the best of these kinds of recordings never sacrifice a great vocal for a great beat. Think back to 1980’s “I’m Coming Out,” also co-written and produced by Mr. Rodgers; although the intent of the song is to get people moving, Diana’s performance is front and center and kept so crystal-clear in the mix that her message is impossible to miss. In the end, while “Say We Can” does an admirable job replicating other popular recordings of the time and also coaxing some real energy and power out of Diana Ross, it doesn’t make the best use of her talent.
3. Take The Bitter With The Sweet: At the same time that “Workin’ Overtime” was climbing the R&B charts, so was “Miss You Like Crazy,” a powerful ballad sung by Natalie Cole which would eventually hit #1 (and go Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100). Coincidentally, Cole’s ballad was written by the trio of Michael Masser, Gerry Goffin, and Preston Glass, all of whom had also worked with Diana Ross. Glass is a credited co-writer here on “Take The Bitter With The Sweet,” along with Steven Ray and Steve Birch; although Nile Rodgers didn’t write the tune, he produces it with the same house beat and industrial edge as the previous two tracks, forming a kind of trilogy that opens the album. In a strange way, the three songs also follow the arc of a live performance; Diana sounds better and more “warmed up” as they progress, and “Take The Bitter With The Sweet” finds her in the groove and in full voice. Although the melody again comes second to the beat, Ross confidently goes for the notes here, and she manages to cut through the clanging instrumental track more easily than she had on “Say We Can.” That melody takes Ross to the highest end of her range, forcing her to belt notes she hadn’t hit on record for quite some time; she’s certainly straining, but she gives an impressive and energetic performance nonetheless. Ross is joined by a thick wall of background vocals on the refrain; among those credited on the album is singer Fonzi Thornton, who’d sung on Chic albums Risqué and Real People, and whether or not he’s singing on this particular tune, the backgrounds do seem to be a modern take on the classic Chic sound. Although fans at the time (and still today) no doubt wished Diana was singing “Miss You Like Crazy” instead of this song, it’s certainly one of the better tracks on the album; true, while Natalie Cole was digging into the kind of sophisticated soul ballad that Ross had practically invented, Diana was trying to fit her smooth sound into an angular jungle gym of sounds, but at least in this case she sounds good doing it. Does the song date particularly well? No. But it does offer a gutsy vocal take and a strong melody than much of the surrounding material.
4. Bottom Line: “The album has a few bright spots, including one that shines very bright indeed: ‘Bottom Line,’ a stylish, melodic pop song that deserves to be the album’s next single, following the funky but generic title track,” wrote Paul D. Grein in his review of the album in the Los Angeles Times, keying in on what is clearly the album’s best inclusion. Preston Glass, aforementioned co-writer of Natalie Cole’s “Miss You Like Crazy” and Aretha Franklin’s 1985 hit “Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” is the sole credited writer on this track, which finally breaks the album’s pattern of songs informed by the beat and is instead built upon the foundation of a solid melody. Although Nile Rodgers again produces the track with layers upon layers of staccato sounds and a hard-edged beat, it can’t drown out the well-constructed melody line, and this finally gives Diana Ross a chance to display what she does best. The most immediately noticeable change on “Bottom Line” is that Miss Ross is allowed to sing in a lower key; not only does this relieve her from straining to hit high notes, it also reveals a mature, sexy tone which has been missing thus far from the album. Listen at about 1:15 in, as the singer’s voices settles deeper to deliver the lyrics, “No imitations, give me the real thing/Sugar-coated promises are not enough for me” — her velvety voice sounds worlds away from some of the raw, thin moments heard in the previous trio of tracks. Producer Rodgers makes terrific use of the background vocals here, which act as a cushion between Ross and the instrumental track; Diana glides along on top of the backgrounds, which round out the edges a bit and give the song just enough softness that it would have appealed to both young listeners and longtime fans of the singer. But perhaps most important to the success of “Bottom Line” as a recording is the fact that there’s some depth here; while everything that comes before it seems fairly calculated to appeal to young record buyers, there’s some subtlety and maturity here, which make it a far better fit for Diana Ross. Executives at Motown apparently knew this, and wanted this song to be released as the album’s first single; instead, it was given a remix and released third, at which point record buyers and radio had completely given up on Workin’ Overtime; the song didn’t even make the R&B chart, let along the Billboard Hot 100. Talk about a major missed opportunity; had the song been released first, it almost certainly would have picked up strong R&B airplay, and probably stood a better chance at getting some pop recognition than the album’s title track ever did. As it stands, “Bottom Line” is the standout of the album, and proves that Ross could successfully tackle contemporary, new jack swing-style music in the right situation.
5. This House: Nile Rodgers both wrote and produced this track, the album’s first ballad and the first song that seems completely geared toward Diana’s artistic sensibilities. The main lyrical theme of the song, “This house is built/On a foundation of love,” is quintessential Diana Ross, and the singer expectedly delivers, her voice full of feeling and dreamy in a way that harkens back to her work on 1987’s superb “Summertime” (from Red Hot Rhythm & Blues). That said, if “This House” really echoes any song in the Diana Ross canon, it’s actually 1984’s “Telephone,” produced by Bernard Edwards, former musical partner of Nile Rodgers; both are true “slow jams,” setting Diana’s high soprano against sharp beats and synthesizers. To be honest, “Telephone” worked better; on that earlier recording, Diana’s stylized performance, striking in its clarity and pitch, sliced through the instrumental track like a hot knife, while her incredibly breathy performance here is hampered by the busy surroundings, so synth-heavy that they sound like something off of 1985’s Eaten Alive. Had Rogers scaled back the track even further, muting it to perhaps just strings and guitar, it would have enhanced the vocal and the overall production, rather than distracting from its central voice at times. The proof of this is in Diana’s live performance of the song while promoting Workin’ Overtime on Terry Wogan’s chat show in the UK; with her strong, full vocals front and center and a much quieter instrumental backing, the song really comes alive in a new way (skip the singer’s performance on international disc Greatest Hits Live, however, which is quite wobbly). Diana Ross clearly loved the song, telling the crowd at Wembley Arena while taping her World Tour ’89: Workin’ Overtime special, “This song has a lot of feeling, a lot of meaning for me,” and Motown ended up releasing it as the album’s second single as a double a-side with “Paradise.” That song was promoted in the dance market, while “This House” was pushed R&B; it ended up charting at just #64 on the R&B Singles listing.
6. Paradise: Released as the album’s second single (as a double a-side with “This House”), “Paradise” equaled the dance success of “Workin’ Overtime,” peaking at #11 on the Dance Club Play chart in September of 1989, although it did remain on that chart two weeks longer than the first single. But make no mistake; whatever success “Paradise” found in the clubs was due solely to the thumping beat of its Shep Pettibone remix, because the song contains what is probably Diana’s weakest performance on the album. Written by Nile Rodgers and Greg Smith, the composition here consists of only a handful of notes, giving Miss Ross two musical motifs to sing over and over again. Not only are the music and lyrics repetitive, but Ross delivers them in a weak, breathy tone which robs her of any individuality or charm. Think back to the biggest and best dance hits of Diana’s career, songs like “The Boss,” “Upside Down,” and “Swept Away,” among others; those songs didn’t sacrifice melody or vocals for the beat, instead ingeniously allowing powerful rhythm sections to buoy the singer, infusing her performances with power and energy. Hearing Miss Ross really let loose on “The Boss” and “I’m Coming Out” is half the reason those songs are so much fun to dance to; there’s a joy within her that translates to the listener. Here, she might as well not be singing at all; she sounds totally uninspired, not that the weak melody line ever gives her much to work with. Still, one can never underestimate the power of a banging beat; watch Diana’s performance of “Paradise” on her HBO special World Tour ’89: Workin’ Overtime, recorded at Wembley Area, and you’ll see how enraptured the crowd becomes during the song (and perhaps Diana’s dynamic performances of the song overseas helped its performance there, as it ended up charting at #61 in the United Kingdom).
7. Keep On (Dancin’): There’s a subtle cleverness in following a heavy dance track with a song called “Keep On (Dancin’),” as though the song title is a direct order to listeners; indeed, Nile Rodgers and Greg Smith again craft a beat-heavy, repetitive song that seems designed for the sole purpose of becoming a hit for club-goers. This one’s a bit more challenging than “Paradise,” both in terms of musical structure and production; it certainly requires more range and power from Diana Ross. Once again, for whatever reason, Rodgers cuts the song in a very high key, forcing Diana to audibly work to hit the right notes; the good news is that she does hit them, and at times she really sounds powerful doing it. Listen to the bridge, beginning at 3:20, as Diana sings, “Sky above and earth below/You can’t hide, there’s no place you can go” — there’s a soulful brassiness to her voice that recalls her best work from the pervious decade. Still, at the end of the day, “Keep On (Dancin’)” just isn’t a particularly memorable song; it’s fairly typical of dance cuts from the era, but lacks the punch of the best club hits of 1989, songs like “Pump Up The Jam” by Technotronic and “Back To Life (However Do You Want Me)” by Soul II Soul. In his review of Workin’ Overtime for music magazine Spin, Frank Kogan gave the album a lackluster assessment, but did like this track, noting its “touchingly pseudo-intellectual lyrics.” But the lyrics aren’t enough to make this a standout track, nor is Diana’s full-bodied vocal performance.
8. What Can One Person Do: This is the third Nile Rodgers-Greg Smith composition in a row, and if “Keep On (Dancin’)” forced Diana to sing at the top of her range, this song takes her way past it, stretching her to a place where her voice almost sounds unrecognizable. Unlike the previous two tracks, this is a soulful mid-tempo number with inspirational lyrics; it’s no surprise that Diana Ross would want to record the song, considering lines like “The faithful can sometimes move mountains” sound like they come straight from one of the singer’s interviews. She liked it enough to perform it live while promoting the album; a version of the song appears on Greatest Hits Live, released later in 1989 internationally. It’s remarkable that she’s able to sing it live as well as she does on that recording; the song is cut so high that Ross strains through the entire thing, and the studio version here borders on painful. She’s not helped by the decidedly un-melodic melody, which trades in a real hook for a staccato, punchy refrain; in his album review for Spin, Frank Kogan described this and other songs as “rhythm hard and loose and pushed up front along with the hooks and melody. So where are the hooks and melodies — the things that make Paula Abdul and Karyn White so mildly likable?” Diana Ross is one of the best melody singers in music history; her ability to infuse a lyric with emotional honesty while never resorting to unnecessary vocal gymnastics or oversinging is what made her such a unique pop presence in the first place. So pairing her with a song that forces her to wail in such an unflattering way, even if it does feature some uplifting lyrics, feels like a waste.
9. Goin’ Through The Motions: Workin’ Overtime‘s penultimate track was penned by the trio of writers behind the earlier “Take The Bitter With The Sweet” — Preston Glass, Steve Birch, and Steven Ray. Because that song and “Bottom Line, ” written by Mr. Glass, are two of the standout tracks on the album, it’s a relief to see their names appear again in the credits, and although “Goin’ Through The Motions” isn’t nearly as strong as either of those two recordings, it does at least offer some variety here and give Diana a break from screaming at the top of her lungs. The instrumental track here is far more understated than on most of the album’s inclusions, built on a low-key groove that’s not quite so cluttered; this already gives Miss Ross a vocal advantage, as she’s not forced to work so hard to stand out. Her work on the verses is especially strong, as she rests comfortably within her range and sounds relaxed and confident; although the refrain pushes her higher, she’s joined by smooth background vocals which helps cover any strain. “Goin’ Through The Motions” doesn’t have a strong hook, however, which hurts; at the end of the day, it’s one of the least-memorable songs on the album, although it’s a higher-quality recording than most.
10. We Stand Together: The album comes to a close with an uplifting ballad written by Nile Rodgers and Greg Smith, who seemingly channel Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson in giving Diana Ross a lyrics that bears more than a passing resemblance to her 1979 recording “All For One” from The Boss. As with the earlier “This House,” this song immediately sounds like it was written specifically for Diana Ross, possibly with her input; this is the artist, after all, who fought for “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” to be released as her first solo single, and who eventually turned it into an anthem of world peace. Unfortunately, “We Stand Together” is no “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” and it’s not another “All For One,” either; it’s actually a frustrating way to end the album, in that it seems to encompass every one of the project’s faults. First off is a song that, to be fair, just isn’t terrible memorable; again, the same kind of thing had been done many times before, and infinitely better. It also features an extremely inconsistent vocal from its singer; she’s dreamy and effortless on the verses, but she progresses to a ghastly bridge during which she pushes so hard and high on the words “called love” and “called trust” that it’s just plain painful to hear. Frankly, this is about as bad as she’d ever sounded on record, and it’s hard to believe it’s the same singer who’d crooned out one of the best soul ballad performances of the decade just a few years earlier, on 1984’s “Missing You.” Anyone worried about the quality of the singer’s voice would need only to listen to the previous year’s “If We Hold On Together” to know that she still possessed a tone as pure and unique as any in popular music; this song demonstrates what can happen when an artist tries way too hard to move in a different musical directions, rather than allowing it to happen organically.
Released in May of 1989, Workin’ Overtime peaked at a dismal #116 in July, and spent a startlingly short six weeks on the chart; it did, however, climb to #34 on the R&B Albums chart, thanks to the R&B success of the first single. Assessing the album’s release, Diana Ross told Billboard in 1993, “It did not do that well and probably could have done well if it had been promoted better. Even with Motown’s name, it was still like a brand new company, a baby company, and a lot of things had to be worked out. Some business things seemed to interfere with marketing and promotion and getting the material out there and distributing it.” There’s certainly some validity to her point; ads for the album and its singles are conspicuously missing from several notable publications of the day, magazines that typically promoted the singer’s new releases. Still, the issue of quality cannot be denied; as hard as Diana Ross and Nile Rodgers tried to generate excitement with this new, youthful sound, the result is one of the least-exciting releases of the singer’s career, and none of the tracks hold up today as vital or important Ross recordings.
But even if the album had been genuinely exciting, there was another factor working against Ross at the time, one summed up by UK music magazine Blues & Soul in its 1989 review of Workin’ Overtime: “If this album doesn’t sell, it doesn’t mean the music isn’t what the public en masse wants, it means the public don’t want a forty-five year old Diana singing it!” The fact is, the marketplace was then-filled with exciting up-and-coming R&B stars, and they simply squeezed Diana out. As Paul D. Grein wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The problem with her new album…is that she seems to be trying too hard to sound contemporary and relevant, to beat Janet Jackson and Jody Watley at their own game.” Perhaps the most important result of Workin’ Overtime is that its lack of success pushed Diana back to basics with her next few albums. Rather than take such drastic risks, her Motown albums of the following decade would remain closer to the tried-and-true Diana Ross formula of songs with strong melodies on which her voice could really shine. Considering her next two studio albums for Motown, 1991’s The Force Behind The Power and 1995’s Take Me Higher, really do feature some of the singer’s finest vocal work ever, perhaps the experimentation of Workin’ Overtime deserves at least a little appreciation.
Final Analysis: 2/5 (Diana’s “Works'” Too Hard)
Paul’s Picks: “Bottom Line,” “Workin’ Overtime,” “Take The Bitter With The Sweet”