“Can I fight the battle all by myself…can I make a miracle happen…”
The album Greatest Hits Live — Diana Ross’s first live album since An Evening With Diana Ross in 1977 — is an extremely interesting addition to her discography, mainly because for some, it’s not part of her discography at all. Greatest Hits Live was released in 1989 by the EMI label, which handled Diana Ross internationally; her record label at home, Motown, did not release the album, and thus it never hit stores (officially) in the United States. For fans in the US, 1989’s Workin’ Overtime was not followed up until 1991 with Diana’s next studio album, The Force Behind The Power. Internationally, fans got this release between them (and this duo-label deal is also the reason many of Miss Ross’s albums in the 90s and beyond would be released in different versions with alternate tracks in different countries).
This album was recorded at Wembley Arena in London on June 2, 3, and 4 in 1989, while Diana was on tour promoting Workin’ Overtime. Thus, while the eventual title implies that this is a “best-of” collection, it’s actually an interesting mix of her early Motown, RCA, and contemporary work. Because it contains Diana’s live renditions of songs like “What Can One Person Do,” “Dirty Looks,” and “Paradise” — songs that really weren’t big hits — it’s a rare opportunity to hear alternate versions of those songs, and to listen to how Miss Ross interpreted them in front of an audience. Even some of the bigger hits, like “Muscles” and “Endless Love,” are songs that she doesn’t frequently perform live anymore, and so it should be nice to have her live renditions preserved forever.
I say “should be” because…well…Greatest Hits Live is not a good record of Diana as a live performer. Unfortunately, June 2-4 at Wembley were shows during which Miss Ross was obviously struggling with her voice, and every weak moment is crystal-clear for fans to listen to. From the very beginning of the first song (“I’m Coming Out”) it’s obvious that Diana’s voice was strained and a bit hoarse; she tries like a trooper, but it never really improves much. It’s really a mystery as to why she allowed this album to be released at all; she is listed as Executive Producer. Perhaps the cost of recording the concerts was great enough that they just couldn’t afford not to release it. Whatever the case, Motown (which made its share of mistakes with Diana in the decade to come) was right not to put it on store shelves; it wouldn’t have done anything to add to Miss Ross’s reputation as a singer.
Diana Ross is undeniably a gifted live performer — one of the best ever, really — and she’s a superb vocalist capable of delivering stunning live vocals. She’d proven that on her earlier live albums, Live At Caesar’s Palace and especially An Evening With…, and would prove it again in a few years with Stolen Moments: The Lady Sings…Jazz And Blues. The concerts recorded here were clearly a case of Miss Ross’s voice being compromised from her busy touring schedule, and while the band sounds great and the audiences were eating it up, this is really a disappointment, and not always an easy listen for those who really appreciate Diana’s vocal abilities.
1. Intro — Dirty Diana: A quick intro inspired by Michael Jackon’s hit song from Bad; the crowd sounds amped up and ready for the show, and Diana’s background singers (Bobby Glenn, Rocq-e Harrell, and Peggy Taft) sound great.
2. I’m Coming Out: And here she is! Diana begins the show with her triumphant shouts of “I’m Coming Out!” as she had in concerts pretty much ever since the song became a hit in 1980. It has to be mentioned that the band sounds fantastic; throughout the entire album, the musicians are in fine form, and the sound quality where the music is concerned is really good. The audience noise is also kept to a minimum, present enough to remind listeners that this is a concert, but never distracting from the music. Of course, the superior sound quality isn’t such great news for Diana later in the album; here she sounds pretty good, although she endearingly messes up the words a little bit (jumping from “I think this time around…” to “Just understand!” — which comes a verse later). Her vocals do sound a little thin, and the lower notes are just slightly raspy, but Diana’s obviously feeding off the crowd here, and thus there’s at least some energy that makes this a better listen than some of what’s to come…
3. Upside Down: …like this song. The slight raspiness present on the previous song is on full display here as Diana mines her lower register for the song’s familiar lyrics; as she sings, “Upside Down, boy you turn me, inside out, and round and round..” she barely controls her voice enough to keep it on tune; it’s obvious that she’s having trouble hitting those lower notes, and it results in her sounding extremely weak. This is terribly unfortunate, since “Upside Down” is such a great Diana Ross song.
4. What Can One Person Do: This was one of Miss Ross’s “current” songs at the time; originating on Workin’ Overtime, it’s one of the better songs on that album, although the recorded version required Diana to sing in such a high key that she really sounded to be straining. She doesn’t sound bad on it here; since she’d been struggling with the lower notes on the previous songs, this one is a better fit in that she’s comfortably out of that compromised range. The song itself is actually a little more enjoyable in live form due to the presence of the band; the players here make it sound far funkier (and less harsh) than it did on the album, and the live instruments bring a life to the song that was missing before.
5. Missing You: This is, of course, one of Diana Ross’s masterpiece recordings, a #1 R&B hit for her back in 1985. Though she doesn’t totally match the warmth and power of her original recording, Diana sounds really good here; the slowness of song’s pace allows her to relax and bring more focus to her vocals, and she sounds far stronger here than she does on most of the tunes that surround it. Although she struggles a bit to reach the high notes on the song’s emotional bridge, she carries it off by just going for it and pushing through; a lot of artists would have modified the song’s melody to make it easier to sing, and it’s to Diana’s credit that even when her voice wasn’t at its strongest, she’s still giving her all.
6. Mirror Mirror: After a bit of a “rest” with the slow “Missing You,” the pace quickens again with her hit from 1981. This is another one of the better performances on this album; the song is well within her “comfort zone” when it comes to range, and so she’s able to easily keep up with the racing band behind her. She also really lets loose toward the end of the performance; listen to her growl the word “tell” at 2:30, an example of the kind of strength lacking on so much of this album. Her backing singers also get to really let loose during the quick “reprise” of the song, which is nice to hear.
7. Chain Reaction: This was Diana’s huge #1 hit in the UK back in 1986, so it was probably one of the most anticipated songs of this concert at Wembley. Unfortunately for the audience, Miss Ross isn’t at her best here; she begins well enough, but begins to sound more stressed vocally during the second verse and chorus. The breakdown starting at 2:30 is a nice theatrical addition, though, as the band stops cold and Diana and the background singers continue singing “We talk about love, love, love…” a few times to the obvious delight of the crowd.
8. Muscles: Here’s a case of the missing visual aspect of a performance really hurting the audio recording of it. Since the Michael Jackson-written/produced song became a big hit in 1982, Diana had used “Muscles” in her show as a chance to have men in the audience take off their shirts and flex their muscles. This is captured forever in her Central Park concerts, during which she brilliantly sang the song and used it to flirt with the massive crowd. Here, though it’s fun listening to her yell “Rip that shirt off!” and “More, more, more, more…,” it’s a bit laborious listening to it without actually seeing what’s going on. There was a similar case of this on Diana’s 1974 live album, Live At Caesar’s Palace, during which audience members sang along with her to “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” and not seeing the action really hindered the enjoyment of the recording. Aside from this, Diana really doesn’t do much singing; she sounds pretty good on the first verse (handling the lower notes much better than she had during “Upside Down”), but she quickly turns her attention to the audience interaction.
9. Dirty Looks: The band is popping on this song…really popping; the live instrumentation on this tune is so good that “Dirty Looks” sounds far more fiery and alive than it did on Red Hot Rhythm & Blues two years earlier. At this point, Diana’s vocals are sounding pretty raw on certain notes; this becomes especially apparent at 1:08, when she goes for a high note on “I want you to…” and misses it totally. It is such a shame that Diana Ross couldn’t have recorded this concert when she was in stronger voice; the band and background singers are so on point during “Dirty Looks” that this had the potential to be a much better final product than the studio version (and I really like the studio version). Unfortunately, as good as the other elements are, Miss Ross just can’t quite match them here.
10. Love Hangover: The party is in full effect as Diana’s 1976 chart-topper erupts into its famous uptempo climax; again, the band is really cooking, and you can practically hear the sparks flying off the bass. This is a mix of live and pre-recorded vocals; Diana usually used some pre-recorded vocals during this song as a chance for her change costumes, and I’m not sure if that was the case here, but I’d assume so. She sounds okay on the slower intro, though she’s a little “punchy” on the notes rather than duplicating her sexy, laid-back performance on the studio version, but once the famous bass and guitar vamp takes over, it really doesn’t matter; the whole point of the song is to get people to dance, and there’s no question that the audience was doing just that in the aisles.
11. The Man I Love: Though Diana says in her patter that she’s going to do some “songs” from Lady Sings The Blues, this is the only one here; I’m not sure if she actually performed others in the concert and they were edited off the album, but I’d guess that’s the case. If so, it’s too bad, being that she sounds good on “The Man I Love” and probably sounded good on any of the jazz songs she performed. It cannot be denied that Miss Ross always delivers when interpreting the jazz music of Billie Holiday; hearing her sing “God Bless The Child” and “Don’t Explain” never fail to be moving, emotional experiences. Though “The Man I Love” isn’t one of my favorites off of the film’s soundtrack album, Diana croons it beautifully here. The band is just as adept at this tune as on the funky “Dirty Looks,” providing a bluesy, dreamy background for Miss Ross. Her voice gains a warmth and a roundness as she sings this song that’s been missing from most of the show thus far; clearly letting her voice relax into the jazz melody here and lag behind the music (rather than chase it) was soothing on her vocal chords. Hearing her sing “The Man I Love” makes you wish she’d record an entire show of jazz standards; thankfully, she did just that a few years later.
12. Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To): From Diana’s first movie to her second, this was the chart-topping theme song to her film Mahogany from 1975 and is always a highlight to hear live. She sounded brilliant on the song during 1977’s An Evening With Diana Ross, and had performed it on television specials for years with a real sensitivity and depth of feeling. The performance here isn’t bad, but it’s strangely affected; rather than just embrace the simplicity of the song, she seems to be trying too hard to perform. Listen to the way she sings the line, “…we let so many dreams just slip through our hands…” at 1:45; the word “hands” becomes “hahnds,” as if she’s suddenly a Great Lady of the London theatre. In any case, the song ends quickly, leading into the next…
13. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: …which, as fans probably already knew, would be her first solo #1 hit (Diana had been joining the two songs together in concert for years). Diana’s breakthrough hit is arguably her greatest recording ever, and her vocal performance on the original LP cut sounds as fresh and dynamic today as it must have in 1970 thanks to her soulful, chilling ad-libbing. The arrangement here is extremely truncated, which means it’s mainly speaking from Miss Ross; it’s always a thrill to hear her say, “If you need me, call me…” — and it’s a thrill on this version, too. However, by the time the song reaches its climax, erupting into the feverish “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” refrain, Miss Ross’s voice is clearly tired, and she stays away from any ad-libbing at all. This results in long pauses where Diana isn’t singing at all, and while the background singers and band are bringing the energy big-time, the entire point of the song is to hear the diva herself cutting loose. Without that, it loses much of its impact.
14. Paradise: One of the least-melodic songs on Workin’ Overtime becomes a better vocal showcase on Greatest Hits Live; as on “What Can One Person Do,” the replacement of electronic beats with some live instruments and live vocals brings a new energy to the song, and hearing the audience response also helps liven this one. As for Diana, she actually sounds better doing this song live than she did on the studio version, which says something, since her voice isn’t even at its best here. The fact is that the song still doesn’t require much from her vocally, but she manages to imbue it with some personality (including a nice, guttural growl on the phrase “what life’s about” at 2:04). Hearing the band jam on this tune again proves that some of the songs were pretty good on Workin’ Overtime, and that it’s the dated, heavy production that at times makes them a challenge to listen to on that album.
15. This House: In a flip-flop from the previous tune, “This House” — one of the better tracks on Workin’ Overtime — just doesn’t work as a live performance at all. The biggest issue here lies with Miss Ross; the strain on her voice is obvious and distracting. During the choruses, she misses quite a few notes; she also, again, messes up the lyrics a little bit (jumping from “I’ll try…” to “we’ll strike it rich…” — lyrics from two different parts of the song). Aside from that, this is a song that works because of the dreamy, languid atmosphere, which can’t really be replicated in a huge live setting like this.
16. Workin’ Overtime: A decent performance of the previous studio album’s title track and lead single, although Diana injects the spoken verse with more passion than any of her singing. The long instrumental break displays some nice keyboard and horn work; it’s really the best part.
17. Supremes Medley: Miss Ross sings snippets of the songs that made her a superstar in the 1960s, beginning with “Where Did Our Love Go,” which — oddly — isn’t listed on the CD booklet anywhere! She quickly moves into “Baby Love,” sounding just a little shaky at the beginning, but smoothing her vocals out by the end; next comes “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” on which she sounds pretty good and seems to be having a good time. Diana has a strange tendency to sing more background than lead when she performs “You Can’t Hurry Love,” and that is the case here — although all of the lyrics are extremely memorable, she focuses more on the “You gotta wait…you gotta give and take…” background lyrics than on some of her own. “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” sounds nice; the band is definitely banging out in the spirit of the Funk Brothers, and Diana shows some urgency here that echoes her performance on the original — it’s also fun to hear her end with “Go on, boy, get out of my life,” as she had on some TV performances back in the 60s. Last up is “Love Is Like An Itchin’ In My Heart,” on which Miss Ross again sounds good, and the arrangement is full of life and has a gospel feel that wasn’t nearly as noticeable on the studio version back in 1966.
18. Why Do Fools Fall In Love: Diana races through this version of her 1981 top 10 hit; her voice sounds a bit thin, but the energy is certainly there, and she manages to remain the focus of the song. During the instrumental break, she says, “This song was first released in 1957…I wasn’t there…I’m too young!” It’s a joke, of course, but it is kind of eye-opening to think that Diana Ross was indeed “there” in 1957…and was only a few years away from signing with Motown. No matter how rough she sounds during this show, you’ve got to hand it to her — not many stars who’d been around as long as Miss Ross could have packed Wembley Arena with screaming fans!
19. Endless Love: The pace slows down for this, her biggest hit ever, with one of the male background singers taking over for Lionel Richie as her male counterpart. As on “Missing You” earlier in the show, the slowness of the song here allows Diana to focus on her vocals more, and she sounds nice and full of emotion singing here. Her belting toward the end, while a little thinner than normal, is still impressive and nice to hear; beginning at around 2:40, with “No one can deny…,” her voice sounds more powerful than it has on the majority of this album.
20. Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand): For an encore, Miss Ross returns to her first solo single ever, and the song many consider to be her anthem (and she refers to it as her anthem while introducing it). Amazingly, she sounds completely rejuvenated singing here; her “Take a little time out of your busy day…” is full-bodied and clear, and one of her best moments of the entire concert. How this happened at the end of the show, when she’d begun with somewhat compromised vocals, is a mystery. There’s a lot of talking to the audience here, and a lot of listening to the audience sing en masse; while this might normally be a little annoying on a live album, it works here if only because it’s obvious how mesmerized the crowd was by Miss Ross.
Though The Diana Ross Project has thus far basically focused on Diana Ross’s output in the United States, the fact is that Greatest Hits Live is a complete album and it’s relatively easy to come by in America, which is why I think it merits inclusion here. That said, it’s not an album anybody but collectors need to own; not all of her “greatest hits” are here (like the #1 hit “Touch Me In The Morning,” “Remember Me,” or, amazingly, even her UK #1 “I’m Still Waiting”), and some of the tracks included are far from being hits…or great. Beyond that, again, the performances that make up this album do not capture Miss Ross at her best. She is a terrific live performer, and that’s evident here, but she’s also a terrific live vocalist, and that’s not always evident here. Those looking for Diana Ross at her entertaining best should really stick to the recording of her Tony-award winning masterpiece, An Evening With Diana Ross; not only did that recording capture her unbelievable energy on stage, but it also displays some of her finest singing ever.
Final Analysis: 1.5/5 (Diana “Reaches”…But Misses)
Choice Cuts: “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” “The Man I Love,” and — for the band — “Dirty Looks”