“No use, old girl…you may as well surrender…”
Though Diana Ross’s career with jazz music essentially began and ended with 1972’s Lady Sings The Blues (the Oscar-nominated film and #1 soundtrack album), certain songs from that project had remained a big part of her repertoire. She always included a segment in her live shows devoted to Billie Holiday songs, and 1977’s stage spectacular An Evening With Diana Ross had contained a larger tribute to female jazz and blues singers like Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. Still, a full album or show devoted to the genre is something many fans must have been craving for years, and it finally happened two decades after she first shocked listeners into realizing how well she was suited such music.
Stolen Moments: The Lady Sings…Jazz And Blues is the recording of a one-night-only live show at the Ritz Theatre in New York; the show took place in December 1992, and this album hit shelves in early 1993. The performance was also filmed, shown first as a Pay-Per-View television special, then released to home video. In an article from the British newspaper The Independent (written by Phil Johnson, published Monday, April 26, 1993), Miss Ross is quoted as saying, “What I wanted was to do a tiny little show in a jazz club in New York with just a small audience. It wasn’t to be publicised but it kind of developed a life of its own. The record companies got their noses into it and they wanted to film it, so that took it away from a small club and into a slightly larger room. Because it wasn’t planned and we didn’t have a lot of time, there’s a lot of improvising and going from memory and I’m very pleasantly surprised at the reaction.”
And reaction was pretty good; after two less-than-stellar showings on the US charts with Workin’ Overtime and The Force Behind The Power (her first two studio albums back on the Motown record label after a stint with RCA Records), this album returned Diana to the top 10 — this time, on the jazz album charts (she’d get there again years later with the release of Blue, the “lost album” from 1972). Considering Miss Ross was 30 years into her hit-making career when this album was released (“When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” was her first top 40 hit with the Supremes in 1963), it’s amazing how smooth she often sounds on the recording (especially in light of her hoarse, barely-coasting performance on 1989’s international live album Greatest Hits Live).
The Independent article notes that “Ross hasn’t allowed her voice to deepen and sometimes it appears to strain for the sound of a vocal ingenue…,” and this is accurate to an extent. Some of the songs indeed could have been moved down a key or two, but a deepness and maturity are certainly on full display with songs like “God Bless The Child” and the nearly a capella “Strange Fruit,” which are absolutely masterful. The album tends to run a little long, and it would’ve been nice to get a few more new songs rather than pretty much the same lineup as the Lady Sings The Blues soundtrack, but it’s hard to find a whole lot of fault with a recording on which Diana Ross is clearly doing something she really wants to do, and doing it well.
1. Fine And Mellow: Miss Ross opens the show with this bluesy number, one appropriately written by Billie Holiday and originally recorded in 1939. It’s a nice way to open the show, as it allows Diana’s voice to ease into the evening; the song doesn’t require her to push too much and is repetitive by nature, and in a way you can hear Diana “warming up” for the rest of the show.
2. Them There Eyes: A much more relaxed version of this song than what was originally featured on the Lady Sings The Blues soundtrack; back in 1972, Diana had sung this song with a girlish enthusiasm, and here it’s much more low-key and “mellow.” Diana sounds nice on the song, though she doesn’t do much more than sing it as written; it serves more as a chance to show her interplay with the absolutely stellar band. As on much of the songs throughout the album, Miss Ross allows the musicians to shine every bit as much as she does, and the instrumental break here is an exciting sign of things to come.
3. Don’t Explain: Diana announces this song as “one of my favorite songs this evening,” and it’s clear that she loves it, as she still frequently performs it in concert to this day. This is the first case so far of Diana really “biting” into a lyric; it’s also a nice example of how her voice has matured since she first recorded this music in 1972. Here, Miss Ross sings with the smooth resignation of a woman in love with someone who treats her badly; her voice conveys a sadness without ever being over-dramatic or obvious. Again, the band sounds superb, giving Miss Ross a perfect a music bed to lay her vocal on. Listen at 3:25, as she begins, “You know that I love you…” — in a way, she almost sounds more like Billie Holiday now than she did in 1972; her voice reflects more seasoning and use, and there a few more “imperfections” here…much in the way Billie’s recordings often displayed hers. This is certainly an album standout.
4. What A Little Moonlight Can Do: The energy picks back up for a swinging, bassy version of this jazz classic; Diana’s own energy seems to be picking up, too, and her vocal here is a little looser and more “free” than on the previous songs. Diana generously continues calling out the musicians as they swing through their solos, and at 3:05 in, when she goes for the lyric, “…can’t resist him…,” she really starts sounding like a true jazz singer, her voice lightly bouncing up and down the scale. At the end of the song, once the band brings it home and the audience applauds, Miss Ross does the strange sort of “brrrrr” sound that she’d used on her song “Shockwaves” from Red Hot Rhythm & Blues; though the sound might seem insignificant, it’s a spontaneous, amusing moment that’s out of character for the usually more-poised live performer, and I think proof that she was starting to feel really good on stage singing these songs.
5. Mean To Me: This is a real treat, since “Mean To Me” appeared in a very truncated version of the original Lady soundtrack (it was used in the film during a scene in which Billie Holiday fainted while singing, and thus Diana never performed the entire thing). Because most of this album is comprised of songs from that earlier film, this is a nice change and something “new” for longtime fans. Along with that, it’s a really good song — it’s a bouncy number on the vein of “Them There Eyes,” and Diana’s vocal here is lighter and more energetic than it had been when she’d done that song just a few minutes earlier. Unfortunately, this is one of the shortest numbers of the evening, and runs under three minutes, but it’s still a nice change of pace from songs likely a little more familiar to listeners.
6. Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be): Diana uses this song to do one of her favorite things — walk out into the audience and sing to the people directly. There’s a lot of laughing and giggling from the excited crowd; clearly she was “flirting” with the folks, and they were eating it up. Diana makes a point to mention that this is “our very first time doing this show” — a nice reminder to listeners that this wasn’t a necessarily well-rehearsed effort between singer and band, which makes the overall smoothness of the show all the more impressive. That said, Diana makes a little flub at the beginning of the song, singing the words, “Someday he’ll come along…” — not a line from this song, but from “The Man I Love.” Still, she carries it off like the pro that she is; people unfamiliar with this song wouldn’t have a clue that she altered the lyrics. She also, endearingly, loses pitch for the last line; listen as she shakily sings the final words, waiting for the band to come in and help her out. These little moments are actually enjoyable; they make the recording real, and again drive home the point about this being a “one-off” show that’s really a labor of love for everyone on the stage.
7. Gimme A Pigfoot (And A Bottle Of Beer): A rousing number that Miss Ross has frequently performed over the years, she ably sings it and get the crowd to clap along to the swinging beat. More than anything, though, this is a showcase for the outstanding musicians on stage; the jazz legends get plenty of time to really let go, and they sound terrific.
8. Little Girl Blue: Another real treat of the album; Diana didn’t perform this Rodgers and Hart classic in Lady Sings The Blues, but rather included it on her 1973 album Touch Me In The Morning. It was that album’s real highlight, one of the most sensitive and impressive Diana Ross performances of her early Motown years, if not her entire career; as I wrote about that performance, “…aside from the technical aspects of her performance, there is something indefinable about the way Diana Ross sings ‘Little Girl Blue’ that lifts it far above an ordinary piece of album filler.” This live performance doesn’t quite match that recorded masterpiece; the acoustic guitar work on the 1973 version was a key to its success and it’s missing here, which means it doesn’t quite stand out amongst the surrounding songs the way one might hope. Still, Diana sounds great; she sings it in the same key as she had 20 years earlier, and her voice really shows no wear at all.
9. There’s A Small Hotel: Another surprise inclusion; this is a Rodgers and Hart song that Miss Ross had recorded more than two decades earlier for the 1967 album The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart (the final LP credited to The Supremes, before the group name became Diana Ross & The Supremes). The song, however, was cut from the LP…and remained unreleased for many years. Diana’s performance here is simple and refreshing; the light, upbeat song is a perfect fit for her airy vocals. Listen, for example, to her beginning at 2:12, with the line, “We’ll thank that small hotel…” — there’s a relaxed confidence and ease to her singing that really is befitting a woman with such a long, storied career. This is a lovely highlight of the show.
10. I Cried For You: Miss Ross returns to the songs of Lady Sings The Blues with this Billie Holiday classic; though the key is a little high, Diana manages to keep her voice bouncing from note to note with a slightly brassy sound that almost mimics the horn work behind her. Just ten seconds in, as she sings the song’s title, her voice really does sound like a trumpet; in a strange way, forcing her voice a little higher works to an advantage in making her sound more like part of the band. This isn’t perhaps a great vocal performance, but it’s an interesting listen.
11. The Man I Love: This is a much more playful performance than her recording of the same song on 1989’s Greatest Hits Live; Diana takes her time with the song, letting her voice slide up and down the scale with a sexiness and wistful quality well-suited to the lyrics. The band plays along with her, as does the audience; there’s obviously some interplay going on, and Miss Ross throws out a few comments, like her “Don’t you move!” at 4:20 in, which are fun to hear. That spontaneity and intimate feel is what really sets this version apart from other Ross recordings of this song; Diana’s enjoyment — and that of the audience — is clear and makes this a joy to hear. (This track was left off international versions of this recording, perhaps because it had already shown up on the release of Greatest Hits Live.)
12. God Bless The Child: Miss Ross begins the song by introducing pianist Bobby Tucker, who she mentions had played with Billie Holiday; the connection instantly quiets the mood and prepares the listener for a powerful moment in the show. Indeed, this is easily one of Miss Ross’s best vocals of the night; her voice is controlled and focused, but there’s also an emotional complexity here that gives her performance a real depth and gravitas. At one-minute into the running time, Diana sings the words, “…that’s got his own” with an almost sad sort of resignation that captures the spirit of Billie Holiday in an instant. The song also gives her a chance to show off the lower and upper ends of her vocal range; she sounds wise and mature when mining the lower parts, and that almost horn-like quality re-emerges on the higher bridge, her voice beautifully jumping back and forth between notes with ease. This song is really what the entire concert is all about; Diana proves herself a gifted jazz and blues singer here, worthy of performing with a band full of genre masters.
13. Love Is Here To Stay: This song was one of the sterling highlights of the double-LP soundtrack; it’s not as successful here, mainly because it’s following such an emotional highlight. Diana and the band swing along nicely, but the barely-two-minute song is a strange way to follow “God Bless The Child” and ultimately seems a little unnecessary.
14. You’ve Changed: Diana’s rendition of “You’ve Changed” back in 1972 gained notice for echoing Billie Holiday’s so closely; Miss Ross had managed to find a brittle quality that matched Holiday’s haunting work on the song. Her performance here is extremely effective, too; she sings along with only a piano, setting a quiet, somber tone that will continue into the next performance. Diana’s voice here is crisp and clear, each word ringing out over the audience like a short gust of wind, and the end result is an atmospheric and other-worldly performance. It’s a perfect way to ground the show after the light “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” in preparation for the devastating next selection.
15. Strange Fruit: Diana Ross’s nearly a capella version of this song is a masterpiece; this is one of the great vocal performances of her career. The song, recorded by Billie Holiday is 1939, is a lyrical and disturbing account of the lynching of African-Americans; graphic lines like “…the bulging eyes and twisted mouth…” and “…the sudden smell of burning flesh…” are difficult to listen to, but Diana’s captivating vocal performance is completely hypnotizing. Because only a faint piano backs her at times, the focus here is solely on the voice and words. Miss Ross is in full command of her interpretive gift here; she sings the words simply, never becoming over-dramatic, and notice the way she allows each lyrics its own measure of importance. There’s not a single “throw away” word or line here; Diana clearly understands the power of this song, and smartly takes away any possible distraction. This is a performance of intense power and emotion; it is definitive proof of Ross’s abilities as a vocalist. Though she’d proven on recordings like “Home” and “Missing You” that she’s capable of a deep, raw power when belting ballads, here she allows the space between the words to do much of the work, and it’s an eerie and unforgettable listening experience.
16. Good Morning Heartache: Perhaps the most famous song from the 1972 Lady… soundtrack, this was a top 40 single for Ross that year and is still a song identified with her. This is a nice performance of the song, although she seems a little affected on the delivery of some of the lyrics; the key is also a bit too high for her now, and she again sounds a little brassy — especially on the bridge — and, in this case, the sound doesn’t quite work as well as it has previously. Still, it’s nice to hear her turn in a live performance of a single that wasn’t as big a hit as something like “Upside Down” or “Love Hangover,” and the recognition factor allows the listener a bit of a chance to recover from the emotional number that preceded it.
17. Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do: One of the bluesier tunes of the night, this is also one that’s strangely missing lacking a spark and some passion. The lyrics here are pointedly defiant, telling the listener “…I’m gonna do what I want to anyway; I don’t care just what people say…,” and it seems like Diana should have a little more swagger when delivering such sentiments. Perhaps at this point in the evening Diana was winding down a little, which is understandable.
18. My Man: One of the signature songs from Lady…, this is also a song that Diana had made a big part of her repertoire since her late-Supremes days. When she’s “on” with the song — as she was on the original soundtrack LP — she sounds glorious; when she’s not quite there, she can sometimes push a little too hard on the song, throwing in lines and affectations that kill the mood. I’d say this performance, thankfully, is closer to the “on” side of the spectrum; her voice doesn’t quite nail the song as powerfully as she’s capable of doing, but she still sounds good. The biggest issue is probably one of musical key, again; at times, there is an audible strain here, and it’s especially noticeable toward the climax of the song. She manages to hit all the notes, though, much to her credit — after all, the song comes after a long evening of singing — and it is a nice closing number.
19. Fine And Mellow (Reprise): After yelling, “Great show!” Miss Ross sings a few lines from her opening number again, before letting the band swing it on home.
As noted before, if there’s a fault with this album, it’s that it runs a little too long; had four or five numbers been cut, it would have quickened the pace here and allowed the really strong moments more of a chance to shine. Some of the songs (i.e. “What A Little Moonlight Can Do”) really weren’t big standouts on the 1972 film soundtrack, and thus don’t seem that necessary here. The surprise inclusions (“Mean To Me,” “Little Girl Blue,” and “There’s A Small Hotel”) are great finds for fans who are a bit tired of more familiar tunes that had featured heavily in Ross shows over the years, and it’s a shame there aren’t more of them.
International versions of this show also included the studio recording of an original jazz song called “Where Did We Go Wrong,” co-written by Miss Ross herself. She’s quoted in The Independent article as saying, “I had been working on some other projects and was sitting making notes for songs and I put some thoughts on a tape and sent them to my friend Bill Wray, saying, ‘Don’t you dare let anyone hear these thoughts.’ It was very personal. He took all these words and shuffled them around and sent them back to me. I’m very proud of it.” The song is a wonderful showcase for Miss Ross, similar in sound and structure to “Don’t Explain,” and it’s a mystery as to why it was left off the US-lineup; had it been included (and, as noted before, a few other songs left off), it would have elevated this to the level of some of Ross’s best complete works ever. Still, when Diana Ross shines here, she really shines, and thankfully there are enough of those stunning moments here to make the concert and recording more than worthwhile.
Final Analysis: 4/5 (A “Fine And Mellow” Recording)
Choice Cuts: “Strange Fruit,” “God Bless The Child,” “There’s A Small Hotel”