“There’s a place up in the sky where the sun is shining…”
“This is a very special time for me,” Diana Ross announced to the large crowd assembled inside the Shine Auditorium in Los Angeles on March 13, 1995, as she accepted a Soul Train Heritage Award for Career Achievement. “We have a new album that’s gonna be coming out in September on Motown, and I’m very excited. A lot of the songs coming from Yab Yum and Babyface’s group, so I’m excited.” The news was equally exciting for fans, who’d waited nearly four years for a new studio album from the singer. In the years following 1991’s globally successful The Force Behind The Power, Miss Ross had released a critically acclaimed live jazz album, a retrospective box set and memoir, a children’s book and CD for Japanese audiences, and an international-only holiday disc; still, fans had never waited so long for a proper new studio album from the singer. According to a May 22, 1993 article in Billboard detailing the singer’s one-night-only jazz concert at New York’s The Ritz, “[Ross] has a jazz studio album full of Harold Arlen material in the can for possible future release,” but the singer’s speech at the Soul Train Awards confirmed that her next project would be one aimed at consumers of contemporary music.
Diana’s mention of Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds was especially exciting, considering the singer-songwriter-producer was the hottest in the business at the time; he’d turned out hits for every major artist of the decade, from Whitney Houston to Madonna to Diana’s labelmates Boyz II Men. Although he wouldn’t personally produce any of the cuts on Diana’s new album, his name does show up as a composer and two acts from his camp, Jon-John and the Boom Brothers, wrote and produced for the album. Ross also turned to producer Nick Martinelli, with whom she’d worked on her 1993 box set and 1994 holiday release A Very Special Season; of working with Ross, Martinelli told the Los Angeles Times, “The first time I got to meet her, even in the studio, I was kind of in awe…I just felt like she had been through a part of my life, or phases of it. Her music was there for me” (August 1, 1993). Martinelli contributed a trio of ballads to the final album, including two written by Tom Snow, whose association with Miss Ross dated back to 1977’s Baby It’s Me. Singer-songwriter Brenda Russell produced the lovely ballad “Let Somebody Know,” although that song was left off of international versions in favor of a cool, contemporary cut called “Swing It,” co-written by Babyface.
But the album’s title track, along with three other of the album’s most notable recordings, came from veteran producer Narada Michael Walden, who’d previously turned out hits for Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and Mariah Carey. Walden both produced and co-wrote “Take Me Higher,” which would be released as the new album’s first single in September of 1995. “Ripe and ready for immediate acceptance from pop, R&B, and club taste-makers,” wrote Billboard of the song upon the its release; Ross had already begun performing “Take Me Higher” on her Always Is Forever tour, and she sang a superb, spirited rendition of it on “The Late Show With David Letterman” on September 14. Despite a popular music video which received solid airplay on American television network BET and several subsequent high-profile television appearances, airplay for the single was weak in both the pop and R&B markets; it was, however, the singer’s most popular club song in years, and it made a slow and steady climb to #1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart, peaking at the top spot in December and becoming Diana’s first #1 dance hit since 1984’s “Swept Away.”
Without a major across-the-board hit out of the gate, Take Me Higher struggled to gain momentum; this was an era when blockbuster singles like Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” and Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” were debuting at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and driving their parent albums to multi-million sales. Whether this was due to Miss Ross not getting enough support from her label, or to radio programmers uninterested in new music from an established legend, it doesn’t really matter; in the end it was the general public that was the loser. Take Me Higher is easily one of the best R&B and adult contemporary albums of the decade; more than two decades later, the album still sounds fresh and powerful, and Diana’s crisp, commanding voice is as lovely as it had ever or would ever sound on record. With this collection of songs, Miss Ross finally achieved the perfect balance of classy, adult songs that are also exciting and youthful, something she’d been trying to attain for years. For the non-initiated Diana Ross listener, Take Me Higher is a great introduction to the skill and versatility she possesses. For the longtime fan, it’s continued proof of those qualities.
1. Take Me Higher: Arguably the most exciting Diana Ross single since 1980’s “I’m Coming Out,” this is the singer at her upbeat, energetic best; it’s a perfect celebratory track that unsurprisingly topped the dance chart and gave Miss Ross new life as a dance diva and club icon. Released as a single in mid-September of 1995, “Take Me Higher” won a rave review from Billboard, which called it a “swirling retro disco ditty that inspires a wonderfully loose and playful performance” and praised its refrain as “instantly infectious and brimming with warm optimism.” With a slick music video and a handful of outstanding live performances on television, expectations were certainly high for the song; it quickly became a breakout hit in dance clubs and climbed up the Hot Dance Club Play chart, on which it hit the #1 spot for the week ending December 2. Although airplay never quite caught on at pop and R&B stations, the single did manage a peak of #77 on the R&B Singles chart and #14 on the Hot 100 “Bubbling Under” listing (essentially meaning the song peaked at #114). Opening with an irresistible, skipping beat, Diana begins with deep, soulful spoken line before shouting one of her trademark “oooh!” sounds that date back to her work with the Supremes. This is, perhaps, a hint of the “new beginning” Ross was talking about on the Soul Train awards, when she accepted her Heritage Award; she seems rejuvenated and ready to tackle music full-on again. Producer Narada Michael Walden (who wrote the song with Sally Jo Dakota and Nikita Germaine) surrounds Diana with a layered track featuring shimmering keyboards and an amazing background choir including singing legends Patti Austin and Angela Bofill. Walden seems to understand something that many producers over the years have missed: the fact that great background voices behind Diana Ross can help elevate her vocals to another level. Certainly Ashford and Simpson knew this, as did Rodgers and Edwards and Luther Vandross later; maybe it has something to do with her many years as lead singer of a vocal group, but Miss Ross certainly seems to push herself further and sing with more force when she’s joined on a track by talented session singers. Here, the singer’s vocals are soulful and sure-footed on the verses (listen to her gorgeous “Love will be there waitin’ for us…” at 50 seconds in), and her voice rides the higher melody of the chorus with the kind of sublime urgency she’d mastered on her Holland-Dozier-Holland hits of the 1960s. Like the best Ross dance hits (“The Boss,” “I’m Coming Out”), there’s an overwhelming joy to the track that just makes it a pleasure to both listen and groove to; it’s no surprise that the song rose to the top of the Club Play listings, her first #1 since 1984’s “Swept Away.” Although it wasn’t the pop hit it deserved to be, “Take Me Higher” has become a staple in the singer’s live shows, remaining an energetic addition to her concerts to this day; decades later, it’s still irresistible.
2. If You’re Not Gonna Love Me Right: Reviews for this Narada Michael Walden-produced cut were solid, strong enough that Motown would eventually release it as the album’s third single in the United States (as a double a-side with “Voice Of The Heart”); reviewing the single, Billboard called it a “sultry jeep-funk shuffler” that was “hard enough to connect with the kids, but smooth enough to sate the legendary singer’s longtime legion of fans” (February 17, 1996). Walden co-produced the cut with its writer, Monty Seward, and it’s a smooth, mid-tempo number, similar in tone to several of the hits released from newcomer Monica’s debut album, Miss Thang (including “Don’t Take It Personal [Just One Of Dem Days]” and “Like This And Like That”); that said, “If You’re Not Gonna Love Me Right” is completely appropriate for an artist of Diana’s maturity, and pitched perfectly for her deepening voice. The singer’s low-key, relaxed work on the verses is sexy and confident, and she’s very well-matched with the layered backing voice of Kimaya Seward; Ross also gets some spoken lyrics, something she almost always nails, and she sounds great purring the words, “…when you’re not here it makes me feel like I can’t trust you.” More than anything, this is a “vibe” song; it’s a chunk of adult soul that aims to get the head nodding and set an atmosphere of cool sophistication, and it more than succeeds on that level. Released in February, the single debuted on the Hot R&B Airplay chart in March of 1996 and Billboard quoted KIPR (Little Rock, Arkansas) programming director Joe Booker as calling it “the best produced record from Diana in years” (March 23, 1996); it ended up peaking at #67 on the R&B Singles chart, not a great showing but at least besting the album’s first single. The song likely could have done a little better had public attention not been focused on another song from Take Me Higher, Diana’s cover of the disco classic “I Will Survive,” which was being pushed in the United Kingdom by EMI; that song boasted a buzzed-about music video, something “If You’re Not Gonna Love Me Right” never got. Ross did perform the song on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” — a superb rendition — and she called it one of her favorites during an appearance on BET’s “Video Soul.” Indeed, it’s a sterling track, and one that still sounds good today. (NOTE: Motown added a remix of “If You’re Not Gonna Love Me Right” to the tracklist of the single upon its release; the Crenshaw Records Version isn’t bad, but it is unnecessary and there’s some ghastly digital altering of Diana’s voice toward the end!)
3. Voice Of The Heart: As Motown serviced “If You’re Not Gonna Love Me Right” to R&B stations across the United States, the label sent this gorgeous ballad to Adult Contemporary outlets; it ended up peaking at #28 on Billboard‘s Adult Contemporary chart at the end of May in 1996. Ross didn’t do much promotion for the ballad, although it was added to her live act and she sang it on the televised “Soul Train” 25th Anniversary Hall of Fame special in November of 1995, during which she memorably walked through the audience and gave fellow pop/R&B singer Whitney Houston a lengthy hug. It’s too bad that “Voice Of The Heart” didn’t gain more exposure; written by John Bettis, Bruce Roberts, and Julia Turner-Stanley and produced by Nick Martinelli, the man responsible for Diana’s holiday album A Very Special Season the year before, the ballad ranks among the diva’s best of the decade, if not of her whole solo career. The track is miles away from Martinelli’s orchestral arrangements on the holiday album; the instrumental features fantastic and subdued guitar work by Ted Pearlman, and the sublime backgrounds by Alexandra Brown, Tony Warren, and Jackie Gouchee Farris are gospel-tinged without ever being overpowering. The real star, of course, is Diana Ross, and her vocal work here is her best on the album thus far. Listen to the spectacular control displayed during just the first verse; the low notes as she sings the words “you may run to the shelter of walls” are rich and deep, displaying a facet of Ross’s range that really hadn’t been explored much in her career. Of working in the studio with Nick Martinelli, Diana Ross said at the time, “You like to work with producers that trust that you know what you’re talking about…And that’s such a gift. It gives you this incredible freedom to try to even go further than you normally would go. To try to explore even more, to expand even more. And Nick gives me that space in the studio.” It’s clear by listening to her delivery that Miss Ross felt supported and trusted here; the lyrics of the song also convey the kind of inspirational message that she’s always been fond of, all the way back to her first solo single, “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” and her trademark sensitive delivery and commitment to purely interpreting lyrics fit these kinds of songs well. On any other album, this would be the standout ballad; amazingly, there are ever stronger ones to come, which says a lot about the quality of this work.
4. Let Somebody Know: This is another superlative ballad, adding a touch of gospel to an album that’s already covered high-energy dance, light-funk R&B, and Adult Contemporary. Singer-songwriter Brenda Russell produced the song and wrote it with Bunny Hull, a Grammy-winning songwriter who’d worked with Narada Michael Walden on Stacey Lattisaw’s Let Me Be Your Angel LP; Hull also plays keyboards and sings background on the track. “Let Somebody Know” is a slow, atmospheric number, the kind of ballad into which Miss Ross can really “dig deep” and inject with emotion; the production really takes advantage of the singer’s status as a seasoned entertainer, allowing her to demonstrate the great experience in her voice rather than try to mask it. This is likely due to producer Russell, who’d scored her own Top 5 Adult Contemporary hit with “Piano In The Dark” back in 1988; Russell’s songs, while eclectic, share common threads of intelligence and maturity. As with “Voice Of The Heart,” Diana’s work on the verses is some of her most restrained and focused ever; she commands her lower register and allows her voice to soulfully brush the notes without ever muddling or losing them. Her attention to the lyrics is also masterful; listen to the way she delivers certain lines with a deeply felt, almost bluesy feel to her work, as if she’s interpreting an old spiritual from her childhood. The climax of the song comes even closer to true gospel than the previous track did; the choir here is full and powerful and yet, again, never steals focus nor outshines the lead singer (and the addition of the soaring high notes at 4:20 is genius). Close your eyes and listen to this song; it is a moving and emotional experience, completely visceral in the way that only the most dreamy Diana Ross ballads (like “Summertime” from 1987’s Red Hot Rhythm & Blues) are. Strangely, “Let Somebody Know” was left off of international versions of the album, replaced by the uptempo Babyface tune “Swing It.” I’m not sure why this decision was made, as both songs really should have been included on all versions of the project. (NOTE: Russell herself would record “Let Somebody Know” for her 2004 album Between The Sun And The Moon.)
5. Keep It Right There: This is the album’s first song to come out of the “Babyface camp,” and was co-written by Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Jon-John, and Chris Lipscomb and produced by Jon-John. Babyface and Jon-John had recently written and produced a track called “Let’s Do It Again” for TLC, featured on the girl group’s blockbuster 1994 album CrazySexyCool, and that song is extremely similar in tone and production to this one for Diana; in a way, they’re companion pieces, and provide an interesting link between the leader of the most iconic female trio in history with the group following in her footsteps. “Keep It Right There” is a cool mid-tempo track with a shuffling groove and a sexy, breathy performance from Miss Ross; it achieves quite a feat by placing Diana in a contemporary setting without ever sounding forced, something producers on her previous few albums hadn’t always achieved. The key here is simplicity; rather than swamping Miss Ross in a heavy beat or enveloping her with overproduced effects, there’s a crispness to the production that allows her voice to effortlessly lead the way. The singer sounds totally relaxed and fresh in a way that’s both youthful and also sensually mature; she’s joined by some stylized background vocals that actually sound a lot like the voices of TLC. The song’s placement on the album is also very smart; coming after two big serious ballads, it’s nice to have something more playful, providing a necessary touch of lightness for the listener. It’s interesting that Motown didn’t try out “Keep It Right There” as a single, especially considering it could have gotten some publicity out of the fact that Babyface is listed in the credits; in any case, it’s a terrific album track, and comes as a breath of cool air on an album filled with smoldering moments.
6. Don’t Stop: Although this song was never released as a single, Diana performed it during her live shows and a promotional video (made up of clips from the singer’s photography sessions in Alabama for the Take Me Higher album) was played during her appearance on BET’s “Video Soul” in 1995. During her interview with Donny Simpson on the show, Ross mentioned, “[‘Don’t Stop’] was done by a young boys group called The Boom Brothers and they are out of the Babyface camp, you know he has a lot of young artists that he’s promoting and working with there, and they’re really quite exciting. I have them on tour with me.” The song is certainly the most youth-oriented track on the album, and has the distinction of being of the very few (maybe the first?) Diana Ross songs to feature a sample (in this case, from Big Daddy Kane’s “Mortal Combat”), certainly a sign of the times and proof that this was an opportunity for her to do something more current. Featuring a more angular, beat-driven track and echoes of rap music laced into the track, Miss Ross continues the vibe set by “Keep It Right There” with sexy yet subdued vocals; she isn’t required to show much range here, but she manages to inject her breathy vocals with enough strength to keep them from ever sounding weak or strained (as they sometimes had on the songs of 1989’s Workin’ Overtime). The line-trading between Diana and singer Natasha Pierce during the bridge is also a really nice touch and a great way to add some energy to the song. Though it’s slight in comparison to most of the others here, it is intentionally that way; the duration of the album is stacked with complex masterpieces, and this is another fun addition that helps balance the overall product.
7. Gone: When Motown released this track as the follow-up to “Take Me Higher” in the United States, Billboard raved about the single in print, calling it a “shuffling, R&B-spiced ballad that shows La Ross in tip-top form” and praising the production as being “deep in the pocket of current radio trends without sacrificing the legendary vocalist’s distinctive, much beloved style. Play it.” In the magazine’s December 23, 1995 issue, meanwhile, “Chart Beat” columnist Fred Bronson named “Gone” as one of his Top 10 best of the year. Unfortunately, without the benefit of much promotion (although Ross and Motown did release a classy music video for the song), “Gone” stalled on the charts, only managing a showing of #7 on the “Bubbling Under Hot R&B Singles” listing in January of 1996, meaning it peaked at #107 on the R&B Singles chart; it fared better in the United Kingdom, where it climbed to #36 in December off 1995 (under the title “I’m Gone”). Decades later, it remains a travesty that “Gone” didn’t garner more attention from music consumers; it’s a brilliant cut that showcases Ross at her heartbreaking best. This is another Jon-John production, and was written solely by him; it’s a ballad that nearly defies genre classification, weaving together elements of pop, R&B, and even classical music. This complexity might be why it didn’t get much radio play; although the Billboard review mentioned it being in line with then-current trends, it didn’t quite sound like anything else on radio at the time, and really doesn’t sound like much else in the Diana discography, period, although a case could be made for the song as something of a descendant of 1975’s “Theme From Mahogany.” Opening simply with a lovely, melodic piano line, the track soon intensifies with layers of violins, violas, and cellos; atop this swirling musical bed, Diana begins a virtuoso, Grammy-worthy vocal performance, deftly singing the quickly-worded verses in deep, velvety tones that are as accomplished as anything she’d ever recorded. She employs a higher, delicate voice for the chorus; the lyrics during these sections are again dense and wordy (“And you’ll dream about love and how it will be/But then you’ll wake up to reality/To find I’m gone”), but the singer’s expert enunciation and lightness of tone carry them with ease. The final minute of the song is almost achingly beautiful; Diana quietly ad-libs over the instrumental, creating a wordless lullaby for the listener before the song merely fades away. From start to finish, “Gone” is a masterpiece; every element here is perfect, and though chances were probably always slim for its success, it’s an absolute shame that it wasn’t heard by more people.
8. Only Love Can Conquer All: Although this song was never released as a single, it’s become one of the most recognizable tracks featured on Take Me Higher thanks to some high-profile performances of it by Diana Ross over the years. Notably, she dedicated “Only Love Can Conquer All” to Nelson Mandela during a performance in South Africa in 1998; later, she delivered a superb performance of it during an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2000, while promoting her Return To Love Tour (during the performance, she handed the microphone off to an excited background singer, an unforgettable moment of graciousness). The fact that she returned to the song years after the release of Take Me Higher suggests Ross felt a close affinity with the tune, something that makes perfect sense; this is a classic Diana Ross inspirational ballad, in the great tradition of “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” a song she fought to get released as her first solo single. This track was written by Sally Jo Dakota, Narada Michael Walden, and Preston Glass, the latter a writer who’d previously penned some songs for Diana’s 1989 effort Workin’ Overtime (including that album’s standout, “Bottom Line”); it’s a big, soulful ballad, with poignant lyrics that speak to race relations and the importance of breaking the cycle of fear from earlier generations. Producer Walden combines elements of soul and gospel here, once again backing Diana with a boisterous background choir including singers Patti Austin and Angela Bofill. Diana’s voice is at its soulful best here; the critics who say she’s a “pop” singer without real R&B chops should be required to listen to this performance, which drips with feeling, as though the words were coming straight from her bones. And more than any other ballad on this album, Miss Ross gets a chance to show some power and do some belting; kicking off the climax with a cry at 3:00 in, her work during the final minute of the song is perhaps the best on the album, and some of her best of the entire decade. Because Diana Ross is not a singer who ever oversings or shows off during a song, the times when she does let loose are important and meaningful; the strong message of this piece certainly makes it a worthy opportunity for the star to prove what she can do.
9. I Never Loved A Man Before: Separately, songwriters Gerry Goffin and Tom Snow are responsible for two of the best singles released by Diana Ross during the 1970s; the former co-wrote her 1975 #1 hit “Theme From Mahogany” and the latter helped create “Gettin’ Ready For Love,” the first single from her 1977 masterpiece Baby It’s Me. Together, the two men deliver here a standout track of an already-incredibly strong album, a smoldering, seductive, and mature tune that fits Diana Ross better than one of her Bob Mackie stage gowns. Opening with a sizzling Spanish-tinged jazz guitar line, the instrumental track here is accomplished and classy thanks to producer Nick Martinelli, who layers that expert guitar work with sexy percussion and piano flourishes that instantly transport the listener to a dimly lit, late-night lounge. Once again, Diana Ross more than delivers with her performance; she sings much of the first verse in a hushed, breathy voice perfectly matching the mood of the track, and delicately reaches for the higher notes of the chorus with a gentle wistfulness that hints at some of her more dreamy ballad work from the early to mid-1970s. The moment after the song’s bridge, when Diana sings “You make me feel like…” beginning at 3:42, is one of the most beautiful on the entire album; she reaches high into her range and alters the melody a little bit, and it’s a breathtaking moment of vocal virtuosity. Every element of this song is so perfect that it again demonstrates how skillful Diana Ross is at combining elements of jazz, pop, and R&B; she is one of the few singers who can literally jump genres within single lines of a song, a skill that’s often been taken for granted by music critics over the years. If Motown wanted to pick up some airplay for a track from Take Me Higher, it should have pushed this one to jazz, Adult R&B, and Quiet Storm playlists; as with “Heavy Weather” from then singer’s previous studio LP (1991’s The Force Behind The Power), it easily could have clicked with smooth jazz listeners, bringing another audience to the album. There’s not a bad track on Take Me Higher, but none showcase Miss Ross the vocalist better than “I Never Loved A Man Before.” It’s a recording that still deserves to be heard by a wide, appreciative audience.
10. I Thought That We Were Still In Love: In an interview with entertainment journalist Lance Chau, producer Nick Martinelli remembered of recording this song, “It was one of the few songs Diana did not get on the first day of recording. I remember asking her to go back and work on it a little more. The second day she had a real grasp of the song.” Whatever it was that Martinelli wasn’t hearing from Ross on that first day, he must have been right; the singer’s performance on the finished track is masterful. “I Thought That We Were Still In Love,” written by Tom Snow and Liz Vidal, carries the previous song’s jazz overtones much further, placing Ross right back into the jazz setting she’d revisited with 1993’s Stolen Moments: The Lady Sings…Jazz And Blues; this is a piano-and-sax-driven torch song, a kind of contemporary take on “My Man” or “Don’t Explain.” Considering Mr. Snow had written a pair of classy, jazz-tinged numbers for Diana Ross on 1977’s Baby It’s Me (“Gettin’ Ready For Love” and “Top Of The World”), it’s not a surprise how well the singer sinks right back into his plush compositions; it really makes one wish Ross had recorded more of his songs. Diana’s work here is loose and relaxed, but never loses the poignant, emotional edge needed to sell the lyric; her attention not only to the phrases she’s singing but also the breaths between those phrases is masterful. Listing all of the brilliant musicians who beautiful accompany the singer would take too long, but musician Mark Portmann is responsible for the arrangements and conducting the orchestra, and certainly deserves special mention creating such a hushed and haunting atmosphere. Although she never performed the song on television to promote the album, Ross added this song to her live act and it quickly became a standout; amazingly, the singer sounded as good — if not better — singing the song live in concert.
11. I Will Survive: Although Diana’s version of this disco classic — a #1 smash in 1979 for Gloria Gaynor — isn’t the best song on the album, it probably stood the best chance at giving the singer a significant hit in the United States. Produced by Narada Michael Walden, “I Will Survive” is transformed here into a modern club banger with a slick beat and boisterous, club-ready background vocals; Diana opens the song sighing “This is dedicated to my girls” before launching into an energetic, playful lead vocal, at once powerful and light as air. The song immediately gained attention; Ross added it to her act, using it as a rousing closer to her show, and began performing it on television (including a hilarious appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman”) to strong response. She also filmed a music video for the song, shooting it on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood and turning the entire event into a celebration of the LGBT community; Ross would later explain to Rolling Stone, “I’ve had a big gay following all my career, which I love. ‘I Will Survive’ – we did it up here on Sunset, and we had every gay group in L.A. out in the parade. RuPaul was on the stage with me singing. It was amazing, it was brilliant. And then at the end of the song, I dove into the audience. I just ran and jumped in the audience, and I was carried around by all the kids” (November 13, 1997). The video was released by EMI to promote the single in the United Kingdom, and “I Will Survive” climbed to #14, becoming the album’s biggest hit in that country. But while the music video also gained plenty of attention in the United States, being featured in numerous entertainment programs in the wake of Diana’s well-received Super Bowl XXX halftime show, Motown stubbornly refused to jump on the interest generated by “I Will Survive.” Quoted in a Billboard article about the song in the magazine’s February 17, 1996 issue, Motown product manager Thornell Jones said, “It’s not that we don’t recognize that there is interest in the [music video], but we are concentrating on positioning others songs by her to radio right now.” Motown was also admittedly worried about another version of “I Will Survive,” this one arranged as a ballad and performed by singer Chantay Savage, which was released in early 1996 and eventually peaked into the Top 5 of the R&B Singles chart; while it might have been unusual to release two competing versions of the same song, both are extremely different and probably could have co-existed at radio and retail. Diana’s version did manage to climb to #37 on the Dance Club Play chart, simply based on an import version of the 12-inch getting enough spins; had remixes been made available to DJs stateside, the song likely would have followed “Take Me Higher” to the top spot. In any case, even without a release in America, the song has become an anthem for Miss Ross; she still uses it as her concert-closer, and her version is likely her most-played song of the 1990s in the United States, thanks in part to its place on the soundtrack of the hit Kevin Kline movie In & Out. It remains an infectious listen; if it’s not quite as fresh as the album’s title track nor as strong a vocal showcase for the sing, it’s still a terrific way to close the album, bringing it full circle and standing as a declaration that Diana Ross remained a force to be reckoned with.
Swing It: Included on the EMI edition of Take Me Higher, this song was featured instead of “Let Somebody Know,” (and got a release in the United States as the b-side to second single “Gone”). The good news is that while “Let Somebody Know” is one terrific track, “Swing It” is a worthy recording, too, and so the replacement really doesn’t take away from the success of the album as a whole. Co-written by Babyface and produced by Jon-John, the song is a slick and smooth piece of modern R&B, similar in tone to “Keep It Right There.” The “Do you think that you can swing a little time with me?” chorus is even catchier than that previous song’s, and the “electro-flute” sound here is a nice gimmick that makes it memorable. Diana’s performance is relaxed and sexy, similar to her work on “If You’re Not Gonna Love Me Right” — her opening “Woo!” and laugh are nice and loose, too. The superb background vocals by Heather Mason, Natasha Pierce, and Alex Rowe are also a smart addition; they end up sound like a 90s version of the Supremes behind Miss Ross. It’s too bad that both the domestic and international versions of Take Me Higher couldn’t have just included this song and “Let Somebody Know” — they’re both deserving of a place on the album.
Despite a flurry of publicity by Diana Ross surrounding Take Me Higher and its first single, the album just didn’t garner enough attention among the record-buying masses to ensure a success in the singer’s home country. The album ended up topping out at #114 on the Billboard 200 and #38 on the R&B Albums chart; fortunately, it fared far better in the United Kingdom, where it peaked at #10 on the charts and produced a trio of Top 40 singles. Just a few months after the album’s release, Miss Ross performed a pair of its songs in front of the largest audience of her career, as the featured halftime entertainment at Super Bowl XXX in Arizona; the football game averaged 95.13 million people in the United States, the largest ratings ever for a sporting event in America at the time. Reaction to Diana’s performance was extremely positive and remains so, often ranking toward the top of the list of best Super Bowl halftime performances. Unfortunately, Motown missed any opportunity to capitalize off of the publicity, dropping the (foot)ball by not focusing attention on “I Will Survive,” which the singer had performed during her 12-minute visual spectacular.
It’s easy to focus on the album’s chart statistics and sales, especially in light of how strong the album is; this is truly the work that should have taken Diana Ross back to the top of the charts. That said, more than two decades after its release, Take Me Higher holds up remarkably well and is ripe for rediscovery by casual fans unaware of the Ross discography beyond her biggest hits. Take Me Higher is, simply put, a perfect Diana Ross album. But more than that, it’s a great contemporary R&B album, every bit as accomplished as many of the albums that topped the R&B album chart in 1995, including Mariah Carey’s superb Daydream and the Waiting To Exhale soundtrack. In the way that folks who missed 1971’s Surrender and 1973’s Last Time I Saw Him are now realizing what gems they were thanks to splendid reissues, one can only hope someday young music fans will stumble upon this notable piece of work. That’s the power of Diana Ross at her best; her voice and spirit transcend musical styles and fads, and that’s why her stunning career continues.
Final Analysis: 5/5 (Diana Soars “Higher” Than Ever)
Paul’s Picks: “Only Love Can Conquer All,” “I Never Loved A Man Before,” “Gone”