“Baby, we can rise above it if we leave our doubts behind us…we can learn to fly…”
Diana Ross burst back onto the music scene in 1995 with Take Me Higher, her first studio album for Motown since 1991’s The Force Behind The Power. Though she’d released some collections, live albums, and international sets between them, it was a long wait for fans, and it was also a period of continued change in the music world. By ’95, hip-hop was becoming mainstream, singers like Mariah Carey were breaking records with long-running #1 hits, and barely-teen artists like Brandy and Monica were topping the charts. Certainly there was question about where Diana Ross would fit in, especially given that her previous two albums for Motown really hadn’t given her any traction sales-wise. During a televised acceptance speech for her Soul Train Music Lifetime Achievement Award, she mentioned the time being one of a “new beginning” for her, and working with younger artists on her new album.
Released in the fall of 1995, Take Me Higher instantly allayed any fears of Diana Ross no longer fitting in to mainstream music; it is, without a doubt, one of the best studio albums of her entire career, and certainly the best she would turn out during her second stint as a Motown Records recording artist. From start to finish, Miss Ross sounds stronger and more assured than she had on pretty much all of her material since the late 1970s/early 80s, and that material is uniformly good, with several of the songs here career standouts for the singer. First single “Take Me Higher,” produced by the legendary Narada Michael Walden, is a slamming, fiery dance track that shot to #1 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart. Miss Ross promoted the heck out of the song, energetically performing it on David Letterman’s late night talk show, on another Soul Train awards show, and in — in her biggest appearance of all — during the Super Bowl halftime show in early 1996.
Even with this kind of promotion — not to mention a slick music video that she personally presented on BET (Black Entertainment Television), the song barely registered on the pop and R&B charts. None of the other singles saw much chart action — incredibly, not even Diana’s take on Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” a song she also promoted heavily with appearances and a music video and that has become a favorite of both fans and the singer herself. Whether this was due to Miss Ross not getting enough support from her label, or to a youth-oriented audience not interested 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; nearly 20 years later, the album still sounds fresh and powerful, and Miss Ross’s voice is as lovely as it would ever sound on record. With it, she 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: Possibly the most exciting Diana Ross single since 1980’s “I’m Coming Out,” this is Diana Ross 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. This is the song that should have taken Diana Ross higher on the pop charts, too; it totally missed the top 100, mind-boggling given its catchiness and the quality of both the production and vocals. Just four years later, fellow veteran Cher would have a #1 hit with the dance-pop track “Believe,” a good song but certainly not any better than this one, and it’s a shame “Take Me Higher” didn’t find the same kind of massive success. 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; she seems rejuvenated and ready to tackle music full-on again. Producer (and co-writer) Narada Michael Walden — who’d delivered #1 hits for Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Aretha Franklin — surrounds Diana with layered track featuring shimmering keyboards and an amazing background choir including 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, Miss Ross’s vocals are soulful and sure-footed on the verses (listen to her gorgeous “Love will be there waitin’ for us…” at :50), 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; though it should have been a bigger hit, it at least gave Miss Ross another #1 on a music chart, something she’d first done an astonishing 31 years earlier.
2. If You’re Not Gonna Love Me Right: Another Walden-produced track, this one was released as the final single from the album (combined by Motown with “Voice Of The Heart”) and reached the lower portion of the R&B chart. A smooth, mid-tempo number, the song is similar in tone to those released from Monica’s debut album, Miss Thang (including “Don’t Take It Personal [Just One Of Dem Days]” and “Like This And Like That”), but is completely age-appropriate and pitched perfectly for Diana’s deepening voice. Miss Ross’s low-key, relaxed work on the verses is sexy and confident, and again sounds well-matched with the layered backing voice of Kimaya Seward. Walden also wisely gives Diana some spoken words, something the actress in her pretty much always nails, and she sounds great purring the words, “…when you’re not here it makes me feel like…I can’t trust you.” I like the key-change around 2:55, which adds a nice excitement toward the end of the song, and Diana’s ad-libbing for the duration of the track is soulful and never overdone. 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 certainly succeeds.
3. Voice Of The Heart: The album’s first ballad is a knockout; produced by Nick Martinelli, the man responsible for Diana’s holiday album A Very Special Season the year before, “Voice Of The Heart” ranks among the diva’s best ballads of the 90s, if not of her whole solo career. Released as a “second A-side” to the “If You’re Not Gonna Love Me Right” single, this one managed to climb to #28 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary listing, not a bad showing but still well lower than it deserved. This is, simply put, the most soulful ballad Miss Ross had recorded since “It’s Hard For Me To Say” in 1987; the track is miles away from Martinelli’s orchestral arrangements on the holiday album, and it’s much more complex than most of the slower songs featured on The Force Behind The Power. The instrumental track 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 here, 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, “…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. The lyrics of the song convey the kind of inspirational message that Diana has always been fond of, all the way back to her first solo single, “Reach Out And Touch” — 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: Produced and co-written by singer-songwriter Brenda Russell, this is yet another stunning ballad, and perhaps the most “adult” song on the entire album. The slow, almost somber tone is similar to the kind of classy work identified with Sade and Anita Baker, not to mention other Russell songs like “Get Here,” a huge hit for Oleta Adams in 1990. 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. Diana’s attention to the lyrics here is masterful; listen to the way she delivers certain lines, such as “raise yo’ blinds” (at :32) — there’s a deeply felt, “root-sy,” 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” and “To Love Again”) 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.
5. Keep It Right There: By 1995, no songwriter/producer was hotter than Babyface, who’d given major hits to superstars like Whitney Houston, Boyz II Men, and Madonna (not to mention himself). He co-wrote this tune with Jon-John, who also produced it, and who’d previously worked with TLC on its blockbuster album CrazySexyCool. “Keep It Right There” actually has a very “TLC” kind of sound; it’s easy to imagine the girl group recording the song and including it on one of its albums. That said, it’s a nice fit for Diana; this is smooth, cool R&B, and Miss Ross’s easy and relaxed delivery helps set the tone. Coming after two much “heavier” songs in production and theme songs, this is a nice and necessary respite; it’s contemporary enough to remind listeners of Miss Ross’s relevance, but it doesn’t sound forced or inappropriate for her. There’s also a playfulness here that adds a spark to the song; this is the kind of spark that was missing from some of the tracks on The Force Behind The Power in both the production and in the vocals. Whatever was going on in Diana’s personal life here, she certainly sounds like she was feeling sexy and youthful at the time.
6. Don’t Stop: The most youth-oriented track here, this is the product of The Boom Brothers, a young team out of “the Babyface camp” (as Miss Ross said in interviews). It also has the distinction of being of the very few (maybe the first?) Diana Ross songs to feature a sample (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.” Though this was never released as a single, BET did play the song with a video made up of clips from the photography sessions for the CD booklet; it was presented by Miss Ross during an appearance on the show “Video Soul.” 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 a fun “breather” that helps balance the overall product.
7. Gone: Another one of this album’s shining moments, this was pulled as the second single from Take Me Higher; though it didn’t chart in the US, it managed to just pass into the UK top 40 (interestingly, some international singles featured “I’m Gone” written on the cover, though it’s just titled “Gone” on the CD and the US single). This is another Jon-John production, and was written solely by him; it’s a shuffling 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; it certainly didn’t sound like anything else on radio at the time, and really doesn’t sound like much else in the Diana discography period, though the lush orchestration is reminiscent of some of her mid-70s pop ballads (like 1976’s “I Thought It Took A Little Time”). 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’s 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 Ross’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: This song has become a minor Diana Ross classic, thanks to her superb performance of it during an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2000 (while promoting her “Return To Love” Supremes tour; during the performance, she handed the microphone off to an excited background singer, an unforgettable moment of graciousness). Though it was never released as a single, it’s another fabulous ballad, with an inspirational message similar to those on “Voice Of The Heart” and “Let Somebody Know.” Like those previous tunes, this also combines elements of soul and gospel; it was written and produced by Narada Michael Walden, and again features a background choir including singers Patti Austin and Angela Bofill. This, more than any other song on the album, is a classic Diana Ross “message” song, addressing issues of race relations through lyrics like, “What if we try talking…we’ll see we’re the same on the inside.” 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 here, 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 Diana Ross’s greatest songs; 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 the 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 an accomplished and classy work thanks to producer Nick Martinelli, who layers the 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. There’s not a bad track on Take Me Higher, but for my money “I Never Loved A Man Before” is the one that showcases Diana Ross at her very best, and is a song that deserves to be heard by a wide, appreciative audience.
10. I Thought That We Were Still In Love: Producer Nick Martinelli takes the jazz overtones of the previous track and carries them much further here, in a piano-and-sax-driven torch song tailor-made for Diana Ross. Like the previous number, it was also co-written by Tom Snow, who’d worked up some fabulously sophisticated songs on Baby It’s Me, and this one is truly like an updated version of a selection that could have easily fit in on that 1977 album. But beyond that, this song easily could have also fit in with those she performed on Stolen Moments: The Lady Sings…Jazz And Blues; Miss Ross’s work here is loose and relaxed, but never loses the poignant, emotional edge needed to sell the lyric. Producer Martinelli commented in a recent interview with showbiz journalist Lance Chau: “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 the behind-the-scenes method here, it definitely worked; her vocal here is as good as anything she’d record during the decade, and along with the recording of her own composition “Where Did We Go Wrong” (included on international versions of Stolen Moments), makes a strong case for Diana needing to record a studio album of original jazz songs.
11. I Will Survive: The album’s closer is “dedicated to my girls,” as Diana purrs during the opening; it is, of course, a remake of the 1979 Gloria Gaynor disco anthem, and is transformed here into a modern club banger by Miss Ross and producer Narada Michael Walden. It has since become an anthem for Miss Ross; she has used it as a concert-closer ever since recording it, 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. Miss Ross filmed a video for the song (featuring drag queen RuPaul) and performed it on television (including a hilarious appearance on David Letterman’s late-night program)…and yet, amazingly, Motown never released it as a single in the states. The song hit #14 in the UK, and probably had more potential than any other here to be a hit in the US; that it never really got a shot is just a total waste. In any case, it’s a great version of a classic song; Diana sounds fierce and energetic, and the beat and background vocals are as irresistible as those featured on “Take Me Higher.” Her performance here is not only powerful, it’s also playful; her ad-libbing toward the end is reminiscent of her work on 1976’s “Love Hangover,” as she changes the pitch of her voice and seems to be having a fantastic time in the recording studio. There couldn’t have been a more perfect way to end this album; “I Will Survive” brings it full circle, back to the full-on dance sound of the opening number, and is certainly a declaration from the singer that (in her own famous words at Central Park), “I’m not going anywhere.”
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 both this song and “Let Somebody Know” — they’re both deserving of a place on the album.
Note: For information on bonus tracks from this album, click HERE.
Take Me Higher is, simply put, a perfect Diana Ross album. But apart from the rest of her own discography, it’s just a great contemporary R&B album. The quality of the songs, the production, and the vocals are consistently strong from start to finish, something that many albums of the decade struggled with. Take Me Higher is 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. Even if the singles didn’t perform particularly well, the album itself certainly deserved a better showing than it found on the US charts (it at least managed to hit the top 10 in the UK, although none of the singles were massive hits there).
The good news? Because it’s not well-known, it’s ripe for rediscovery. 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. The production on the album is so good that it never feels dated (in the way that even some of the songs on The Force Behind The Power from ’91 do), and there’s a good chance that even 20 years from now, it will still feel fresh and vibrant. 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)
Choice Cuts: “I Never Loved A Man Before,” “Gone,” “Let Somebody Know”