“My yesterday was blue, dear…now I’m a part of you, dear…”
“I found the reels for Blue just mixed in haphazardly among dozens of Marvin Gaye tapes. Of course, within two seconds of listening I knew what we had” (Taraborrelli 273).
Catalog producer George Solomon is credited in J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana Ross: A Biography with finding Blue in the Motown vaults in 1990. When it was finally released in 2006, it became Diana Ross’s first studio album of the new millennium; strange, since it’s not really a new album at all. The album is a collection of jazz standards, songs written by masters ranging from Cole Porter to George Gershwin. According to Solomon, the songs had been sitting in the vaults since the early 1970s, when Miss Ross scored her first (and only) #1 solo album, the soundtrack to her Oscar-nominated film Lady Sings The Blues: “Some Motown executives who were around back in the seventies indicated that with the success of the Lady soundtrack, The Blue Album was intended to be the follow up LP” (273).
Of course, Touch Me In The Morning ended up being the follow up LP, and rumors of this album remained unconfirmed until it finally showed up on store shelves, initially as a Starbucks exclusive. It shot to #2 on the Billboard Top Jazz Albums chart and #71 on the R&B album chart…not bad for a project recorded more than 30 years earlier. Reviews were also far better than anything Miss Ross had released in years; typical is this write-up from All Music Guide: “Blue is an album every bit as bold an artistic statement as her contemporaries Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, who were recording the opuses Where I’m Coming From and What’s Going On around the same time…”
Whatever the reasons for Blue being held back in the early 1970s, it was a welcome release in 2006. Diana Ross had suffered some very bad press at the beginning of the decade, and Blue brought the focus back to her music, setting her up for an even bigger return to the charts with her next album, I Love You. Because Diana had tended to recycle the songs from the Lady Sings The Blues soundtrack quite frequently in her concerts, it’s refreshing to hear her tackle “new” jazz classics here; it’s also nice to hear the songs “Smile” and “Little Girl Blue” — each of which ended up on other 70s albums — in their originally intended surroundings. But at the end of the day, the joy of Blue is that voice; there’s a great complexity to her performances here, but it’s always masked in purity and simplicity. Diana Ross’s greatest skill is making it all sound easy; her effortless delivery here is a great reminder of that.
1. What A Diff’rence A Day Makes: The set opens with probably its single best track, an achingly beautiful and delicate reading of the classic most closely identified with Dinah Washington (who won a Grammy for it in 1960). This recording is so good — so perfect in every element — that it’s really quite surprising it never managed to find its way onto an album earlier; it would’ve fit well on Touch Me In The Morning, for example. Opening with swirling strings and driven by a lovely acoustic guitar similar to that featured on “Little Girl Blue,” the instrumental here is absolutely masterful; it is languid, relaxed, sophisticated, and sexy. Diana Ross’s performance here is all of those things, too; this is perhaps one of her best recorded vocals ever, a stunning mix of youthful optimism and mature wisdom. Listen, for example, to Ross begin the second verse, crooning “What a diff’rence a day makes…there’s a rainbow before me…” with a skillfully masked joy; as sluggish as the lyrics come, the listener can’t help but notice a “smile” in Diana’s voice. This transmission of emotion through tone is something Miss Ross excels at; it’s what makes her such an outstanding vocalist. She also demonstrates a pleasant playfulness around 2:45 in, as she changes up the melody while singing, “…since that moment of bliss…” — she is even more relaxed and loose here than she was on some of her Lady Sings The Blues recordings. This is such an accomplished delivery that it’s easy to forget it came so early in Diana Ross’s solo career; this cool chanteuse is light years away from the girl singing with soulful abandon on 1971’s Surrender. Though this track was also included on the 2006 Diana Ross solo compilation The Definitive Collection and released to iTunes as “single,” it should have been pushed — hard — to adult contemporary and adult R&B radio stations; artists like Rod Stewart were getting serious play out of standards-themed “songbook” albums at this time, and with a performance like this, Diana proved she did it first — and best.
2. No More: Another one of Blue’s highlights is the work turned in by Diana Ross on this song, which was recorded by Billie Holiday in 1944 (and, according to online sources, she cited as a personal favorite). It’s interesting that this one was left off of Lady Sings The Blues — I’d wager that it was a little “too jazz” for those at Motown, who reportedly worried the soundtrack would stray too far from Diana’s pop/soul sound. “No More” is musically a much more complex composition than “Don’t Explain” or “Good Morning Heartache,” in that its structure isn’t nearly as traditional; the dark, minor key and lack of easily identifiable refrain make it a much more challenging song to follow. This, then, is the kind of song that really showcases Miss Ross’s natural affinity for singing jazz and blues; a lot of pop singers take on standards like “All Of Me,” but few could tackle a piece like this and pull it off. I think the key here is phrasing; because the musical line is a little more unorthodox, it would be easy for a singer to get “lost” along the way. Billie Holiday was famous for her phrasing, and Diana excels at it here, too; listen to her sing the words, “Woke up this morning and found and I didn’t care for you no more…” — her angular delivery and odd phrasing really do echo Holiday, maybe even more clearly than she had on the film soundtrack. Because it’s not an easy song to sing along with, “No More” doesn’t stand out as much as something like the previous track; however, it’s absolutely worth listening closely to, as it really is an impressive piece of work.
3. Let’s Do It: Diana Ross’s take on Cole Porter’s comically suggestive love song “Let’s Do It” is a joy to listen to; again, this is an exercise in style and sophistication, and such an adult recording it bears repeating that Miss Ross was still in her 20s when she recorded it. The instrumental track is brassy and slick, similar in feel to “‘Taint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” in its undercurrent of brash sexiness. Unlike many of the torch song standards recorded by Miss Ross, this one puts her in the role of aggressor; here, she sings a series of carefully masked come-ons (“The Dutch in old Amsterdam do it, not to mention the Fins…folks in Siam do it, think of Siamese Twins…”). There’s a cool, coy quality to Diana here; rather than milk the clever lyrics for giggles from the audience (as she might have done early in her Supremes days, like on a song like “Fancy Passes”), she plays it totally straight, letting the words speak for themselves. Though the melody line isn’t particularly showy or challenging, Diana takes a few liberties and shows a little range, especially after the faux-ending at 2:00 (at that point, the musical break provides a nice fake-out, before a hammering drum kicks the song back to the bridge). Notably, Miss Ross also holds the last note for nearly 12-seconds, something she rarely does as a vocalist, and it’s a nice touch. Overall, “Let’s Do It” is a sparkling addition to the album and a nice pairing of a mature, understated vocal with a song that deserves exactly that.
4. I Loves Ya Porgy: Of all the songs on Blue, reviewers at the time of release seemed to have an issue most often with this, Diana’s version of the Gershwin classic from Porgy And Bess; About.com Guide’s Robert Fontenot, for example, said “she sings as if she learned it phonetically.” There is absolutely no doubt that the upbeat, jaunty version here is WORLDS away from Nina Simone’s haunting, mournful reading of the song from the late 1950s — not to mention the various operatic stage versions over the years. The lyrics are certainly not upbeat ones; in the song, the character of Bess begs for Porgy to protect and “keep” her. In this arrangement, by the brilliant musical director/conductor Gil Askey, the song becomes a big-band swing, and Diana is almost breathless in her vibrant energy here, which certainly seems to clash with the intentions of the piece as written. That said, placed in this uptempo arrangement, Diana gives a splendid performance; to fault her with singing it this way isn’t really fair, since that’s what the tone set by the band calls for. She is calm and controlled for the first 1:50 of the song, singing at the lower end of her range, before suddenly kicking it up a notch, almost mimicking a trumpet in the way she jumps up and down notes (especially at 2:50, with her skipping “…keep me Porgy, I wanna stay here…”). Her vocal gymnastics (her belting of the title at 3:37 is the most “muscle” she shows on the whole album) may indeed seem an odd juxtaposition with the somber origin of the song, but this is also great singing, and hearing Diana Ross get into a song is a thrill, especially given her coolness on so many of the other tracks on Blue. She even throws in a short “scat” at the end of the song…though, let’s be honest, it’s sounds a little more like Detroit beat-boxing than Ella Fitzgerald!
5. Smile: This is the same “Smile” — written by Sir Charles Chaplin, aka The Little Tramp — that first appeared on Diana’s 1976 hit album Diana Ross; it was lifted from the vaults and placed as the final track on that album. After some great sophisticated ballads on that album, “Smile” fell woefully short; as I wrote in that album’s discussion: “There’s a saccharine and syrupy quality to her performance here that echoes some of the most pretentious of her Supremes recordings, and this is especially evident in light of her masterful readings of ballads like ‘Theme From Mahogany’ and the previous track, ‘After You.'” Here, in its original context, “Smile” certainly sounds better and makes more sense; that said, the commentary on Diana’s vocal still holds true. After incredible restraint on “What A Diff’rence…” and “No More,” her singing on this tune really sounds overdone. Listen to the way she twists a word like “near” into “neeeahhhh” at 1:38; she seems to be wringing emotion out of a phrase that really doesn’t need it, and when simplicity would’ve served so much better. Askey’s equally sugary arrangement doesn’t really help, either; though all of the tracks on Blue are polished, this string-led arrangement is almost a little too polished. Diana’s live reading of “Smile” on the recording of her one-woman show An Evening With Diana Ross easily surpasses this recorded version, if only because it’s a little rougher around the edges, and thus sounds more honest.
6. But Beautiful: A pretty song recorded by Billie Holiday for her classic Lady In Satin album, this is similar to “No More” in that Miss Ross really does sound like the jazz legend here. Just 20 seconds in, as she sings the words “…quiet…or it’s mad…” there’s an audible rough edge to her voice, especially on the word “or,” that sounds almost identical to Billie Holiday on the Lady In Satin album. It happens again at :50, with “I wouldn’t mind at all…” — the sharp, gravelly sound to her voice is almost startling in its imperfection, not to mention its similarity to Holiday. Because the song isn’t quite as catchy as others here, and the melody isn’t as distinct, it’s not one of the more immediately memorable on Blue, but it’s no less important to the project’s overall success. Really, it’s a pity it wasn’t included as part of the film and soundtrack recording of Lady Sings The Blues, as it’s further proof of just how far Miss Ross came in capturing the sound and essence of Holiday.
7. Had You Been Around: This is one of the great treats of Blue, in that it’s a song that had featured on the Lady Sings The Blues soundtrack — but not with Diana’s voice gracing it. In the film, this is sung by another woman in the “Cafe Manhattan” scene, during which Diana as Billie is introduced to the kind of high-class clubs she aspires to perform in. The other “treat,” for those who realize it, is that this really isn’t a “standard” in the way the other songs are. In fact, this is a song co-written by Ron Miller (of “Touch Me In The Morning”) and recorded by Billy Eckstine for his 1965 Motown album Prime Of My Life. It blends in perfectly with the rest of the album, however, and indeed stands out as one of the very best tracks here; this is a light, upbeat swinging tune with a beautifully rendered big-band sound and great, refreshing lead vocal from Diana. Because she’s not working off a “blueprint” set by Billie Holiday, she sounds more like herself here, although she still brilliantly captures the off-the-beat timing and restraint she’d mastered on the older songs. There’s a real, audible joy in Diana’s voice on this track; here again is that “smile” in her sound, which works well to elevate the performance and make it memorable. Had Blue indeed been released back in the 70s, when it was intended, this would have been a likely (and good) choice for a single release; it has even more pop appeal than “Good Morning Heartache” (which managed to hit the top 40 in 1972) and features a sweet, youthful vocal performance reminiscent of the mid-1960s work that made Diana Ross a star in the first place.
8. Little Girl Blue: This song was initially saved from the vaults by placement on 1973’s Touch Me In The Morning; it was that album’s high point, standing out as one of the single best album tracks from Diana Ross’s entire discography. The version here features the same gorgeous instrumental track; the delicate jazz guitar work and haunting strings are heartbreakingly beautiful, the work of masters. The difference here is in the lead vocal; the Blue version features a spoken intro, for starters, a startling change for those used to Diana’s velvety beginning in the Touch Me… recording. Because that version is so perfect in its effortlessness, hearing Diana “act” the opening lyrics is a little bit of a comedown; the other-worldly quality to her singing is missing in this spoken section. Thankfully, she quickly picks up the melody and croons with the same sort of sincerity that marked her other vocal take; she continues with her achingly beautiful vocal performance until the end, when her voice is doubled and she speaks a few lyrics again. As on the intro, the spoken section just doesn’t measure up; it robs the song of some of the ethereal quality that made it such a masterpiece. Now, all of this said, it’s really not fair to compare the two versions, since they were never intended to compete with each other. For those who don’t have the two versions to compare, “Little Girl Blue” here will be a beautiful piece of work; it’s still a dazzling combination of skillful musicians and a singer connecting to a tender lyric.
9. I Can’t Get Started: A jazz classic that first appeared in the 1930s and found everlasting fame as a trumpet masterpiece for Bunny Berigan, this is another vocal and instrumental masterwork. The jazz guitar playing — sadly uncredited — is breathtaking, and the solo beginning around 2:27 rivals the violin on 1999’s “He Lives In You” (from Every Day Is A New Day) as the best instrumental solo ever featured on a Diana Ross recording. Miss Ross’s performance is beautifully realized; there is a definite sense of resignation to her voice, perfectly fitting lyrical lines like, “…the North Pole I’ve charted, but I can’t get started with you.” Her sound here is so clear and defined that it’s like audible glass; there’s not a wasted breath to this efficient, effective performance. She’s especially impressive at her transition from “And what good does it do?” at 1:32, during which she turns the word “good” into a musical sigh, to “I’ve sold my kisses at a bazaar…,” at which point she lifts her vocal up an octave. This may not be the showiest or most recognizable song on Blue, but in its brief, 3-minute running time, it manages to capture everything the entire album aims for; it’s an exquisite slice of jazz performed by seasoned veterans and sung by a woman hitting a new artistic plane. Even the harshest critics of Miss Ross as a jazz singer can’t deny the power in her clarity and the skill she shows in selling this song.
10. Love Is Here To Stay: This is the first true case of a crossover between Blue and Lady Sings The Blues; “Love Is Here To Stay” was featured with an alternate vocal at the close of the soundtrack’s first LP. The song is truly an American classic; it’s the final one written by both George and Ira Gershwin (George apparently passed away before Ira had written the lyrics), and was notably featured in the 1951 film An American In Paris, which was a big success and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It was a standout on the Lady… soundtrack because it was one of the bounciest and upbeat songs included; Miss Ross’s performance on it was as shimmering and joyful as the best of her Supremes Rodgers and Hart recordings. The alternate vocal here is equally good; in fact, her quiet ad-libbing during the instrumental break at 1:06 raises the bar and makes this a more unique and compelling listen than the other released version. She’s certainly looser with the melody, too; she bounces up and down notes a little more freely, which gives the song an added spontaneity and element of surprise. As with the earlier version, the final refrain of the song’s title (which is also the last sung lyrics of the song) reflect Diana Ross at her very best; hearing her sing “Our love is here to stay…” at 1:58, and listening to that full-bodied, satisfying final note, is just pure bliss for fans of Miss Ross’s voice. Any one of the many, many songs from the Lady… soundtrack could have been pulled over for inclusion on this album, but choosing this one was a wise move.
11. You’ve Changed: Another song that had already featured on the soundtrack to Diana’s Oscar-nominated film debut, this one gets a much different treatment on Blue; starting with a completely new arrangement. The instrumental is far more complex, featuring wind instruments, a strumming guitar, horns, and swelling strings; the film version was much more bare and piano-driven. This one is also cut in a higher key and features a slightly faster tempo; it’s far truer to the sound of the Billie Holiday recording on her Lady In Satin album. Strangely, although the musical track is more much like Holiday’s version, Diana’s vocal sounds less like Holiday than it did on the film soundtrack version. In the movie, she sang the song with a stark, almost hollow sound that reflected the frailty of Billie Holiday’s performance on the song. In this version, Diana sounds a lot more like herself; the high, crisp tone is smoother and lighter here, giving the song a much more youthful and healthy feel. Listen to her sing “You’ve changed…” at 1:25; her voice is so angelic that she honestly sounds like a ringing bell. Because Diana’s two versions of the song are so different, it’s actually easier to appreciate each one’s merits. This version, while not nearly as haunting, is a more enjoyable listening experience, and the beautiful, fuller instrumental arrangement is a gorgeous listen and only serves to enhance Diana’s voice.
12. My Man (Mon Homme): This has got to be one of the single most recorded songs in the Diana Ross discography; it featured on the Farewell double-LP by Diana and the Supremes, on the Lady Sings The Blues soundtrack, and on her live albums Live At Caesar’s Palace, An Evening With Diana Ross, and Stolen Moments: The Lady Sings…Jazz And Blues. For my money, it never got better than the original soundtrack version, which was a wrenching study in controlled emotion and vocal tension; that version stands as one of the best in her entire recording history, and is a perfect example of her gift for interpreting lyrics with total honesty. This recording of “My Man” (which was popularized by Fannie Brice in the 1920s before it was recorded by Billie Holiday) falls somewhere closer to Diana’s version with the Supremes and her live recordings; technically it’s a good performance, but the emotion is nowhere near as gripping as it was on the soundtrack. Rather than authentically delivering the words, she is audibly “acting” a little bit here; the performance is more dramatic and “showy,” as though it’s being performed before an audience. The fatigue and resignation of a woman caught in a bad relationship — which was sharply evident on the soundtrack — is replaced here with a more girlish vocal that does lessen the impact of the lyrics somewhat. Again, technically this is a good performance; “My Man” gives Diana a chance to show some vocal muscle and really reach toward the upper end of her range at the end, which is nice to hear after so many laid-back vocals on Blue. This song was to have been the final track on the album, and while it’s a good finish, a more impactful vocal would have really left listeners breathless.
13. Easy Living: The remainder of the songs here, beginning with “Easy Living,” are listed as Bonus Tracks — apparently discovered in the vaults but not intended for original release on Blue. It’s interesting that this one wasn’t part of the scheduled lineup, because it’s a brilliant track; this is one of the best recording here in terms of both the instrumental and the vocal. There is something about “Easy Living” that really captures the sound of the 1930s (the song was written in 1937); it actually sounds like it could have been recorded in that era, unlike some of the other songs that were chosen for release on Blue. The track here has a lazy, brassy feel that conjures images of vintage New York in the summertime; one can easily imagine Diana Ross sitting on a brownstone porch step or a fire escape in the heat, crooning the lyrics, “Livin’ for you…is easy livin’…it’s easy to live when you’re in love…” Her vocal here is utter perfection; there’s a lovely sluggishness to her vocal, as though she’s almost taunting the band behind her to keep going and leave her behind. The horn work here is also top-notch; Gil Askey’s arrangement is so completely authentic to the period that it really does sound decades older than the 70s. This is a recording on which every single element comes together in elegant perfection; again, it’s amazing that it wasn’t going to be included on either the Lady… soundtrack or Blue — had this been left in the vaults forever, it would have been an absolute shame.
14. Solitude: A slow, haunting ballad featuring another gorgeous vocal performance from Diana Ross. The instrumental track is muted here, allowing the singer to really retain complete focus for the entire running time. Written by the great Duke Ellington in the 1930s, this one was recorded by Billie Holiday and other masters like Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone; Diana Ross’s performance is every bit as effective, conveying the lyrics simply and with a stunning clarity of tone. This is an extremely brief recording, running only two minutes, and thus is the shortest of any of the songs on Blue. It is to the credit of all involved that in two minutes, the song manages to establish a definite atmosphere and retain it so strongly. A nice addition by the re-issue producers here is leaving in some studio chatter at the end of the song; as the final note fades away, a male voice (probably Askey) calls out “Very good!” and Miss Ross replies, “Good one, yeah.”
15. He’s Funny That Way: A nice “bonus” track, if not the standout that “Easy Living” or even “Solitude” is. Diana’s performance here is nicely done; her lower notes are sublime (listen at :52 to her “I’ve got a man…crazy for me…”) and there’s a pleasing roundness to her voice on the higher notes. The instrumental provides a perfect musical bed; a strumming guitar keeps the beat and there’s some nice brass and piano work that keep the piece shuffling along. At the end of the day, this track just doesn’t stand out as much as many of the others here, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad or not worth inclusion; it’s a fine album track and again showcases some extremely talented artists at work.
16. T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do: The final track here is another one that’s immediately recognizable to fans; not only was it featured on the Lady Sings The Blues soundtrack, but Miss Ross has also performed snippets of it on several live albums and television specials. As with “My Man (Mon Homme)” — it’s extremely hard to top the soundtrack version, and this recording doesn’t quite measure up. Miss Ross’s performance for the film featured a subdued swagger that conveyed a cool toughness, perfectly underscoring the lyrics about living one’s life without care to what others think. She’s a little too giddy on this version; at times, her girlish delivery is very much like her early work with the Supremes (i.e. her “But I’m going to do…” at :33) and doesn’t really fit with the coyly belligerent tone the song calls for. For fans, this song at least provides an interesting glimpse into Diana’s willingness to try different things in the studio.
The success of Blue in 2006 is a testament to the strength of the songs included and the immense talent on display all around. Gil Askey’s work here arranging and producing this batch of classics really is award-worthy, and Miss Diana Ross is in more-than-fine voice from beginning to end. There are very, very few pop/soul artists who could take on emotionally and musically complex songs like “No More” and “Easy Living” and deliver stunning interpretations that sound so effortless; performances like these are definitive proof of Diana Ross’s keen artistry and innate musical ability. It’s impossible to say what would have happened had Blue been released in 1972 or 1973; it might have been a blockbuster that changed the course of Diana’s career, leading to even more jazz and blues work, or it might have been a “so-so” seller that led Motown to scramble for a successful pop follow up. Instead of Blue, the world got the #1 hit “Touch Me In The Morning” and its great namesake album, so it’s hard to regret the choices Motown made.
Still, it’s a wonderful miracle that these recordings survived in such great shape and are now part of the Diana Ross discography, because they deserve to be. This is Diana Ross at her best. Those who say her voice is operating in a “limited range” on this album — as some critics did — just simply aren’t listening closely enough, or are letting personal opinions of Miss Ross get in the way of hearing the genius on display. Blue is perfection, and a must-have for not only Diana Ross fans, but also those who just appreciate good, sophisticated music.
Final Analysis: 5/5 (A Nothing “But Beautiful” Album)
Choice Cuts: “What A Diff’rence A Day Makes,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Easy Living”