“Let my baby be a baby in this world…”
As was the case with Blue in 2006, Diana Ross fans got a rare treat in late 2009 when an entire previously shelved album was finally pulled from the vaults and released to the public. To The Baby had been recorded in the early 1970s; most tracks were cut in either late 1971 or early 1972, during a busy time in Miss Ross’s career when she was working on several projects, including her Oscar-nominated film Lady Sings The Blues. She’s quoted in the release’s liner notes as saying, “I recorded [the songs] while I was pregnant, songs about children, for my children. I wanted something to give them that they can listen to and say, ‘Hey, this is what my mother was doing when I was a kid,’ you know? And I wanted to do an album that I can talk to them in.”
Plans changed, of course, when Motown decided to follow the movie with a big pop hit, and Diana soared to #1 with “Touch Me In The Morning.” An album was pulled together around the single, and several of the songs meant for the To The Baby album ended up on Touch Me In The Morning — and thus, Diana’s children-themed project seemed doomed to oblivion. Thankfully, Universal Music Group imprint Hip-O Select, in reissuing Miss Ross’s solo albums, resurrected To The Baby and included the entire album on its Touch Me In The Morning Expanded Edition. The release gave fans five new songs, including the title track written by Miss Ross’s younger brother Arthur “T-Boy” Ross (coincidentally, Diana recorded her brother’s “I Want You” just a few years before this release, on her I Love You). The other five songs had all been previously released on other projects, but in very different versions. As a bonus, Hip-O included two other similarly themed tracks to round out the disc.
It’s hard to say how To The Baby would have done if it had been released in the early 70s; being that the world got “Touch Me In The Morning” instead, it’s hard to argue with Motown’s master plan. Still, finally hearing this scrapped project is like getting an intimate glimpse into Diana’s private life during an exciting time in her life. Though she didn’t write the songs here, she worked clearly worked closely with producer Tom Baird on them — and even produced a few of the tracks herself. Consequently, the project feels extremely personal; her vocals here are warm, relaxed, and tinged with the excitement of childbirth; it’s impossible to listen to opening track “Part Of You” and not feel the giddiness of an expectant mother. More than anything else, To The Baby also serves as continued proof of just how strong the material being recorded and released by Miss Ross was during this time period. Most artists would kill to create an album this good; it’s amazing to think Motown and Diana had so much good stuff, they could afford to leave this one behind.
1. Part Of You: Written and produced by Tom Baird, this is a glorious opening track, built upon a shimmering, syncopated rhythm and featuring a sparkling, knowing performance from Diana Ross. Because this was recorded around the same time that Miss Ross was transitioning from her Ashford & Simpson work to the jazz standards of Lady Sings The Blues, her vocal style is a mix of the two; there’s a warm crispness to her voice that nods to the Billie Holiday recordings, but she also sounds much more contemporary here, keeping her voice nailed to the beat rather than letting it lag behind as it does on much of her jazz work. Baird’s production is impeccable; the song’s musical track sounds like a grown-up lullaby, built upon an accented piano line that gives way to swirling strings and a classic, soulful choir of background voices, and there’s a “tick-tock” that comes at the end of each chorus that serves as a smart, subtle nod to the theme of the song. They lyrics here are intelligently written, coming across as a love poem from an expectant mother to the father of her child, filled with the excitement of the journey or parenthood. Had To The Baby been released in the early 70s, this would have been a nice choice for a single; the song is incredibly catchy, and probably could have done well at radio, and Diana’s voice is at her gorgeous best.
2. A Wonderful Guest: Also written and produced by Tom Baird, this song serves almost like a slowed down sequel to “Part Of Me,” opening again with a piano line and also featuring lyrics from the point of view of an expectant mother. Because the song is set at a slower tempo, Diana gets to really sink her teeth into the material, and her voice sounds great here; the warmth and fullness of tone are on full display as she sings lines like “How…how can it be?” at :43, beautifully drawing out the first word over five full seconds. The instrumental break here is a bit odd; producer Baird brings in what sounds like a mariachi band to fill the space between 1:30 and 2:05, which doesn’t quite match the pensive, lullaby-esque atmosphere set by the other elements. Still, this is a lovely, touching ballad that again feels very authentic and unforced; the melody is almost as memorable as the snappy “Part Of You,” which is saying a lot.
3. Young Mothers: This is an alternate version of the acoustic ballad that first showed up on 1983’s Anthology as a “previously unreleased” track. Again produced by Tom Baird, he co-wrote this one with Kaye Lawrence Dunham, and it certainly has a different feel than the previous two pieces of music, which he’d written alone. “Young Mothers” is far more evocative of the folk/pop sound of the late 1960s and early 1970s, thanks to the persistent strumming guitar and the lyrics, which nod to the Vietnam War with lines like, “Hey now, young mothers…how shall we raise our sons? To live their lives in peace, and not take out the guns?” Miss Ross’s performance here is simple and pretty; she sounds gentle and knowing as she calls to other young women to raise their children in a world of peace. Because of the theme and sound of the production, “Young Mothers” does come off as more dated than much of the other material on To The Baby, and it’s certainly less exciting than many of the other songs here. That said, it’s nice to hear Diana “sing” her feelings about the war on record (she’d earlier called for the return of troops from Vietnam during the Supremes farewell concert in 1970, a moment that’s captured on the recording of that show). Most in the general public never associate Diana Ross with anything remotely political, though fans know she often made her case for peace and civil rights in her own elegant way.
4. First Time Ever I Saw Your Face: During the same time Diana was recording the songs for To The Baby, Roberta Flack was enjoying her first massive hit with this song. Flack had recorded it back in 1969, but it only became a hit when it was used by Clint Eastwood in his 1971 film Play Misty For Me. Flack’s version spent several weeks at #1, and soon became an oft-recorded standard. Miss Ross’s version here is produced by none other than Gil Askey, the man who’d been handling her jazz work; the reissue lines notes state it happened “…on a break from Lady Sings The Blues.” His touch is immediately audible on “First Time…,” there’s a lush, dreamy feel to the song that echoes songs like “Little Girl Blue” and “I Can’t Get Started” on Blue. Miss Ross opens the song with a spoken dedication to her “little baby, Rhonda,” a nice reminder of the motivation for this entire project, before launching into a fine vocal performance. The only fault with the lead here is that it does seems a little affected, similar to her work on “Smile” (featured on both 1976’s Diana Ross and Blue), meaning she seems to be laying it on a little thick, rather than just letting the performance happen. Her delivery on other songs from the era, like “Little Girl Blue” and “Touch Me In The Morning,” seemed more effortless and organic; there was an innate sophistication in those performances and others that just isn’t quite matched here. That said, Miss Ross is interpreting this song as a love song to a baby, not an adult lover, which means it would make sense for her to use a different tone in her voice. Listened to in that context, there is certainly an appealing sweetness to “First Time…,” even if it ultimately isn’t the standout here.
5. Got To Be There: This is a real treat of To The Baby, a self-produced version of the 1971 hit from Michael Jackson (his first solo single, which topped out at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100). Miss Ross’s recording is beautifully done, featuring one of her best and most engaging vocals on To The Baby, and an absolutely gorgeous backing track. Jackson’s version, of course, is a classic, but there’s no denying it sounds quite dated today; the harpsichord-opening, overdubbing of the lead, and background vocal arrangement are all pure late 60s/early 70s. Diana’s interpretation of the song is far more timeless; as producer, she must be credited with the joyful, elegant arrangement, including the bouncier, string-laden instrumental track. The vocal here is warm and inviting; Miss Ross nails the highest notes without the slightest hint of strain, especially her “me” at two minutes in (which she holds for a solid five seconds or so) and “home” at 2:34, which nicely jumps up a note, then back down again. Though there’s overdubbing of the vocal here, it’s not nearly as invasive as it is on Jackson’s recording; Miss Ross layers her voice off and on, at times overlapping lines as though she’s duetting with herself, and the effect is unique and memorable without seeming gimmicky or dated. Had Jackson’s version never been released, this one certainly could have; the fact that she’s singing it to her little girl might have limited its commercial appeal, but it’s a great listen and Diana sounds far better than she did on several songs from her albums of this era (like Diana & Marvin) that actually were released.
6. To The Baby: The album’s title track is another gem that went unheard for far too long; aside from being a wonderful, soulful recording, it also happens to feature the name Arthur “T-Boy” Ross as co-writer. Diana’s younger brother wrote some well-known songs at Motown (Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” and Michael Jackson’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are”) and even released an album of his own on the label in 1979. His involvement in the title track makes this entire project seem even more personal, given that Diana’s babies were also his family. Interestingly, “To The Baby” has a sound that’s not unlike that which was coming out of Philadelphia at the time, as Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff were setting up Philadelphia International Records to compete with Motown. This Philly soul sound was lush and full, a little less “rough around the edges” than the Funk Brothers-driven Motown sound. “To The Baby” has that smooth, lush sound; it could easily been recorded by the Stylistics. The lyrics speak of letting children enjoy their childhood and not growing up too fast; Miss Ross sings “To the baby, for the baby…to my little girl,” which makes it seem like she’s speaking directly to her own daughter, a nice touch. Her vocal here is sublime; she’s low-key but there’s an obvious emotion behind her delivery. For example, her “…she’ll reach up and kiss you, ’cause she loves you…” at 1:26 and the section that follows, with Diana’s voice doubled, sound convincingly impassioned; you wonder how differently she would have interpreted the lyrics had she not been a new mother herself. The song itself is extremely brief; it runs only around two-and-a-half minutes. It is, however, a sterling track and one of the best on the album; it’s good enough that it’s surprising it was never placed on another album of the era, like Touch Me In The Morning or Last Time I Saw Him.
7. Brown Baby: Here’s one that actually was released on another album; fans will recognize “Brown Baby” as part of a medley with “Save The Children” on Touch Me In The Morning. That medley was one of the great treasures of that album, thanks to its incedible, soulful instrumental track, still one of the best ever featured on a Diana Ross album. Hearing the song on To The Baby without the “Save The Children” interlude is a huge treat; it means the hypnotic, dark groove plays unbroken for more than four minutes. Miss Ross’s performance is one of her most deeply felt; she combines the loose, lazy feeling of her jazz recordings with the more urgent, intense tone of her pop work. Had it not been sliced up for the medley — and had it been released to radio in this form — this song probably could have been at least an R&B hit for Miss Ross; like “To The Baby,” it sounds akin to the Philly soul hits that were starting to really take off in the early 70s, but has the benefit the amazing Motown musicians creating a mesmeric musical reverie.
8. My Baby (My Baby My Own): Another Tom Baird composition and production, this song showed up in an altered version on Touch Me In The Morning. The difference between the two is both subtle and striking; the version from Touch Me… is slowed down, resulting in Diana Ross seeming to have a far deeper voice. It’s interesting, therefore, for fans who are used to Miss Ross’s deep, mournful call on the released version to suddenly hear the piece at a faster tempo and higher key. Miss Ross’s performance in no less impressive — in fact, her ad libs around 2:25 are maybe some of her best ever — but the song sounds much less somber here on To The Baby, something that works since the intended audience for this project was Diana’s children. Back to those ad libs — listen to her work closely at 2:25; her wordless improv here is so sublime it’s worth putting on repeat a few times. Miss Ross’s devotion to jazz music at this point in her career is obvious in the way she handles her vocal performance at the end of this song; her musical ear was clearly well-developed at this time and she confidently slides up and down the scale, using her voice as a musical instrument rather than solely as a tool to convey lyrics.
9. Turn Around: This song was released with a different mix on Miss Ross’s Last Time I Saw Him; on the discussion for that album, I wrote: “‘Turn Around’ doubtlessly would have worked better in the context of other child-themed songs; here, coming on the heels of youthful, contemporary, and energetic tracks, it’s far too saccharine and overproduced to be enjoyable.” That is true; surrounded by other similarly toned songs, “Turn Around” does sound better, though it remains pretty saccharine in comparison to soulful songs like “Brown Baby” and “To The Baby.” The lead vocal featured on this recording is a little more relaxed and less-affected than the one chosen for Last Time…, which helps the song sound less dated. The production, however, with the “Ah-ah-ah-ah-ahhhhhh” opening background vocals (which are then repeated several times) still sounds pretty silly and overdone. This isn’t one of the strongest tunes on To The Baby, which makes it all the more strange that it was released on an album in place of better tunes that were left in the vaults for decades.
10. Medley: Imagine/Save The Children: On Diana’s hit 1973 album Touch Me In The Morning, her self-production of the John Lennon classic “Imagine” and a medley of “Brown Baby/Save The Children” were the final two tracks. Little did listeners know that initially, the songs had been conceptualized in a different way, with “Brown Baby” as its own recording and “Imagine/Save The Children” making up the medley. On To The Baby, fans get to hear the songs as they were apparently originally recorded and, as it turns out, they’re just as good if not better than the more famous versions from the Touch Me… album. Though “Brown Baby” and “Save The Children” worked well together thematically, “Brown Baby” is such an outstanding recording that — as mentioned earlier — it’s nice to hear it unbroken. In the same way, “Imagine” and “Save The Children” end up working well together, lyrically making sense and each adding excitement to the other. Miss Ross’s vocal on “Imagine” is lovely and wistful, striking just the right note of optimism without sounding forced or phony. “Save The Children,” meanwhile, remains a satisfying soulful interlude, with Miss Ross both singing and speaking the lyrics passionately. Who knows why Motown switched things up when choosing to place these songs on Touch Me… — perhaps execs felt having the recognizable “Imagine” as its own recording would resultsin better sales, as Lennon’s version had hit #3 in the US. Whatever the case, they really needn’t have bothered; though all three recordings stand as very good ones, they actually sound best in his original context.
11. Kewpie Doll: The first “bonus track” included here is a revelation and a masterpiece; written and produced by Smokey Robinson, this is a fabulous recording that languished in the Motown vaults for far too long. Ross and Robinson, of course, shared a long history; Robinson was responsible for helping the Supremes obtain their first audition at Motown, and he’d written and produced several songs for the group over the years, though none had been big hits. Incredibly, Robinson and Ross really never collaborated after she went solo (save for the song “Pops, We Love You” in 1979), which makes “Kewpie Doll” — recorded in 1971 — such a spectacular find. The track here is sublime, driven by a soul-stirring guitar; the composition shifts from major to minor key in a unique way that gives is far more complexity than much of Diana’s other work of the period. But best of all is the vocal arrangement; Smokey Robinson provides the background vocals here, and they are so prominent that the song is pretty much a collaboration between him and Diana Ross. This turns out to be a great thing, as both are in fine voice; Diana Ross is as smooth and soulful as she’d ever been on record here, delivering the same kind of youthful passion heard on her earliest solo albums without any of the rawness that crept through. Robinson’s layered backgrounds are just breathtaking; they work with Diana’s vocal rather than detract from it, adding an aching and tenderness to the recording that it really needed to have. The end result is such a classic, timeless song that it really doesn’t sound that dated; it could easily be a “neo-soul” tune by a contemporary artist. Again, it’s just incredible that this song went unreleased for so long; according to the liner notes, an entire collaboration between the two artists was being talked about, and so when Diana’s career focus shifted to film, that project and this song probably just died in the water. Still, it’s an absolute shame the two never really teamed up again (look online for a fantastic clip of the two singing Diana’s “Missing You” together on TV in the 80s for further proof of their compatibility) — being that both are still recording, someone should start a petition to get them teamed up for an album — PRONTO!
12. When We Grow Up: The second “bonus” is Diana’s recording from the 1972 album Free To Be…You And Me, a collection of songs by various artists aimed a kids and promoting confidence and individuality (the project was the idea of actress Marlo Thomas). Ross’s song on the album was “When We Grow Up,” the lyrics of which repeat “…we don’t have to change at all,” a message of self-esteem to young boys and girls. Diana acts the song as much as sings it; listen to her at 1:31, sing-speaking “Like making noise…and making faces…” — you can picture her mugging in front of the microphone like she did in her television comedic sketches of the era. The brief song is really cute and very memorable; it ended up many years later being used as the end-credit song for the film Young Adult starring Charlize Theron. When Free To Be…You And Me was made into a popular TV special in 1974, Roberta Flack and Michael Jackson took over “When We Grow Up” — an interesting coincidence, since Diana had already covered Flack’s “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and Jackson’s “Got To Be There” for To The Baby.
Had To The Baby been released in the early 1970s, it would have been a great-sounding album, if nothing else. There’s no telling if it would have been a hit or produced any singles; this is a concept album, something that Motown didn’t do much of until Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder mastered the form. But each of the recordings here is extremely well-done, and certainly show off Diana Ross’s interpretive gifts. Recordings like “Part Of Me,” “Got To Be There,” “To The Baby,” and especially “Kewpie Doll” stand up with the best of Diana’s work from this transitional phase of her career; the performances are better than much of the filler included on Diana & Marvin and Last Time I Saw Him, and are certainly more worthy of notice than her live album released 1974 (but recorded in ’73), Live At Caesar’s Palace. Though it would have been nice to enjoy these recordings years ago, they do come a great time given that Diana’s recording output has been so sparse in the new millennium. And, as it is, To The Baby serves as a pleasing companion piece to 2007’s I Love You — both are concept albums that focus on life, love, and family.
Final Analysis: 4.5/5 (A “Wonderful” Treat)
Choice Cuts: “Kewpie Doll,” “Part Of You,” “Got To Be There”