“And all too soon it was so easy to tell that I was winning in a game…”
March 26, 2002 marked Diana Ross’s 58th birthday, but it was her legions of fans that received an amazing birthday gift. Motown finally re-released her 1970 debut album, Diana Ross, which had been out-of-print for some time; better yet, the CD came loaded with eight bonus tracks, including live performances, alternate vocals takes, and — best of all — a batch of tracks from the vaults. Those tracks were produced by Bones Howe, and had apparently been recorded as possibilities for Miss Ross’s debut album as a solo artist. Her former manager Shelly Burger is quoted in the liner notes of that re-release: “I had known Bones for a while and he was very hot at the time, particularly with the Fifth Dimension. The thought was we should go outside the company to do something completely different for Diana’s first album.”
Motown, of course, was scrambling to hit upon a winning formula for Miss Ross the solo artist; she’d been delivering #1 hits as lead singer of the Supremes for almost a decade, and expectations were high for her first post-group offering. One of the first solo possibilities, the Johnny Bristol-produced “Someday We’ll Be Together,” ended up being released as a Supremes single. Then the brilliant writing/producing/performing team of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson began working on songs for Diana, as did Howe. Miss Ross finished four songs with Mr. Howe, including the Laura Nyro-written “Time And Love” and “Stoney End,” but it was Ashford and Simpson who ended up handling her debut album. It’s impossible to argue with that decision today, given that Diana Ross was a solid success and game Miss Ross a top 20 hit, “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” and a Grammy-nominated #1 masterpiece, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Still, what’s surprising is just how good the Bones Howe-produced songs are. The four songs lean more toward the “pop” side of the spectrum than Ross’s soulful, darker work with Ashford and Simpson, and after years of crooning pop standards on television and in clubs, she is more than adept at the sunnier style of music. There’s a youthful sparkle to her performances on these songs, but they also showcase Diana in fine, full voice, giving her chances to belt and reach for high notes that many listeners still don’t realize she’s capable of. While 1970’s Diana Ross really is the perfect debut album for Miss Ross — spectacular and stylish and still surprising more than 40 years later — it’s a treat to hear what might have been with a different direction and team behind her.
Time And Love: Written by singer/songwriter Laura Nyro, this song first appeared on her 1969 album New York Tendaberry. Diana, of course, recorded the song not long after the release of that album, and when her version was shelved, Motown lifted the track from the vaults and had Jean Terrell dub over a new lead vocal, placing the song on the 1971 Supremes album Touch. “Time And Love” also hit the charts in 1971 when Barbra Streisand included it on her album Stoney End (which also, of course, featured the song “Stoney End” — also cut on Ross by Howe!), which was produced by Richard Perry. Miss Ross’s version here is a swinging, big-band, Vegas extravaganza, as buoyant and energetic as anything Diana had ever recorded. It would be easy to imagine this song becoming a Ross concert-opener; she sounds comfortable and confident on the verses, her performance a mix of sexy breathiness and youthful zeal. She gets to open her voice up and really show off some power on the choruses; this is especially true as she repeats it in the last 40 seconds of the song, emitting a soaring shout at 3:42 followed by a nice alteration of the melody as she sings, “Don’t you let that devil fool ya, here comes the dove…” The “full-steam ahead” brashness of the arrangement and the choir of male and female singers behind her do date the song; it certainly sounds far less contemporary than “Ain’t No Mountain…” and other works that eventually made it onto her first album. That said, this is a thoroughly enjoyable song and performance, displaying the excitement of a young woman finally coming into her own as a singer and performer. (Note: “Time And Love” did get a release on the superb Diana compilation The Motown Anthology, which had hit store shelves a year earlier, in March of 2001.)
Stoney End: Another Laura Nyro composition, this one was first recorded by the writer for her 1967 debut album, then by actress Peggy Lipton in 1968. It, of course, also fell into the hands of Barbra Streisand, who named her 1971 album after it and released it as a single; it became a top 10 hit for her. Nyro’s version has an interesting, almost rustic feel, with a banging piano and harmonica leading the way; Streisand’s was more rock-oriented and theatrical. Miss Ross’s version here is the glossiest of them all, shimmering pop perfection that stands as the best of these Howe tracks in terms of production and vocal performance. The arrangement here retains some of the brashness of “Time And Love” during the intro and the choruses, but layers in a beautifully done bongo line and features a nice, classy restraint during the verses that really allows Miss Ross’s performance to shine. She’s at her most alluring here, eschewing the gutsiness of her Ashford and Simpson recordings and reigning in the brassiness of her latter-day Supremes works, and letting her voice smoothly ride the melody and showcase the passion of the lyrics at just the right moments (her slowed-down “Cradle me…mama, cradle me…” at 2:34 is as perfectly emoted as any Broadway star could hope for). Just listen to her first line; her “I was born from love…” is as gorgeous as she’d ever sounded on record. Again, it’s impossible to say what would have been, but this recording certainly had the potential to be every bit the hit that Streisand’s was the next year; this is a beautifully crafted work of pop. It’s also a reminder of how strong the material being given to Diana Ross was at the time; she was the biggest female star in the music world, and on the cusp of even greater achievements. That a song this good would be left in the vaults for years and years is pretty amazing; it would be a career benchmark for most anyone else.
The Interim: The production by Howe here is much different from his work on the previous two songs; the horns and bass are plodding and almost laborious, creating a dense musical bed devoid of any bounciness or joy for most of the running time. Diana’s vocal is also much different; she matches the instruments by drawing out the lyrics, each word stretched and twisted like taffy. Her work here, shaded with soul and mystery, is much closer in tone to some of the songs that ended up being released as part of her finished debut; Ashford and Simpson-produced tracks like “Dark Side Of The World” and “Keep An Eye” also feature Diana in a deeper, almost-mournful voice. While it’s not as immediately striking as “Stoney End,” this is a compelling piece of work; Diana’s vocal is extremely mature, especially as she wails the line, “I wish that I was stronger and able to hold, without the help of someone weaker I can mold into the person I would like myself to be…” at 2:40. This is great singing, and while the song probably never would have been a hit due to its complexity and lack of traditional structure, it’s a fascinating listen. (NOTE — though the 2002 CD reissue of Diana Ross lists this song as written by Jimmy Webb, I was recently contacted and told that it was indeed penned by Cheryl Ernst Wells, a staff writer for Bones Howe during the recording period. According to this e-mail, she actually owns the copyright and has the original recordings.)
Love’s Lines, Angles And Rhymes: An oddly titled song that found fame as a single by The 5th Dimension; the group named its 1971 album after the song, which climbed into the top 20 of the pop charts. That version was also produced by Bones Howe, which explains why it’s so similar to Diana’s, recorded a year earlier. The rhythm of the song cleverly mimics the pendulum referred to in the lyrics; it swings back and forth, giving Miss Ross a chance to vacillate between being sexy/breathy on the lower notes and more powerful in her higher range. Her performance on just the opening words (“Love…leads…”) has got to be among the sexiest she’s ever sounded on record; it’s impossible not to be immediately drawn into the song with her delivery. Interestingly, this song is also one of the few cases of Diana audibly “working” while singing; for someone who usually makes it sound so effortless, her run of lyrics starting at 2:34 (“Of the angles and rhymes of the circles and lines of the tunnels of love running over…”) sound raw and unrehearsed, with the singer taking some deep breaths to get through it. This “break” in the gloss is actually nice to hear; Miss Ross sounds like a woman totally caught up in the moment. Behind her, the instrumental is hypnotic, if quite dated; the bass work is ridiculously accomplished, though, with the plucking the strings adding nice intrigue to the piece. Heard today, “Love’s Lines…” certainly doesn’t sound as timeless as much of Diana’s other work of the era, and doesn’t immediately sound like a “lost hit” — however, being that an extremely similar version was a hit for another group, it’s hard to say what would have been had it been released on Diana.
If nothing else, the release of these four songs in 2002 was a good reminder of just how much was at stake when Diana Ross went solo in 1970. Her success wasn’t necessarily a sure bet; the singer herself said, “The fear was, you know, Will I be okay? Will my records be hits? People had done some of the same things, and they weren’t successful” (David Nathan’s The Soulful Divas, 152). These tracks show that there was some experimentation when it came to Miss Ross’s solo career, and that her versatility as lead singer of the Supremes obviously led to some question about what direction she ought to take. As good as these four recordings are — and they are all very good — there’s no doubt the work Ashford and Simpson came up with for 1970’s Diana Ross was the perfect springboard for her future career. Still, these are four welcome additions to the Diana Ross discography and continued proof of her power and skill as a vocalist.
Best Of The Bunch: “Stoney End”