“So no matter how long you have to stay…still the feel the same way about you as I did yesterday…”
It’s probably not hyperbole to say that during the first half of the 1970s, Diana Ross was the hardest working person in showbiz. Between filming her debut movie, Lady Sings The Blues, in 1972 and its follow-up, Mahogany, in 1975, she released three studio albums, one live album, and recorded enough material for several others (including the shelved Blue and To The Baby, both released decades later). Oh, and she was also married and raising a family and flying around the world for her live shows. Miss Ross has commented several times in later years that she was constantly recording in those days, working with several producers and never quite sure what songs would be released and on what albums they’d appear. This explains why an album like 1973’s Last Time I Saw Him feels like a stylistically varied collection of songs rather than a cohesive and themed set; many of the songs included probably weren’t recorded for any specific album at all.
What is not explained is how the songs that ended up on her albums were chosen, and why so many others were left languishing in the vaults. In 2007, when reissue label Hip-O Select finally gave Last Time I Saw Him a proper CD release, it expanded the original release with a second disc of seven previously unreleased songs and alternate versions of two lesser-known tracks, not to mention a longer, “unedited” version of the song “Last Time I Saw Him,” which had been a top 20 hit for Diana in ’73. Hip-O cleverly titled this disc First Time I Saw Him, and it’s fitting that the unreleased bonus tracks get a collective title, given that they basically make up an entire new album. The tracks are handled by a variety of producers, including Johnny Bristol (“Someday We’ll Be Together”), Frank Wilson (who was simultaneously working with the Jean Terrell-led Supremes), and Ron Miller (“Touch Me In The Morning”). Some of the titles are familiar; “Let Me Be The One” was a hit for The Carpenters, and “Since I Don’t Have You” is a doo-wop classic made famous by The Skyliners in the late 1950s.
Common sense would hold that tracks left behind in the Motown vaults are of a lesser quality than those released on LPs, hence why they were never released. However, fans collecting the expanded editions of Diana Ross’s catalog — not to mention anyone who bought the sublime Blue in 2006 — know that’s not necessary the case. Many of the previously unreleased Diana Ross performances that have now been unearthed are as good as anything she ever took to #1; there are recordings here on First Time… that are among the best of her mid-70s output. Placed together, they form a bluesy, down-home disc that could have been a concept LP on its own. So why haven’t we heard them until now? It’s probably a case of sheer volume; Diana Ross was recording so much material that it likely just wasn’t possible to fit it all onto albums. But…one decade’s loss is another’s gain, and listening to the collection of songs known as First Time I Saw Him today is to once again be reminded of just how strong the material given to Diana Ross was at her commercial peak.
1. I’ll Be Here (When You Get Home): A song worked up by Johnny Bristol, who’d given Diana both the #1 smash “Someday We’ll Be Together” and “These Things Will Keep Me Loving You” from her debut album, this song will sound awfully familiar to Motown fans; Gladys Knight & The Pips recorded a version using the same track for the 1973 release All I Need Is Time. At first listen, the song sounds far better suited to Ms. Knight; this is a low-key, folksy blues number that’s not unlike much of the material she recorded during her last few years at Motown. That said, Diana Ross proves once again how adept she is at taking in a melody and lyric and making a song hers; this is a near-perfect interpretation and a real standout among this collection of tunes. The entire tone of the song is set with her opening “Mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm,” a four-note hum very reminiscent of her opening to “Someday We’ll Be Together” — it’s clear that Miss Ross is feeling this one, and the rest of her performance bears that out. This is the work of a mature, soulful woman; listen to her powerful wail at 2:56, leading to a passionate reading of the lyrics, “So let you mind be free…baby, don’t worry about me…just do what you gotta do…” and some serious ad-libbing on the ensuing chorus — she sounds totally assured and comfortable in her vocal ability. Because much of Diana Ross’s work in the wake of Lady Sings The Blues was restrained and toned down, it’s nice to hear her looser and willing to push herself here; not only was this song worthy of a release at the time it was recorded, it also could have been pulled as a single. This is not only a standout of this collection, it’s also one of the best Diana Ross recordings from this period of her career.
2. Why Play Games: An energetic, uptempo light soul number produced by Frank Wilson, the man who was busy in the early 70s guiding the sound of the “new” Supremes, led by Jean Terrell (the group had four top 20 hits under Wilson’s musical direction). “Why Play Games” actually sounds like it could have been written for Miss Terrell and the group; there’s an earthy, folksy quality to the production similar to that favored on 70s Supremes albums like New Ways But Love Stays. While the song overall isn’t quite as appealing or memorable as the previous track, this is still a good fit for Miss Ross; she sounds assured and invested singing the song, taking a few chances to return to the rawer sound of her earliest solo work. Listen to her glorious, throaty “Woah!” at 1:41; the scratchy, imperfect sound is something she really hadn’t done since a few songs on 1971’s Surrender. As on “I’ll Be Here (When You Get Home),” it’s nice to hear Diana sounding loose and soulful in this way, since the songs getting released around this time were so glossy by comparison. The song is extremely brief, running under three minutes, but it’s a well-produced and performed song that is better than much of the filler Motown was releasing on Diana Ross LPs at the time.
3. I Don’t Care Where The Money Is: This song is the work of Michael Randall, who’d given Miss Ross two tracks on her Touch Me In The Morning album (one of which, “All Of My Life,” was a hit in the UK). This is a much different than either of those songs; this is a funkier track, casting Diana in the role of a down-home diva who sings, “I don’t care about fancy things…just give me lots of room to roll.” Having such a glitzy superstar sing about “not having much to lose” isn’t exactly convincing, although Miss Ross certainly gives it her best. The song is brash and horn-driven, with quickly-paced lyrics and a melody that jumps all over the place; the production is bouncy and extremely enjoyable, kind of 70s take on a Bessie Smith tune. While Miss Ross sounds pretty good on the track, she’s a little too smooth here; digging a little deeper and giving it a more gritty delivery probably would have made the piece feel much more authentic. Diana spends the finals moments of the song repeating the line “Live my whole life!” – an exclamation that should have afforded her an opportunity to do some of the fiery vocal work she displayed on her work with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Instead, she keeps the ad-libs pretty low-key, which doesn’t quite match the defiant feeling conveyed in the lyrics. That said, this is far from the worst track here; it’s still a nice listen and works well in the context of the two previous pieces on this collection.
4. Get It All Together: After three good R&B tunes, Miss Ross returns to glossy pop with “Get It All Together,” penned by Ron Miller (of “Touch Me In The Morning” and “For Once In My Life.”) This is a full-on easy listening tune, with a spoken passage at the very top (“Livin’ for tomorrow…is not my style…”) before Hollywood-esque strings sweep in and take the song into elevator-music territory. The arrangement here isn’t unlike “Touch Me In The Morning,” but this song has none of the emotional complexity and cool restraint of that #1 hit; the major-key arrangement and dated instrumental result in the song sounding like a television show theme (maybe this could’ve worked for a “Love Boat” spin-off?). Miss Ross’s performance isn’t bad, but she’s singing very un-subtle lyrics and ends up a little too sugary and forced, especially compared to her excellent work on so many other songs on this disc. Miller and Ross, thankfully, gave the world some far-better works than this one; “Sleepin’” (the second single off of 1973’s Last Time I Saw Him) probed emotional depths in such a stirring, authentic way that it really makes this seem like unnecessary fluff.
5. Where Did We Go Wrong: This is an early version of the song Miss Ross would re-record and include on 1978’s Ross; that version is a masterful ballad, a sadly overlooked album track that is beautifully performed and produced. This version, pulled from the vaults, features a different arrangement and tempo; it’s a little more acoustic in its musical track, and the pace is quicker in several sections, whereas the 1978 recording is a more laid-back and consistent in terms of timing. The tempo changes here are clearly done for dramatic effect, and in that respect, they work. This is an emotional ballad that, again, isn’t unlike the #1 “Touch Me In The Morning” – unlike “Get It All Together,” however, is the fact that there is some nice tension and angst in this recording. Miss Ross delivers a stunning vocal, opening the piece with a startling, child-like voice similar to the sound she displayed on her mid-70s one-off single “Sorry Doesn’t Always Make It Right.” Her vocal for the rest of the song is gorgeous; she is crystal clear in tone while also injecting each lyric with passion and intensity. Her gift for perfect enunciation serves her well here, since some of the lines are a little wordy and dense, and the piece gives her a chance to push her upper register, especially starting around 3:00; some might find her sound a little “whiney” or nasally during the ad-libs at the end, but there’s a lot of power here, especially on her “Don’t take it away!” at 3:21, which almost foreshadows her emotional wailing on The Wiz soundtrack. Overall, the 1978 version of the song is a little stronger in terms of production; it’s a more accomplished recording overall and really could have been released as a single. This one, however, is a beautifully sung companion piece to it, and a welcome inclusion here.
6. Since I Don’t Have You: Produced by Bob Gaudio, the reissue liner notes indicate this was intended as a Marvin Gaye duet, although Gaye never recorded his vocals and thus it end up here as a solo recording. Gaudio handled the similar “Pledging My Love” on Diana & Marvin, an overwrought recording that was a big misstep for the LP. The biggest problem with that track was that Marvin totally oversang and milked the lyrics for every drop, whereas Diana was weak and sounded vaguely bored. Knowing that there are missing vocals makes this tough to listen to objectively; it does, however, allow listeners to focus solely on Diana’s voice. She sounds better-suited to this song than “Pledging My Love,” giving a more emotive performance, but this is still a problematic recording for her. For some reason, on her Marvin Gaye duets, Miss Ross always seemed extremely reluctant to really “go” for notes and display the kind of soulful power that she’s clearly capable of. Take, for instance, her work at the end of 1971’s “Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” – her ad-libbing was raw, powerful, and extremely soulful. The end of “Since I Don’t Have You” calls for the same kind of singing, but Miss Ross doesn’t sound nearly as successful doing it. Rather than screeching, screaming, or wailing – just pushing for it regardless of the resultant sound – she seems to be playing it a little safe overall, keeping her voice in her “head” rather than working from the gut. Because the dramatic, gospel-esque musical track sets the bar so high, Miss Ross really needed to give it her all to truly shine here, and it just doesn’t quite happen, though she does sound like she’s working.
7. Let Me Be The One: The unqualified highlight of this project, Miss Ross’s version of this oft-recorded hit made famous by The Carpenters is sublime. This isn’t just the strongest track of this collection – it’s one of the best single recordings of Miss Ross’s 70s discography. An incredibly brief recording (running under 2:30!), there is not one unsatisfying moment here; the laid-back, dreamy production is matched by a smooth and soulful vocal by Diana and a gorgeous, inspiring choir of voices backing her up. The production here is credited to Lar Mar – whoever or whatever that is, this is the perfect mix of toe-tapping percussion and sweeping strings. Diana gets to really showcase her lower register on the verses; she sounds warm and mature singing “…if you should find yourself alone…” at :15 – the perfection of these lower tones is made even more acute when Diana jumps up an octave to sing “Let Me Be The One!” at :56. Her higher singing here (especially the section beginning with “Come to me…”) is perhaps the best of her mid-70s work; it’s powerful and emotional while still sounding full and round in tone. Had this not been a big hit for The Carpenters, this could have been a #1 hit for Diana Ross; this is light soul/pop at its best, and still sounds good today. Though it’s a shame the song never got a chance back in the 70s, it’s a blessing for fans to hear something this incredible come out of those fabled Motown vaults. A masterpiece.
8. I Want To Go Back There Again: An interesting cover of a song written by and recorded by Motown artist Chris Clark, the woman who also had a relationship with Berry Gordy and ended up co-writing Diana’s film Lady Sings The Blues. One can only imagine what the personal relationship between the two women was like, but Miss Ross does a nice job with this song. This a return to the folksier sound of the earliest songs on this particular disc of tracks; the song is a classic Motown beat-driven piece with urgent lyrics, spoken sections, and a dramatic chorus reminiscent of some 60s Supremes recordings. Miss Ross was obviously at home singing this kind of song, and she sounds really good – she’s speaks so many rhyming lines during the running time that you could almost call this an early exploration of rap! Ultimately, this isn’t as memorable a recording as “Let Me Be The One” or “I’ll Be Here (When You Get Home),” and thus it’s easy to lose this song a little bit in the course of listening to this disc. It is, however, a strong inclusion, helping to “ground” thing a little bit and bring it back to the sound it all began with.
9. Old Funky Rolls: An odd, 1920s-inspired novelty song that had earlier found release on a pair of Diana Ross anthologies, each time in a different version, and had originally featured as a b-side to the 1982 Motown single “We Can Never Light That Old Flame Again.” None of the versions really differ that much from each other, save for the alternate vocals, during which Diana adds in little flourishes at various different points. Your tolerance for “Old Funky Rolls” will really depend on how you stomach Diana Ross novelty tunes overall; recordings like 1976’s “Kiss Me Now” (with her infamous Louis Armstrong impersonation) and several with the Supremes really can’t be taken seriously, with Diana’s over-the-top mugging and affectations overshadowing everything else. Then again, those affectations are kind of the whole point of the recordings, so maybe they don’t need to be held to the same standard as other songs. In any case, Diana offers up a fun, energetic performance here, totally committed to the camp value of the song and her own performance. The musical track is – like “Last Time I Saw Him” – jam-packed with instruments, practically bursting at the seams with both period-appropriate vaudevillian and contemporary flourishes. The lyric here is a loving tribute to…well…an “old funky” Rolls Royce, and Diana manages to sell it about as well as anyone else could, even going all out with a few spoken lines at the end. It would be interesting to hear the story behind this song – where the idea came from, and why Diana Ross recorded it in the first place. At the end of the day, every version of “Old Funky Rolls” is at least an entertaining listen and Miss Ross certainly seems to be having a great time with it.
10. Last Time I Saw Him (Unedited Version): A 3:40, extended mix of “Last Time I Saw Him,” one of Diana’s top 20 hits of 1973 (the original LP version ran 3:11). There’s not much “new” here from the familiar single and album mixes, other than a few extra lyrics and more ad-libbing from Miss Ross at the end. This remains a fun, unique single in the Diana Ross discography, and it’s always fun to hear little snippets that had been excised. Read the full review of the song here.
The more tracks that are unearthed by Motown and released by Hip-O Select, the more obvious it becomes just what an extraordinary talent Diana Ross was…and is. It’s hard to imagine the pace of her life during the 1970s, when her energies were divided between music, film, stage, and motherhood. That she excelled at each one of these facets of her career is incredible enough; the fact that she so excelled at music that dozens of great recordings were never even released is even more impressive. Just on this collection, “I’ll Be Here (When You Get Home)” and “Let Me Be The One” sound like they could have easily become classics for the singer, and are of a far superior quality than many songs of the era that were hits.
It’s easy to look back and wish Motown had packaged more albums for Miss Ross – certainly the first eight songs here sound like they could have been put right on an LP and released without much more effort. However, Motown always had to toe the line of over-saturation; certainly Diana’s ubiquitous nature in 1970-1971 led to the superb album Surrender underperforming. So, in the end, maybe it’s better that we’re just now getting to hear these songs; old fans and new ones now have the time to properly assess each song without being rushed along by a crowded music release schedule. And getting to really listen to and enjoy music like this is what it’s all about, right?
Best Of The Bunch: “Let Me Be The One”