“Open up your heart and let your feelings flow…”
“I don’t ever want to be stuck in a category as far as singing, because I like all music.”
Those words, spoken by Diana Ross during a 1976 interview with Don Pietromonaco, pretty much sum up the singer’s entire career. By 1976, Diana Ross had recorded songs from pretty almost every genre of music, from girl-group pop to Broadway standards with the Supremes to her solo successes with soul, jazz, and country-tinged adult contemporary. Her new album that year, Diana Ross, would further expand her list of hits, with the disco smash “Love Hangover,” the funky “One Love In My Lifetime,” and the sweeping “Theme From Mahogany” all hitting top 10 on various formats; the other tracks on the LP jumped all over the musical map, too, from the 1920s-inspired “Kiss Me Now” to the jazzy “Smile.” In the same interview, Miss Ross explained the album, saying, “It’s a combination album of a lot of things that I like to do.”
What listeners didn’t realize was that Diana Ross could have been ever more musically varied than it ultimately was. In 2012, boutique label Hip-O Select continued its series of Diana Ross album reissues with this album, expanding it into a 2-disc special edition with alternate takes of both album and non-album tracks. Along with the aforementioned interview (recorded for TWA Airlines), three previously unreleased tracks were lifted from the vaults, and each came attached to a big name. “Harmony” is a cover of the Elton John song from his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, “Le Lo Li” was written by Sly Stone and featured on his solo LP High On You, and “Go Where Your Mind Is” bears the names Jeffery Bowen and Bubba Banks as co-writers. These three tracks are about as stylistically varied as can be, especially the completely bizarre “Go Where Your Mind Is.”
The release of these three songs does a lot to prove Diana was telling the truth in that interview; she was certainly exploring various styles of music and singing. Not only do they offer insight into Diana’s willingness to try pretty much anything in the studio, they also foreshadow the incredibly eclectic output she’d produce in the 1980s, when she was finally allowed complete creative control of her career. They also shed light on an interesting period of Motown history, where various artists (such as Sly Stone’s sister Rose) signed with the label for brief tenures. After completely dominating soul music in the 1960s and early 70s, Motown was experimenting with different styles and trends in the changing musical landscape of the 70s, and its leading lady was doing the same thing — even if the general public didn’t get to hear some of these experiments until decades later.
Harmony: Elton John’s 1973 double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is loaded with recognizable songs, from the title track to “Candle In The Wind” to “Bennie & The Jets” — and the song that closes the project, “Harmony,” which wasn’t a big hit but has apparently become something of a fan favorite. John’s recording of the song, which he wrote with Bernie Taupin, is relatively straightforward and understated, with a slowly swinging beat and a real emphasis on the impressive lead vocal. It is, really, a great song for Diana Ross to cover; it doesn’t have the rock edge of some of the other tracks from Elton’s double-LP, and the verses are arranged with a kind of slow-burn sizzle that allows Miss Ross to use her earthy, soulful lower register. By the time the chorus hits, with Diana singing “Harmony and me…we’re pretty good company…,” the song takes on a much more 70s-pop feel, especially with the doubling of Diana’s voice (something that had been done several times on the Touch Me In The Morning album back in 1973). The unique part of Diana doubling her voice here is that she breaks out of pure unison-singing and does several lines in harmony with herself — something not even Elton really thought of — which makes perfect sense given the song’s title. Miss Ross pulls this off beautifully; indeed, her voice sounds gorgeous throughout the entire recording. This is a confident, relaxed performance, with the warmth of tone she’d mastered back on “Touch Me In The Morning” and the more mature sophistication that was emerging after Mahogany. Had “Harmony” been placed on 1976’s Diana Ross in the place of something like “Kiss Me Now,” it would have improved the overall quality of the project, which suffers from an unevenness resulting from extremely strong singles and some weak filler. This is a very good recording, and it’s surprising Motown never lifted it from the vaults for another project (though according to J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana Ross: A Biography, it was considered for inclusion on 1978’s Ross).
Le Lo Li: And here’s where things start to get a little strange. “Le Lo Li” first showed up on Sly Stone’s 1975 album High On You; this was Stone’s first solo album away from The Family Stone, which had dissolved in 1975 after some rough years reportedly due to drug use by members. Diana recording Sly isn’t actually that strange; Stone’s sister Rose Banks had signed with Motown and released a solo album that year, titled Rose, featuring production from her husband “Bubba” Banks and Jeff Bowen — and Mr. Bowen produced this song on Diana. This version of “Le Lo Li” is built upon a fabulously funky track, with outstanding keyboard and organ work bringing in elements of gospel, jazz, and funk behind Diana’s frequently layered vocals. The keyboard solo at 2:30 is so accomplished and ahead of its time that it sounds as good as the similar one heard on Diana’s “My Old Piano” nearly five years later. Diana’s performance here is strong; the song doesn’t call for her to do much in the way of stretching her range, but she perfectly pitches her vocal to match the driving beat and never tries to add anything unnecessary to take away from the incredible instrumental track. Her eerie, almost robotic delivery of the line, “Different days for different ways…different pills for different thrills…different weeks for different freaks,” during which her voice is layered upon itself, is the most striking part of the song, a kind of space-age Diana Ross we’ve really never heard before. “Le Lo Li” is a phenomenal recording in many respects; it is at once dated and extremely modern-sounding, and a neo-soul artist of today (someone like Raphael Saadiq or Angie Stone) could probably have a hit with this instrumental track. Because it’s an odd song lyrically and melodically, it’s not necessarily the best fit for Diana Ross, given that she is an artist who — above all else — is a great melody singer and an interpreter of lyrics. That said, she delivers exactly the right performance here, and the end result is a song that is better than some of that weak album filler from Diana Ross.
Go Where Your Mind Is: It’s tough to describe this song with words; the only thing I can come up with is it sounds like Diana Ross singing the “Sanford & Son” theme song…while gargling with mouthwash. Penned by the aforementioned Bowen and Banks, this is truly the kind of “wild, brilliant fusion of soul, rock, R&B, psychedelia, and funk that broke boundaries down,” as the All Music Guide states in its biography of Sly & The Family Stone. Kicking off with an immediately bizarre, 5-second note with that “gargling” effect on it, the song employs little bits of folksy dialogue interwoven into the background (like Diana saying, “You sho’ know how to do it…”) and a harmonica-driven musical track to embellish the lead vocal, which Diana delivers in a striking nasally tone pretty much unlike anything she’d recorded before. Toward the end, as her cartoonish spoken voice becomes more prominent and the voice effects climb higher and higher in scale, the entire thing really does become almost mind-bending in its strangeness; one can only imagine what was happening in the studio during this recording session, and how all of the artists involved came up with the sounds they eventually produced. Had “Go Where Your Mind Is” been included as part of 1976’s Diana Ross, most casual listeners would probably think that Miss Ross had lost her mind, especially given the fact that the album boasted two of the most middle-of-the-road ballads Diana would ever record, “Theme From Mahogany” and “I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love).” Still, this song is so weird that it’s incredibly enjoyable; it’s hard to dislike something where Diana is obviously having fun and trying to do something different — and the fact is, it sounds unforced, which makes it all the better (unlike something such as “Fool For Your Love” on Silk Electric, which is also an oddity in Diana’s discography but doesn’t sound nearly as effortless).
Today, people tend not to think of Diana Ross as an artist who took risks; this is probably because she was often so successful with the huge risks she did take. Had Lady Sings The Blues been a total bomb, it would be easy to label it an “artistic experiment.” But, because it was a smash, it is simply a part of Diana Ross’s career. The same could be said for 1980’s diana; doing such a hard-edged dance album was a gamble for Diana, but because it became such a massive hit, it doesn’t seem like such a gamble at all (and even producer Nile Rodgers would frequently admit that he and partner Bernard Edwards went out much further on a limb with Miss Ross than they did for their own group, Chic, gleefully pushing the artistic envelope with the “safety” of a name artist like Diana). It’s unfortunate that Diana Ross isn’t immediately thought of as a musical trendsetter by the general public, because for much of her recording career, she was; she (and Motown) forged a career path that really wasn’t based on anybody else’s. Tracks like “Go Where Your Mind Is” and the others are great reminders that Diana Ross was more than an “entertainer” or a “superstar” at her peak; she was a musician — an artist — who wasn’t afraid to take chances and push herself.
Best Of The Bunch: “Harmony” for overall sound, “Go Where Your Mind Is” for sheer weirdness