“I don’t really care how big you make it, as long as you make it with me…”
The 2003 reissue of Diana Ross’s LP diana was an incredible, 2-disc gift to fans everywhere; it took Miss Ross’s biggest selling solo album and transformed it into a sort of dissertation of her entire dance output. The first disc included not just the entire diana as originally released, but also the entire album as originally mixed by producers Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. This alone would have satisfied fans, who’d waited year to compare the two versions and hear exactly why Miss Ross demanded the album be remixed back in 1980. But disc two, called “Diana Dance” (and later released separately as Rarities Edition), featured a collection of her 70s dance tracks, many of them in extended mixes that hadn’t been heard since they’d been spun by DJs during their original release. These include an alternate mix of the #1 “Love Hangover” and a great mix that combines “No One Gets The Prize” and “The Boss.”
Best of all, “Diana Dance” features three never-before-heard dance tracks recorded by Miss Ross in the mid/late 1970s. This was a time of constant recording for her; she was working on several projects at one time, including 1977’s Baby It’s Me with Richard Perry and the songs that would collected on 1978’s Ross, many of which were handled by Hal Davis, before jumping into soundtrack sessions for The Wiz. In a 1977 interview with Rolling Stone, Miss Ross mentions she’s recording day and night to give Motown enough material to keep releasing albums while she would be tied up with filming the movie. Interestingly, at around this same time, she’d also gone back into the studio with the Holland brothers — Brian and Eddie — two of the architects of the sound which had catapulted the Supremes to superstardom in the 1960s. Only one of those songs, “We Can Never Light That Old Flame Again,” was released, and not until 1982 as a non-LP single.
Disc two of the diana Deluxe Edition resurrects the two other Holland productions from the vaults, “Fire Don’t Burn” and “You Build Me Up To Tear Me Down,” along with the jazzy “Sweet Summertime Livin'” produced by Hal Davis. All three were considered for release on 1978’s Ross, as well as a cancelled album called Revelations that was planned after Diana had left Motown for the RCA label. Why the songs were left off of Ross remains a huge mystery; that album had been padded out with several previously released tracks that never really made a whole lot of sense (like “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” a song that had already been a single for Diana in 1971 and was featured on her Surrender LP), and easily could have included these disco tracks with much more satisfying results. In any case, hearing them decades later is still a satisfying experience.
Fire Don’t Burn: A frantic, driving disco cut written by Eddie and Brian Holland along with Mack David, this is an interesting update of the Motown sound that the Holland brothers (along with Lamont Dozier) helped create. The production here is pure disco; the opening blasts of horn and strings sound extremely dated, although in a way they’re tremendously similar to the fervent guitar line that opens “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which, of course, was also written by the Hollands and recorded by Diana (and the Supremes). The lyrics here form the kind of memorable, catchy hook typical of 6os Motown (“Fire won’t burn, water is dry, and it snows in July…”), and the verses follow the exact same chord progressions as a dozen other hits from that decade; had the Funk Brothers performed a stripped-down instrumental here, the song would be a dead ringer for something recorded by the Supremes or the Four Tops in their mid-60s heyday. Diana’s vocal her far higher-pitched than in much of her other 70s work, furthering the connection to her days as the leader of the Supremes; there’s a noticeable strain in a few spots as she reaches for the high notes that she hadn’t really been forced to hit in several years. This is not to say her work here is bad; her vocal is pretty engaging at times, especially as she begins each verse, and there’s a youthful spark here that is nice (if not as polished as on her work with Richard Perry, who also used the classic Motown sound as a base for some of his Ross productions). However, her work does sound a little forced, unlike the effortless work on dance songs like “You Were The One” and “Top Of The World,” on which she also sings with a vibrancy and energy but doesn’t appear to be straining or rushing through. It’s hard to imagine this song having ever been a hit, but it’s also not so bad that it needed to sit in the vaults for all these years.
You Build Me Up To Tear Me Down: The best of these tracks, this is a sexy, sultry number with an instrumental that recalls Stevie Wonder’s 1972 hit “Superstition” and a wonderful vocal that’s as moody and shaded as anything else Diana turned in during the period. Written by Holland, Holland and Ronald Dean Miller, this is a more “grown up” sounding composition than the previous track, utilizing the soulful bass and dark keyboard work to create an atmospheric song that manages to be danceable without sounding like disco camp to contemporary listeners. From the very start, Miss Ross’s vocal is perfectly done; her hushed delivery on “Something’s troublin’ you…it’s gonna mess up your mind…” and the rest of the first verse sets a tone of anguish and complexity that’s extremely compelling. Listen to her starting around three minutes in, as she sings the chorus along with the powerful group of background voices; there’s an excitement to the song that’s almost soul-stirring here, with Diana confidently leading the way but never forcing her vocal or hitting a false note. At the 4:00 mark, Diana riffs along with the popping bass, a genius pairing that is an exhilarating listen; the deep, metallic bass is a great counterpoint to Miss Ross’s crisp but emotional vocal. This is the kind of disco track that could have had a life far beyond the dancefloor; again, it’s soulful enough that it would have played very well on R&B radio, and there’s nothing gimmicky about the song, as is the case with many 70s hits. In tone, “You Build Me Up…” is similar to Diana’s brilliant reading of the Bill Withers tune “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” off of Baby It’s Me; both offer a refreshing complexity to Diana’s dance discography. It’s a real shame this track wasn’t featured on Ross; it would have made a far better single than that album’s “What You Gave Me.”
Sweet Summertime Livin’: A Hal Davis-produced track that can only be described as frantic Latin jazz-disco, this is an unusual number that certainly doesn’t sound like the other dance cuts being recorded by Diana Ross in the 70s. This one must be near the top of the list of wordiest songs recorded by Diana Ross, with the singer forced to wail rapid-fire lyrics; for example, she spits out “When the temperature is down to four below, how my knees get to knockin’…I need to find some heat, you know this cold really gets to me, drives me out of my mind…” in a mere eight seconds! Her ability to rapidly deliver lyrics for basically the four-and-a-half minute running time while enunciating each and every one is pretty incredible; if anyone could work a song like, it would be Diana, queen of crisp, clean delivery. She’s also remarkable deft as she jumps up and down notes, her work sounding like impov in many spots; listen as she sings the line “All the games that we play, that’s what I really enjoy…” at 1:58, with incredibly quick octave-jumping that’s almost like a gifted trumpeter at work. The frantic pace of the song, while novel, does eventually get a little overwhelming for the listener; there’s really never a break, and the breathless pace of both the vocal and the instrumental is a little much, even for a disco song. This is another song that probably never would have been a hit; it’s hard to imagine it playing over and over in clubs or on radio and not getting on people’s nerves. It is, however, a great example of what Diana Ross is capable of as a vocalist; she has a real gift for delivery that remains under-appreciated, and many singers who are generally held in higher regard could never have pulled off such a challenging recording.
Diana Ross, while having enjoyed tremendous success with songs like “Love Hangover” and “Upside Down,” really isn’t considered a disco singer today; she is an artist who found success on multiple platforms, which has helped her transcend genres and categories and given her a much longer and more successful career than other R&B divas known for one or two dancefloor hits. Miss Ross was, however, an important force in the disco era, something that shouldn’t be forgotten. Something like “I’m Coming Out,” of course, played an important part in the lives of many club-goers coming to terms with their own lives and places in society, while other hits like “The Boss” were musical expressions of freedom and liberation that perfectly captured the feelings of minority groups like African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and women in the 1970s. Hearing these three new recordings are continued proof of Miss Ross’s ability to artistically express herself and experiment within the boundaries of disco music, while also pushing those boundaries and blurring the lines between dance and other genres.
Best Of The Bunch: “You Build Me Up To Tear Me Down”