“Soft, gentle whispers of love are floating through the air…”
Diana Ross had experienced several peak moments in her solo career by 1981; she’d scored five #1 hits and was ending her tenure at Motown with a smash album – diana – and three top 10 hits. It was probably hard to imagine things getting any better for her…and then they did. Miss Ross teamed up with Commodores star Lionel Richie to record the theme song to the Brooke Shields film Endless Love, and the song became a sensation, topping the charts for an incredible nine weeks. To have a #1 hit like this is quite a feat, and it’s especially incredible considering it came exactly 20 years into Diana Ross’s recording career, a point by which so many music stars are struggling to stay relevant.
The story of the duet’s recording has been written about several times; according to The Billboard Book Of Number One R&B Hits, the filmmakers asked Mr. Richie to pen a theme for Endless Love, and eventually the idea came up for Diana Ross to take part in the recording. The duo met in Reno: “Time was booked at a recording studio at three in the morning, giving Diana time to drive there after her late show at 1:00 A.M. and Lionel time to get there after a recording session” (290). The session apparently went very quickly, though not necessarily smoothly; in her book Secrets Of A Sparrow, she writes, “I am a perfectionist. I like to be on time always. Lionel was not always on time. I did work very well, however, with the producer, James Carmichael, who is also a perfectionist” (214).
Whatever the backstory, “Endless Love” remains one of the biggest hit singles in history, and gave Miss Diana Ross her sixth solo number one hit, and the 18th of her career. The soundtrack album containing it, meanwhile, was released in 1981 by Mercury Records (although Motown officially released the single), and featured not one — but two Ross/Richie duets. “Dreaming Of You” is the second track on the album, a glorious uptempo counterpart to the title song that is every bit as good but was never released as a single. Also featured on the soundtrack are rock group KISS, British singer Cliff Richard, and several instrumentals from the film. The entire album, of course, will really only be of interest to fans of the film and those who enjoy film scores. The two songs featuring Miss Ross and Lionel Richie, however, are required listening for fans and showcase Diana not only at a peak time commercially, but also vocally.
Endless Love: One of the most successful duets of all time, this song became an instant classic; it spent nine weeks at #1 on the pop charts, gained numerous Grammy nominations and an Oscar nod, and would later be remade by two other superstars (Luther Vandross and Mariah Carey) and become a hit all over again. But this, the original recording by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie, remains the definitive version and the song that continues to show up on commercials and in weddings around the world. Opening with an instantly recognizable piano line, the song’s key to success is its simplicity; both the lyrics and the production are free of any unnecessary touches. Lines like “My first love…you’re every breath that I take…you’re every step I make…” are certainly not groundbreaking writing, but they’re relatable and easy to remember and sing-along to. It would be easy for a love song like this to be so saccharine and sugary sweet that it becomes hard to listen to, and it’s the two singers who keep that from happening thanks to absolutely stunning, perfect performances. Lionel Richie was just coming into his own during this period in his career, taking the leap from group member to solo superstar, and he offers up a confident vocal that’s understated while still impressive. Diana Ross, meanwhile, shines here, harnessing the strength and power that she’d been cultivating ever since 1978’s The Wiz soundtrack to do some fine belting and deeply shaded work on par with any other ballad performance she’d ever given. Listen to the two together as they sing “No one can deny…this love I have inside…” – the vocal work here is a stunning example of two performers giving everything to a song while managing to not overshadow each other. The massive success of this song still sounds deserved today; it’s a good song, plain and simple, and isn’t dated one bit, and had “Endless Love” not been played to death in the early 80s, this version could probably be a hit all over again. The mystery here is not why the song was a success, but why it didn’t win a single Grammy for the pair, despite several nominations. If ever Diana Ross had a chance to snag a competitive Grammy, this was it, considering the song was such a monumental, undeniable smash. Miss Ross would, of course, record the song again, releasing a solo version on her debut RCA LP Why Do Fools Fall In Love. Though there’s some good work on that recording, it comes nowhere close to equaling the power of the duet version; this is a timeless classic and an essential part of both singers’ discographies.
Dreaming Of You: A shimmering, finger-snapping, feel-good pop song that has “hit” written all over it – this “lost” Diana Ross/Lionel Richie duet is every bit as good as “Endless Love” and probably could have soared straight to #1 had it been serviced to radio and record buyers. As on “Endless Love,” both voices complement each other in a way that is an absolute joy to listen to; everything missing on Diana’s Marvin Gaye duets is on full-display here. Built on an acoustic-guitar line similar to the memorable riff from America’s “Ventura Highway,” the crisp, clean production is a big reason for this song’s success; producer Richie and arranger Gene Page craft a swirling, breezy instrumental that never feels claustrophobic and allows the vocals to remain at the center of the song. The tone here is pure pop with some elements of light jazz in the chord progressions; the composition isn’t that far removed from the sort of work Al Jarreau was releasing at the time. But again, as good as the track and writing are, Diana Ross and Lionel Richie easily sell the song and are the real stars here. They are perfect duet partners, in that neither ever tries to “show off” or out-sing the other; their styles are similar enough that they interpret the lyric in the same way, but they retain an individual character because they tonally sound so different from one another. Diana Ross sounds as youthful and vibrant as she had in years; really not since 1977’s brilliant Baby It’s Me LP had her voice ridden a song’s melody in such a light, effortless manner. She is as pitch-perfect and vocally strong as she had been on “Endless Love,” but this song allows her the chance to be playful, and it’s a pleasure to hear (she is just glorious singing “And I’m not going anywhere!” at 2:19, a line that would, coincidentally, later become a big part of her career when she said it during her rain-soaked Central Park concert!). Mr. Richie is equally impressive, keeping his own performance simple and clean, with a few flourishes of light funk that nod to his work with The Commodores. Even their silly spoken lines (Diana: “You’re not dreamin’ of me!” Lionel: “I am!”) are fun and come off as completely natural. It is a complete and total mystery why the record labels involved in the Endless Love soundtrack didn’t get this song out to the public as a follow-up to the smash theme song; this should (and could) have given the pair another lengthy run at the top of the charts.
Although the film Endless Love isn’t exactly remembered fondly (it won several Razzie Awards back in 1981), the theme song has kept it alive all these years. The full soundtrack album was re-released on CD in 1998, giving “Dreaming Of You” a second life; that song was also included on the 2003 reissue of Diana’s To Love Again, which featured eleven additional tracks. Because both “Endless Love” and “Dreaming Of You” are available elsewhere, the soundtrack to Endless Love really isn’t an essential. The songs, however, are; they are wonderful recordings that showcase not only what a gifted singer Diana Ross is, but also how gifted she can be sharing the spotlight with another artist.
Best Of The Bunch: Both! Impossible to choose…
The Grammy nominees for Record of the Year that year were:
Kim Carnes, “Bette Davis Eyes” (Winner)
Christopher Cross, “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)”
John Lennon, “(Just Like) Starting Over”
Diana Ross & Lionel Richie, “Endless Love”
Grover Washington, Jr. With Bill Withers, “Just The Two Of Us”
The Grammy nominees Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals that year were:
The Manhattan Transfer, “The Boy From New York City” (Winner)
Hall & Oates, Private Eyes
The Pointer Sisters, “Slow Hand”
Diana Ross & Lionel Richie, “Endless Love”
Steely Dan, Gaucho