“When I play my memories again…I feel all the pleasure and the pain…”
1993 was supposed to be the year of Diana Ross. Celebrating three decades as a music superstar (dating back to 1963’s “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” with the Supremes), the singer released a New York Times Bestselling autobiography and her first-ever career-spanning box set. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Miss Ross had continued churning out global hits like the British #1 “Chain Reaction” and “If We Hold On Together,” which became a massive success in Japan. At home, unfortunately, Miss Ross had suffered through several bouts of bad press, something that undoubtedly hurt her commercial appeal and led to slipping album sales. Forever Diana: Musical Memoirs, the 4-CD box set, was meant to bring the focus back to Diana’s incredible musical output and her talent as a vocalist.
Each of the four CDs is generally devoted to a specific era (or decade) of Diana’s career. The first spans her work with the Supremes, from 1963’s “Lovelight…” to 1969’s “Someday We’ll Be Together.” Disc 2 takes listeners on a journey from Diana’s first solo single — “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” — to 1978’s “Home” from The Wiz soundtrack. The third CD picks up the end of the 1970s, with hits from The Boss and diana, and continues through her period as an RCA recording artist, including eight songs from her six RCA studio albums. Disc 4 includes songs from her two “return to Motown” albums, Workin’ Overtime and The Force Behind The Power, as well as some previously unreleased live recordings and five new studio recordings completed especially for this project.
While the prospect of a career retrospective was an exciting one, Forever Diana: Musical Memoirs was not the major success anyone was hoping for. Fans and critics alike complained about the sound quality; according to writer J. Randy Taraborrelli, “The mastering was so poor on it that Motown had to recall the product and even supply new CDs to buyers who wrote and complained about it” (Diana Ross: A Biography 519). Track selection was also an issue for many; in its review of the set, the All Music Guide noted, “less dedicated fans — the kind who simply wants a comprehensive collection of hits — will have trouble making it through the last disc, which consists of nothing but recent, post-hitmaking years recordings. Also, hardcore fans will probably be upset by the lack of rarities on Forever Diana, since they will own most everything on the box.”
Still, with five new studio songs and several others unavailable anywhere else but here, the box set — especially disc 4 — does hold interest for fans; this is especially true as two of those new songs bear Diana’s name as co-writer. Unfortunately, as is the case with the entire project, these new songs are extremely uneven. There are some nice listens here…but nothing that really comes close to the classics featured on the first three CDs. (Note: Below is a track-by-track analysis of Disc 4; all material on the first three CDs is previously released.)
1. Family (Live): The fourth CD of Forever Diana opens with a live track taken from Diana’s historic 1983 free concerts in Central Park (this was performed at the beginning of the second day). The entire Central Park event’s been written about many times over — and has also now been officially released on DVD — so I won’t say much about it here. What’s interesting about the concerts is that while they got incredible press coverage, they was never released as a live album. It’s been written that Diana toyed with the idea of releasing it all on LP, but obviously it never happened for one reason or another. So, the inclusion of “Family” here is the sole official audio recording from Central Park available to fans. What’s really interesting about this song in particular is that it comes from the Broadway musical Dreamgirls, which was loosely based on the story of Diana and the Supremes and against which Diana Ross spoke out vehemently. She’s quoted in Taraborrelli’s biography as saying, “I don’t want people to walk away thinking it’s the truth…because I don’t think they know what the truth is” (347). So it’s unclear why the singer chose to perform this song during such a huge moment in her career — and then include it on this box set ten years later. Chances are she just really liked the song — and perhaps singing it gave her a chance to “reclaim” her own story, so to speak. Whatever the case is, it’s nice to hear this live moment captured on CD; the audio quality is actually pretty good, and Diana’s vocals — while not the best of the shows — aren’t bad. The first 1:45 of the recording don’t even feature her singing; her patter to the audience is included, a nice reminder of what a monumental task it must have been to keep the attention of an audience so massive. When she begins singing, she sounds just a little shaky, understandable considering she’d been up late the night before shouting at thousands of people caught in a rain storm! However, as she croons the line “This dream is for all of us…” at 2:00, her voice is quite honeyed and lovely. During the song’s climax, her vocals are just a little raspy, but there’s still a large amount of power on display, especially her “…growin’ strong, growing wide!” at 3:23. Again, it’s pretty incredible that Diana was able to belt like this given the events of the rained-out first night, and while this isn’t necessarily a great live recording, it’s one that merits inclusion given how important the Central Park concerts are to Diana Ross’s career.
2. Ninety-Nine And A Half: This is an amazing, amazing inclusion — a real highlight of Diana Ross’s entire career and an absolute gem. Taken from Diana’s 1987 ABC television special Red Hot Rhythm & Blues, this is a true gospel workout that reveals a side to Diana Ross largely unheard by the listening public. The TV special traces the evolution of R&B music through the eyes of a fictional singer (played by Diana), and this particular song is used in a church sequence featuring Little Richard and highlighting the importance of gospel music to African-American singers. Therefore, it’s not a full-length recording, it only runs two minutes long and sort of fades in and fades out, without a real beginning and end. Here’s the thing — that doesn’t matter. The two minutes included here are a glorious two minutes in which Diana Ross proves once and for all what a powerful, soulful singer she is. Not normally known for real belting, she sure does it here, pushing her voice harder than perhaps she had since 1978’s The Wiz soundtrack. The gospel choir behind her is boisterous and joyful, but they never once overshadow Diana, who effortlessly leads them with her own infectious joy. It’s almost impossible to even spotlight any particular moments as the entire recording features Diana whooping and shouting full-speed ahead; however, listen to her guttural singing beginning at 1:11, as she wails, “Won’t make the grade!” for an example of the kind of workout she’s giving herself. The next time someone says Diana Ross has a “limited range” or a “thin” voice — play this recording for them. A YouTube upload of this song led to dozens of comments like this one: “And this is Diana?! What year was this? This shocks me lol!” Yes, this is Diana Ross — Diana at her best.
3. What A Wonderful World (Live): Another live recording, this one comes from a June 1989 show at Wembley Arena in London (the same series of shows that led to her EMI release Greatest Hits Live, although this song did not appear on that set — probably because it’s not one of her hits!). It’s actually a shame this wasn’t added to Greatest Hits Live, as that particular CD is a low point in the Diana Ross discography, and her performance on this song is much, much better than most of the ones that were included. The major problem with GHL is that Diana’s voice just didn’t sound good; she was obviously having some vocal issues and sounded quite raspy and labored on much of it. However, on this brief recording, she sounds absolutely gorgeous; her voice is smooth and controlled. The band behind her provides a sublime musical track; a long harmonica solo is perfectly done. The only issue here is that Diana really doesn’t sing that much — she does the first verse (beautifully), and then comes back in with the final line, but everything in between is the band. Still, that first verse is a prime example of Diana’s ability to sound just as good live as she does on record. Her phrasing and delivery of the classic opening line, “I see trees of green…red roses, too…” echoes her work on the Lady Sings The Blues soundtrack. Though it’s a little too short, this is a nice addition to this set.
4. Amazing Grace: From Christmas In Vienna (1993) Read My Album Review Here
5. If We Hold On Together: From The Force Behind The Power (1991) Read My Album Review Here
6. Workin’ Overtime: From Workin’ Overtime (1989) Read My Album Review Here
7. This House: From Workin’ Overtime (1989) Read My Album Review Here
8. The Force Behind The Power: From The Force Behind The Power (1991) Read My Album Review Here
9. When You Tell Me That You Love Me: From The Force Behind The Power (1991) Read My Album Review Here
10. One Shining Moment: From The Force Behind The Power (1991) Read My Album Review Here
11. Waiting In The Wings: From The Force Behind The Power (1991) Read My Album Review Here
12. Where Did We Go Wrong: From Stolen Moments: The Lady Sings…Jazz And Blues (1993) Read My Album Review Here
13. Back To The Future: The first of the five new studio tracks is one co-written and co-produced by Diana Ross. This is a harder-edged, New Jack Swing-style tune similar in sound to “You’re Gonna Love It” from The Force Behind The Power — there’s a heavy, angular beat here and some nice guitar work along with prominent keyboards and a robust chorus of background singers. Diana sounds great on the tune; she’s youthful and energetic, but never appears to be straining or forcing the way she did on so many of the songs on Workin’ Overtime, which were also arranged in the New Jack style. While the song is modern and “hip,” it’s also age-appropriate for Miss Ross, which is why it works. As she begins singing the opening line, her voice is smooth and controlled, and her delivery remains relaxed and confident as the song progresses and she uses more of her upper register. She sounds particularly nice in the sections leading up the chorus, during which she croons, “Which way forever…which way will I go?” The only issue with the song is that the melody is a little dense; it takes a few listens to really get into the tune, and while it eventually becomes memorable, it’s not immediately grabbing. This is likely why the song wasn’t tested out as a single — that said, had it been given a chance and some promotion, it might have made at least some impact at R&B radio. On the list of songs co-written by Diana Ross herself, this one is certainly toward the top.
14. Let’s Make Every Moment Count: A ballad written by Gerry Goffin and Tom Snow, two men who’d given Diana Ross some great songs in the past (and would continue to do so, providing her with the sublime “I Never Loved A Man Before” on 1995’s Take Me Higher), this is a classy, accomplished adult contemporary addition to this batch of new recordings. Driven by a melody vaguely reminiscent of the hit ballad “Wind Beneath My Wings,” the song is the kind at which Diana Ross excels; she’s got plenty of room here to really let her high, crisp voice glide over the melody and keep the focus squarely on the uplifting lyrics. Diana’s vocal work here is impressive; her voice is smooth and full-bodied; though parts of the ballad push her to some higher notes, she nails them effortlessly, never sounded strained. This is especially true during the climactic final chorus, on which she belts out the “Let’s Make Every Moment Count!” refrain with some nice power and soul. She also embraces the lower parts of her register at various points in her performance here, and by this time her lower notes were sounding really, really good — they’d be much further explored on her next two studio albums for Motown (Take Me Higher and Every Day Is A New Day). The production here is good, but perhaps a little too adult contemporary — the prominent sax is too obvious and expected, as is the generic wash of background voices. It would have been nice had the musical track behind Diana been slightly grittier and more soulful; it would have played as a nice contrast to the sweetness of the lyrics and Diana’s vocals.
15. Your Love: This song was pulled for single release in the UK, where it topped out at #14 — produced by Nick Martinelli (who would go on to handle Diana’s entire Christmas album A Very Special Season), it also features a strange credit in the box set booklet: backgrounds by Luther Vandross. Not strange in terms of the two teaming up; Vandross had provided backgrounds for Diana’s 1982 single “So Close” and wrote and produced 1987’s “It’s Hard For Me To Say,” and was vocal through his entire career about his admiration for Miss Ross. It’s strange because the backgrounds vocals are so subdued that they’re almost imperceptible. Vandross’s powerful instrument was extremely audible in the other two aforementioned songs; here, you’d never know his is one of the voices in the quiet, ethereal choir behind Diana. “Ethereal” is a good way to describe the song; Martinelli is good at giving his orchestrations an albums classical-edge, and the arrangement here almost straddles a line between classical and New Age, with Diana offering up an angelic vocal that shows off a good portion of her range. Her work on the verses is probably best here; listen to her sing the line “…that means more than others I have known…” at 30 seconds in, as her voice settles down deep into the lower notes with a likeable, soulful wisdom. The chorus pushes her much higher in her range, and this is where listeners will either be won over…or turned off. To be honest, the repetition of “Your…LOVE” — as her voice reaches to the top end of her range — is just a little bit shrill; this isn’t entirely the fault of Miss Ross, as the song forces her to repeat the two words again and again, and it does end up becoming just slightly grating. However, in direct contrast with the lower notes during the verses, her work on the verses does sound a little thin and not quite as appealing. Still this is a well-produced ballad, and one that Diana Ross actually sounded quite good on while performing live; there are several video clips of the singer doing the song at concerts internationally, and she always nailed the notes to the delight of the appreciative audiences. (Note: The song was originally recorded by Laura Branigan and featured in the 1988 film Salsa.)
16. It’s A Wonderful Life: The undisputed low point of this disc — and the entire box set — is this shuffling pop song, unfortunately co-written and co-produced by Diana Ross. There is no doubt that the song was inspired by Diana’s 1986 hit “Chain Reaction” — both productions have an early-60s Motown vibe and “Baby Love”-esque beat. Unlike “Chain Reaction,” however, this song has absolutely no charm; the melody is all over the place and the musical track sounds so cheap and rushed that it’s almost tough to sit through. Diana Ross offers up very little in terms of a vocal performance; she is oddly disconnected from the whole thing, which is especially strange considering she co-wrote it. The less said about this song, the better — it’s definitely not worthy of Diana, and no at all worthy of a place on a set that’s supposed to celebrate her artistry.
17. The Best Years Of My Life: The most well-known of the 1993 recordings on Forever Diana, this song was released as a single both domestically and internationally; it topped out at #28 on the UK charts but failed to chart at home. Miss Ross, however, performed the song extensively, using it as a love letter to the fans who’ve followed her career — she sang it during her Return To Love tour (with the Supremes) and performed it on the highly-rated VH1 “Divas” tribute to her, and thus far more people heard it than likely heard many of her other singles in the 90s. This, as it turns out, is a good thing — the song is a beautifully produced and performed tune, a passionate ballad that stands with the best of her work from the decade, and is certainly the standout among the new recording on this set. Written by Will Jennings and Stephen Allen Davis (Jennings, by the way, is the prolific songwriter who wrote the lyrics to the monster hit “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic), the piece was produced again by Nick Martinelli, who crafts a lush, atmospheric musical track that perfectly complements Diana’s vocals. She is at her very best here, really digging into the material and feeling every single word; this is a total 180 from the previous track, on which she sounded almost asleep. It’s impossible to listen to her sing lines like “When I play…my memories again…” at 1:35 and not envision Diana, in the studio, closing her eyes and really envisioning those early days in her career at Motown. The emotional bridge at 3:06 is a real highpoint here; Diana opens up her voice and really pushes herself here, and she sounds fantastic doing so, and her vocal power is extremely impressive during the final two refrains of the song, as she really lets loose with some nice ad-libs. This is a song that obviously means a lot to Miss Ross, and it’s a perfect way to end this imperfect chronicle of her career.
Forever Diana: Musical Memoirs emerged as a flawed roadmap of Diana’s impeccable recording career; overall fans weren’t particularly thrilled with the set and it didn’t do much to enhance Diana’s place as a music legend. The Motown Anthology, released in 2001, would be a far more successful collection of Diana’s solo hits, and those wanting more of her RCA work on CD would get Greatest Hits: The RCA Years, which included a more comprehensive collection of her work from the 1980s. Still, the fourth disc of this set does provide a few nice treasures for fans, especially the giddy and surprising “Ninety-Nine And A Half” and the new songs “Back To The Future” and “The Best Years Of My Life.” Whether those highlights are worth the price of the entire 4-CD set…well…that’s up to buyers to decide.
Best Of The Bunch: “Ninety-Nine And A Half,” “The Best Years Of My Life”