“Doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad…there’s nothing like A Mother’s Love.”
The 1993 release of When You Dream, Diana Ross’s book for children and accompanying mini-CD, fulfilled the singer’s longtime plan of recording a project meant for children. Back in the early 1970s, as a new mother, Miss Ross had begun recording songs meant for a children-themed album including “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (dedicated to her first-born daughter, Rhonda) and “To The Baby,” co-penned by her brother T-Boy. Unfortunately, her busy recording and filming schedule would stand in the way of that project getting a proper release, and it remained in the Motown vaults for decades, until Hip-O Select finally issued it as To The Baby in 2009. Some of the songs found their way onto other albums (“Turn Around,” for example, ended up on the Last Time I Saw Him LP), but a complete LP dedicated to her girls never materialized.
In the early 90s, however, Diana Ross was a new mother again. The singer had given birth to two sons — Ross and Evan — with her second husband, Norwegian shipping magnate Arne Naess, in the late 1980s. Though she was busy early in the decade promoting The Force Behind The Power, the studio album which gave her five UK Top 40 hits, she found time to work on the When You Dream project, the cover of which featured a colorful painting of Diana with her two boys. The CD contained four original songs, all co-written by Miss Ross, including “That’s Why I Call You My Friend,” which according to writer J. Randy Taraborrelli “had been released the prior year in Japan as the theme to a local TV show” (Diana Ross: A Biography 524). It also apparently hit #14 on the Japanese music charts, according to online sources.
Interestingly, the entire project only got a release in Japan, making When You Dream a lesser-known addition to the Diana Ross discography. Miss Ross was extraordinarily popular in the country at this time, with her recording of “If We Hold On Together” (theme from the animated film The Land Before Time) having been a #1 smash in 1988. However, Ross was also riding high with the success of Force… and its singles in the UK, which makes it interesting that this book/CD project wasn’t pushed there, too. In any case, it’s an interesting listen as it boasts four songs that are hard to find anywhere else, and because each song featured creative input from the singer herself, who hadn’t done much songwriting since the early 1980s. Are any of them classics? Not really. But the fact that Miss Ross is singing these songs to her own children makes them worthy listens for fans.
1. When You Dream: A keyboard-driven, well-sung ballad, the title track here is a nicely put together production that sets the tone for this special set. Diana offers up a sensitive, wise vocal performance here; her crisp, clear delivery is a perfect match for the song’s simplicity, never sounding weak or forced. There’s the nice touch of doubling Diana’s voice at :55 (on the line “I’ll watch you sleep…”), allowing her to harmonize with herself, something she always sounds good doing. The issue with “When You Dream” is that the song is quite meandering; it’s nearly impossible to follow the melody, as it doesn’t really follow the tradition verse-chorus-bridge structure, and thus it isn’t very memorable after the initial listening. The lyrics are also pretty random; Diana the songwriter is always much more concerned about mood and feeling than perfect rhyme schemes, but here there seem to be a few too many loose ends. All that said, it’s Diana who sells the song with her mature vocal; she really does sound good here — never shaky on the higher or lower notes — and though the song doesn’t demand a whole lot from her, she skillfully keeps in on track and never allows it to become too syrupy, which it could have been.
2. Did You Ever Wonder Why: Listen to the first 15 seconds of this uptempo number and tell me if I’m crazy — does it sound a whole heck of a lot like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”? You could pretty much lay the Ashford and Simpson background vocals of that earlier song’s intro right over the musical intro of this one and get a perfect match. Aside from the opening (and the few times this musical motif repeats), the song doesn’t have much in common with Diana’s classic soulful Motown hits; this song, while a spirited recording with a nice message, is an overproduced pop tune that lacks a strong melody or memorable chorus. Diana sings in a crisp, clear soprano that sounds similar to her work on her Christmas projects A Very Special Season and Christmas In Vienna, although on those projects she was interpreting seasonal classics which have more than stood the test of time. The melody here isn’t particularly cohesive between the verses, chorus, and bridge, and the lyrics — while pleasant — really don’t say much, even for a song aimed at kids (for example, “Day breaks and I’m awake/No dark clouds hanging over me/Holding on for heaven’s sakes/Trusting’s hard to do”). While Diana Ross is a singer who can certainly take a lackluster song and make it worthwhile, she doesn’t quite manage the task here; she just doesn’t have enough to work with to really sell the song.
3. That’s Why I Call You My Friend: A very pretty ballad that’s a big improvement over the previous track, this was a hit in Japan and a song performed live by Diana in concert (there’s a clip floating around online of her singing it in Tokyo). The key to this song’s success is its simplicity; this is one of those ballads that allows Miss Ross’s clear-as-glass voice glide atop the melody effortlessly. It is, at heart, a touching and relatable song about friendship, and the lyrics (the song was co-written with Peter Asher, who produced “If We Hold On Together”) are simple without being too sappy. Diana tempers her emotion with a skillful control; it should be mentioned her high notes on the bridge (as she belts out “…the hard times…”) are full of power, and she again demonstrates some nice control on her upper register during the final verse. Her delivery of the classy, scaled-back chorus (constructed of solely these three lines: “That’s Why I Call You My Friend…you will be my friend…now ’til my life is ended…”) is delicately delivered by Diana, who clearly understands those simple words. If there’s any flaw at all here, it’s that the song itself may be a little too generic; the Diana Ross of the early 1990s was one who seemed to favor slow MOR songs that really didn’t have much edge or bite, and this is no exception. In 1995, with Take Me Higher, Diana began recording ballads with some soul again, something that instantly enhanced her sound and drew out some of her most skillful performances ever. She sounds great here to be sure, and the song is a memorable one, but not quite as memorable as ballads like “Gone” or “Let Somebody Know,” which were just a few years away.
4. A Mother’s Love: This song is beautiful in its intentions; as a missive from Diana Ross to her two young boys, it’s extremely touching and sincere and hard to dislike. From a production standpoint, however, it’s a bit of a mess; opening with a classical string arrangement, it eventually opens up to something resembling a bossa nova beat before featuring a smooth sax after the first chorus that doesn’t quite gel with anything that’s come before it. Diana’s lyrics really do come off like a personal message to her own children; it’s easy to be moved as her bell-like soprano sings, “A mother’s love is forever…a mother’s love is for free…it doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad…she’s there for whatever you need.” The song is cut in a rather high key; though she sounds lovely, Diana’s voice is a little thin here, although perhaps that’s fitting given its lullaby-ish nature. However, at this point in her career, Diana’s lower register was developing a beautiful, mature timbre (something she’d really show off on songs like 1995’s “Only Love Can Conquer All”) that would have probably worked better here. The instrumental track is also, as stated before, all over the place. The strings are as stately as anything on her Christmas CD, while the programmed percussion and sax both sounds like they were meant for completely different, far looser songs. Still, at the end of the day, this isn’t a song that was written to top the pop charts — it’s a song sporting a positive message about what it is to be a loving, devoted mother…and if that message reaches a child in need, then it’s obviously a huge success.
Similar to other “special” project in the Diana Ross discography, like her holiday CD A Very Special Season and her jazz concert Stolen Moments, it’s tough to judge When You Dream against the rest of the singer’s output (there’s also the fact that there are only four songs here, compared to as many as eleven or twelve on a typical studio album). The fact that Diana even chose to devote time to a project for kids — and then that she didn’t milk it for every penny around the world — shows just how passionate she is about children, especially her own. That said, if one of these songs was an undisputed classic better than any of her #1 hits, it would be noted — and thus, it has to be mentioned that the quartet of tracks are certainly not the highest quality songs produced by Miss Ross in the 90s. Still, When You Dream is a lovely, meaningful addition to a long list of projects Miss Ross has recorded and released, and it’s a shame critics of the singer are often unaware of this sensitive side to her. I have no idea what her sons (and daughters, too…and grandkids now!) think of the book and CD, but I have to imagine they’re proud of what their mother’s love sounds like.
Best Of The Bunch: “That’s Why I Call You My Friend”