“‘Cause you came and you took control…you touched my very soul…”
The Motown of the 1990s was very different from the Motown of the 1960s and 1970s, and the primary reason was that the man who’d started it all was gone. In 1988, Berry Gordy, Jr. — founder of Motown Records and the man who’s shaped dozens of careers — sold his interests to MCA and Boston Ventures. Even more than when Diana Ross had left Motown for RCA Records in 1981, Gordy’s move truly signaled the end of an era, and was something unthinkable to many people. Gordy, after all, had built the label from the ground up, cultivating some of Detroit’s most talented youngsters into superstars, and changing the world’s musical landscape in the process. In the 1970s, along with this one-time lover and the mother of one of his children, he conquered Hollywood by producing the Oscar-nominated smash Lady Sings The Blues, starring Diana Ross as Billie Holiday.
Interestingly, just as Gordy was selling to MCA, Diana Ross was leaving her label and signing with MCA. Thus, she ended up back on Motown — but this time, without the influence of her former mentor. The two had continued a seeminglyt strained relationship during the 1980s; though Diana had always publicly credited with Gordy for helping guide her career and believing in her, she’d also craved creative independence enough to leave his label in the first place. Gordy had published his autobiography, To Be Loved, in 1994, and wrote in-depth about his relationship with Diana; it was clear that despite their issues, his feelings for her were still strong, and always would be. There’s little doubt she felt the same, which is why it’s no surprise that she shows up on this 1995 Motown release, a collection of new and old recordings of songs largely written by Gordy himself, that serve as a tribute to his career.
For this CD, Diana Ross recorded a new version of the song “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” written by Gordy, Frank Wilson, and Brenda and Patrice Holloway. It was first released as a single in 1967 by Brenda Holloway; her version just managed the top 40 of both the pop and R&B charts, but found the song much greater success when Blood, Sweat, & Tears covered it in 1969 and took it to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s been covered by several others over the years, including Lou Rawls for his 1969 LP of the same title, and is certainly a recognizable tune. Holloway’s original is an absolutely sublime recording, showing off the singer’s breathy vocals to masterful effect. Diana’s version doesn’t veer too far from that feeling, although it updates the instrumental track to a far more jazz-lite, adult contemporary feel.
The tone is set immediately with Diana whispering “You’ve made me so very happy…” before a wailing sax takes over for a few introductory notes; the saxophone will really dominate this recording, and one’s appreciate for the recording will likely depend on his or her tolerance of this smooth jazz arrangement. There’s no doubt that it does date the song a bit; in the early 90s, Kenny G’s Breathless became the best-selling instrumental album ever, and this recording is clearly inspired by his jazz/pop sound (such as that of “Songbird,” his signature 1987 hit). That said, the instrumental is well-done here, and does work with Diana’s low-key, relaxed vocal performance. Diana’s voice sounds undeniably gorgeous here; the jazz tone allows her to subtly channel some of the loose-phrasing techniques she mastered back on the Lady Sings The Blues soundtrack, but she also keeps her performance grounded in the pop feel of Brenda Holloway’s original recording. By 1995, Diana Ross’s voice had begun to change a bit, growing deeper and slightly huskier, and she embraces that sound here (as she would on her next Motown studio albums, the masterpiece Take Me Higher). Rather than cut the song in a higher key that would push her too far during the familiar refrain, Ross smartly sings it in her mid-range, which keeps her voice sounding supple and full. Listen as she improvises the melody a bit at 1:44, bouncing up and down on the words “You’ve made me so…very happy…” — there’s a sexy playfulness here that Diana really hadn’t demonstrated in a few years, and she sounds completely in control of her voice. Her “I’m so glad you came…into my life…” at 3:02 is also a nice example of her use of some jazz improv techniques to slightly alter the melody. Though the saxophone will turn off some listeners who dislike the adult contemporary vibe, this really is a strong vocal by Diana Ross; she doesn’t appear to be trying too hard to make the song her own, rather she seems content to turn in a nice tribute to the man who helped write it.
Diana’s voice appears a second time on The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown: A Tribute To Berry Gordy — the final track is a Supremes recording called “We Couldn’t Get Along Without You,” which includes a new set of lyrics sung over the track to their 1966 hit “My World Is Empty Without You.” The group apparently recorded the little ditty as a “congratulations” to Gordy on the success being achieved by Motown Records in the mid-60s. The inclusion of both a new and old recording by Diana Ross gives this set a nice sense of history concerning Miss Ross and Gordy; the two are inextricably linked, and it seems that by this time, both of them were starting to come to terms with that link again. That same year — 1995 — Diana Ross would be honored with a Soul Train Lifetime Achievement Award…and Berry Gordy was there to hand it to her.