“From your lips to God’s ear…may every wish and every prayer find its way…”
Though in the United States the 1990s represented a cold period for Diana Ross commercially, the singer was still enjoying tremendous success in other parts of the world. Thanks to the fact that she was signed to EMI International (Motown handled her domestically — very poorly, it must be added), she received excellent promotion in the UK and throughout the rest of Europe and Asia. Thus, while albums like The Force Behind The Power and Take Me Higher were completely lost in the United States, they gave her big hits in other markets; Diana’s biggest hit of the decade was her 1991 #2 UK single “When You Tell Me That You Love Me” from The Force Behind The Power; she was also still riding the huge success of the 1988 single “If We Hold On Together,”which had been a #1 smash in Japan.
International markets received far more material from Miss Ross in the 1990s; her popularity abroad created demand for more material, which EMI provided. 1993’s One Woman: The Ultimate Collection was an enormous seller for Ross and a #1 UK album, 1994 brought the holiday album A Very Special Season (a superb collection that should have gotten a domestic release), and the compilations Voice Of Love and A Gift Of Love followed a few years later. Voice Of Love — a collection of Ross love songs supplemented by three additional new recordings — was released in 1996 in Europe; Diana Ross toured in support of the disc and one of the new songs, “In The Ones You Love,” was a top 40 hit for her. The pared-down A Gift Of Love was released by EMI Japan in 1997, and featured one new recording, the dance song “Promise Me You’ll Try.”
Thus, a total of four new recordings resulted from the two collections — four songs that never saw the light of day in the US. As mentioned before, “In The Ones You Love” was pulled as a single and got a music video, too. However, the other two Voice Of Love tracks are extremely notable; “I Hear (The Voice Of Love)” was co-written by Miss Ross, and “You Are Not Alone” is a cover of the 1995 Michael Jackson #1 hit (written by R&B superstars R. Kelly), a song that would reappear in Diana’s repertoire following Jackson’s death. “Promise Me You’ll Try,” meanwhile, later found a stateside audience when Jennifer Lopez covered it on her debut album On The 6. Making them even more notable, however, is that they’re all really good recordings — though not all of them quite equal the bar set so high by the tracks of Take Me Higher, these are all lush, well-produced pieces that still sound good today.
In The Ones You Love: A beautiful, inspiring song that’s similar in feel to “When You Tell Me That You Love Me” — it’s no surprise this was chosen for a single release; the real surprise is that it didn’t chart any higher than it did (#34 in the UK). Diana Ross’s vocal performance here is easily one of her most powerful of the entire decade; she pushes here — really pushes — her voice soaring far beyond what many people still believe she’s capable of. The first verse here is sparse and low-key, with Diana’s mature, seasoned delivery spot-on as she sings the well-written, deeply-felt lyrics (the piece was written by Marsha Malamet and Liz Vidal, both of whom have long track records as successful songwriters). Diana is accompanied by a quiet, relaxed group of background voices during the first and second chorus, a group that erupts into a full-on gospel choir when the bridge hits; this section (beginning around 2:10) is also when Diana’s voice begins to open up, really grabbing hold and digging into the lyrics. Listen to her sing “Rejoice and celebrate…” at 2:28, stretching the latter work across several powerful notes. From this point on, Miss Ross really lets loose with some powerful vocals; her “…coming SHINING through…” at 3:11 and the incredible high note at 3:39 are spectacular displays of what she can do when she’s really moved by a song and feels that song is worthy of some vocal gymnastics. Along the way, the lush production and soulful backing vocals only enhance Diana’s emotional performance. This really is a great recording — the song itself isn’t the best ballad Diana ever recorded, but the quality of the performances here certainly elevate it to being in the top-tier of her 90s output. There is no doubt that Diana Ross was vocally in peak form in 1995-1996, as she recorded Take Me Higher and promoted it; clearly that carried over into the recording of this song, which could have easily fit onto that fine album.
You Are Not Alone: Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” — written and co-produced by R. Kelly — was the second single from HIStory, the singer’s 1995 double-disc career retrospective. The song was a huge success, becoming the first song in history to debut at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100; it was Jackson’s final #1 hit at home, and also topped the R&B charts. Diana’s recording, obviously, came right on the heels of Jackson’s — his album had hit shelves just about a year before hers (and, interestingly, his liner notes included a picture with Diana and brief tribute to her — perhaps recording this song was her response to him). Because Jackson’s version was so ubiquitous and remains so memorable, it’s hard not to compare the two versions; thankfully, Diana’s is extremely good, and holds up very well next to the original. The production on Diana’s recording is classy and uplifting; it’s a bit more glossy than Jackson’s, although both versions are quite simple. That, of course, was the key to the success of the song in the first place; there’s a clear, direct melody that’s memorable and easy to sing along to, and Diana’s version respects that for the most part. Miss Ross offers up a well-executed vocal performance; though she doesn’t provide her own background vocals, her voice is often doubled, with a “second” Ross offering a little color to the melody. As with the previous track on Voice Of Love, Diana gets to show a little “muscle” and push the upper end of her range a bit; this is especially true during the key change at 4:27. as the song kicks up a notch and Diana gets to wail a few lines. At the end of the day, it shouldn’t be a surprise that “You Are Not Alone” fits Diana Ross’s voice as well as it did Jackson, considering the vocal similarities between the two. The song, of course, took on a greater significance (and larger audience) when Jackson passed and named Diana Ross as backup guardian of his children; Diana began performing it in concert again, and it received many hits online, with the general consensus being that Diana more than did it justice. Indeed, she does.
I Hear (The Voice Of Love): The most interesting thing about this song, co-written by Diana Ross, is the production; the lead vocal is brought front and center, positioning the singer as the literal “voice of love” of the title. This recording is all about Diana Ross’s vocal; the backing track, the lyrics, and the melody really aren’t particularly noteworthy, and there aren’t even any background voices included here. Diana’s vocal is quite nice; it’s not the muscular performance of “In The Ones You Love” or the melodic crooning of “You Are Not Alone,” but is a sure, deliberate delivery that almost sounds like it was done in a single, uninterrupted take. Again, the song itself isn’t a strong one; the lyrics are generic and wordy, with lines like “All things are achievable, nothing is impossible…you can reach your highest high, you can make it if you try…” maddeningly meaningless. The melody is also a bit all over the place, and the section beginning at 48 seconds in, as Diana sings “Life’s interactions…,” sounds like it was borrowed straight from the hit song “If We Hold On Together.” Still, the entire point of the song is obviously to draw attention to Diana Ross’s position as the leading interpreter of love songs, and the new recordings on Voice Of Love — even this song — certainly continue to make the case that she really is a voice of love.
Promise Me You’ll Try: The single new track on A Gift Of Love is a fantastic, joyful dance track that plays almost like a sequel to her 1995 #1 dance hit “Take Me Higher” — it’s a high-quality recording that should have been released and pushed as a single in the US…and undoubtedly would have given the diva another dance chart hit. The melody here is strong and uplifting; the song is one of the most memorable dance tunes Diana recorded in the 90s, with thoughtful lyrics set atop a pleasant club beat that’s danceable without being too “thumping” or overpowering. Diana’s performance could also be called “thoughtful” — she injects the words with a youthful zeal while also managing to sound wise and mature, and she rides the melody with a nice, light touch. That youth and vibrancy is helped along by the fact that the melody has a tinge of “60s Motown” to it, something that Diana exploits with her crisp delivery. Like the best of her solo dance hits, however, the song gives Miss Ross ample opportunity to show off some range and vocal strength; listen to her soaring vocals at 2:22, as she reaches high to sing “Don’t promise me FOREVER…” — she effortlessly belts out the lyrics and then nails her highest note at 2:35 during the word “cry.” When singer/actress Jennifer Lopez covered the song for her 1999 debut album, it was arranged as a ballad; that choice, unfortunately for her, completely robbed the song of its powerful, hopefully message and left the vocals sounding weak and uninspired. Diana’s original is so far superior that it almost doesn’t even sound like the same song; this is really a top-notch dance/pop recording that deserved a far wider audience. It’s unfortunate that Motown didn’t find a place for it somewhere, whether it be on a soundtrack or compilation or something; again, it should have at least given Miss Ross a big dance hit (it’s certainly way better than 1999’s “Until We Meet Again,” which hit #2 on the dance chart) and gotten a shot at gaining some pop/R&B airplay.
Of the four new recordings featured on these two discs, two are truly great recordings — “In The Ones You Love” and “Promise Me You’ll Try” stand among her best work of the decade. “You Are Not Alone” is a very good one; not only is it a deeply-felt recording, but it’s also taken on a greater significance in the wake of Michael Jackson’s death. Finally, “I Hear (The Voice Of Love),” while not a great song, certainly shows off a gifted and skilled vocalist, and shines a spotlight centered firmly on that glorious voice. While many discount Diana’s recordings from the 1990s (with some critics saying she’d become too calculated and worried about sounding fresh), songs like these prove that she was just as capable of turning out strong, memorable tracks as she had been during the height of her stardom in the 60s and 70s. It’s a shame that she was so largely ignored during this decade in her home country; had Motown been smart enough to release the two best songs here, and radio been smart enough to play them, a largely generic and overproduced period in music might have gotten a nice little dose of true artistry.
Best Of The Bunch: “In The Ones You Love,” “Promise Me You’ll Try”