“I’m shining like a candle in the dark…”
After several years of absolutely no musical activity to speak of, Diana Ross finally returned to the charts in 2005. Aside from the track “Goin’ Back” and appearing on the choir of the charity single “We Are Family” – both in 2001 – Diana hadn’t really produced anything from the recording studio in several years, and her last full-length album had been way back in 1999 (the under-the-radar Motown release Every Day Is A New Day). Fans who’d been holding out for another full-length Diana Ross album would have to wait a little longer, but the singer did appear on no less than three successful projects by other artists in ’05, which ended up being the perfect way for the singer to dip her toes back into the water, so to speak, and prepare for her own “comeback” in 2006-2007 (with the release of Blue from the Motown vaults and the long-awaited new CD I Love You).
All three of these 2005-released duets bear an interesting link to the past. “Big Bad Love” with Ray Charles featured on his posthumous Genius & Friends CD, a follow-up to his Grammy-winning Genius Loves Company. Diana and Ray had actually recorded “Big Bad Love” back in the 1990s, and it was featured in the movie The Favor; this, however, was its first CD release and introduction to a wide audience. Genius & Friends reached the top 40 of Billboard 200, as did Thanks For The Memory: The Great American Songbook, Volume IV by Rod Stewart, which contained a duet with Diana called “I’ve Got A Crush On You.” This was the fourth in Stewart’s ultra-successful series of jazz/pop standards collections, a genre which, ironically, Diana had pioneered with her work on Lady Sings The Blues in 1972. “Crush,” a Gershwin classic, was released to radio and ended up charting in the top 20 of the Adult Contemporary listings.
Finally, Miss Ross fans had a unique sense of déjà-vu when her classic ballad “When You Tell Me That You Love Me” ended up at #2 on the UK charts, a peak it had first reached back in 1991. This time, Diana shared the spotlight with the popular British group Westlife, who re-recorded the song with Diana and included it on its Face To Face album. The ballad battled for the famed holiday top spot in the UK (and, according to Wikipedia, missed #1 by less than 200 copies!), capping off a strong year for Miss Ross at home and abroad. And here’s the good news — not only was Miss Ross back, but she was sounding as strong and assured as she had in years. All three collaborations show her off to good effect, and the two new recordings proved that during her absence, none of her vocal charisma had faded.
Big Bad Love: Released in 2004, just months after his death, the Ray Charles collection Genius Loves Company was a huge hit, topping out at #1 on the Billboard 200 and winning the Grammy for Album of the Year. A year later, Genius & Friends hit shelves, replicating the formula of pairing Charles with other popular entertainers. Though the album charted at a respectable #36, it did receive some criticism for the fact that most of the songs were “fused” together in the studio, with artists recording their parts after Charles had already passed away. The duet “Big Bad Love” featuring Miss Diana Ross, however, was a standout in that it was indeed recorded by the two artists together. “Big Bad Love” had originally been heard over the closing credits of the 1994 film The Favor, starring Brad Pitt and Bill Pullman, but otherwise somehow went unnoticed for the most part until it was placed on Genius & Friends. The song is a lighthearted, loose bluesy number that opens with a trademark Ray harmonica solo; his vocals kick off the song, and it’s a pleasure to hear the R&B legend sounding powerful as he growls, “Your lips say ‘Come and kiss me…'” Diana’s vocals, beginning around 20 seconds in, are smooth and playful; her velvety voice is a perfect counterpoint to the raw, gravely work turned in by Charles. The two play off of each other well; Diana’s high note at 1:09 on the word “sweet” and her soulful delivery on the line, “…and I end up at your feet” a few seconds later are the kind of sexy, surprising touches that Miss Ross hadn’t done much of in the early 90s. When the two sing in unison, the pairing really proves genius; as with the best Diana Ross duets, there’s no jockeying for first place here, and the two voices are both unique enough that together they create a different, new sound. Though the production on the song is a bit on the bland side, sounding a little too overproduced and slick, there’s a real energy here that’s hard to resist. Right down to the very end — during which Diana purrs “You say that to all the girls, Ray…” — she sounds like she’s having a fantastic time, something that can’t be said for all of her early-to-mid 90s recordings. Aside from 1985’s “We Are The World,” this is the only song on which Diana and Ray appear together, and the recording does both legends proud.
I’ve Got A Crush On You: Rocker Rod Stewart took his career on a hard right turn in 2002, releasing It Had To Be You: The Great American Songbook, a collection of jazz and pop standards. The “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” singer was suddenly crooning classics like “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and selling millions in the process. He continued releasing a Songbook volume each year, and 2005’s fourth entry saw him collaborating with legends including Chaka Khan, Elton John, and Diana Ross. “I’ve Got A Crush On You” not only opened the disc, but was also lifted as a radio single; it returned Diana to the Adult Contemporary listings, topping out at #19 (the album hit #2 on the Billboard 200). The Amazon.com review of the album points out that Diana’s “affection for this material comes through as convincingly as her spike-haired partner’s” — something that should come as a surprise to nobody, considering Miss Ross was effortlessly essaying Gershwin tunes and other standards in the 1960s and 70s. As with the Ray Charles duet, the vocal mix here is one of sand and silk; Stewart’s voice is as raspy as ever, and Diana’s vocal is remarkably smooth and youthful, considering the fact that it was her first new release in several years. From her very first line (“Ooooh, you’re my big, brave, handsome Romeo…”), Diana sounds assured and relaxed; she channels the “lazy phrasing” of her Billie Holiday recordings while managing to sound contemporary. Listen to Diana sing at 1:35; she delivers the lyrics “The world will pardon my mush, ’cause I have got a crush, my baby on you…” as perfectly as they could be sung; there is both a wisdom of age and a coy sexiness that exist side-by-side, something that Diana might not have been able to pull off as well at any other point in her career. While Diana’s lower register is stunning, her higher notes on “I have got a crush…” at 2:28 are a highlight of the recording; there isn’t a false note in her performance here. While your ultimate judgement of the song might depend on your feelings about Rod Stewart (most critics were pretty harsh toward him in their reviews of this album), there is no denying that Diana Ross sounds fabulous here, and is completely suited to this type of material.
When You Tell Me That You Love Me: The Allmusic Guide hasn’t always been kind to Diana Ross in reviews of her work; however, in its review of the Westlife album Face To Face, Peter Fawthrop — while criticizing the group for sound like a “karaoke band” — writes, “The exception to this major gripe on Face To Face is that Diana Ross lends her classic “When You Tell Me That You Love Me,” and lends her vocals, too. It is a near perfect treat, because it is so well mastered, such an angelic song, and because the pairing is unique.” Record-buyers liked it, too; when released as a single around the holidays in 2005, this version of “When You Tell Me…” matched the original’s #2 chart peak, and Face To Face topped the UK album chart. To see Diana’s name riding high on the charts was certainly a thrill, although this version of “When You Tell Me…” is inferior to her original. To be fair, it would be tough for Diana to match her own vocal performance from 1991; the song was iconic for her in the UK, and she was in a very good place vocally at the time. Not that she sounds bad here; she doesn’t, but there’s a lack of intensity in her performance that’s noticeable to those familiar with the earlier recording. Miss Ross sounds best on her first verse, with her deep, mature tone a nice counterpoint to the younger, modern voices of Westlife; she sounds comfortable on that first verse and chorus, albeit a little mannered in her delivery. The weakest point comes during the bridge, on which Diana eschews the fire of the original for a much sweeter, relaxed mood; though she sounds fine, the song is really made for a more passionate vocal. Unlike on her songs with Ray Charles and Rod Stewart — both of whom have extremely recognizable voices — Diana here doesn’t bounce off of her partners quite as well, simply because the young men don’t offer as unique of a sound. All of that said, again, this isn’t a bad recording…it’s just not a particularly memorable one, especially in light of the fact that Diana had already done the song better.
Appearing on two top 40 albums in the United States and a hit UK single meant that 2005 was a very good year for Diana Ross the recording artist; sales of both the Rod Stewart and the Ray Charles albums were far better in the states than her last few Motown studio albums, which means more people heard these songs than her own latest solo work. It certainly helped that Diana sounded good on these recordings, reminding listeners that she was — and always had been — an extremely talented and unique vocalist. Thus, in 2006, listeners and critics were ready and willing to embrace Blue, the shelved jazz album that was finally released and hit #2 on the jazz LP chart. Diana’s profile, of course, rose even higher in early 2007, when her studio album I Love You charted at #32 on the Billboard 200, her highest charting album in more than 20 years. Diana Ross herself has acknowledged that success and fame are fleeting, and that all music stars have a “shelf life.” But by making these smart and strategic career moves after several years away from the spotlight, Miss Ross helped reenforce her place as a music legend and pioneer.
Best Of The Bunch: “I’ve Got A Crush On You”