“Heaven must have sent you to me…”
What sad news to wake up to; over the weekend, Deke Richards reportedly passed away after battling esophageal cancer. The headlines called him a “Motown songwriter-producer,” and indeed, that’s what he was. But Diana Ross and Supremes fans worldwide know that Deke Richards was much more than that. Without him, there would be no “Love Child.” No “I’m Still Waiting.” No Everything Is Everything. This is a man who helped shape Diana Ross’s career in the late 1960s/early 1970s; it’s safe to say without him, her discography would look very different.
While Richards will probably forever be most closely identified with The Jackson 5 — he, after all, helped craft their chart-busting early singles, a run of #1 hits that put little Michael Jackson on the road to mega-stardom — he delivered great success to Miss Ross. He was part of the group brought in to put Diana Ross and The Supremes back to the top after the devastating loss of producers/songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland. The result? “Love Child,” which became the ladies’ eleventh #1 pop hit and biggest-seller yet. In the uncertain early days of Diana’s solo career, Richards was given the monumental task of producing her second solo LP. Though dwarfed by the success of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and Diana’s work with Ashford & Simpson, Everything Is Everything brought her a Grammy-nomination and a massive UK hit with “I’m Still Waiting.”
As Diana’s career transitioned to film and beyond, she moved on to other producers, sometimes outside of the Motown family. But her work with Richards has found a new life through reissues and previously unreleased tracks from the vault. This must have pleased him; in the liner notes to Hip-O Select’s expanded edition of Everything Is Everything, Richards wrote, “By adding this lost treasure to your collection, you have acquired ‘The Little Engine That Could.'” Indeed, their collaborations have chugged along and grown stronger over time; today, it’s impossible to imagine the Diana Ross legend without the input of Deke Richards.
In honor of the man, here’s a list of my top 5 Diana/Deke recordings (solo only, though he cut some great ones on The Supremes). I’ve also included my thoughts as originally written in the album reviews of this project — you can click the song titles to go straight to those original posts.
1. I Love You (Call Me): Their cover of the Aretha Franklin hit was (in a rare display of extremely good taste) nominated for a Grammy as Best Female R&B Vocal Performance and is easily one of the best recordings Diana Ross made in her early solo career – and maybe in her entire solo career. The soulful ballad is perfectly produced, thankfully eschewing the rest of the album’s tendency toward using dated instrumentals, and the background vocals are superb. Front and center is one of Diana’s more impassioned vocals, mixing both the breathy sexiness of the earlier track “Baby It’s Love” with the strength of her cuts with Ashford and Simpson. Her “Don’t for-GET!” at 2:42 into the song is perhaps the most raw her voice ever sounded on record. Though Aretha Franklin is cited by many as the world’s best female vocalist – Diana’s version of “I Love You (Call Me)” easily stands with the original and her voice and interpretation are just as affecting as Aretha’s. The next time you hear someone say Diana Ross was nothing more than a bubblegum pop singer or that she wasn’t truly a “soul” artist – play them this song.
2. What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?: This is one of those great cases of a singer being paired with a song perfect for him/her; this romantic ballad could have been written for Diana Ross, such is the hand-in-glove fit of the melody and lyrics to her dreamy, sensitive performance. Interestingly, the music was written by Michel Legrand, who also composed the love theme to Diana’s 1972 film debut Lady Sings The Blues, so perhaps it makes sense that this song seems tailor-made for her. The melody is a challenging one, with a unique run of notes on the opening words, “What are you doing the rest of your life?” — Diana nails them, her voice almost haunting in its breathiness, and her delivery continues pitch-perfectly through the opening verse, which ends with some lovely (and rare for the time) low notes on “…all with me.” There is a beautiful, genuine wistfulness to her work here; listen her starting at 50 seconds in, as she sings the lyrics, “…times of your days, all the nickels and the dimes of your days…let the reasons and rhymes of your days…” — there seems to be an entire story playing on top of the words here, a passion laid out through Miss Ross’s phrasing the way she lingers on certain words and brushes by other. This is her interpretive gift at its best, and played to a different effect than on many of her later ballads like “Touch Me In The Morning” and “Theme From Mahogany,” on which her voice sounds much more polished and her emotions far more restrained.
3. I’m Still Waiting: This is the most recognizable song from the album, and the sole single released from it in the US. Fans in the United Kingdom apparently fell in love with it, and “I’m Still Waiting” sailed to #1 there and became one of Diana’s most popular recordings; the single nowhere near equaled that success in the states, not even making the Top 40. This is unfortunate, because “I’m Still Waiting” is a lovely, melodic pop ballad that ranks among the best on the album. One of the few Deke Richards originals on the album, it’s a perfect song for Diana. Without a doubt, what Miss Ross has always done best with her songs is to tell compelling stories, and this is a perfect example of what she could do as both an actress and interpreter of lyrics. Diana scales back her vocal, sounding young and fragile here while telling the story of losing her childhood love, and the track itself is highlighted by a memorable guitar intro and soulful background vocals. While not as dazzling a song as “Ain’t No Mountain…,” this song is an understated, deceptively simple work that merits greater recognition in terms of Diana’s early career.
4. Doobedood’ndoobe, Doobedood’ndoobe, Doobedood’ndoo: The second Deke Richards composition in a row, this is another strong addition to the album and kind of makes you wonder how much better it would have been if the entire album had been written and produced by him. This oddly composed, episodic song features a laid-back groove on the verses which crescendos into an gospel-esque, choir-laden chorus. If not for the completely insane title, this probably could have been a single; it straddles the R&B/pop line nicely and while as contemporary as anything else on the radio in 1970, was also different enough that it could’ve garnered some good airplay. Diana sounds nice here, but her vocal during the fade-out is particularly impressive, as she jumps an octave while singing “I just started livin’…” This is the kind of singing she had done on almost every track of her previous solo album, and it’s a shame she hasn’t let loose more often here, especially on a song like this one which merits the kind of vocal gymnastics that Diana was more than capable of performing, but isn’t necessarily known for
5. We Need You: This song apparently was supposed to be the second single, though it ended up never being released. A Deke Richards production, “We Need You” is light years better than some of the work the two churned out for Everything Is Everything, and is a sad, shuffling soul ballad that gives Miss Ross the chance to show off a little bit of the passion that’s missing from some of the other performances on this album. Her vocals are really nice on the song; similar to “I’m Still Waiting,” this is a story-song, and Diana Ross is never better than when she’s telling a story to her listeners. She tailors her performance to that story, keeping it simple and slightly mournful, never being too dramatic nor too weak. I’m not sure this would have been a huge hit if it had been released, but it is a nice album track.
Honorable Mention: “(They Long To Be) Close To You”
Thanks for the memories, Mr. Richards.