Although Diana Ross is an acknowledged master of live performance, an award-winning actress, and – of course – one of the most successful vocalists in the history of recorded music, her achievements in television have often been overlooked in recent years. There’s an understandable reason for this; while her movies are available on DVD and the majority of her solo albums easily obtainable, her landmark television specials have been largely unseen since initial airing. This is unfortunate; beginning with 1971’s Diana! and continuing through the next several decades, Miss Ross created some striking and creatively challenging programs for the small screen, often to critical acclaim and big ratings.
Diana Ross: Red Hot Rhythm & Blues was, perhaps, Miss Ross’s last great television special, an interesting mix of music, fiction and documentary that bridged her early, acting-focused specials and her later taped-concert programs. Aired in May of 1987 to promote her final RCA album (of the same title), the special was billed as a celebration of R&B music. In a way, it is; Miss Ross performs some nice soul classics (including songs not featured on the album) and gives an overview of the story of popular African-American music from gospel to rap. However, she certainly doesn’t eschew pop music, offering stunningly staged performances of songs including Leonard Cohen’s “Summertime” and Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” — not to mention the pop ballad and then-current single “Tell Me Again” — along the way.
The real treat for fans in Red Hot… is that we get double the Diana; Diana Ross plays dual roles in the hour-long special. Along with being Diana Ross “the Star” (looking about as glamorous and gorgeous as she ever did during the 1980s), she’s also playing Bertie Pickett, a fictional R&B pioneer visiting Diana Ross during the filming of the special. In full age-makeup and grey wig, Miss Ross convincingly plays the wise old women looking back on her own career. There are some incredibly touching moments (albeit some awfully corny ones, too) as Bertie Pickett remembers both the successes and disappointments of her life. It may be a “minor” acting performance, but it’s a strong one, and continued evidence of her skills as an actress.
The highlights here are many; for fans of the Diana Ross discography, it’s nice to hear some rare songs here that never show up anywhere else. She sings a spirited, full-bodied version of Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” – a performance so good that it easily deserved as place on the namesake album. She is really belting here, displaying a lot of fire exactly where fire is needed (seriously — why didn’t this song show up on the album instead of something like “Stranger In Paradise,” which conceptually didn’t fit at all?). She and Billy Dee Williams also do an energetic, razzle-dazzle version of “Baby, You’ve Got What It Takes,” a song that, interestingly, had been recorded by the Supremes and Four Tops shortly after Diana left the group (Diana shines here, while Billy pretty much talks his way through this one, but it’s a thrill to see the duo together more than a decade after they co-starred in Mahogany). She and Broadway legend Bernadette Peters both turn in versions of “Tweedle Dee” for a nice segment illustrating the practice of white artists recording competing versions of African-American recordings.
The major musical highlight here, however, is Diana’s stunning rendition of the gospel song “Ninety-Nine And A Half” alongside a full choir and the legendary Little Richard. This is one of the great hidden treasures of Diana’s recording career, a rip-roaring vocal workout that proves the incredible power and range she possesses – but doesn’t always choose to display. It’s obvious Miss Ross must have liked her performance on this song, too – she later featured it on her 4-CD box set Forever Diana: Musical Memoirs.
While the TV special didn’t do much to help the album (first single “Dirty Looks” missed the pop charts, despite its video being prominently featured here), it remains an incredibly successful document of Diana Ross’s talent for music and performance. She is both funny and moving here, not to mention in fine voice throughout. There’s a long list of guest stars, too, including Etta James and LL Cool J, which makes it enjoyable viewing. It’s the kind of TV special that really only could have been made when it was – and will never be made again – which is exactly why Diana Ross: Red Hot Rhythm & Blues deserves to be preserved and made available to the public again.