Diana Ross: Red Hot Rhythm & Blues (1987 Television Special)

Diana Ross Red Hot TV Special 1

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.

Diana Ross Red Hot TV Special 2

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.

Diana Ross Red Hot TV Special 5

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.

Diana Ross Red Hot TV Special 4

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.

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About Paul

Album-by-album, track-by-track, a look at the entire Diana Ross discography...
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20 Responses to Diana Ross: Red Hot Rhythm & Blues (1987 Television Special)

  1. Tony says:

    Yes …Diana was losing me just before this Special. I felt she was trying to speak to some of her original fans with this T.v special. There are elements of LS the BLues, and Mahogany in the biography scenes. It even echoed the famous An Evening with Diana Ross where she transforms herself into other legends form the past.

    She is glamorous and classy. She returns to those simple beautiful melodies and sensuous gowns. This is the Diana Ross the world embraced and came to appreciate and love. The vocal experimentation and trendy stuff was gone. diana seemed to be reminding the world of all her classic talents.

    I adored her summertime scene. Simply stunning and haunting. The blowing chiffon was remarkable. I fell in love her all over again.

    I must say ….I think this show brought the old guard closer to her. We we not back completely , but we appreciated her speaking to us again!!

    • Paul says:

      This was definitely a “back to basics” moment for Miss Ross. After her numerous experiments in the 80s — from the “aerobics queen” to the pop rock of Silk Electric to Brit pop with Barry Gibb — she returned in this special as the glamorous pop/soul diva, and did it beautifully. Watching her sing and act here is watching Diana Ross do what she does best; there are many moments of magic.

      I agree that her “Summertime” scene is just fabulous. Simple and stunning, and a perfect visual to go along with the haunting song. I also love her cute, energetic staging of “Selfish One” — she looks fantastic in the pink dress peering through the holes of those oversized LPs!

  2. Tony says:

    # We were not back….

  3. It’s a shame this TV special didn’t help the album shift a few more units – I agree with you it’s one of her best. “99 and a Half” is fantastic. And I love that “Tweedle Dee” sequence, I forgot it was Bernadette Peters as the pop singer. I remember seeing it at the time on UK television – and last year finding a low quality version of it on youtube – its a real shame these specials haven’t been released officially. Diana could do with a proper TV specials box set dvd treatment – like the Streisand one.

    • Paul says:

      I don’t know why Diana has never chosen to release any of these specials — I would guess that since her company Anaid financed the specials, she would be the one who has the power to either release them or hold them back. Letting people see these specials again would do nothing but enhance her reputation for being an entertainment pioneer.

      I’m lucky that I taped this on VHS back on its original airing (or, more accurately, I ordered my poor parents to record it for me…) and I’ve kept it over the years and had it transferred to DVD. I love watching it not only for the great special — but also for the great 80s commercials that run during breaks!

  4. Lawrence says:

    I wish they would be released! I’ve only seen a few clips and this looks great. Does she do “It’s Hard for me to Say” in the special?

    • Tony says:

      I dont believe so! It id s lovely – lovely song.

    • Paul says:

      No — unfortunately…wish she would have sung that great song! The video for “Dirty Looks” plays in the open and closer — and she performs “Summertime,” “Tell Me Again,” “Tell Mama,” “Selfish One,” and “There Goes My Baby” from the LP. She also does the other songs I mentioned in the post — including “Forever Young” as a “duet” with herself as the older woman!

  5. Lawrence says:

    I remember the Tell Me Again and other songs you mentioned. Don’t think I ever saw the duet with Bernadette Peters. And the duet with herself sounds great! Remember the story about how she was offered the lead role of the adult, black maid in the film version of the play, Member of the Wedding? She apparently said she would rather play the little girl 🙂

  6. I found this last year on YouTube and was happy to have a look at what was an interesting time capsule of Eighties promotion! In the time of MTV, Madonna, Whitney & Michael Jackson it was an odd last gasp effort at the Variety Special (were they dated even then?). There was sooooo much crammed into 50mins. Video clips, duets, concert, skits and method acting…what more could we possibly ask!!! :-/

    If we think of the comparison of what Streisand was doing at the time, the taped ‘One Voice’ concert (her first in 25years) or the making of the Broadway Album. Both very clear focused visions for her audience.

    As I have a more mature appreciation of the RCA years I like much of what we get. (Old RnB star vs, Contemporary Diva & the Bernadette Peters pairing are fun). Seeing Etta James in full flight is pretty impressive. It just feels much like there is little rhyme or reason as to what anyone chose to include or what was really going on here which is a shame considering the star power of not only our Miss Ross but her guests too. The tracks chosen and performed are a great choice from the album. But much like the record that inspired it this TV special is neither one thing or the other. I just think An anachronistic way to promote an album. Even by 1987?

    • Paul says:

      Interesting question if this show was “dated” when it aired in 1987. It certainly seems so today — but I don’t really think it was particularly out-of-sync when it first hit TV in May of ’87. Television, especially, was in a transitional phase in the late 80s; extremely silly, family-oriented shows like “ALF” and “Mama’s Family” were still popular on TV, while grittier shows were just around the corner. It’s impossible to imagine the crop of younger artists in ’87 doing a special like this, but since Diana was an acknowledged singer and actress, I think it probably didn’t seem so outdated quite yet. (At least, it didn’t to me…then again, I was young and in awe of anything Diana did!)

      Personally, I think the special is put together pretty well; it follows an understandable storyline for the most part, especially in the flashbacks to “Bertie’s” career. However, I agree that the album lacks focus, and thus some of the songs in the special seems a little out-of-place; “Tell Me Again” — for example — even though it was a single — really isn’t Red Hot R&B…nor is “Summertime,” as much as I love the song.

  7. spookyelectric says:

    I think you make some really interesting points – it’s certainly hard to imagine anyone making a TV special like this today. From a promotional standpoint, it’s all over the place. What’s the point of even including performances of tracks unavailable to buy on the sister album after all? And why go to the effort of getting Etta and LL Cool J involved and not use them for the record?

    But that’s what I think makes it so compelling – Diana’s ambition to do something bigger than purely a 50 minute promo vehicle for the album. It’s also a testament to how much power and control she had over her career at that point. This was her post-Berry imperial phase after all! Sure, it doesn’t all work (that LL slot in particular feels she’s trying a little to ‘get down with the kids’, but then again she was about to record “Workin Overtime”) but as a showcase for all the talents on her resume its a winner.

    • Paul says:

      Isn’t it weird to think just TWO years after this special — featuring a mature, classy, and glamorous Diana — she’s be wearing the torn jeans and leather jacket for “Workin’ Overtime”?? What a huge image change in a very short period of time.

  8. I was so happy to see DIRTY LOOKS in primetime. I had this on VCR for years and years. Diana is at her best here. The 12 inch remx of Dirty Looks is fantastic.

  9. I’m a huge fan of 80s Diana. Swept Away and Eaten Alive are my faves. As amazing as these songs were she alienated some her core audience. Dirtly Looks was/is a classic throwback to 80s R&B at its best. RCA believed in this record as it produced an historic TV special. Dirty Looks is, in my opinion, the best by Diana Ross track of the 80s. Interesting, is that it is never included in any RCA compilations (as there are few). I’m looking forward to when RCA wil

  10. Seldom mentioned is how cool it is that Diana performed with Bernadette Peters, one of the greatest Broadway leading ladies of our time, right after her most famous role (IMO)–Dot in “Sunday in the Park With George”. It says much about both women that they would be drawn to work with each other in a musical project despite their very different types of talent. Bernadette is no Tracy Chambers; Diana is no Dot!

  11. kennedy tirado says:

    I wanted to know if you have the dvd for sale
    Thank you

  12. Pingback: “An Evening With Diana Ross” On Broadway: June 14, 1976 | THE DIANA ROSS PROJECT

  13. Pingback: R.I.P. Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) | THE DIANA ROSS PROJECT

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