“Maybe there’s a chance for me to go back…”
There’s no denying that if anyone lays claim to the song “Home,” it’s the great Stephanie Mills. In 1975, the teenager created the role of Dorothy in Broadway’s The Wiz, shooting to stardom by belting out songs like “Be A Lion,” “Ease On Down The Road,” and the show’s classic 11 o’clock number, “Home.” Even with eventual popular success as an R&B singer (she beat out Diana for a Grammy in 1982), Mills would remain closely identified with the role of Dorothy — she returned to the stage to perform the part a few times, and even re-recorded “Home” in 1989 and took it to #1 on the R&B charts.
That said, Diana Ross also owns a piece of “Home,” thanks to her starring role in the 1978 film version of The Wiz. Her raw, emotional performance of the song in the film was a striking departure for the singer; years later, “Inside The Actor’s Studio” host James Lipton remarked of it, “At the end of the film, Dorothy recounts what she has learned in one of the loveliest songs Diana has sung, and in a definitive acting performance. Students, take careful note.” Though never released as a single from the film’s soundtrack, Diana chose to perform it often on stage, keeping the song as part of her act well into the 1980s; this resulted in several performances of the ballad being captured on tape and preserved for future audiences.
Because of her powerful reading of the song (it’s a ballad that truly stretches the singer’s range and forces her to do some “belting”) and her obvious fondness for it, “Home” has long been a fan favorite. In her 1993 memoirs Secrets Of A Sparrow, Miss Ross writes of the song, “…it always brings me back to my beginnings. It’s a song that reminds me never to lose myself in the brilliance of the lights. It returns me to my roots” (179). Here, then, is a look back at some of Diana’s performances of the song; she might not have lost herself in the brilliance of the lights, but when she was at her best performing “Home,” we did.
Here I Am: An Evening With Diana Ross (1977 Television Special): An extremely interesting, pre-The Wiz performance of this song; the inclusion in this special is clearly a promotional “teaser” for Diana’s upcoming film project, which would be released the next year. Diana’s An Evening With Diana Ross stage show was a one-woman spectacular that would go on to win the singer a Tony award; a double-LP live album was also released, capturing the incredible energy and excitement of the show. The show’s lineup didn’t originally include “Home” (the song does not show up on the LP), but by the time it was transformed into this Emmy-nominated, 90-minute NBC TV special, Miss Ross was preparing for her role as Dorothy and likely learning the music for the film. Presented initially as a pre-taped segment here, Diana sings the song as a little girl, out on a street corner and wearing a sweatshirt and pigtails (perhaps an early attempt to battle criticism that she was too old for the Dorothy role?). Her performance here is completely different from what we’ll ever hear from her again; singing it as a young girl, she delivers the lines in character, appropriating a slight, fragile tone on the song’s opening lines. Quickly, the music changes, morphing into a Broadway-esque Motown medley (including songs “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and “For Once In My Life”) as Diana and dancers showcase some interpretive moves and “street scene” narration. The energetic, colorful sequence is an interesting interpretation of the stage show’s “Motown Story” — during which the singer herself performed a lengthy medley of Hitsville classics. When the dancing finally ends, Miss Ross returns to “Home,” the pre-taped portion dissolving back into footage of the singer performing the song in a theatre. Now singing as an adult, Diana performs a smooth, velvety rendition of the number, far in contrast to the raw and explosive version she’d offer up in the film. She almost seems to be feeling her way through the piece here, not yet injecting it with the pure emotion she’d later discover in the lyrics. Listen, particularly, to her tentative delivery of the lyrics, “…we must look inside our hearts to find…” — she doesn’t seem sure how to sing the words yet, whereas in later performances she’ll seize upon the word “find” as a key musical moment. Though this isn’t the “Home” Diana fans would became familiar with, it is an interesting early take worth listening to.
Live In Japan: There is a video floating around the Internet of Diana Ross performing “Home” during her An Evening With Diana Ross World Tour; it’s got Japanese subtitles and was apparently taped during a stop in Japan. Diana introduces the song by describing the movie, saying “It’s a beautiful fairy tale. It’s about a girl named Dorothy — me — and her wish to go back home.” What follows is an absolutely spectacular performance of the song, with Diana looking breathtakingly beautiful in shimmery, draped dress and her hair slicked back into a bun. She clearly knows the song here; she sings it with the studied perfection of an artist who’s thought about the words and related them to her own life. The strength in Diana’s vocals is undeniable; her lower notes are full-bodied but relaxed, and her sustained belting on the high notes is as soulful and powerful as she’d ever sounded on stage. Note the way she reaches even higher than normal when wailing the line, “…it’s real to me…and I’ve learned…” — she is really going for it here. Diana brings the performance to a smashing conclusion by repeating the final “Like home!” and is greeted by a thunderous crowd reaction. This isn’t the most easily available of Diana’s “Home” performances, but it’s one of the very best — she’s clearly energized by the song and the optimism associated with her new film project. It’s worth seeking out.
The Wiz (Original Soundtrack) (1978): [From the original Diana Ross Project review] This is the most famous song from The Wiz; it was the standout from the original Broadway production, and helped make Stephanie Mills (who originated the role of Dorothy) a star. Mills, incidentally, would record the song again in the 80s and take it to #1 on the R&B charts, and it remains the song most associated with her. Diana Ross, meanwhile, also appropriated the song into her career and performed it often, notably during the first of her infamous concerts at Central Park in 1983 (she sang it before the rain started falling!). “Home” is the closing tune on the soundtrack; it’s a classic “11 o’clock number” that provides an emotional climax and ends the musical on a dramatic high note, and Diana Ross’s recording of the song is certainly a highlight of the project. She takes every aspect of her vocal performances thus far – the rawness, the passion, the strength and power – and pushes each full-throttle here; this is the most natural and unrefined she would ever sound in her career. She’s not so much singing the song as she is experiencing it; as the instrumental track builds and builds, Diana’s voice gets rougher and rougher, as she growls and belts out certain lyrics (her repetition of the word “real” at 2:50, for example) in a way that’s downright shocking considering this is the same singer whose glossy vocals sold us “Touch Me In The Morning” a few years earlier. It’s not a classically “pretty” vocal performance, but it’s a captivating one and is one of the most striking vocals of Diana’s career.
Motown Version (Released 2001): In his 2007 book Diana Ross: A Biography, J. Randy Taraborrelli writes of a planned Motown LP entitled Diana Ross Sings Songs From “The Wiz.” According to him, “She recorded alternate versions of ‘Home,’ ‘Be A Lion,’ and a new song, ‘Wonder, Wonder Why,’ for this project. However, they all remained in the Motown vaults” (523). Though the album was ultimately canned, Diana’s Motown version of “Home” finally surfaced in 2001, with the release of the beautifully-produced The Motown Anthology, a 2-CD collection featuring hits, rare songs, and alternate mixes. This recording is credited to producer Lee Holdridge (the incredibly prolific composer and arranger) and features a lovely arrangement, taking the drama and whimsy of the film version and mixing in more pop-oriented instrumentation, notably a fabulous acoustic guitar accompanying Diana during the opening few lines. The vocal performance here is sublime; Diana’s voice is sure and controlled during the opening, her lower notes strikingly husky and appealing. As the song builds, she retains the sense of wonder she’d discovered as the character of Dorothy, while imbuing the performance with a smoothness and warmth more characteristic of classic Diana Ross ballad work. She uses her voice in new, interesting ways on lines like “I have had my mind spun around in space” — listen to the slight edginess in her vocal (especially on the word “mind”), a little roughness surfacing just long enough to give the song a sense of realness in the midst of its fantasy elements. The sustained belting during the final minute of running time is dead-on and impressive; there just a slight wobbliness as she holds “world” for several bars, but she really delivers the lyrics, “…so it’s real…real to me!” from her gut, growling out a few words. The musical track finally swirls to a delicious close, finishing off a truly strong recording that showcases Diana at a personal peak; it’s a real shame this one was confined to the vaults for so long. Though The Wiz wasn’t the critical or commercial success anyone imagined it would be, this recording released as a single still could have been a solid hit for Miss Ross; interestingly, the liner notes of The Motown Anthology note it being considered as a single release…in 1981!
Standing Room Only: Diana Ross (1980 Television Special): [From the original Diana Ross Project review] Speaking of belting…Diana launches into “Home” from The Wiz, in what may be her best live recorded version of the song. Technically, she is dead-on here; her voice doesn’t sound nearly as wobbly during the climax as it does in other performances of it, and her confidence continues until her very final, “Like home!” Wisely, the director of the special chooses to keep most of the performance on a tight close-up shot of Miss Ross, and it’s fascinating to watch her appear so emotionally invested in the lyrics. In incredible contrast to her previous energetic performance, here she creates a visual spectacle just by standing still and singing a great song.
diana (1981 Television Special): “He calls me D…and I call him Q…I wanna introduce you to Quincy Jones!” The man who produced the original soundtrack album for The Wiz — the one who pushed Diana to sing, in his words, higher than she’d ever sung — was in the audience the night Diana Ross taped her 1981 CBS television special at the Los Angeles Forum. After rushing to the stage for a hug, Mr. Jones conducts the orchestra as Diana sings the signature song from the film, resulting in a note-perfect and smooth interpretation of the piece. The presentation here feels a bit more rushed than usual; Diana, in fact, lags behind the music during much of the song, requiring her to rush certain phrases to keep up. That said, her voice is still warm and strong on the song’s introduction, and her delivering of the line, “…in this brand new world, might be a fantasy” features the singer in peak form. She doesn’t quite “go” for the big notes in the way she had during the Standing Room Only special; consequently, this version sounds a little less emotional and more “safe” vocally. Still, the singer displays some moments of real power — especially on her final “Like home!” — and her stage presence is in full effect; as with the Standing Room Only performance, she creates a visual excitement simply by standing still onstage, and is rewarded with a massive standing ovation.
For One And For All: Diana Ross Live! In Central Park (1983 Television Special): Diana Ross performed “Home” twice during her historic pair of Central Park concerts in 1983; first during the rain-shortened show, and then again the next day. It makes sense she’d sing the song in New York, considering it’s the city in which The Wiz was filmed (and that served as inspiration for the movie’s stylized settings). Diana crooned “Home” during the first concert just minutes before a massive storm moved in; the clouds are clearly darkening around her and wind whips her hair into her face throughout the performance. Considering she must have been secretly starting to panic inside (conditions were deteriorating fast), she manages a decent performance of the song, if not a particularly fiery one. She nods to her love for the city by changing the lyrics from “I wish I was back there…” to “I’m here,” and the very next line takes on an unexpected meaning as she sings about wind bending the trees and raindrops falling. She nails the notes as the song builds toward it’s climax, but she never seems as connected to the lyrics as during previous performances; there’s a fair amount of vocal coasting here, and her face even registers what appears to be a hint of distraction from time to time. Day two, of course, brought a completely different energy to the song; Diana seems renewed as she sings to the massive crowd under the bright blue sky, and there’s a real determination evident in her face this time around. She references the events of the day before by again altering lyrics, pointing her finger to the sky as she sings, “Suddenly the raindrops that fall…had a meaning,” and “Sprinkling the scene…made it all clean.” As she continues, a roughness to Diana’s voice surfaces, completely unsurprising given the fact that she’d spent most the previous evening yelling through a downpour. Still, she sings through the raspiness, and the emergent raw vocals harken back to her performance of the song in the film; there’s a special, triumphant energy to this performance that — even though it’s not her best — makes it a memorable one.
Diana Ross has had so many hits in her career that she genuinely has more than one “signature” song; some might say “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is her anthem, others “Reach Out And Touch” or “I’m Coming Out” or even something from her days as a Supreme. “Home” is certainly not considered a Diana Ross signature, or even essential by many; it is, however, absolutely an important song to her career, and probably to her own life. For several years, “Home” was a surefire vocal showcase in the singer’s stage act, a real demonstration of the singer’s vastly underrated range. Listening to (or watching) her performances of the song today remains a powerful experience, and serves as an immediate reminder of her indelible artistry.