“The love we have comes pouring out like cymbals, horns, and drums, I say…”
With a surprise digital release in November 2014, Motown Select bestowed an enormous early holiday gift on Diana Ross fans — the hotly anticipated Baby It’s Me Expanded Edition. Although the original 1977 LP wasn’t a huge seller, its reputation has grown significantly over the years, and it’s now considered by fans to be one of the most polished and cohesive sets ever released by the singer. The CD had long been out of print, with copies selling for outrageous sums online, and rumors swirled that there were other Richard Perry-produced tracks waiting in the Motown vaults. So the sudden appearance of Baby It’s Me on iTunes — with bonus tracks and alternate mixes — was certainly cause for rejoicing.
That said, the remastering of classic albums is a funny thing; the process of “cleaning up” recordings that were sometimes done on primitive equipment in the first place can produce varying results. Sometimes it totally elevates a batch of songs, revealing little vocal nuances and instrumental flourishes that lead to a new appreciation for the music and the craft behind it. Other times, stripping a recording of the little pops and hisses we’ve grown accustomed to can cause it to seem plastic and manufactured, diminishing its charm and unintentionally highlighting deficiencies. The two-disc deluxe reissue of 1980’s diana is a perfect example of the former; I’d argue a few of the songs on the reissue of 1970’s Everything Is Everything illustrate the latter.
So where does Baby It’s Me fall? Undeniably (and fortunately) in the first camp. This already-striking album sounds better than ever; the new crispness of sound only enhances the warmth of the performances. The original lineup of ten songs is among the most sophisticated and adult material Diana Ross ever recorded, and she delivers powerful and accomplished vocals on every single song. Richard Perry, meanwhile, in his quest to create something “a little different, a little more contemporary, where the whole album would be tasteful songs,” does exactly that, offering up tracks that are both evocative of the late 1970s yet also timeless (the quote, by the way, is taken from a new interview printed in the digital booklet). In giving Baby It’s Me their deluxe treatment, the folks at Motwn Select have left the album’s glossy sheen intact, scrubbing away unnecessary imperfections and allowing the complexity of the spirited orchestrations to really shine. It’s impossible to listen to this overlooked masterpiece and not hear the care that went into every track; this is truly an album without “filler,” which probably worked to its detriment at the time of release (there was reportedly much debate about what songs should be released as singles).
Note: You can read my original review of Baby It’s Me HERE.
The closest Baby It’s Me came to a hit is the opening number, the jazzy and energetic “Gettin’ Ready For Love.” With swirling strings, a bouncy bass line, and muscular keyboards, the track provides the perfect bed for Ross’s bubbly vocal. Though the song has appeared on several anthologies over the years (it went Top 30 on the pop charts), it’s never sounded better than it does here; the clarity of each instrument reveals how jamming the track really is, with top-notch musicians working together to create a dreamy jazz fantasy (side note: that’s composer Tom Snow on piano). That song is followed by the smooth, soaring “You Got It,” another single and, according to the booklet, a Top 10 Adult Contemporary hit. “You Got It” contains an exhilarating vocal from Miss Ross, one that builds to a powerful climax featuring some of her best singing on the album (Perry appropriately states in the new interview, “She sang her ass off on every track”).
Title track “Baby It’s Me” features a compact, funky groove and the expert guitar work of Ray Parker, Jr., and Stevie Wonder’s “Too Shy To Say” fits Diana’s warm, velvety voice like a glove. Grammy-nominated “Your Love Is So Good For Me” (the album’s second single, and one that deserved to be a big hit) sounds as good as new here; it’s disco, but it doesn’t come across as dated in the way that something like Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” or Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” does. The remastering job on this and the next song, the glorious “Top Of The World,” uncover phenomenal instrumental performances and an intricate layering of elements that were somewhat lost on vinyl. “Top Of The World” is a pop masterpiece, and another recording that screams “HIT!” Diana’s voice here and on the absolutely sparkling “All Night Lover” sounds stunningly youthful, returning her to the girlish purr of her earliest Supremes recordings. And check out the hint of laughter Ross and Perry left in the track to “All Night Lover” toward the very end, a flourish Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey would incorporate into their respective pop recordings years later.
The album’s final three tracks range from late-night ballad (“Confide In Me”) to dark, driving funk (“The Same Love That Made Me Laugh”) to contemporary pop (“Come In From The Rain”). All of them are gems; “Same Love…” in particular is a complex, soulful number featuring some of Diana’s best singing of the entire decade. The next year she’d push herself as never before in her musical performances in The Wiz, and this song sounds like a vocal warm-up. The sterling audio quality of this release spotlights the twists and turns of the Bill Withers-penned tune, its minor-key strings serving as an interesting counterpoint to the album’s peppy opener.
From start to finish, Baby It’s Me is a wonderful musical romance, a work in which each song perfectly flows to the next and furthers the story and mood being created by singer and producer. It’s easily the best late-70s album by Diana Ross, and among the very best of her entire career (I’d place it with Surrender and Take Me Higher as the finest complete albums she ever released). Interestingly, adding “bonus” cuts to the Expanded Edition only reinforces how perfect the original ten songs are together. This isn’t because the four extra tracks are bad — they’re not. But it’s impossible to try to fit them into the existing lineup. Thus, the following four previously unreleased cuts are interesting addition to the singer’s output, but certainly not important pieces of the puzzle missing until now.
1. Baby I Love Your Way: In the digital booklet to the reissue, Richard Perry recalls: “‘Baby I Love Your Way’ was one of my favorite tracks that I cut with her and one of the first. I really thought that we had a major hit on our hands, but the Frampton Comes Alive album started to blow up and he released it as a single so we had to keep it off the album.” Of course, Diana’s version of “Baby I Love Your Way” did eventually get a release, on 1983’s Anthology (read my review of the song HERE). The version included on Expanded is a different mix with an alternate vocal from Diana, and it’s sublime. The production here is shimmering and laid-back; there’s a nice reggae-lite beat and beautiful guitar work throughout. Diana’s vocal is relaxed and warm; she weaves in a bit of Billie Holliday, allowing certain phrases to waver and lag way behind the beat. This is a lovely recording, and certainly sounds like it could have been a hit at pop radio had it been included on the album. That said, it’s tough to visualize where the track would have fit in with the rest of Baby It’s Me — it’s just different enough stylistically that it might have detracted from the rest of the lineup.
2. Brass Band: A bouncy, beat-driven song with an interesting layering of Diana’s voice; she harmonizes with herself frequently, singing the catchy refrain, “If our love were music, we’d be a brass band.” Miss Ross actually serves as the “brass” on the track, clipping her delivery in a trumpet-like manner and adding some “doo-doo-doos” in imitation of a horn. That said, it feels pretty strange for a song with this title to not actually feature a boisterous brass band in the instrumental; it sets an expectation of a horn-filled climax (think “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”) that never comes. A 1976 version by singer Marlena Shaw does feature a few horns in the refrain, although it similarly seems to skimp on the actual brass. Perhaps in the case of Perry’s production, the track was just never finished; this is a fun listen but another song best left off the original release.
3. Country John: The digital booklet to this release compares “Country John” to Diana’s 1973 hit “Last Time I Saw Him” — and one listen quickly justifies the connection. Both are swinging country/pop tunes that feature classic country-western arrangements and a lyric about a man with a desire to roam. The big difference lies in Diana’s performances. Her work on “Last Time I Saw Him” is pure, unabashed fun; it’s a campy performance that the singer dives into headfirst. She’s far more restrained on “Country John,” which robs the recording of a lot of energy. Interestingly, the song was written by Allen Toussaint, who recorded and released it in 1975; Toussaint had (according to Mary Wilson) earlier dated Jean Terrell, the woman who replaced Miss Ross in The Supremes.
4. Room Enough For Two: The best of this new batch of songs is the one that came out of nowhere; this bizarre, smoldering number features the great Billy Preston on organ, and the booklet states there is a duet version between the two singers still in the vaults. This one takes a few listens to really click but when it does, boy, is it wild and worth the time. Diana delivers one of her sexiest vocals ever, mining the depths of her lower range during the unusual “downward spiral” verses. In many ways, the recording is similar to “You’re Good My Child” from the 1976 LP Diana Ross, but that earlier recording was sunk by a weak and wobbly vocal performance. Ross gives a nicely controlled reading here, going for both low and higher notes with confidence, and her voice is doubled to good effect during several sections. Here’s hoping fans don’t have to wait long for that duet version featuring Billy Preston!
As noted earlier, Baby It’s Me Expanded Edition also features alternate mixes of several songs — seven of the ten, to be exact. All are exciting listens; “Top Of The World” in particular sounds great, with a unique effect-laden opening, and it’s fun to listen to Diana duet with herself on this mix of “Baby It’s Me.” But as with the bonus tracks, these alternate versions mostly prove how great the original release really was. The unused takes are all fine vocally and instrumentally, but nothing elevates the LP as it was originally issued in 1977.
There’s not much to complain about with this release — aside from the fact that it was only released as a digital download (as of the time of this writing). Many fans remain upset that this wasn’t a physical release, as were the previous Diana Ross solo reissues. I get it; there’s something about holding the packing in your hand, flipping through the booklet and studying the stunning photography that can always be counted on in a Diana Ross release. Plus, we Ross fans are completists. That said, we’ve got the music. This wonderful album — one that absolutely should be heard by those unfamiliar with the Ross discography — is finally accesible to the next generation of music-buyers. If anything is going to get Diana Ross the respect she deserves as a vocalist, it’s having quality music like this available on-demand.