“I’m gonna use every trick in the book, I’ll try my best to get you hooked…”
Long before Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, or Barbra Streisand had hit albums comprised entirely of duets, Motown cobbled together Diana’s Duets, a 1981 Diana Ross anthology featuring work stretching all the way back to the singer’s days with The Supremes. By this time, of course, Miss Ross was already transitioning to a record-breaking contract with RCA Records, leaving Motown after two decades. Still, the singer’s swan song on Motown was the blockbuster smash “Endless Love,” a duet with Lionel Richie that spent a whopping nine weeks at the #1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100. Thus, Motown likely felt it could squeeze some more money out of the Ross name with a full collection of the singer’s collaborations.
“Collaborations” is the key word here, because technically, only a few of the tracks on Diana’s Duets are true duets (meaning just two singers). The fact is, aside from her work with Richie and an album with Marvin Gaye, Ross really hadn’t partnered with many other singers during her time with Motown (she had, of course, enjoyed a Top 50 pop hit with Michael Jackson from The Wiz soundtrack, “Ease On Down The Road” — but this had been an MCA release, not Motown). So to fill out this particular LP, the label used several late ’60s recordings by Diana Ross and The Supremes with The Temptations and the 1978 tribute single “Pops We Love You”, featuring Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Smokey Robinson.
There’s one big problem with Diana’s Duets, however — “Endless Love” isn’t on it (at least, not on the US-released version; it was later included on international pressings, along with a few other tracks). Whether because Motown didn’t want overlap with its upcoming All The Great Hits (a Ross compilation also released in 1981) or there was an issue with timing, the biggest duet in music history up until that point is missing, and its absence is strongly felt. “Endless Love” wasn’t only a monster hit; it was also the best duet Diana had ever recorded (easily trumping much of the lackluster Diana & Marvin LP). So while Diana’s Duets certainly demonstrates the singer’s versatility, it can’t really be considered a “best of.”
Note: Click on song titles for more information on the songs/albums previously discussed on The Diana Ross Project.
1. I’m Gonna Make You Love Me: This LP wisely opens with a bona-fide classic, recorded by Diana Ross and The Supremes with The Temptations. The only surprise about the success of this 1968 release is that it didn’t reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100; it settled for the second spot on both the pop and R&B charts. Still, the song is a Motown masterpiece, featuring Eddie Kendricks sharing the lead with Diana Ross; their voices are perfectly matched, with his falsetto bouncing around her brassy delivery in a playful interpretation of the song’s “I’m gonna get you” lyric. Meanwhile, the Supremes and Temptations offer up soaring, soulful support, all atop another toe-tapping Funk Brothers instrumental track. This is one of the best singles released by Diana Ross while still leading The Supremes, and a wonderful showcase for everyone involved.
2. My Mistake (Was To Love You): This wasn’t the biggest chart hit from 1973’s Diana & Marvin, but it’s probably the most recognizable of the US-released singles and shows up fairy frequently on Ross anthologies. Though it’s got a memorable hook and Marvin Gaye sounds terrific, “My Mistake” isn’t a particularly good showing for Diana. She sounds a little too laid back here, and at times, a little flat. Anyone familiar with the backstory of the Ross/Gaye duets knows the pair recorded separately and neither was apparently very interested in the project, so it’s probably no surprise that this wouldn’t be a classic recording. That said, there is material on Diana & Marvin that exhibits way more chemistry (however manufactured) between the singers.
3. I’ll Try Something New: Though “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” was the big hit for the Supremes and Temptations, I’d argue this is the better recording. A lovely Smokey Robinson composition that for some reason stalled at #25 on the pop chart, the song features one of Diana’s best vocal performances of the 1960s; she is relaxed, sexy, and soulful here, allowing her voice to mine the lower reaches of her range before sweeping up to some powerfully high ad-libs during the climax. Again, she’s well-matched with the great Eddie Kendricks, and both groups sound like a chorus of angels singing the “I’ll Try Something New” refrain. This might not technically qualify as a “Diana Ross duet” – but the singer never sounded better.
4. Include Me In Your Life: Why anyone wanted to “Include” this song is beyond me; it’s one of the weakest recordings featured on Diana & Marvin, and a poor showcase for both Miss Ross and Marvin Gaye. As I wrote in my review of the original album, the vocals on this song sound like “scratch” vocals – in other words, the tracks laid down by singers to get a feel for the melody. Neither is helped by the fact that the song just isn’t that good; the repetition of the word “darlin’” will certainly trap itself in your head…but not in a good way. Although the Diana & Marvin album is a lackluster one overall, just about any choice would have been better than this one. (It should be noted that toward the end of the song, Gaye says, “You know I’m just a stubborn kind of fellow.” The song by that title is later featured on Diana’s Duets — so perhaps some Motown staffer was having a little fun with the lineup here.)
5. I’ll Keep My Light In My Window: This song is a much better example of what Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye were capable of. Originally included on the 1979 collection Pops We Love You…The Album, this is a funky disco tune featuring a popping bassline full of swagger and an uplifting lyric about making “a world of love for me and you.” Both Gaye and Ross seem very relaxed here, neither working too hard nor trying to outshine the other. Being a disco song, it predictably comes off as dated today; that said, it’s soulful enough that it still sounds good, and probably could have been a decent dance and R&B hit for the pair had it been released as a single.
6. Try It Baby: A fun, jazzy number again pairing the Supremes and Temptations, this one was originally released by Marvin Gaye and written by none other than Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. That fact alone could be why it was placed on Diana’s Duets, as Gordy has reportedly said he was inspired by Diana to write the song (and, according to J. Randy Taraborrelli in Diana Ross: A Biography, considered this version for a single release). The feel of this recording is miles away from “I’ll Try Something New,” replacing that song’s subtlety and soul with a big band pizzazz; this one certainly feels tailor-made for the glittery television specials the groups were starring in during the period. It doesn’t necessarily sound like a hit, but it is a spirited recording and an enjoyable listen.
7. Pops We Love You: Again, this isn’t really a duet, but a collaboration among Motown’s top four stars paying tribute to Motown founder Berry Gordy’s father, known as “Pops” Gordy. Though a minor hit on both the pop and R&B charts, the song really never stood a chance at becoming a classic; the singers are specific in their praise of “Pops,” which means it’s not exactly a universal nor relatable lyric (and speaking of, the lyrics are pretty bland, anyway). It’s not a bad song; Ross, Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and Stevie Wonder all sound great, and each are given an equal chance to display their particular vocal talents. Diana kicks things off, and pretty much holds court over the entire proceeding; she no doubt sounds like the Queen of Motown here.
8. You Are Everything: Finally we get a really great duet, and a song that truly deserves a place on a collection of Diana’s duet work. The lead track from 1973’s Diana & Marvin, this song was a big hit in the UK (hitting #5) and is one of the two best songs on that LP, along with the other UK single, “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart).” Motown probably didn’t release this one to radio because it’s a cover of a Stylistics hit, but should have, anyway; both Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye offer up sizzling performances which rank among the best of their respective 70s output. Perhaps more importantly; there seems to be a real chemistry between the two, which is sorely lacking on so many of their other collaborations. It may be futile to wonder “what if” – but this sure seems like a song that could have been a solid hit stateside for the two singers, maybe even an R&B chart-topper.
9. Stubborn Kind Of Fellow: The Marvin Gaye connection continues with this track, another Supremes/Temptations recording from their 1969 album Together. At this point, Diana’s Duets feels more like a Gaye tribute album, considering almost every single song either features him or had been recorded by him first. In this case, “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” had been Gaye’s first hit, released in 1962. That version is deservedly classic, full of grit and featuring the notable voice of Martha Reeves in the background. It doesn’t fare nearly as well in the hands of the Supremes and Temptations, becoming a bit of a mess and losing much of the melody due to a strange, scaled-back track. The lead singers all sound okay (Miss Ross does a lot of screeching, foreshadowing some of the more soulful work she’d do early in her solo career), but this isn’t a standout by any stretch.
10. Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing: The best explanation I can come up with for placing this version of the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell hit on Diana’s Duets is name value; perhaps Motown execs hoped people would just think that the Supremes and Temptations originated it. Unfortunately, they didn’t; this is an inferior version to the classic Gaye/Terrell recording, and it’s impossible to listen to without hearing the better rendition echo in your head. Though Ross and Terrell possessed, in some ways, similar sounds, Diana just doesn’t quite convey the quiet fire needed to pull off the yearning Ashford and Simpson lyric (she would fare much, much better with her solo remake of “You’re All I Need To Get By” in 1970). At least, unlike the previous track, the arrangement is kept pretty close to the original, which was a wide decision.
If ever a Diana Ross release deserved an Expanded Edition, it’s Diana’s Duets. Not because it’s such an essential album to the singer’s discography, but because of how much more could be included. Not only do “Endless Love” and “Dreaming Of You” (the other Ross/Richie duet from the Endless Love soundtrack) deserve places here, but now, so do many other duets recorded by Diana post-1981. Chief among them are “All Of You,” a 1984 collaboration with Julio Iglesias which soared to the Top 20 on the pop charts, and 1991’s “No Matter What You Do,” a solid R&B hit and duet with singer Al B. Sure!.
Miss Ross would also score some lovely duets in the late 1990s and beyond; “Love Is All That Matters” with Brandy (from the Double Platinum soundtrack) deserves a proper release, and she sounds wonderful crooning with Rod Stewart on the 2005 recording “I’ve Got A Crush On You.” The digital booklet to the recent Baby It’s Me Expanded Edition includes a reference to a still-shelved duet with Billy Preston on the song “Room Enough For Two” – so who knows if there are even more Diana duets waiting in the Motown vaults? Hopefully we’ll find out soon enough.
For now, if tasked with piecing together a totally new collection of Diana’s Duets, here’s what I would include. I’d stick with true duets from her solo career (Diana plus one other singer), and throw in a few bonus tracks from late 1960s Hollywood Palace performances as a nod to her earlier days. Of course, there would be several record labels involved here, so the likelihood of such a collection might be pretty low…still, it’s an easy iPod playlist to throw together!
- You Are Everything – with Marvin Gaye
- Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart) – with Marvin Gaye
- Ease On Down The Road – with Michael Jackson
- Endless Love – with Lionel Richie
- Dreaming Of You – with Lionel Richie
- All Of You – with Julio Igelsias
- Missing You (from “The Motown Revue Starring Smokey Robinson”) – with Smokey Robinson
- You’ve Got What It Takes (from Red Hot Rhythm & Blues TV special) – with Billy Dee Williams
- No Matter What You Do – with Al B. Sure!
- Big Bad Love – with Ray Charles
- Love Is All That Matters – with Brandy
- Baby Love/Stop! In The Name Of Love (from Divas 2000: A Tribute To Diana Ross) – with Mariah Carey
- I’ve Got A Crush On You – with Rod Stewart
- BONUS TRACK: I’m Gonna Make You Love Me (from “The Hollywood Palace”) – with Stevie Wonder
- BONUS TRACK: Bread & Gravy (from “The Hollywood Palace”) – with Ethel Waters
Now it’s your turn – what, for you, would make up the perfect Diana’s Duets?