“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if life were like a song…”
There are certain people who are essential to the career of Diana Ross, people that have been absolutely instrumental to her success as a singer and entertainer. Certainly Berry Gordy is one of these, as are Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard; Gil Askey would probably be another, along with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. The great Michael Masser must also be counted among this group; his songs are among the most memorable Miss Ross would ever record, and together Masser and Ross practically invented the “diva ballad” template that would be followed to the letter by future singing stars like Whitney Houston, Brandy, and Beyoncé.
Masser passed away this week at the age of 74, according to The Desert Sun. What sad news; this is a man who is responsible for some of the biggest pop hits of the modern era, and who pushed some truly great singers to new artistic heights. Interestingly, the article notes that Masser left law school to enter the music industry; his first big break was writing for Diana Ross, when Motown exec Suzanne dePasse asked him to come up with a hit song for the singer. As related in J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana Ross: A Biography, “[She] had met a young composer named Michael Masser at a cocktail party. She liked him, thought he was very personable. ‘Well, would you like to start at the top?’ she asked him. ‘If so, we need a song for Diana Ross, and we need it now'” (261). The result was “Touch Me In The Morning,” which shot to #1 and earned Ross a Grammy-nomination; the song has become a classic, and is one that the singer still performs in concert today.
Diana’s next blockbuster ballad was also a Masser composition; “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” was a chart-topper and an Academy Award-nominee for Best Song. Masser also wrote the theme song to the 1980 film It’s My Turn, and Diana’s recording of it sailed to the Top 10. This song led to an entire album of Masser compositions, To Love Again, which was released by Motown in 1981; the LP featured both new and older recordings, and would sadly be the last time the writer/producer and singer worked together. By the mid-80s, Diana was busy producing herself at RCA, and Masser was churning out hits for Whitney Houston and others. Still, in less than a decade of work, Masser helped cement the image of Diana Ross as a sophisticated, velvet-voiced songstress; his songs were tailor-made for the singer’s glamorous gowns and classy demeanor, providing her with dramatic musical statements of heartbreak and resilience. Coming on the heels of her triumphant foray into jazz with 1972’s Lady Sings The Blues, “Touch Me In The Morning” pushed Miss Ross to the forefront of pop music, a place she would remain for a very, very long time.
In honor of Michael Masser and his musical legacy, here’s a countdown of my Top 5 favorite Masser-Ross collaborations. (NOTE: The discussions are pulled from my previous reviews posted on The Diana Ross Project, and thus focus mainly on the vocal performances.)
#5: It’s My Turn
This song still stands as one of the greatest ballads Diana Ross would ever record; it was a deserved Top 10 hit, and it’s a crime that Diana didn’t receive a Pop Female Vocal Grammy nomination for it. The vocal performance here is simple and powerful; there are no background voices to distract from Diana, and she stays comfortably within her range while still displaying impressive lung power as she belts out the familiar refrain. Michael Masser’s lyrics here are some of his most memorable; though lines like “I can’t cover up my feelings in the name of love…” and “…if living for myself is what I’m guilty of, go on and sentence me, I’ll still be free…” are admittedly schmaltzy, the song is instantly relatable to anyone who’s ever made the decision to go out on his or her own and try something new. Diana’s reading of the lyric is never overdone; she sounds wise and tempers the sometimes overly-optimistic theme with just a hint of sadness which adds complexity and depth to the entire work. Diana’s emotional crooning of the words “…it’s my turn” at 1:50 into the song and then again at the end is some of her best singing since The Wiz soundtrack back in 1978; she’s certainly feeling this song as she’d been feeling those songs back then. “It’s My Turn” remains a fresh, satisfying listen, and still sounds like it could be a hit today.
#4: Touch Me In The Morning
The Diana Ross singing here sounds far more mature than the one who squealed “This is My Place…” on Everything Is Everything, which is pretty astonishing considering only about two years separated the two songs. Ron Miller and Michael Masser came up with a perfect vehicle for the new, grown-up Diana Ross; the song is a pop masterwork, with a sweeping chorus and memorable lyric. Diana herself turns in a confident, laid-back performance; she is far less-giddy than she sounded on her earliest solo albums, and clearly is incorporating some of the relaxed singing techniques of her jazz performances here. On the opening especially, when she’s accompanied by only the piano, there’s a smoothness to her voice that wasn’t present at all on songs like “Now That There’s You” from Diana Ross, on which she sang a similar introduction in far breathier, youthful voice. The overdubbed ending, during which Diana Ross sings along with herself, almost in a duet, is a stroke of genius that makes the recording feel modern even today. Though there’s been much written about the turmoil behind the recording process of the song (apparently Diana Ross was…shall we say…unmotivated to work on it), it’s to everyone’s credit that it ended up as such a great record.
#3: Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)
This is one of those deceptively simple performances that Diana Ross gives so well; it would be easy to say that the song isn’t a particularly challenging one to sing, or that it doesn’t stretch her much as a singer. That, however, would be overlooking the skill it takes to put over the thoughtful, almost-abstract lyrics. This is not a song like “Last Time I Saw Him” or “I’m Still Waiting” or even “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” – there’s not a specific story being told here. Instead, Diana Ross uses her sensitivity to convey the sense of a story behind the words; her ability to interpret a lyric and bring such a dreamy, pensive quality to it is something that sets her apart as an artist (and something that she’d surely become an expert at with her work on Lady Sings The Blues). The production is also top-notch; the instrumental track is sweeping and dramatic, fitting for its place as the theme song to a film. Strangely, this song was overlooked for a Grammy nomination in the Best Female Pop Vocal Performance category; it certainly stands as one of the great female vocal performances of the year, if not the decade.
#2: I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love)
This was the second single released from Diana Ross, and made it to the Top 50 on the pop charts before stalling out. According to The Billboard Book of Number One R&B Hits, Motown had been promoting this track when it was forced to rush-release “Love Hangover” as a single to kill a version by The 5th Dimension. That makes sense, as this song is another stunning ballad from Michael Masser and seems like a natural hit for Diana Ross; had attention not shifted to “Love Hangover,” this one probably could have been at least a Top 10 record. “I Thought It Took A Little Time…” is just as beautiful a song as the “Theme From Mahogany,” and requires Diana to use more of her vocal range; she sounds controlled and relaxed here when using the lower end of her range as well as pushing herself higher during the song’s climax. Diana’s voice, particularly on the dramatic, string-laden intro, is also extremely mature here; though she’d turned in wise, sophisticated work on her past few studio albums, she actually does sound older and more seasoned here. The instrumental track, as on the previous offering, is dramatic and symphonic, with a prominent piano line, soaring strings, and dreamy, almost hypnotic background vocals. Though they turned out some amazing work together, and had much bigger hits than this, this is clearly one of the strongest collaborations between Mr. Masser and Miss Ross, and stands among her best work of the mid/late 1970s.
#1: To Love Again
This is a stunning production, co-written with Gerry Goffin and apparently first worked up during sessions for the Mahogany soundtrack. The European feel of the song may be a result of that, since much of the movie takes place in Rome; it probably would have fit in well had the soundtrack featured Diana’s voice on more than just the main theme. The ballad is one of the more unusual of Diana’s career up to that point, thanks to the atypical structure and the interesting instrumental with the very prominent mandolin and accordian. It does, however, feature a classic Diana Ross ballad vocal performance — which is to say, it has a control and subtlety so skillful that it sounds extremely simple. This, I think, is a reason that Diana is all too often overlooked as a vocalist; because she doesn’t run up and down the scales here, showing off her range with bombastic gynmastics, the casual listener might mistake her singing for being weak or “limited.” However — a song like “To Love Again” requires careful, multiple listens; only then is the complexity of Ross’s singing revealed. Her vocal control during the first minute or so is extremely impressive; she is singing a challenging melody line and is required to hold certain notes and words for several beats at a time, but never sounds like she’s putting any excess effort into her performance. I’d also say that Diana’s singing of the words “to love again” at 2:19 (when she takes them an octave higher than she had earlier in the song) is one of the single most beautiful moments in a Diana Ross recording; her delicate, crystal clear reading of the words, and her four-note improv following them, combine with the soaring strings of the instrumental track to create a breathtaking musical interlude. This song stands among the best ballads Diana ever recorded, and is a masterpiece of her Motown days.
In the liner notes to the 2003 CD reissue of To Love Again, Mr. Masser commented, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world to have known and worked with Diana.” Indeed, we all luckier for having lived with the music of this singular talent.