I knew when you walked into the room, you were the one…
It stands to reason that a career as long and active as that of Diana Ross would be peppered with “should have been” hits — cases of superlative recordings that were somehow overlooked by record executives and perhaps the singer herself. It’s hard to argue with many of the decisions made in Diana’s career — after all, she’s one of the most successful vocalists in history, and her voice has led a whopping 18 singles to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 (and, to be technical about the matter, she graced two other #1 hits, “We Are The World” and “Mo Money Mo Problems,” for a grand total of 20!). Still, hindsight is 20/20, and it’s hard for fans to listen to some of the hidden gems of the Diana Ross discography and not wonder “what if?”
Sure, songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Touch Me In The Morning” sound like surefire hits; there’s a magic to these recordings and it’s clear that they were destined to become classics. But what about songs like “You Were The One” (from 1978’s Ross) or “All Night Lover” (from 1977’s Baby It’s Me) — don’t these also possess the qualities that could have led them to become great successes? It’s hard to say why certain songs are chosen for single release and others are relegated to “filler” status — but it’s sometimes the case in the Diana Ross discography that overlooked album tracks sparkle with a fire and energy that seem tailor-made for radio airplay.
It’s well-documented that Diana’s second stint with Motown (encompassing studio albums from 1989 to 1999) was marred by messy promotional campaigns; the label seemed completely confused by albums like 1999’s Every Day Is A New Day, for example, not even attempting to garner any radio play and letting Diana’s television movie Double Platinum serve as the sole promotional tool. There were many missed opportunities in these years, but there were just as many earlier in the singer’s career. Here, then, is a look back at some of my personal choices for the “should have beens” — non-singles that are as good as anything that reached #1, and seem like they could have easily added to singers tally of hits.
5. All Night Lover (From Baby It’s Me)
To be honest, there are several songs from this 1977 Richard Perry-produced masterpiece that should have or could have been hit singles; this is easily one of Diana’s strongest collections of material, and each track is perfectly suited for her warm vocal performances. Lead single “Gettin’ Ready For Love” is a gorgeous song, a joyful, jazz-inflected tune that perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the album. However, there’s a sparkle to “All Night Lover” that is irresistible, a shimmering and timeless sophistication. Had this song been released to radio in advance of the album, I think it would have caught on quickly; as I wrote in my original review of the album, the bouncy beat is incredibly catchy, and Diana’s vocal is masterful – she throws in some nods to her past hits (like her opening cooing, straight out of “Baby Love”) while still sounding like a seasoned, mature songstress. If there’d been an immediate hit to herald the release of this album, it surely would have become the smash success it deserved to be, and “All Night Lover” sure seems like a song that could have done it.
4. It’s Hard For Me To Say (from Red Hot Rhythm & Blues)
Why this song wasn’t pulled as a single from Diana’s 1987 album Red Hot Rhythm & Blues is a complete mystery, given that it’s a gorgeous ballad written and produced by a man who was enjoying tremendous success on the R&B at the time — Luther Vandross. Vandross reportedly worshipped Miss Ross and had hoped to produce a full-length LP on her (if only!); he at least got the chance to do this song, which turned out to be one of the highlights not only of the album, but of the singer’s entire RCA output. This passionate, soulful ballad features a trademark crystal-clear vocal by Diana, who sounds assured throughout; her voice also blends beautifully with Vandross’s backgrounds on the chorus. Had it been released, it could have topped the R&B chart — it’s that good — and was certainly a far better choice to go to radio than the significantly weaker “Tell Me Again.” At least Diana seems to recognize the power of this song; she resurrected it in her live shows years later, after Mr. Vandross passed away, and even performed it on her final appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
3. Be A Lion (from The Wiz)
This is one of the great hidden treasures of Diana Ross’s discography and easily one of her best ballad performances of all time; anyone who doesn’t believe that Diana Ross has strong “pipes” or can belt out a song would surely change his or her tune after hearing her work here. Though “Ease On Down The Road” was the first chosen single from The Wiz soundtrack and the ballad “Home” is the one Diana most often performed in concert, “Be A Lion” is her clear standout on the double-LP, a powerhouse of a performance that is ripe for rediscovery. Miss Ross shifts from a smooth, velvety performance at the beginning of the song to a soaring and rich delivery that rivals the most seasoned of Broadway performers; the second half of the song includes possibly the best singing of her entire career. Considering the movie underperformed with both critics and audiences, MCA Records probably didn’t try too hard with this soundtrack; it did release a second single, “You Can’t Win” performed by Michael Jackson, but that one barely hit the Billboard Hot 100. Had the movie been a massive hit, there probably would have been more singles from this soundtrack; certainly “Home” would have been released had there been more interest in the film. But “Be A Lion” is the track that deserves recognition; it’s as good as any other ballad that topped the R&B charts during the decade.
2. Change Of Heart (from The Force Behind The Power)
And now we get to the really painful ones. Why, oh why was this not the lead single from 1991’s The Force Behind The Power? According to J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana Ross: A Biography, “Change Of Heart” was supposed to be the first release from the album, but Motown had its own “change of heart” and decided to focus on other songs instead. In retrospect, this was a big mistake; the song is clear winner, an upbeat pop song that could have put Diana Ross back on top. Written by the team behind Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” the song is a swinging mid-tempo number with a classy instrumental and catchy lyric. Diana never sounded better than she does on this song; she’s in total command of the song, displaying great range and nailing some awesome high notes at the end that are reminiscent of her work on 1968’s “Love Child.” She sounded great doing the song live — there’s a video floating around YouTube of the singer performing this song in Japan, and it’s outstanding — and it’s a track that could have done well on multiple formats (including pop, R&B, and adult contemporary). The Force Behind The Power should have been a “comeback” album for Diana Ross; it’s a solid, classy work that deserved not only success but awards consideration. Whatever shot the album had at bringing Ross back to the forefront of popular music, Motown blew it by not focusing attention on this standout song.
1. You Were The One (from Ross)
On the heels of the commercial success of Diana Ross (1976), a special Tony Award for An Evening With Diana Ross, and the release of her pop masterwork Baby It’s Me (1977), Motown made an incredibly odd decision in putting together 1978’s Ross, an album containing both new recordings and older ones (some of which were previously released) and which didn’t seem to have any real concept behind it. Although there are some very strong songs on the album, only one single was pulled from it, the Hal Davis-produced “What You Gave Me” — the song flopped, charting solely in the lower reaches of the R&B listings (which is, frankly, not a surprise — the song just isn’t very good). Other new songs, like “To Love Again” and “Never Say I Don’t Love You” could have been hits, but the real showstopper is “You Were The One,” and funky disco song that is one of the big “what were they thinking?” moments of Diana’s career with Motown. This is, frankly, one of the best dance songs ever recorded by Diana — a classy, funky club song boasting a poppin’ bassline and a powerful vocal performance. It’s completely of its era, and yet sophisticated enough that it doesn’t sound nearly as dated today as much of the disco released in the late 1970s — it doesn’t even sound as dated as some of the songs on Diana’s great 1979 album The Boss. Along with Diana’s soaring vocal, there’s an anthemic quality to the piece that could have easily carried it to hit status. Why Motown went with a lackluster dance single to promote this album when it had such a stunner just doesn’t make sense. It was the one, indeed.
There are, of course, many “honorable mentions” that belong on this list; “Never Say I Don’t Love You” from Ross ’78 could have been a big pop hit, and “No One Gets The Prize” and/or “I Ain’t Been Licked” from The Boss should have been given a chance to chart. And what would have happened if the absolutely sublime “Free (I’m Gone)” (featured on the Japan pressing of Every Day Is A New Day) had been serviced to R&B radio — would it have finally gotten Miss Ross the airplay she deserved during the late 1990s? It’s impossible to say…but boy, is it fun to speculate.
Now, as Diana would say, it’s your move. What are your top “should have been” singles? What overlooked album tracks deserved one shining moment?