Considering the pace of Motown’s release schedule during the 1960s and 1970s (remember, there were three Diana Ross studio albums released in 1973 alone), it’s hard to believe there was anything left over that didn’t make it to the public. But indeed, in the past decade or so, Diana Ross fans have been treated to some stellar reissues from Motown Select, which typically include at least a few previously unreleased tracks. Some of these songs, like 1970’s “Stoney End,” had been talked about by fans for years, and even leaked in low-quality, bootlegged versions. Others, like “Room Enough For Two” from the recent Baby It’s Me: Expanded Edition, seemed to come out of nowhere.
It’s always interesting to ponder why certain songs were left behind in the Motown vaults and others plucked for release on an album or as a single. Quality is often an issue; certainly nobody would mistake “Alone” (cut from Diana & Marvin) for being a hit, and while the bizarre “Go Where Your Mind Is” might be an interesting listen, it definitely didn’t need to knock anything off of Diana Ross (1976). But there are other reasons why certain tracks were held back; the superb jazz album Blue apparently went unreleased for more than thirty years simply because Diana Ross didn’t win an Oscar for her performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings The Blues, and Motown wanted to move her back into pop territory.
Although most of Diana’s albums have now been re-released in expanded formats, there’s always hope for more “lost masterpieces” in the Motown vaults, just waiting to be unearthed for fans. Until that happens, here are my personal top five favorite Diana Ross tracks that waited for decades in the “dark side of the world” before finally being given a chance to shine. (NOTE: The bulk of the discussions here come from previous reviews on The Diana Ross Project; click on the links to read more information.)
5. What A Diff’rence A Day Makes (Released on Blue, 2006)
This is an achingly beautiful, delicate reading of the classic most closely identified with Dinah Washington (who won a Grammy for it in 1960). This recording is so good — so absolutely perfect — that it’s really quite surprising it never managed to find its way onto an album earlier; it would’ve fit well on Touch Me In The Morning, and would have been a better choice for 1976’s Diana Ross than the dreadful “Smile.” Opening with swirling strings and driven by a lovely acoustic guitar, the instrumental here is languid, relaxed, sophisticated, and sexy. Diana Ross’s performance is all of those things, too; she displays a stunning mix of youthful optimism and mature wisdom. Listen, for example, to Ross begin the second verse, crooning “What a diff’rence a day makes…there’s a rainbow before me…” with a skillfully restrained joy; as sluggish as the lyrics come, the listener can’t help but notice a “smile” in Diana’s voice. This transmission of emotion through tone is something Miss Ross excels at; it’s what makes her such an outstanding vocalist.
4. Home (Released on The Motown Anthology, 2001)
Diana’s Motown version of “Home” 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 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.
3. You Build Me Up To Tear Me Down (Released on diana Deluxe, 2003)
In tone, “You Build Me Up…” is similar to Diana’s brilliant reading of the Bill Withers tune “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” off of Baby It’s Me; both offer a refreshing complexity to Diana’s dance discography. This is a sexy, sultry number with an instrumental intro that recalls Stevie Wonder’s 1972 hit “Superstition” and a wonderful vocal that’s as moody and shaded as anything else Diana turned in during the period. Written by Holland, Holland and Ronald Dean Miller, the producers utilize a soulful bass and dark keyboard work to create an atmospheric song that manages to be danceable without sounding like disco camp to contemporary listeners. From the very start, Miss Ross’s vocal is perfectly done; her hushed delivery on “Something’s troublin’ you…it’s gonna mess up your mind…” and the rest of the first verse sets a tone of anguish and complexity that’s extremely compelling. Listen to her starting around three minutes in, as she sings the chorus along with the powerful group of background voices; there’s an excitement to the song that’s almost soul-stirring here, with Diana confidently leading the way but never forcing her vocal or hitting a false note. It’s a real shame this track wasn’t featured on Ross; it would have made a far better single than that album’s “What You Gave Me.”
2. Kewpie Doll (Released on Touch Me In The Morning: Expanded Edition, 2009)
A revelation and a masterpiece; written and produced by Smokey Robinson, this is a fabulous recording that languished in the Motown vaults for far too long. Diana Ross and Robinson, of course, shared a long history; Robinson was responsible for helping the Supremes obtain their first audition at Motown, and he’d written and produced several songs for the group over the years. Incredibly, Robinson and Ross really never collaborated after she went solo (save for the song “Pops, We Love You” in 1979), which makes “Kewpie Doll” such a spectacular find. The track here is sublime, driven by a soul-stirring guitar; the composition shifts from major to minor key in a unique way that gives is far more complexity than much of Diana’s other work of the period. But best of all is the vocal arrangement; Smokey Robinson provides the background vocals here, and they are so prominent that the song is pretty much a collaboration between him and Diana Ross. This turns out to be a great thing, as both are in fine voice; Diana Ross is as smooth and soulful as she’d ever been on record here, delivering the same kind of youthful passion heard on her earliest solo albums without any of the rawness that crept through. Robinson’s layered backgrounds are just breathtaking; they work with Diana’s vocal rather than detract from it, adding an aching and tenderness to the recording that it really needed to have. The end result is such a classic, timeless song that it really doesn’t sound that dated; it could easily be a “neo-soul” tune by a contemporary artist.
1. Let Me Be The One (Released on Last Time I Saw Him: Expanded Edition, 2007)
I hate to keep throwing around the word “masterpiece” here — but Miss Ross’s version of this oft-recorded hit made famous by The Carpenters is one of the single best recordings of her 70s discography. An incredibly brief recording (running under 2:30!), there is not one unsatisfying moment here; the laid-back, dreamy production is matched by a smooth and soulful vocal by Diana and a gorgeous, inspiring choir of voices backing her up. The production here is credited to Lar Mar – whoever or whatever that is, this is the perfect mix of toe-tapping percussion and sweeping strings. Diana gets to really showcase her lower register on the verses; she sounds warm and mature singing “…if you should find yourself alone…” at :15 – the perfection of these lower tones is made even more acute when Diana jumps up an octave to sing “Let Me Be The One!” at :56. Her higher singing here (especially the section beginning with “Come to me…”) is among the best of her mid-70s work; it’s powerful and emotional while still sounding full and round in tone. Had this not been a big hit for The Carpenters, this could have been a #1 hit for Diana Ross; this is light soul/pop at its best, and still sounds good today. Though it’s a shame the song never got a chance back in the 70s, it’s a blessing for fans to hear something this incredible come out of those fabled Motown vaults.
It was tough to narrow this down to a list of five; songs like “Share Some Love” and “Stoney End” also feature stellar production and vocal work and rival anything else released in their respective years. And of course, I couldn’t end this article without a shout-out to Harry Weinger, George Solomon, Andrew Skurow, and everyone else responsible for “sharing some love” with Diana Ross fans and lovingly re-mastering these songs. For those of us who’ve memorized every nuance of hits like “Upside Down” and “Endless Love,” it’s such a treat to hear these previously unreleased tracks, if only to gain a greater understanding of what Motown wasn’t looking for when crafting a Diana Ross hit.
Now…let’s hear it. Which “vault tracks” have become essential parts of your Diana Ross playlist?