“Believe that you can go home…just believe you can float on air…
Of all the known treasures resting in the Motown vaults, one of the most tantalizing had always been Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz. Not a lot was known about the project, aside from the fact that Ross recorded it soon after she’d filmed her role as Dorothy for the 1978 movie musical The Wiz. Of course, the reason for recording the album was obvious; MCA Records released the film’s actual soundtrack, and Motown wanted to be ready with its own project to capitalize off of the anticipated success. After all, Diana Ross was still a Motown artist, and her previous two films (Lady Sings The Blues and Mahogany) had led to a #1 album and a #1 single, respectively; surely this — a full-fledged musical — would do the same. But when The Wiz finally opened in October 1978, it performed far below expectations, despite boasting a big budget and an all-star cast. Thus, the planned Motown Wiz LP was put on the shelf, and Miss Ross moved forward with another album (1979’s The Boss, restoring her to popular favor).
Though the movie was not a hit, and the accompanying soundtrack only did moderately well (it did gain a Grammy nomination for Ross and Michael Jackson, for their duet on the bouncy “Ease On Down The Road”), both have since become classics in their own right; the movie is far more favorably judged today, and still airs regularly on television, while the soundtrack remains in print and regained interest after the passing of Michael Jackson. There is no doubt that the soundtrack features Diana Ross at the absolute peak of her vocal abilities; her takes on “Home” and particularly “Be A Lion” are astounding, earning her tremendous respect from producer Quincy Jones (“Diana Ross is probably the hardest working performer I’ve ever worked with,” he wrote in the soundtrack’s liner notes). When her stellar Motown studio version of “Home” finally surfaced on the 2001 compilation The Motown Anthology, it led to much speculation about the rest of her recordings for Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz. Could the remainder of the album — featuring every character performed by Ross — be as good?
The answer is an unequivocal and enthusiastic yes. Finally released digitally in November 2015 (acknowledgment must go to Andrew Skurow, George Solomon, and Harry Weinger for making it happen), Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz showcases the singer at her creative best, having an absolute ball acting out various roles from the musical. Producer Lee Holdridge crafted smart arrangements for the 13 inclusions here, tightening the songs up just enough that they work individually, but never removing them too far from their movie-musical origins. Miss Ross (who produced the vocal sessions with Suzanne dePasse) uses these songs to demonstrate her impressive versatility; she croons, she squeaks, she hisses, she growls, and most impressively, she belts in a way many people are unaware that she’s capable of. This is dynamic, soulful singing, coming from an artist who is feeling the lyrics with a deep intensity. Although Diana Ross has enjoyed legendary success in her decades-long career, she remains vastly underrated as a vocalist; this is precisely the kind of work that proves how unique and powerful her voice is and always was.
1. The Feeling We Once Had: This is the perfect album opener, a warm ballad delivered with maturity and heart by Miss Ross. It’s one of the few songs from the film that really works in or out of the context of the story, and the version arranged by producer Holdridge could fit into any Ross album of the period (in fact, it’s not far removed sonically from the tracks on 1977’s masterful Baby It’s Me). Opening with a soulful piano line, the song incorporates folksy bongos and smooth strings to create a comfortable, “shoes off” atmosphere, evoking the kind of family get-together portrayed at the beginning of the film. Miss Ross has rarely sounded as relaxed or wise as she does on the opening lines, warmly advising, “Put your arms around me child/Like when you bumped your shin…” as though she’s singing directly to her own children. There’s great power in her delivery of the song’s chorus; listen to her dynamic singing at 1:54, as she really wails the lyrics, “I’d like to know it’s there/The feeling that we have” — this is great, deeply-felt singing. For those who still don’t consider Diana Ross a true “soul” singer, this should he required listening; it would have been a standout on any of her albums from the 1970s. Amazingly, it’s only the beginning here, and there are more exciting performances to come.
2. He’s The Wizard: A sultry, jazzy version of this playful song from The Wiz; the track here sounds like it could have come from the same session that produced Diana’s earlier single “Gettin’ Ready For Love.” The keyboards, sax, and ringing chimes are beautifully done; it’s a real feat that the track here transforms a story-specific song into something that sounds like it could exist outside the rest of the album. Diana Ross shades her voice nicely here, delivering the bulk of the song in a breathy, hushed tone reminiscent of her work on “You’re Good My Child” from 1976’s Diana Ross — and it works far better here, because she’s using it to convey a distinct character rather than simply making a strange interpretive choice. The singer does let loose a few times here, her voice exploding at 1:55 as she wails the line, “And in a flash you will be home” and again, particularly during the final minute of running time (don’t miss her delightful growls at 2:37). There’s also a great instrumental break here; again, kudos to producer Holdridge and the studio musicians for lifting this track far above standard “showtune” territory.
3. Soon As I Get Home: This is the first of the album’s “Dorothy ballads” — a series of songs about self-discovery that Ross also performed in the movie. Diana has been quite forthcoming about her connection to these songs, writing in her 1993 memoir Secrets Of A Sparrow about how they spoke directly to her personal situation at the time of recording: “They were so perfectly related to what was going on inside of me: my fear of showing my true feelings, the confusion of being in a new and unfamiliar place, the isolation of being alone, having no friends, trying to find my way one step at a time. It was all there, in the words to these wonderful songs, and I got to voice them each time I opened up my mouth to sing” (187-8). “Soon As I Get Home” was truncated on the film’s soundtrack, and so the version here features additional lyrics from the Broadway musical; still, it’s a rather meandering tune that feels more like a bridge between two songs than a distinct composition itself (in fact, in both the film and stage versions, the song segues into an early rendition of “Home”). Diana is really “acting” this piece, rather than singing; she sounds wonderful, skillfully conveying the feeling of a lost soul. I especially enjoy how bell-like her voice is on certain phrases, such as at 1:02, as she sings the word “frowning” — the clarity of tone is breathtaking.
4. Trio Medley: You Can’t Win/Slide Some Oil/(I’m A) Mean Ole Lion: The original 1939 film The Wizard Of Oz gave its trio of sidekick characters variations on the same song; the Scarecrow sang “If I Only Had A Brain,” the Tin Man crooned “If I Only Had A Heart,” and the Cowardly Lion roared through “If I Only Had The Nerve.” In The Wiz, each of the characters is similarly given solos that convey his unique personality and predicament, and Diana Ross tackles each one here in a nearly-six minute suite. She begins with “You Can’t Win” — sung on the film’s soundtrack by the young Michael Jackson, whom Ross had championed for the role of the Scarecrow. Ross chooses to deliver the song in a high, nasal tone, and one has to wonder if she’s simply trying to convey the character’s innocence and sweetness…or if she’s slyly doing an impression of Mr. Jackson. If she is, it’s certainly good-natured, as the two were lifelong friends; still, Diana is a clever singer and a gifted mimic, and at times here she sounds startlingly like Michael (for an example, listen as she sings the song’s title phrase at 1:11; she captures his tone spot-on). “You Can’t Win” takes up the bulk of this medley, and it’s mainly silly fun, although Ross does offer up some soulful vocal flourishes and some cute laughter toward the end, which might or might not have been planned. As the first song fades out, Diana returns in deeper voice, channeling the Tin Man on a very brief rendition of “Slide Some Oil.” Her work here is reminiscent of her rendition of “Behind Closed Doors” from 1974’s Last Time I Saw Him; it’s rootsy and soulful, and her reading adds just a tinge of country-and-western to the song. Finally, electric guitars burst forth, and Diana lets loose with a “Roar!” that signals the final character of the trio, the Cowardly Lion. “(I’m A) Mean Ole Lion” is set to a driving rock beat, and Ross really attacks the vocal, growling through most of the song and clearly having a blast behind the microphone. And that’s the pervasive feeling throughout this entire medley; Ross really sounds like she’s having fun. The singer certainly manages to create three distinct sounds here, something that shouldn’t be surprising considering she’s an Academy Award-nominated actress.
5. Ease On Down The Road: Aside from the ballad “Home,” this is the most famous song from The Wiz, a vibrant and funky take on “We’re Off To See The Wizard” from the original The Wizard Of Oz. Ross and Michael Jackson shared the song in the film (and also reprised it a few times with other characters); their version hit #41 on the Billboard Hot 100, and earned a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals (Earth, Wind & Fire won the award). In recent years, Miss Ross has performed the song in concert again, always to great enthusiasm from audiences; it’s a joyful, celebratory song, and one that’s immediately recognizable to fans of the film. Here, producer Lee Holdridge crafts a track fairly close that which features on the soundtrack; it’s smoother and less brassy, but remains upbeat and provides a nice bed for Diana’s elastic vocal. Ross sounds terrific; she races through the lyrics with barely a second to breathe, but manages to nail the notes and add a few nice vocal flourishes. Although Diana capably handles the lead vocal, it would have been nice to hear background singers behind her; along with including Michael Jackson, the soundtrack version also features a boisterous choir of background voices (noted singers Patti Austin, Roberta Flack, Cissy Houston, and Luther Vandross are all credited). The fact that Ross is all alone on this recording does lead it to feel a little less energetic than it could have been, but it’s still an enjoyable listen and a reputable rendition of a classic.
6. Be A Lion: This song was the absolute standout on the Original Soundtrack Album to The Wiz, and that version remains one of the best vocal performances of Diana’s entire career. I’ve long contended on this site that “Be A Lion” is the great hidden gem of the Ross discography, including it in this article as a “hit that got away.” Because it’s a song that had only appeared on the soundtrack album (to my knowledge, Miss Ross was never recorded performing the song live), this unearthed studio version is especially exciting. Of course, it faces an almost impossibly high bar, as Quincy Jones had produced a sumptuous orchestration for the film and coaxed a career-defining performance from Diana. So how does this “Lion” stack up? It’s a masterpiece. This is the only song on Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz not arranged by Lee Holdridge; instead, it’s credited to Peter Myers, who paces the verses differently but retains the dreamy feel of the soundtrack version. The production here is classy and warm — it could be classified as “Quiet Storm” — featuring a crisp piano line and beautiful guitar work. Diana’s voice is rich and velvety at the beginning, her lower tones full and controlled, and the higher notes as round and clear as drops of water; listen to her sing the words “a summer storm” at :50 and hear how healthy and strong her vocal sounds. There’s no doubt Ross was in top vocal shape at the time she recorded this track (in late 1978, according to the accompanying digital booklet); she’d spent the previous few years touring with her demanding “An Evening With Diana Ross” extravaganza, and had worked with Richard Perry on what is arguably her best single disc ever, Baby It’s Me. As the song progresses, it builds toward a thunderous climax; in The Wiz, it’s used to musically illustrate the ideas of finding one’s voice and “standing strong and tall” against adversity, and that’s exactly what it affords Ross the opportunity to do here. The final minute-and-a-half of the song contain possibly the most powerful vocals ever recorded by Diana Ross; her belting as she repeats the word “tryin'” at 2:34 is jaw-dropping, and she pushes even further here than she had under the direction of Quincy Jones. This is the kind of lung power that just isn’t associated with Diana Ross, and it’s something short-sighted critics have spent years convinced the singer wasn’t capable of. Of course, fans always knew better — but even for longtime Ross devotees, her work on this track is illuminating. Later, Miss Ross would write of the songs included in The Wiz, “I had great joy in performing them and felt that I was taking in and putting out an important, positive, meaningful message” (Secrets Of A Sparrow, 189). Indeed, not only does Diana Ross sound inspired on “Be A Lion” — she’s also brilliantly inspiring.
7. So You Wanted To Meet The Wizard: Ever wonder what “Love Hangover” would’ve sounded like as performed by Linda Blair in The Exorcist? Well, here’s your chance. Diana Ross has recorded some strange material in her career; from her take on hard rock (“Fool For Your Love”) to her wacky attempt at synth-pop (“Nobody Makes Me Crazy Like You Do”), the singer has clearly never been afraid to climb out on a musical limb. Enter “So You Wanted To Meet The Wizard” — which swoops in and officially claims the title of Most Insane Diana Ross Recording Ever. The team here manages to create a nearly three-minute disco acid trip, a vortex of wild audio effects set to a dark, driving 70s club beat. Ross screeches and growls through most of the piece, laughing maniacally and barking orders at the listener; at 1:10, she eerily recites a few lines (“So keep your eyes open/And the magic you’ll see/It will whistle through the wind/As it emanates from me”) and suddenly sounds like Nina Simone on the chilling “Pirate Jenny.” Ross is all over the place, thunderous in one moment, then helium-filled in the next — the only thing missing is Max von Sydow wailing “The power of Christ compels you!” It’s a completely crazy creation, a “song” that must be heard to be believed — it’s also a highlight of this album, simply because you’ll never hear anything else like it coming from Diana Ross.
8. Is This What Feeling Gets? (Dorothy’s Theme): After the terrifying ride of the previous track, the album returns to familiar territory with this song, another “Dorothy ballad” about self-discovery and empowerment. What makes this an interesting inclusion is the fact that it wasn’t written by Charlie Smalls, who composed the Broadway musical upon which The Wiz film was based; it was written specifically for the film by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Any Diana Ross fan will instantly realize the significance of these names; Ashford and Simpson wrote and produced the singer’s 1970 solo debut, along with her seminal soul album from the following year, Surrender. Here, the duo (along with Quincy Jones) work up a simple and loose melody with lyrics that basically spell out Dorothy’s dilemma; namely, if she can release the fear that’s holding her back. Diana really sings this one in character, evoking the vulnerability of her character by delivering the lyrics with restraint and deep feeling. Her lower notes are beautifully controlled and soulful, and toward the end of the song, she opens up and releases the kind of power she’d earlier displayed on “Be A Lion” — her reading of the lyrics “There’s nothing here/But the fear/Of will I try?” is revelatory. As with the earlier “Soon As I Get Home,” this never quite feels like a fully-formed song, but it does feature another stellar vocal performance.
9. Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News: This is a rollicking tune performed by wicked witch Evilene in the Broadway and film productions of The Wiz. The arrangement here is great; it’s pure gospel, with sizzling organ work and a pervasive backbeat. Ross really digs into the song, growling her way through the lyrics with a throaty, go-for-broke performance. Diana delivers plenty of fire but remains within a fairly limited range; that said, it’s such a short track (running barely more than two minutes) that she isn’t given much of a chance to demonstrate vocal gymnastics. Not necessarily a highlight of the album, this song is still an awfully fun inclusion.
10. Wonder Wonder Why: A stunning ballad that serves as the album’s biggest surprise, “Wonder Wonder Why” was written by Charlie Smalls for the original stage version of The Wiz, but the song was cut before the show opened on Broadway. Although it’s surfaced in later productions, it wasn’t included in the 1978 film, and is thus a little-known addition to the musical’s score. Admittedly, the song doesn’t differ much from the other “Dorothy ballads” that did make the soundtrack; the song mines familiar lyrical territory. Still, it emerges as a standout on this album, thanks to the achingly beautiful production and another stellar performance by Diana Ross. Holdridge creates a spellbinding instrumental track dominated by delicate acoustic guitars and dreamy, ringing vibes; it’s one of the best arrangements on the album. And Diana’s vocal is simply gorgeous, ranking among the best of her ballad work; she is so mature here, so effortless, that it really takes several listens to fully realize how accomplished this performance really is. The way she shifts between a lighter, more vulnerable sound to strong, impassioned singing is a marvel of control; I can’t think of many other singers able to convey emotion with such efficiency. It’s a shame this song took so long to surface; it would have been a perfect addition to any of the singer’s albums of the period. That said, it’s a “wonder”-ful gift to have now.
11. A Brand New Day (Everybody Rejoice): This is the “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” moment in The Wiz, a massive celebration now that Oz has been freed from the tyranny of Evilene. On the soundtrack version, it features several characters trading off lines, including the voice of Luther Vandross, who wrote the song (he also recorded it for the 1976 LP Luther). Here, Diana Ross tackles the upbeat song alone, which turns out to be an unfortunate choice, as it robs the song of its celebratory feel (it’s possible producer Holdridge intended to add backgrounds to some of the songs, but never did after the release was called off). Ross certainly does her best with the song, racing through the lyric-packed verses and nailing the powerful chorus. But listen closely and you’ll hear how out-of-breath she sounds; she’s practically panting during the verse that begins at 1:58. Toward the end, Diana’s voice is doubled, which only accentuates how much better she would have sounded backed by a choir of soulful voices. Too bad we couldn’t have gotten a Diana/Luther duet on this song — now that would be cause for rejoicing.
12. Believe In Yourself: This is a very pretty song, another one that spells out the musical’s themes of self-exploration and discovery. It’s not a vocal standout for Ross, but she offers up a solid reading; she refrains from the kind of vocal fireworks present on “Be A Lion” or “Is This What Feelings Gets?” — but certainly puts some muscle behind her delivery of the song’s climax. There’s a quiet confidence to “Believe In Yourself,” which is exactly what the message behind the song calls for.
13. Home: Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz closes what what is probably the musical’s most famous song, a classic “11 o’clock number” that helped make Stephanie Mills a star back in 1975 (Mills originated the role of Dorothy in the Broadway production of The Wiz, and she would later re-record “Home” in the 1980s and take the song to #1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart). Although there’s no doubt that Mills “owns” the song, it became an important one to the career of Diana Ross; after recording it for the film, Ross kept it in her stage act for many years, and included it on several televised performances (which you can read about in this Diana Ross Project article). It obviously means enough to Ross that she built an entire chapter around the lyrics for her 1993 memoir Secrets Of A Sparrow — almost devoting as much time to this song and the making of the movie as she did her entire decade-long stint with The Supremes! The singer’s performance on the film’s soundtrack was raw and emotional; she wasn’t so much singing the song as she experiencing it, something pointed out by James Lipton on Inside The Actor’s Studio, who called it “a definitive acting performance.” The version included here is a little smoother — a little more Diana Ross — but it’s a powerful listening experience, nonetheless. Holdridge offers up a shimmering arrangement, taking the whimsy of the film version and mixing in more pop-oriented instrumentation, notably a fabulous acoustic guitar accompanying Diana during the opening few lines. Diana delivers another sublime vocal performance, singing the ballad with warmth and experience; her voice is deep and soulful in the beginning, with just a slight rawness around the edges, before building to a less-controlled, powerful finish. The singer’s belting at the end is impressive, although she’s a bit wobbly on a few of the notes; the vocals aren’t as precise as those on “Be A Lion,” but the point of the song isn’t to be polished. “Home” is a song designed to pack a wallop of a message, to quite literally “bring it on home,” and that’s exactly what Ross and Holdridge achieve here; when Diana Ross sings that she’s found a world full of love, it’s impossible not to believe her.
Had Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz been released in January of 1979 as planned, there’s no telling what the reaction would have been; certainly, given the limited success of the film and soundtrack, it’s not likely the album would have sold very well. But late 2015 is the perfect time for the project’s release; for starters, interest in the musical has been revived thanks to a star-studded live production of The Wiz on NBC. But more than that, Diana Ross has finally started to gain some of the critical favor she was unfairly denied earlier in her career; it’s no longer possible to ignore the incredible impact the singer has had on music, film, and pop culture. And although many still consider her a “lightweight” soul singer, this collection proves otherwise; Diana’s work here is on par with anything else being produced by her peers at the time. The Wiz was a journey that began with a dream (Ross says she literally dreamed she would play Dorothy) and led to several ups and downs for the singer; it comes to a satisfying end here, with the release of this astonishing album.
Time has been a friend, indeed…
Final Analysis: 4/5 (A “Wonder”-Ful Collection)
Choice Cuts: “Be A Lion,” “Wonder Wonder Why,” “Home”