“Don’t tell me not to fly, I’ve simply got to…”
For proof of just how versatile Diana Ross and The Supremes were, look no further than the six (!) albums the group released in 1968. Reflections came first, an album of contemporary pop tunes, and was followed by the high-energy live disc Live At London’s Talk of the Town, showcasing Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong as slick, electric entertainers. Later would come a duet album with The Temptations, a #1 television soundtrack also with the male vocal group, and another studio album filled with more somber, mature soul music. And smack dab in the middle of this packed schedule, Motown released Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl,” a full-length album celebrating the smash hit 1964 Broadway musical written by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill and starring Barbra Streisand.
Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl” was mainly recorded in June of 1968 (with some backgrounds added in July) and released a few months later — not coincidentally, just as the film version of Funny Girl premiered. According to Supremes musical director Gil Askey, “It was what you would call a rush job. We did the whole thing in two days in New York.” By all accounts, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. and Diana Ross were extremely impressed with the multi-media success of Barbra Streisand, and wanted to demonstrate that Ross was ever bit as capable of a performer. To ensure the LP’s success, Gordy enlisted the help of writer Jule Styne: “I got a call from Mr. Gordy saying, ‘Please, Mr. Styne, I need this for Diana Ross and it would give the project so much credibility if you were involved.’ Well, that intrigued me. From his statement I thought she had left the group and this would be her first solo album.”
Styne wasn’t correct in his assumption; Diana Ross wouldn’t officially leave The Supremes until 1970. But in a way, he wasn’t incorrect, either; Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl” would become the first real DIANA ROSS: SUPERSTAR project. This is not a group album; other voices occasionally appear on various selections, but the focus here is wholly on Diana Ross, and the singer delivers in a way she’d never delivered before. This LP features the absolute best vocal work released by Ross during her time with The Supremes; in some cases, it is among the best of her entire career. Styne would later recall, “She was great, very professional. She came in and knew those songs inside and out like nobody’s business.” The ten inclusions here might not be to everyone’s tastes, and those looking for “the Motown Sound” should look elsewhere. But this overlooked LP is a shining moment for one of the great singers in popular music history.
(NOTE: All of the quotations contained in this article are taken from the digital booklet accompanying the 2014 Expanded Edition release of this album, unless otherwise noted.)
1. Funny Girl: The first song featured on Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl” wasn’t featured in the original Broadway show; this is a “new” tune that was penned by Bob Merrill and Jule Styne specifically for the film version of Funny Girl. In terms of this album’s sequencing, “Funny Girl” is a nice way to start the LP; unlike beginning with the one-two punch of “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty” and “I’m The Greatest Star” (which lead off the Broadway musical), this lovely ballad helps to ease listeners in to the very different nature of this album and presents the musical’s dominant themes to this unfamiliar with the story of stage star Fanny Brice (upon whose life Funny Girl is based). Sung from Brice’s point of view, the lyrics speak of her struggle with being “funny” and the loneliness that comes from a lack of conventional beauty (summed up by lines like “Though I may be all wrong for the guy/I’m good for a laugh”). Producer/arranger Gil Askey ties each song together with various musical motifs, many of which he introduces here; note the way the song begins with the familiar “Who is the pip with pizzazz” refrain. In this way, “Funny Girl” serves as much as an “overture” as a title song, helping to set up the rest of the album. Throughout the album, Askey’s orchestra will be stellar; according to session notes, every single track was cut on June 20, 1968. Remember that — every song was cut in a day. This would be unheard of in today’s music industry, and it’s a major testament to the strength of the players that the performances are so tight and vibrant. Likewise, Miss Ross recorded her lead vocal on June 23, along with three other songs, and the rest were cut a day earlier; in just two days, Diana Ross literally found her voice. It’s clear from her very first notes that this is a different Diana Ross (especially coming on the heels of the sub par studio LP Reflections, released earlier in the year); the singer produces a rich, velvety tone that sounds strong and healthy and most of all, incredibly mature. Listen to the way Diana lets her words just ooze atop the melody; her voice coats the track like honey. When she begins to sing “I just keep them…” at 2:50, she begins projecting a real power behind her voice; it’s as good as she’d sounded since her work on 1967’s The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart. And here’s the good news — as good as this performance is, she only gets better from here.
2. If A Girl Isn’t Pretty: In his original liner notes to the album, Jule Styne wrote, “You will note that many of the songs have that marvelous Motown Sound which makes this show album very special.” Today’s listeners will probably disagree with that statement; there’s not much classic Motown Sound to be heard here, and the closest it gets is right here. “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty” is transformed into a brassy uptempo by Askey and company; there’s a driving beat here, with drums and bass propelling the tune forward, and that helps give it a sense of modernity missing in several other selections. The energy and excitement generated on this track makes is one of the real standouts of the LP; the band is absolutely cooking, delivering an electricity that replicates the feeling of a live performance (interestingly, Styne also writes that the album “has the excitement of a great concert”). Not surprisingly, Diana Ross is right in her comfort zone here; if any singer could handle a fast-paced lyric without losing the cleverness in each phrase, it’s her. As she’d previously displayed on tracks like “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” Ross was (and is) capable of enunciating on an almost superhuman level, never throwing away a single word even when the pace seems to be quickening by the very second. There’s a definite elasticity to her voice here, too; there’s a jump at the end of every line (“Any nose with devia-TION/Is a crime against the na-TION”) and she nails the notes, and the range she projects during the song’s final 45 seconds of running time is actually startling. Listen to Diana beginning at 2:22, with the line, “Never mind a girl’s deportment” — she is really belting here, and doing it with the finesse of a seasoned Broadway singer. Her final “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty/Like a Miss Atlanta City” is one of the most satisfying moments of her entire career; the way she jumps into her head voice on the final syllable is breathtaking. The next time someone argues with you that Diana Ross didn’t have a large vocal range, immediately play this song. It’s one of her single finest recordings of the 1960s, and easily stands among the best in her legendary discography.
3. I Am Woman: This is a song familiar to Diana Ross and The Supremes long before this album was recorded; the group had been performing it in concert for years, and it had already been included on the 1965 LP The Supremes At The Copa. June Styne is, in fact, quoted in the digital booklet to the album’s 2014 reissue as having seen them perform the song at the Copa: “They did a nice job. They were a fine group, very versatile.” That earlier live performance captured a fun, girlish performance by Diana Ross (and boisterous backgrounds by Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard); here, the song is delivered as a sexy romp, the musical equivalent of a Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedy. Ross is beautifully controlled in her vocals, her voice dipping down toward the lower end of her range several times, producing a sung whisper that’s simply mesmerizing. As with the previous cut, Ross demonstrates the great elasticity in her range here; she gets to murmur, and belt, and even throw out a great spoken phrase (I love her “I’ll drink it all day!” at 1:42). More than anything, there’s such a joy to the performance here; Ross sounds like she’s having fun in the studio, which she probably was. If you’re only familiar with the group’s live performances of “I Am Woman,” check this one out — it’s a delightful take.
4. The Music That Makes Me Dance: This song is the undoubted crown jewel of Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl” — it is perfection in every way, and is arguably Diana’s greatest recorded vocal performance while still a member of The Supremes. I’ll never forget discovering this song, listening to it carefully and slowly becoming aware of the greatness of it; as with the very best Holland-Dozier-Holland hits written for and performed by The Supremes, there’s a cohesion to every element on this recording that results in a kind of magical listening experience. Interestingly, “The Music That Makes Me Dance” is probably one of the lesser known Funny Girl selections, given that the song was cut from the film version; thus, it only features on the Original Broadway Cast Album. This song is placed at the end of the musical; it’s the final “big ballad” and serves as a torch number for Streisand (aka Fanny Brice) to sing to her troubled husband. Here, without that dramatic context, the song is a lush, romantic ballad served on a bed of swirling strings; rather than being shaded with undertones of sadness, this version feels like a natural progression of “I Am Woman” — as if Diana’s sexy flirt from the previous song led directly to an intense love affair. The track here is sublime; the sounds of strings and horns seem to slip luxuriously from their instruments, creating a relaxed atmosphere which Ross matches perfectly. She’s never sounded more confident than she does on this track; there’s a delightful dreaminess to her delivery here, demonstrated in the line “I know he’s around/When the sky and the ground/Start in ringing…” Listen to the way she plays with these words, injecting each and every one with mood; she punches “he’s” (placing appropriate emphasis on the subject of the song) and practically sighs through “sky” as though she’s swooning. She begins to sing with real strength just before the jazzy instrumental break, but she really packs a wallop when she returns at 2:52; she belts a good portion of the rest of the song, and her performance on the final phrase “For his is the only/Music That Makes Me Dance” is the best singing you’ll hear on this entire album. She isn’t just singing here; she’s wailing the words, her voice soaring into space and remaining perfectly on pitch. This is a great performance, period; as noted before, Diana never sounded more seasoned or accomplished during her tenure as lead singer of The Supremes.
5. Don’t Rain On My Parade: This is one of the most famous songs featured in Funny Girl, and is another song already familiar to fans of Diana Ross; the singer incorporated it into her live act upon going solo in 1970, and it opens her 1971 television special Diana! as well as shows up on her 1974 set Live At Caesar’s Palace. It’s easy to understand why; as with another Supremes/Ross stage standout — “The Lady Is A Tramp” — this song is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, a great big showbiz number that allows Ross to demonstrate her considerable vocal range. Because these live performances are always so triumphant — culminating with a peak moment of Diana yelling, “Hey, y’all, here I am!” — it’s easy to forget this really is a love song, sung in the musical by Fanny in an optimistic and defiant Act I finale. The version presented here is less defiant and more celebratory, with a rocking track provided by Askey and his players; listen in particular to the hammering bassline for a nice, jazzy take on the traditional Hitsville sound. Diana begins with quietly sung and spoken intro; the lines “Push a button and I dance/Turn a handle and I sing/Now this machine will fly” seem to eerily relate to Miss Ross, considering she’d later recall being treated like a machine by the controlling forces in her life. Her vocal performance from here on out is incredibly impressive; this is lyric-packed song, and the pace is far quicker than that featured on the Broadway or film soundtracks. Thus, Ross really races through, skillfully enunciating the words and never losing the meaning behind each one; her voice cuts through the track like glass as she wails “I got to fly once/I got to try once” at 1:28. While the aforementioned “The Lady Is A Tramp” gained energy when it was taken from the album (The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart) and incorporated in to the Supremes stage act, the studio version of “Parade” is already bursting with energy; it would be a perfect stage song for Miss Ross, but never better than the version she minted here.
6. People: This, of course, is the most famous song featured in Funny Girl — it was a signature song for Barbra Streisand even before the show opened on Broadway. “People” was also already a part of the repertoire of The Supremes, as the group had long performed the number in its stage act; there are a few live recordings of the song floating around, including a Florence-Diana led version on the 2000 box set The Supremes and a Florence-Mary led version included on 2012’s I Hear A Symphony: Expanded Edition (“Supremes legend” has Diana performing solo lead on this song post-1965’s Copa engagement, but the latter live recording comes from 1966, directly disputing this claim). It was always a pleasure listening to the group harmonize on this song, and it’s unfortunate that the harmonies are missing here; this is strictly a Diana Ross solo. Still, Diana sounds wonderful; as she’d sung the song so many times before, she likely needed very little preparation to record it here. She is fully engaged and really wrings the emotion from the lyrics; she’s perhaps a bit too overwrought at times, but it’s easy to forgive considering the dramatic nature of the song. There is a spoken interlude here, and interestingly, it’s clearly a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; the civil rights pioneer had been killed not long before this was recorded, and Diana’s lines echo King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech (i.e. “People, God’s children, were born to be free, to love…All people have a dream…”). It’s worth noting that the passing of Dr. King was by all accounts devastating to Berry Gordy, Jr. and the entire Motown family, so it’s not totally surprising that they’d find an opportunity to help keep his message alive. After this album was released, July Styne would comment, “I thought [Diana’s] performance on ‘People’ was equal in every way to Streisand’s or anyone else’s. She has a strong and powerful voice, a real belter” (as quoted in the reissue digital booklet). There couldn’t be any higher praise.
7. Cornet Man: Here’s another song that was cut for the film version of Funny Girl, likely making it a bit more unfamiliar to casual fans; why it was dropped is anyone’s guess, as it’s a delightful tune that adds some nice variety to this album in particular. The arrangement here is bouncy and brassy, there’s a touch of blues and jazz, but not enough to erase the song’s musical theatre origins. Ross fans will note a few similarities to her recording of “Gimme A Pigfoot (And A Bottle Of Beer)” from 1972’s Lady Sings The Blues; the performance on “Cornet Man” is a kind of trial-run for the challenging jazz tunes the singer would be tackling in only a few short years. The instrumental here is fantastic, with the “wah-wah” horns really bringing the lyrics to life, and Diana Ross plays off of the musicians beautifully, allowing the bouncy track to heavily influence her vocal. The only complaint is that this song incorporates a prominent background line, and the audible voices certainly aren’t those of Mary and/or Cindy; it would have been nice to hear those talented ladies behind Ross here (the digital reissue of this album would included an alternate version featuring only The Supremes, and it’s fantastic).
8. His Love Makes Me Beautiful: This song provides one of the most memorable highlights of Funny Girl, when Fanny Brice unexpectedly plays it for humor while wearing a fake baby bump. Without that visual gag, the song falls just a little flat here (no pun intended), although the arrangement adds some nice whimsical touches and Ross and the background singers do their best to keep the atmosphere light. Diana gives the word “beautiful” an unusual staccato pronunciation (byoo-TI-ful) which helps distinguish the number, and there’s some fun spoken dialogue toward the end (Ross says, “Gee, I sure got some beautiful, beautiful skinny legs…got a beautiful face, and hair…I mean, my wig…”). It’s also notable that during this dialogue, Mary and Cindy are clearly audible, one of the very few times on the album listeners can really discern their voices. Diana does some nice, powerful singing toward the end of this number, too; listen to her at 2:20, as she sings “Woman loved/Is glorified/I’m gonna make/A beautiful bride” — it’s a great moment for her.
9. Sadie, Sadie: If “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty” is the closest this album comes to sounding like Motown, than this song probably comes in second place. “Sadie, Sadie” is given a bouncy makeover in the style of “Baby Love” — it’s not unlike Askey’s previous arrangement for “Lover” on the Rodgers & Hart album. Building upon the “Baby Love” vibe, there’s an overall 1960s girl-group feel here; I dare you to listen to the “I think she just got married” background line and not immediately think of “Chapel Of Love” by The Dixie Cups. Diana Ross gives a beautifully spirited reading of this song, playful, sexy, and relaxed, and is nicely backed by singers who may or may not be The Supremes (it’s tough to tell, although it does sound like Cindy saying, “That’s you!” at 2:34).
10: I’m The Greatest Star: The final inclusion on Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl” is one of the best; this is another Ross showstopper, a song that sounds like it could have been her anthem at the time. The song is structured as a musical extravaganza unto itself; although “I’m The Greatest Star” is placed toward the beginning of the Broadway show and film, it’s arranged here as a perfect summation of the entire album that precedes it. Askey also incorporates snippets of “Funny Girl” and “People” here, basically creating a medley; in the way that the opening track of this album serves as something of an overture, this is a classic reprise number. Diana Ross sings with an inordinate amount of confidence on “I’m The Greatest Star” and it’s impossible not to believe her when she belts out the title; if indeed this album is the singer’s first real “solo superstar” moment (and I believe it is), then this finale is proof that Diana Ross was only beginning to prove what she was capable of. Also, if you’ve never seen the clips of Diana and The Supremes performing a version of this medley on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” it’s worth checking out; the ladies are sublime.
For decades, Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl” was remembered mainly due to its lack of success; when it was released (apparently on the very same day as Live At London’s Talk Of The Town), it was a commercial disaster, peaking at a dismal #150 on the Billboard 200. Thankfully for the group, it was quickly followed by Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations, which was a smash LP and put the group back on top of the charts. Still, it’s unfortunately that Motown’s Funny Girl was so unfairly judged based on its poor chart showing, and became something of a “lost” album for many years; because it was never given a proper CD release, it was easy to overlook. When “The Music That Makes Me Dance” finally showed up on the Love Songs CD compilation years later, it was a clue to what the world had been missing. Finally, in 2014, Motown Select issued the entire remastered album as a digital download, along with remixed versions featuring only Diana, Mary, and Cindy. That alternate version is a wonderful listen, but so is the LP as originally issued; this is a key moment in the development of Diana Ross as a vocalist and entertainer.
Final Analysis: 5/5 (Ross Proves She’s The “Greatest”)
Choice Cuts: “The Music That Makes Me Dance,” “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty,” “I’m The Greatest Star”