Sunday, February 04, 2007

Music: Diana Ross, what a long sad trip


For this feature, we began listening to Diana Ross albums on CD two weeks ago. Seven of us listened to 49 Diana Ross albums (Kat, Betty, Jim, Dona, Ty, Jess, Ava and C.I.). Others listened to half that amount. (Kat, Betty and C.I. have every Diana Ross CD -- including out of prints ones.) That's a lot of music. That's a lot of hours.

That included Christmas CDs, compilations (multi-disc albums are counted as one album). There's an obvious reason for that, Diana Ross first hit the charts in 1964 as the lead singer of the Supremes. With them and on her own, Ross has sung on nineteen number one pop hits (we're including "We Are the World"). That's just the pop number ones and just Billboard. A casual eye balling of Cashbox charts or Billboard's top 100 over the decades would make a strong case for Diana Ross to be the female with the most charting singles of all time. It's been a long, long career. It's been a long sad trip.

Ross recently released the worst album of her career (I Love You) and long term fans or those who sit down, as many of us did, and listen to her work in full for the first time will realize that's no easy feat.

Were she not a superstar and one of Motown's biggest names, we doubt so much product (and filler) would have been released during her first run with Motown (for albums, that's 1964 to 1980, for singles tack on 1981's "Endless Love" with Lionel Ritchie).

The RCA years are generally considered her worst by critics who weigh in. That spans 1981's Why Do Fools Fall In Love through 1987's Red Hot Rhythm And Blues (there are also at least two compilations of the RCA years and we listened to those as well). We think the RCA years deserve a second look. Those years produce some of her strongest work. Why Do Falls In Love is clearly the worst of her albums with the label. That's not just due to the fact that it includes an ear achingly bad cover of "Endless Love" (sans Richie), it's also due to the fact that "Work That Body" is a really bad chant/song. (Sample lyric/chant: "Every morning, when we wake/ To make up for that piece of cake we ate last night/ That's right . . .") The cover photo is so air brushed, you may end up rubbing your eyes (or wiping your glasses) thinking the problem is you. Like the cover, the music is distant and far away. Exceptions are the title track and "Mirror, Mirror." With the exception of "Work That Body," none of the songs are awful, they're just badly produced and badly recorded.

Silk Electric is 1982's follow up. One of us wondered where that title came from while another hissed, "Sh! At least she's not naming it after herself." ("Diana," "Ross," and "Diana Ross" are very popular album titles in her discography.) The Michael Jackson penned ode to the male anatomy ("Muscles") was the big hit. It's full of whispery vocals, sound effects, and is the perfect pop record (as far as pop goes). The rest of the CD? We actually give her credit for "Fool For Your Love" which finds Ross attempting hard rock. It's different, it doesn't fit with the album, but considering how safe the vocals are on so many albums, we give her credit for trying. The useless track is track five, "Turn Me Over" -- it may have made sense (we doubt it) in a read along story book way ("Ding! Turn the page!") in the age of cassettes and lps. It closes side one in those formats (cassettes and lps) and seems to exist just so someone can get grab some easy publishing money. "So Close" (which was an AC hit) is a gem worth including on future compilations (thus far, both RCA compilations have avoided doing so). "In Your Arms" she sings like she means it (and, you're probably familiar with the version that Whitney Houston and Jermaine Jackson later did). "Still In Love" and "Love Lies" allow you to hear Ross' voice (she's fond, when producing herself, of muting her own voice -- smoothing it over). Listening to those vocals, it is easy to grasp how she became a name in the first place. (We're not speaking of the range here, just the recording of her voice.) The cover is an Andy Warhol silk screen.

Next up comes 1983's Ross whose chart life included Ross' free concert in Central Park (staged twice -- once cut short due to the rain, once done in full the next day). Critics at the time wondered what was the point of this cover photo? Diana, wearing some red thing that looks like a curtain panel, stares at the camera with heavily hooded eyes as though she were strung out.
You wonder if she was on something (she wasn't) when you hear the album's highest charter (pop charts) "Pieces of Ice." "In the darkness you're Tunisia . . ." What the hell?

It's passport stamps turned to music with Ross complaining, on the chorus, that she sees "Pieces of Ice" when she looks into her lover's eyes. (Wags dubbed it, "Pieces of Ass.") With eight tracks, it's less ambitious than the two previous RCA albums. The only true groaner is "Girls" ("You are fashion" thump thump "With your every move, you set the fashion" thump thump). "Love Will Make It Right" can annoy on repeat listens (it's like someone opening a squeaky door over and over) but on "Love Or Loneliness," "Let's Go Up" and the opener ("That's How You Start Over"), Ross appears to be heading for something.

With 1984's Swept Away, she arrives. The cover photo is Ross in some sort of attempted hair do copy of Tina Turner. (Note that both this cover and the cover to Why Do Fools Fall In Love are shorter on the CDs. On the lps, these were fold out covers.) She's looking at the camera without hooded eyes, at least. (She's not smiling. Ross doesn't enjoy photos of herself smiling.) With ten tracks, she demonstrates that she could control her own music (one of the reasons she left Motown in the first place was that she wasn't allowed to do so). The big hits were the title track and "Missing You" (penned by Lionel Richie). "Telphone" also charted on the soul charts. Diana Ross was what was once called a "crossover artist" which meant she could rack up soul hits and "crossover" to the pop charts (or that an African-American artist could make the pop charts to begin with).

Her RCA years are different from her first run at Motown in that Ross often charted better on the soul charts than she did on the pop charts. That was due in part to the fact that RCA had no interest in servicing her singles to pop radio and some urban dee jays (Tom Joyner among them) made a point to feature Ross whether or not there was a push behind the latest 45. The album also contains the hit "All of You" (duet with Julio Iglesias) which was already on the charts before the album was released. This is her strongest RCA album and comes from her strongest period in the studio. ("Fight For It" would be the B-side of "Swept Away." The song's stronger than many songs that ever appear on her albums.) She does a wonderful cover of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" and of Fontella Bass' 60s hit "Rescue Me." There really isn't a bad recording on the album. (Though those who've heard the single version of "Swept Away" may wish it appeared instead of the extended version featuring seemingly never ending howls from Darryl Hall.)

The singles and the album carried Diana Ross from 1985 through 1986, A busy period for her publicly. She would remarry. She would suffer the Mary Wilson (and company -- reportedly eight ghost writers -- Wilson's memory was spotty) book but, worse, she would suffer Mary Wilson's interviews. Most people didn't read Mary Wilson's crappy book (badly written and spotty). If they had, they'd be fully aware that when Florence Ballard is fired (for weight gain -- which she exposed at an important club date -- and showing up drunk at performances), her mother immediately says that Wilson wants Ballard in her the group still. Now remember, this is the account that has Wilson's name to it, and Mary Wilson, who in interviews presents herself as the big defender of Flo, says, according to the book, that Flo doesn't want to be in the group anymore. If Wilson wanted Ballard to stay in the Supremes, she would have. All Wilson would have had to do was to agree with Ballard's mother. She didn't.

Now Wilson didn't write that account by herself and possibly she's never read the completed book, but what's in the book with her name on it is very different from the "Diane kicked her out of the group!" soundbyte she regularly pushed in interview after interview. More than anything else, Wilson's book destroyed Ross' chances for chart success. (And Wilson failed to note the many times that Diana Ross had loaned her money over the years.)

The damage done would be obvious with the reception of her 1986 album, Eaten Alive. The title track's a disaster. It's listenable, but it's a disaster. It should have been a hit and RCA was smart to try. Co-written by Michael Jackson (still a name to be reckoned with at that time) and featuring Jackson on backup vocals, the song should have gotten some attention. It didn't. Some complained it was too suggestive. Barry Gibb was one of the producers and he and the other Bee Gees lined up to contribute as songwriters. This was supposed to be the album that did for Ross what Gibbs' work did for Streisand (Guilty -- blockbuster with massive hits).

That didn't happen. Not in America. The other nine tracks are some of the strongest work Ross has done, some of the most enjoyable work she's done. "Chain Reaction" would top the charts in England but even two attempts to service radio stations in this country with the song failed to turn it into a hit. Outside the US, Ross would be sharing chart space with the likes of the newcomer Whitney Houston. In the US, she couldn't catch a break. That goes to the bad word of mouth that Mary Wilson dined on.

In 1987, Ross releases Red Hot Rhythm And Blues and most people at that time may have seen the album only in the video for Stevie Wonder's "Skeletons." She offers nine tracks and this is the album the RCA compilations usually lean on strongly. There's a reason for that, strong production. The weakest song is "Shockwaves" which should snap and crackle with Motown's 60s sound but instead of just sort of hums. "Shine" is the strongest of the fast songs and the slow songs include a beautiful cover of Leonard Cohen's "Summertime" and "It's Hard For Me To Say" (featuring backing vocals by Luther Vandross).

That's it for new recordings at RCA. Two years later, she'll end up back at Motown. Six albums, three that can qualify on a A scale (Swept Away, Eaten Alive and Red Hot Rhythm And Blues) as well as three that you can live without but not among the worst she's ever recorded.

The best she's ever recorded was during her original run at Motown where she'd rack up 12 number one pop hits with Supremes and six as a solo artist. The group albums?

If you want to do yourself a favor, demand that Motown release Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing Funny Girl. This 1968 recording (which we listened to on vinyl) is a sure seller due to the Broadway play and due to the fact that it is listenable as an entire album. At RCA, she achieved that feat only three times (half her RCA output). The figure is much worse for the original Motown run.

If you're someone who's had a CD set (collection) of the Supremes, consider yourself very lucky. When Motown has bothered to release original albums (in the 1980s primarily), they were mastered very poorly and lacked the snap of the singles (even when you were listening to a hit single on one of the albums proper).

If you feel the need to go beyond a collection, we'd suggest you go with a double disc and not a single disc. We'd also suggest you avoid the multi-disc boxed set which is pretty much useless.
If you can find that set, The Supremes, with five discs and not four, snap it up. The fifth disc is a keeper. But anyone who thinks the post-Diana Ross Surpemes are worthy of of a 20 song set disc probably needs to consider rehab or personal therapy. That's based on the opinions of Kat, Betty and C.I. How bad is this boxed set? Everyone forgot about it. Betty happened to mention it as we were writing and C.I. remembered it and put on the discs so we could get a quick sampling. It's bad, it's really, really bad. (Alternative takes, demo versions, etc.) A single disc collection leaves out too many strong songs, so we recommend a double disc collection (ideally the pink covered Antholgy from 1986 or the double disc 25th Anniversary from the same year).

If you are bound and determined to collect some Supremes albums proper, remember that the sound quality is poor, we judge Reflections, Let The Sunshine In and Cream Of The Crop to be the best. All are Diana Ross & the Supremes albums which means (a) Flo has left the group (she does sing backup on some tracks due to the fact that songs were kept in the vaults and then released years later) and (b) that Diana is often the only Supreme singing (anonymous backup vocalists were used repeatedly).

1968's Reflections contains some strong songs. The hits include the title track, "Forever Came Today" and "In and Out of Love." Diana Ross also offers up strong cover versions of "What The World Needs Now Is Love" ("sweet love . . .") and "Ode to Billie Joe" (the song that held onto the number one spot for weeks while "Reflections stalled at number two). "Up, Up And Away" is useless and will remind people not to buy Diana Ross' latest version of cover songs.

1969s Let The Love Shine In and Cream Of The Crop close out the Supremes studio recordings. On the first one, the minor hit "The Composer" has the warm vocal style Ross shouldn't try to muffle but should keep up front, the hit "I'm Livin' In Shame" and the hit "No Matter What Sign You Are." Other standouts of the twelve tracks include covers of "Everyday People" and, the medley from Hair, "Aquarius/ Let The Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures)." Skip "With A Child's Heart" and "Hey Western Union Man." Cream Of The Crop offers ten tracks. The hit "Someday We'll Be Together" (the 'group''s last number one -- 'group' -- neither Wilson nor Cindy Birdsong -- who replaced Ballard -- sing on the track). Also offered are fine versions of "Hey Jude" and "Blowin' In The Wind." "The Young Folks" was a B-side hit that got some airplay and is worth checking out while "Till Johnny Comes" is a must listen.

What to avoid? Any live CD that hasn't been remastered. Diana's vocals come off too nasal and too metallic. Since it hasn't been remastered, the music is buried low and the voice is out front. It's not pretty. (That isn't to suggest Ross isn't a wonderful live performer -- she is -- but that's noting the sound quality was very poor. And the musicians, besides being mixed low, are frequently out of tune, while the arrangements are done to sell the rock group to a cabaret audience.) What else?

If you love The Temptations and you love Diana Ross & the Supremes, you might assume you would love them together.

You would be wrong. The chemisty is almost strong enough for the two hit singles -- almost -- ("I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" and "I'll Try Something New"). It is not strong enough for an album. Despite this, the two groups did four albums together. TCB is surely the worst but none are worth owning.

What about the Holland-Dozier-Holland era? [H-D-H took the group that couldn't score hits, year after year, and turned them into hitmakers by providing them with solid songs, written by H-D-H, going with Berry Gordy's decision to make Diana Ross the lead vocalist and upping the key she was singing in to give her voice a sexier quality as she reached for notes.] It concludes with Reflections. If you're snapping up vinyl, by all means grab Superemes A Go Go but in two different CD versions the sound is buried and it's not worth having. In fact, if you are buying any Supremes CDs released on or around 1986, you need to know that you have not gone deaf -- you will have to pump up the volume and, once your player moves on to the next CD, be prepared to immediately put the volume back down before the neighbors complain.

Which brings us to the start of the solo career. Everything Is Everything should be called Nothing Sounds Like Nothing. When we noted that we hoped to do a Diana Ross retrospective, DaLisa e-mailed us and stated she'd paid $100 dollars for a used CD of this in an online auction and that "after listening, I felt like Diana Ross owed me $500 bucks." We agree with DaLisa. Also skip Ross (from 1978). Especially skip Diana! which will make even those who miss the regular variety specials glad that so few air them today. [This is the soundtrack to her 1970 TV special.] On the medleys with the Jackson 5, Ross sounds out of breath. (There are two medleys.) When she does begin to cook on a song, such as "I Love You Call (Call Me)" it's over far too quick and the instrumentation and arrangements are schlock throughout.

And the rest?

Baby It's Me is listenable. It's so laid back, it may put you to sleep, but it won't irritate you. "Getting Ready For Love" is a a fast paced performance by Diana Ross that demonstrates to those who doubt her talent that she does have the vocal chops. "Come In From The Rain" is one of her better ballad performances that many people do not know.

Diana & Marvin features fourteen tracks (2001 version with bonus tracks) and you can live without most but "Just Say," "You Are Everything" and "My Mistake (Was To Love You)" are standouts. (By contrast "Include Me In Your Life" sounds like they're doing vocal runs while warming up.) (The chemistry wasn't right in the studio and Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye didn't record the duets together.)

The live albums from this period? Both Live At Ceaser's Palace and An Evening With Diana Ross document her popularity as a live artist. Neither works as an album you would want to listen to unless you live and breathe Diana Ross. The Ceaser's Palace album features the sort of arrangements you'd expect and rush to avoid, while An Evening features snippets of songs (on the latter, you get a whopping 58 seconds of "Stop! In The Name Of Love").

So what do we strongly recommend?

The Lady Sings The Blues soundtrack mixes performances for the film with dialogue. If the mix doesn't turn you off (or make you think, "Maybe I should've just watched the film?") this is a strong album. After that we'd suggest Ain't No Mountain High Enough (her solo debut) which provides nine tracks of the strongest singing she'd do for the bulk of her original Motown run. (Especially listen to her "I Wouldn't Change The Man He Is.") Next in line would be 1976's Diana Ross which contains the number one hits "Do You Know Where You're Going To" and "Love Hangover" as well as strong performances on "Ain't Nothing But A Maybe," "I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love)," and "One Love In My Lifetime." There's also Touch Me In The Morning (containing the number one title track) which stands out mainly for the music and vocal on "Leave A Little Room." Finally, 'Surrender which goes down easy and contains tracks that seem to fit together.

So that's five albums, released from 1970 to 1978 that we can recommend without feeling guilty. If that seems like a good run, please note that Diana Ross released 13 albums during that period. (We don't count the soundtracks to Mahogany or The Wiz as Diana Ross albums due to the fact that so many of the songs on them do not feature Ross.)

As an album artist, Ross got stronger as a solo artist. It wasn't a steady progression and there were huge misteps. But she finished her original Motown run with two albums that are MUST HAVEs.

1980's diana found her ruling the charts. "Upside Down" was a monster, number one hit and "I'm Coming Out" was a hit that remains popular today. Offering six other tracks ["Have Fun (Again)" and ""Now That You're Gone" are our favorites) you might wonder why Ross would leave Motown? It doesn't help when the producers Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers demand that their names be removed from the trade ads. Ross remixed the album. Rogers and Edwards didn't like it. They also predicted the remixes would turn the album into a massive failure. That wasn't how things turned out.

For years, Berry Gordy (founder and head of Motown) picked out what was sung or designated someone else to pick it out. The failure of the company to allow that maybe, after two decades in the business, Ross might know a little something goes a long way towards explaining why she left. (She also left due to monies which is a whole other story. Short version: Like many of her peers who were underpaid, Ross believed the press Gordy put out on the album sales and was unhappy with the lack of royalties. It needs to be noted that during the 60s, "gold" albums at Motown were not certified "gold" by Billboard. Gordy would paint a record "gold" and call it one while inflating the sales to make the artists appear more successful. The bite-back was that the artists did believe the hype and wondered where the money was? It should also be noted that even with that 'creative' accounting, Ross -- and other artists -- were grossly underpaid at Motown.)

diana emerges a classic. One of the best albums she ever recorded. But . . . not the best.

1979's The Boss holds that honor. This is where Diana Ross takes control of her own career. Recorded on the East coast to avoid Motown interference, Ross reteamed with two people who understood her magic better than anyone: Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. From "No One Gets The Prize" to "I'm In The World," there's not a clinker on the album. (1999's reissue contains bonus remixes of "The Boss" and "It's My House.") "Once In The Morning" sounds fresher than most of the tracks you'll hear in a club today. Ashford and Simpson produced, wrote and arranged the songs. Simpson provides amazing piano work throughout the album. This is the finest album Ross has ever recorded and, possibly, that's why the album cover features her almost smiling.

In 1989, news came that Diana Ross was returning to Motown. It was news, so much so that Vanity Fair put her on the cover. In the interview, Ross spoke of wanting to record some songs with meaning (and cited Tracey Chapman as an example). The first single (and video) showed off a new Diana Ross, Jack City Ross, part of the New Jack sound. "Workin' Overtime" is often derided today (and the torn jeans she wore in the video) but it created more interest in the upcoming album than anything she'd done in four years. (It was also a hit single on the urban charts.) The song's about a woman who is workin' overtime at the job and in the love life. There was a lot of hope for what the album might sound like.

And then Workin' Overtime was released. Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards had produced diana. Edwards produced "Telephone" off the Swept Away album. But by this point, Rogers was supposed to be a god -- having steered hits for David Bowie and Madonna during the time since. So with him in charge, people were expecting something amazing. Instead they got "songs" made up of repeated song titles ("Say We Can," "Paradise," "Bottom Line," "What Can One Person Do," etc.), repeated over and over, on top of a clumsy beat. It was unlistenable with the exception of "This House" which is more of a sketch than an actual song but allows for some fine moments vocally from Ross. (Such as when she seems to breathe "Thi-i-i-s hou-u-u-se".)

There would never again be that kind of interest in Ross. This album nailed the coffin on any hopes that a return to Motown would reignite the career and take it to new heights.

Two albums that are recommended: The Force Behind The Power and The Lady Sings . . . Jazz and Blues, Stolen Moments. On the latter, it's one of her best recorded live albums and she's in fine form. The musicians aren't miked so that they appear to be playing somewhere far down the hall. The Force Behind The Power could have taken Ross back to the charts if it had been her return to Motown album. It contains one of her last hits ("If We Hold On Together") as well as some amazing work -- including covering Stevie Wonder's "Blame It On The Sun." The Motown years would see countless compilations, a remix album (Diana Extended) and four boxed set entitled Forever.

Skip the boxed set. No one should waste their money on it. It's not that, by 1993, Ross didn't have enough material for a boxed set. It is that, as late as 1993, Motown still didn't understand the need to remaster analog when putting it out in digital format. The sound quality is horrible, the hisses will jar you as you listen. The way the set is laid out, the first disc is the Supremes (25 songs), the second charts her solo career up to The Wiz, the third disc covers 1979 through 1986 (end of Motown and the RCA years) and the fourth disc is more recent odds and ends. This includes "Family" performed live and a song from the musical Dreamgirls (now playing on big screens everywhere).

Diana Ross is a singles artist (and often an amazing one). By this point, only at RCA and with The Boss and diana has she ever truly amazed as an album artist. But she's got enough material over the years that can be compiled into a solid boxed set. That doesn't happen, however, when the sound quality is poor.

Strangely, while she floundered at Motown, she put out three Christmas albums that are worth hearing. 1993's Christmas in Vienna (Sony) teams her with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. All have solo turns on the live recording but Ross teams up with one or both for three songs and one medley and holds her own. Hallmark put out 1994's Making Spirits Bright and Diana Ross teams up with the London Symphony Orchestra (the King's Singers and the Modern Jazz Quartet do songs on the album without Ross). "Go, Tell It To The Mountain" and "The First Noel" are Ross' standouts on this album. Also in 1994, EMI released Diana Ross' A Very Special Christmas. Ross records with an orchestra and this may be the finest album she did in the 90s. Fourteen songs, fourteen amazing performances. Stand outs include "What The World Needs Now," "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)," "His Eye Is On The Sparrow," Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed," and "Ave Maria." But there's not a groaner on the album and if you were looking for one CD to purchase from the last 20 years that would explain why Diana Ross became an international superstar, this album does just that.

Sadly, her work for Motown didn't. In 1995, she released Take Me Higher which played like punishment for fans. Her cover of "I Will Survive" would give her a dance hit but there's not much to be impressed with here. "Let Somebody Know" is the strongest track (song, production and arrangement) while "I Thought That We Were Still In Love" is Ross' strongest performance. But it all adds up to nothing as the album veers here and there and too much of it sounds like people were providing Ross with Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey's cast offs.

1999 saw the release of Every Day Is A New Day. The title track is strong. In fact, in the thirteen tracks (including a remix of a song already on the album), there are probably three that are worth putting on disc. There's just not an album here. "Love Is All That Matters" was performed in Double Platinum with Brandy. On the album, it's a Ross solo and it's a snooze-fest. Ditto the song from The Lion King ("He Lives In You") which fits with nothing else on the album. "Until We Meet Again" wasn't interesting enough to appear on the album once, let alone twice (it's the song that gets an extended remix as a bonus track). "Carry On" is Ross' attempt to hop on Cher's "Believe" wagon and Ross never sounds good when she's aping someone else. The three songs that work are the title track which has Diana Ross in strong form and proceeds like a sun rise, "Not Over You Yet" (the only song with a groove worthy of being called a "groove") and "Hope Is An Open Window" which teams Ross with real backup singers (and a choir) as opposed to her own multi-tracked vocals she too often favors. Hearing Diana Ross get out in front of all that will give you chills.

That's the Diana Ross canon/discography. A wonderful range of singles, some buried gems on albums, but only six albums (out of over fifty) that we would recommend you purchase: The Boss, diana, Swept Away, Eaten Alive, Red Hot Rhythm And Blues and A Very Special Christmas. Those are the cream of the crop and the rest is mainly just a very long, sad trip. If you're wanting to move beyond the anthologies, greatest hits and best ofs (as well as "the singles!" and "the number ones!"), the six are where to go. If you're looking for Supremes albums, we suggest Reflections, Cream Of The Crop and Let The Sunshine In. We haven't touched on her new album. We'll note it is the hugest disappointment and that Kat intends to review it shortly.
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