I haven’t listened to Diana Ross for years. With so few audio reminders to fluff my memories and make them smell fresh, they thinned out, and I somehow developed the idea that her voice was too refined, that she made me feel as if I were using the wrong spoon for my soup. The Diana Ross neighborhood of my brain became depopulated and was rezoned until it merged with the Barbra Streisand neighborhood.

(It didn’t help that Ross’ “Touch Me in the Morning” could in places easily slip into Streisand’s “The Way We Were.” Both songs were released in 1973, when I was a teenager with a Pink Floyd collection.)

Then I launched this new project, and after a lapse of a lifetime I re-encountered Diana Ross. I’m not in love, but I am impressed. Maybe I needed to grow up and slow down before I really got it.

Ross released 17 albums in the 1970s. I’m only going to consider a few because I’m not writing her biography and frankly, her three bad soundtracks almost sank me. So here’s my guide to the Diva of Divas.

Diana Ross (1970)
It’s difficult to run this through our central processing units today, but in 1970, Diana Ross was just another girl singer in a girl group. Sure, The Supremes were the queens of the hill, but how many girls left their girl groups to start a solo career, and how many succeeded? Until Ross came along, the answer to the success part was zero.

Diana Ross starts slowly for me, stirred only by “You’re All I Need to Get By.” But track 5 is her cover of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which could level the mountains and alter the rivers. Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell  sang this song as two lovers on a recognizable earthly plain, but Ross turns it into a one-woman, 6-minute symphony that takes place on a cloud or maybe in Asgard. She doesn’t need Marvin Gaye or anyone else.

The rest of the album hits hard for music that isn’t rock ’n’ roll. “Something on My Mind” is the stealth gem that lives in the shadow of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” “Keep an Eye” has a Michael Jackson-like bass line and urgency – even though the adult Michael Jackson won’t appear until Off the Wall in 1979. “Dark Side of the World” is a good song and a good closer.

You can’t really call Diana Ross a debut, because Ross had already been performing for years in The Supremes, but however you want to characterize it, this is a highly desirable record for your collection.

Diana Ross Fun Fact 1: Ten of these 11 songs were written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. I’ll return someday to this husband-and-wife superhero team-up.

Diana Ross Fun Fact 2: In addition to Diana Ross, Ross also released Diana Ross in 1976 and Diana in 1980. Also Diana! The Original TV Soundtrack in 1971. And then there was Ross in 1978 and Ross in 1983. I understand, I like my name, too. This is why our first eight dogs were all named “Steve.” But let’s give a special award to Peter Gabriel, who released Peter Gabriel in 1977, Peter Gabriel in 1978, and then – how sweet the sound! – Peter Gabriel in 1979.

Everything Is Everything (1970)
Ross’ Everything Is Everything has a few problems. It’s overproduced. There’s an orchestra playing in that studio, plus the horns you’d hear before a fox hunt or a joust. There’s a female chorus (I like them) and a male chorus (but not them). There were many points on this record when I wanted everyone to shut up and let the woman sing. (I feel the same way about Beyoncé’s oeuvre.)

The next problem is choosing to cover “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” a Burt Bacharach and Hal David travesty. Richard Chamberlain sang the original in-between his hospital rounds as Dr. Kildare. Then Dionne Warwick gave it a go. I thought it was saccharine X-treme.

Then The Carpenters laid into it. There was a girl in my high school who had me mesmerized, but she loved The Carpenters and this song. Actually, she loved the song, she had no idea who it was by. I think she thought that musicians made up songs as they went along, just like people who think actors create their dialog while they’re speaking. Or maybe she thought her radio made up the song. I wanted her to join me in acts I could not yet name but she was a musical idiot. This kind of cognitive dissonance can really trip you up in adolescence. Ross does a better job with “Close to You” than anyone else I’ve heard, but I still hate it.

“DoobeDood’nDoobe, DoobeDood’nDoobe, DoobeDood’nDoobe,” written by her producer, Deke Richards, also falls below acceptable standards. The producer should’ve been imprisoned for the title alone. When Ross sings it, it sounds like Santa Claus is coming to town with Frank Sinatra. But Deke redeems himself with the ballad “I’m Still Waiting.”

Motown brought out their big songwriting guns for this album, and Ross shines with Aretha Franklin’s “I Love You (Call Me)” and Marvin and Anna Gordy Gaye’s “Baby It’s Love.” She also does well with “The Long and Winding Road,” even though she has to tunnel her way through sedimentary layers of sound.

She takes on The Beatles again with “Come Together,” and though the male chorus does its best to screw things up, by the end Ross has turned it into a taunt, as if daring men to fight over her. I’m sure plenty of men have fought over her.

Everything Is Everything isn’t as good as Diana Ross (the 1970 Diana Ross), but I could understand throwing a punch for it.

Diana Ross Fun Fact 3: Donny Hathaway released his first album in July 1970 and called it Everything Is Everything. In November, Motown released Ross’ Everything Is Everything. At least they didn’t call their albums Peter Gabriel.

Surrender (1971)
Ashford and Simpson are in, Bacharach and David are out, and the music starts with a spine infusion. “Surrender” bites down hard, “I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel for You” is urgent, and the utter power of “Remember Me” places it within the inner circle of Motown songs. This is the only Diana Ross song that I wish she’d recorded with The Supremes.

Unfortunately, “Didn’t You Know (You’d Have to Cry Sometime)?” is the end of the music I like here. The rest of the album trails off into likeability, not movability. Heed my Rule of 4: If I find four songs that I like on one album, I go get that album.

Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Soundtrack for the Billie Holiday biopic. The 35 tracks are mostly snippets of tough-guy dialog from the film, including people talking over Ross while she’s trying to sing, as when an angry crowd ruins “The Man I Love.” I already hate this stupid movie and I haven’t seen it. But when you finally get to Holiday’s music, it’s as if Ross is opening a door to the spirit world and walking Billie Holiday right through it.

“Lady Sings the Blues” is breathtaking, but it’s only a minute long. I liked all of these songs, from “All of Me” to “You’ve Changed,” but the rubber meets the road when Ross goes for “Strange Fruit,” Holiday’s signature song, the 1930s song protesting lynching. She rips your heart out.

Ross was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Holiday. (Liza Minnelli won for Cabaret.) It’s possibly easier to win an Oscar for a great performance inside a good film as opposed to a great performance inside a stupid one. How stupid is this movie? Judging by the soundtrack, monumentally stupid. There’s no opening theme. The closing theme is a short instrumental performed on the piano by somebody who is learning piano. You had Diana Ross waiting in the bullpen, why not call her in in relief? Where is the love?

Touch Me in the Morning (1973)
Ross recorded three albums in 1973: this one, Last Time I Saw Him, and Diana & Marvin.

The songs on Touch Me are not my thing, but they must be somebody’s. These songs may be the finest soft-rock ever recorded: “We Need You,” “Leave a Little Room” (with a debt to Paul McCartney and “Baby I’m Amazed”), and “Imagine” (what a bass line).

“I Won’t Last a Day Without You” was not a hit for its writer, Paul Williams, in 1971. Maureen McGovern took it out for a spin but with no better results. There followed a flurry of mid-’70s covers by Barbra Streisand (made me tired), Andy Williams (made me sleepy), Mel Torme (made me wonder how long the man could hold a note), and, of course, The Carpenters, who shoved it through their meat tenderizer. Ross turns in her usual competent performance but surprise, Run-DMSteve still doesn’t like it.

“My Baby (My Baby My Own)” is from another of Ross’ projects. It’s about, if I have this right, her baby. Being from another project, it’s very different from the other songs. Despite its subject, it’s menacing. “Brown Baby/Save the Children” is also from the Baby My Baby project. The first half could be a sequel to “Young, Gifted and Black.” The second half is a cover from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. I would’ve been happier with the Baby My Baby album, if it had ever been released, than with Touch Me in the Morning. 

Regarding the title track, I may never play it again, but at least now I can hear how it’s related to Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wishing Well” and Bread’s “It Don’t Matter to Me.”

Mahogany (1975)
Her second bad movie. Diana Ross could not catch a break in Hollywood. “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going to)” exploded into the top spot on the charts, though not in my house.

Ross had an equally big hit in 1975 with “Love Hangover,” which you can find on Diana Ross (the 1976 Diana Ross, not the 1970 Diana Ross). The 1976 Diana Ross also includes “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Maybe,” which has some of the power of “Remember Me.”

I like “Love Hangover,” but I wouldn’t use it to keep a dance moving. It’s too slow even when it speeds up. But it’s an excellent driving song.

The Wiz (1978)
This finishes the Diana Ross Bad Movie Trilogy. Out of respect for a woman I increasingly admire, I’m ending this entry right here.

The Boss (1979)
Ashford and Simpson back up Ross again and the trio turns in a pretty good disco album. “The Boss” is a We Are Family/I Will Survive song. It’s not good enough to be an anthem, as it could also be a synchronized dance routine on a dumb TV show. The bass reminds me of Rose Royce’s “Car Wash” from the 1976 film of the same name. “Once in the Morning” is Michael Jacksonish with a “Boogie Oogie Oogie” bass.

This survey of the first decade of Diana Ross’ solo career doesn’t end on a triumphant note, but she’s only just begun. In the ’80s, which is beyond our event horizon, Ross will release many dance and soul hits, including “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out.” Plus her album covers will feature some spectacular hair styles. The main lesson I learned from this dash across the ’70s is that Diana Ross can follow any direction popular music takes and produce something memorable and make it all sound simple, as if the songs were already there and she just discovered them.

Ross is not too refined; she’s godly – a black, female Sinatra. And I’m no longer a teenage boy wondering what all the fuss with her is about and putting Pink Floyd on the turntable.

Tomorrow: Disco, the theme music of the Carter Administration!

 

Comments
  1. Laurel says:

    In addition to the usual astute observations, this is one of the funniest essays you’ve done in a while, and I needed that! Meanwhile, I’m stuck with Where Did Our Love Go? complete with footwork and gestures – this will probably last for hours…

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