Posts Tagged ‘Diva Week’

When I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s (it took me awhile to grow up), I knew which music belonged to me and which music belonged to Old People.

My music was from The Beatles and everyone who followed in their wake. It was loud, it crackled with life, it was about life. Or it was about the life I wanted for my life. It shook me.

Old People’s music didn’t lay a finger on me. It drifted across the fields like a zephyr, and the flowers nodded demurely as it caressed them. Look what I’m writing here. The next thing to appear in this scenario is either Mother Nature or Snuggles the Fabric Softener Bear.

Old People’s music carried various labels, all of which form a tangle in my head because I’ve never learned anything about them: show tunes, Tin Pan Alley, Brill Building Pop, Easy Listening, Lawrence Welk. Today this is all subsumed under the heading American Songbook. I can only listen to this stuff when it’s been reinterpreted by someone from my side of the aisle, an artist who’s willing to travel over the hills and far away from the original: Janis Joplin and “Summertime,” John Coltrane and “My Favorite Things.”

So this is why I’ve never paid attention to Dionne Warwick, even though she’s recorded more than 40 albums since 1963, which casts a shadow on The Rolling Stones’ catalog, which is already overstuffed. To me, Warwick was from the Burt Bacharach/Hal David universe, which was my seal of disapproval. The songs they wrote for her (“Walk on By,” “Message to Michael,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”) and even her beautiful voice did not hold my attention. Back then I was probably too busy with Herman’s Hermits or Grand Funk Railroad.

Some years back I reached a level of maturity (it took me awhile to reach maturity) and I was able to sit still long enough to actually hear the American Songbook. I may not like what I hear, but I’ve learned to listen for the good in something instead of instinctively making my Mr. Yuck face.

Listening or trying to listen to the black music of the ’70s has been an illuminating project. At times I felt as if I were drowning. But most of the time I discovered new music I liked and rediscovered songs that are now favorites. In Dionne Warwick’s case, I’m glad I chose the ’70s because this was when Bacharach and David split up and Warwick had to find new writers. She never really adapted to disco or any other new style – she mostly skated above it all, like that zephyr from the third paragraph – but on Just Being Myself (1973) she showed that she could play that greasy kid stuff if she wanted to.

This is not the album I expected from the woman who sang the theme to the super soap opera Valley of the Dolls. Several tracks surprised me. “I Think You Need Love” is one of the lost classics of the decade. It’s almost the holy gospel! “You’re Gonna Need Me” is not only good, it could’ve been a blaxploitation theme song if only they’d assigned the lyrics to an idiot.

Warwick followed up with Then Came You (1975). This one was built around her hit of the same name from the previous year. She was backed by The Spinners on “Then Came You” and together they produced a gem of ’70s soul. My interest in Warwick stops here, but given that I expected to find nothing, I feel rich.

Roberta Flack
Flack’s debut, First Take, appeared in 1969, but thanks to Clint Eastwood I can include it in the 1970s. First Take gave us her bluesy version of the jazz classic “Compared to What” and the song she’s famous for, “The First Time Ever I Saw His Face.” Flack has a voice of uncharted power – uncharted because most of it is hidden below the surface, like an ice berg. I want to buy her a cup of coffee with three shots of espresso.

“The First Time Ever I Saw His Face” languished on this disc until Eastwood paid $2,000 to include it on the soundtrack of Play Misty for Me in 1971. With the exposure of a popular film around it, “The First Time” enjoyed a second time and became a hit everywhere civilization reigned (and in Indiana and Arkansas). Flack won a Grammy for “First Time” in 1972. Even I like it. But her next album, Quiet Fire, was all quiet and not fiery, and this was where I left her.

Roberta Flack’s middle name is Cleopatra. Of course I didn’t get a cool middle name like that. Good thing I don’t whine about it anymore. I’m mature now. 

Let’s finish Diva Week:

Chaka Khan
The R&B groups War and Rufus went through opposite evolutions. The unknown War was adopted by Eric Burdon after he heard them in some dinky club. Having Burdon singing with them was like finally finding their jet packs (“Spill the Wine”). When Burdon left, War’s career flew even higher (“The World Is a Ghetto,” “Gypsy Man,” “Low Rider”).

Rufus was not making much progress until they hired Chaka Khan to sing with them. She became so popular that they released an album in 1975 called Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan. Khan came and went for several years after that, and Rufus sputtered to a stop. But together they made “You Got the Love” and “Tell Me Something Good,” from Rags to Rufus, and “Once You Get Started,” from Rufus & Chaka Khan (both from 1974).

Chaka Khan has a voice like Tina Turner’s, with less power but maybe more finesse at close range. She has some similarities to Aretha Franklin, too, especially if you subtract Jesus. She is sexier than both, not as sexy as Donna Summer, but earthier. Summer always sounds like she’s having sex at Star Fleet Academy, if anybody in Star Fleet ever had sex.

For Khan’s first album, Chaka (1978), her label brought in Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who wrote “I’m Every Woman.” Unfortunately, that was the only song Ashford and Simpson wrote for that album, and the quality in general falls off sharply from this first superlative track. Fortunately, Khan found a way to stay relevant and score hits right through the ’80s.

Tina Turner
I have to tread carefully here, because Tina Turner is a protected national resource. But I have to say it: There’s nothing Tina recorded in the 1970s after leaving Ike that’s good enough to devote your time to, and that includes her Acid Queen song in that awful Tommy movie. Fear not: In the ’80s she’ll dance onstage with Mick Jagger, brawl in the desert with Mad Max, and give us Private Dancer (1984). That’s plenty of fun for one decade.

So let’s end this survey of Tina Turner that’s as micro as her skirt and mention one of Ike and Tina’s last albums, Workin’ Together (1971). This is the one with “Proud Mary,” “Funkier Than a Mosquita’s Tweeta” (gets an A+ rating just for the title), and “Game of Love,” a blues song that anticipates Robert Cray’s themes but also gives us a glimpse into the Turners’ home life:

Just like you can cheat on me
I can cheat on you
There’s no rules in this game of love
It can be played by two

Joan Armatrading
I’m unprepared to discuss this very deserving woman, who may have been the black Joni Mitchell.

Why I am unprepared to discuss Joan Armatrading
Tomorrow is the beginning of the three-day Memorial Day weekend. This is my favorite holiday.

(For my non-USA readers, if I have any left: Memorial Day began as our way of remembering the dead from our Civil War. It’s original name was Decoration Day. In addition to attending parades, picnics, and Blue Angel flyovers, we also use this somber time to buy mattresses and consumer electronics at discounted prices.)

Wilfred Sheed wrote that baseball is the sport that has a whole summer up its sleeve. Memorial Day is my favorite holiday because it has a whole summer up its sleeve. The season is about to step on-stage. I can’t wait. I like this holiday almost as much as my birthday – and I like my birthday – because on Memorial Day I still have my birthday to look forward to, but my birthday is not so far away that it’s unrealistic to think of and in fact I can start pestering people about it.

For months I work like the 20-mule team that pulled Borax to stand ready on Memorial Day, getting those pesky projects out from under (like house and marriage maintenance) so I can get to the fun stuff for the summer. I don’t actually mean everything in that last sentence, in case you’re paying attention.

This summer I intend to make some serious progress on my novel, because frankly it’s about fucking time I seriously progressed and finished it already. Once again I’m freezing this blog in a block of carbonite, but I’ll be back in September after the three-day Labor Day weekend when I can no longer wear white and drink gin and the world will clamor for more of my musical insults and poorly informed insights. Everyone have a good summer.

Your album for Saturday, 23 May 2015, is Earth, Wind & Fire’s That’s the Way of the World from 1975. The interior art includes a photo of eight men with no shirts on, which may be a record for records.

This is my 199th post. Thank you for being there.


The women I’m discussing this evening all came from jazz, soul, R&B, and gospel to try their luck in disco. As singers, they were well above average. Gloria Gaynor, Thelma Houston, and Patti LaBelle had the biggest voices; Candi Staton and Loleatta Holloway were the most subtle. You could’ve hired any of them to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” and loved the results.

Forgive me for omitting Anita Ward (“Ring My Bell”) if she was one of your favorites. If she was, why are you reading this blog?

Commercially, the move into disco was a smart decision. Even The Grateful Dead tried it. Artistically, it didn’t always work. The Grateful Dead shouldn’t have tried it. The material the women in this post had to work with was uneven, and most of the lesser numbers and even some of the bigger ones are forever bogged down in the ’70s.

What follows is my idea of the best of the best. I may not like some of them, but I respect all of them.

Freda Payne
Band of Gold
The sophisticated Payne recorded jazz and R&B ballads in the 1960s. These are collected on Early Essentials (2011) if you want to explore them. I don’t. Her voice and arrangements are not for me. I’ll say more about that when I get to Dionne Warwick in my next post.

Payne’s commercial breakthrough, “Band of Gold,” was a monster smash that was beaten into the collective unconscious of an unwilling humanity by one billion plays on AM radio. I didn’t have to listen to it for this review because I recall it at the cellular level. Despite my mixed feelings for “Band of Gold” (I can never decide if I hate it or despise it), I give Payne credit for invading what was for her alien territory (pop, disco, and soul) and with this album beating everyone at their own game. Plus she looked smashing in her bikini on the cover of Reaching Out (1973) and in her gardening outfit on the cover of Payne & Pleasure (1974).

Gloria Gaynor
Never Can Say Goodbye
Love Tracks
Never Can Say Goodbye is famous for having three songs on one side with no breaks between them. It may have been the first LP designed for djs. The songs are “Honey Bear,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and “Reach Out (I’ll Be There).” The transitions are clumsy. DJs in clubs had already invented fading out and fading in, but the record companies were still catching up. The three songs are about 19 minutes, which is long enough for me to wander out of the off-leash area and dig up somebody’s garden.

“Honey Bear” exists solely to build excitement for “Never Can Say Goodbye.” “Never” is terrific, except for the horns, which are disconnected from the rest of the song, as if Gaynor’s producer had hired Chicago but locked them up in another room. Chicago should always be locked up in another room. “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” is not bad, but the drums are totally annoying. Listening to this version is like trying to eat lunch and read your book at the park while a FedEx cargo plane flies overhead every 45 seconds.

“Never Can Say Goodbye” was a hit for The Jackson 5 in 1971. The song was infectious, but Michael Jackson was 13 and sounded like it. Isaac Hayes turned “Never” into an emotional slow dance. I could do without the male chorus he brought along. Gaynor’s bright, brassy voice and the dance-tempo beat and the 4-minute radio edit are what I want to hear.

Cover of a Cover of a Cover Alert #1: The Communards did a spectacular job with “Never Can Say Goodbye” on Red (1987). The singer is Jimmy Somerville, whose interstellar soprano you can hear in the movie Pride (about the gay groups that helped the striking miners in the U.K.) when they get to the scene in the disco.

Gaynor’s Love Tracks unleashed the female battle anthem “I Will Survive.” The original vinyl is enshrined in the Smithsonian and protected by an eternal flame and an honor guard. The album also gave us a minor disco classic called “Anybody Wanna Party?” There are 300 words in this song and 60 are “Anybody wanna party.” I’m in the wrong line of work.

Thelma Houston
Any Way You Like It
Houston went to #1 with her version of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” The original (with Teddy Pendergrass ripping his heart out and throwing it down and stomping on it until he died) was a phenomenon in 1975, but Houston, who could belt one out like Tina Turner, established her own place in musical history with her reimagining of the song.

Cover of a Cover of a Cover Alert #2: The Communards tackled this one on their debut, Communards (1986), and once again triumphed.

The album cover of Thelma Houston’s debut, Sunshower (1969), is one of the most pleasing yellows I’ve ever been pleased by.

Candi Staton
Young Hearts Run Free
“Young Hearts Run Free,” a song that writer David Crawford based on Staton’s life at the time, went all the way to 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100. I don’t care for the music, as I feel I’ve heard it a hot 100 times before, but the lyrics are more mature than anything you’d expect on a disco record:

What’s the sense in sharing, this one and only life

Ending up, just another lost and lonely wife

You count up the years, and they will be filled with tears

Love only breaks up, to start over again

You’ll get the babies, but you won’t have your man

While he is busy loving, every woman that he can

The poor woman was stuck with Shaft!

Staton came out of the gospel scene, adapted to a tumultuous musical landscape, and scored numerous hits in the 1980s and ’90s. One of them, “You Got the Love” (no relation to the “You Got the Love” I’m about to describe), is a 1986 example of electronic dance music that has some serious wistfulness going on.

Maxine Nightingale
You Got the Love
Lead Me On
Nightingale, who is English, is the only non-U.S. citizen in my survey, but as I announced upfront I’m a provincial slob from the USA. USA! USA!

This lady has a good voice, but she struggles to be heard against all the musicians on her debut. There’s a great guitar break in “You Got the Love”; the guitarist faces the same hurdle and doesn’t clear it. I like the song, but the original, by Rufus with Chaka Khan, is the better choice.

“Right Back Where We Started From” hit the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. You can also find it on the soundtrack of the Paul Newman hockey movie Slap Shot. It resembles Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” in that it sounds like music composed for kids. The beat is one-two, one-two with plenty of handclaps. The piano line is simple, but when it falls away near the end you miss it.

On the cover of her debut, You Got the Love, Nightingale is photographed in jeans and a T-shirt waiting on a bench with her guitar. Looks like an early Bill Withers cover. On the cover of Lead Me On, she’s leaning against a wall in tight pants and a tube top while a tiger inspects her derrière. Not like a Bill Withers cover. The leaden “Lead Me On” was an inexplicable hit. I assume people bought it because they needed help falling asleep.

Evelyn “Champagne” King
Smooth Talk
King was only 17 (but already hitting the champagne?) when she recorded Smooth Talk. “Shame” peaked at #9; it was popular in clubs because it was fast and long (6 minutes). It’s the only disco song I know with a starring part for a sax. King doesn’t spend a lot of time singing, making this a distant ancestor of EDM. This hit and the rest of the album have been reduced in stature with the passage of time.

Patti LaBelle
Patti Labelle
It’s Alright with Me
In the early ’60s, Patti LaBelle founded the band Labelle with Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx. Actually, she founded more than one band and went through several name changes, but let’s call them all Labelle. Patti, Sarah, and Nona worked hard, toured incessantly, and by 1971 were opening for The Who.

(Their version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” on their 1972 album Moon Shadow, is competent. They can rock. Their version of “If I Can’t Have You” on the same disc has an edge of hysteria I usually only hear from Queen. In fact, much of their work in the early ’70s sounds like Aretha Franklin taking hits off a helium tank.)

Labelle became famous in 1974 when they released “Lady Marmalade.” That’s the “voulez-vous couchez avec moi (ce soir)?” song. I don’t know why it’s always referred to as a disco classic, as even in 1974 it was too slow to dance to. Plus it’s super annoying. France should’ve recalled their ambassador.

Patti LaBelle went off on her own in the ’70s. She has been singing, touring, recording, and delighting her army of fans ever since. This is not a cause I’ve ever enlisted in, but in the spirit of fairness I’ll name one passable song from each of these records:

Patti LaBelle: “Funky Music”
Tasty: “Save the Last Dance for Me” (original by The Drifters)
It’s Alright with Me: “It’s Alright with Me”

Nona Hendryx went off an experimental trip that I’ve only read about. I’ll track her down one of these days.

Loleatta Holloway
Love Sensation (1980)
Here’s how I listen to music for this blog:

  1. I play the album on a CD. I want the original sequence, the cover art, and the liner notes.
  2. I play the album on Rhapsody.
  3. I play somebody else’s CD. Do I still have your CD? Well too bad, you still have mine!
  4. I play whatever I can find on YouTube.
  5. By this time I’m sick of the whole thing, but if I have any energy left I’ll try Spotify or Pandora.
  6. I go to the library.

You be surprised how some albums resist this formula.

For this reason I’m including Love Sensation, even though it’s from another decade, as it’s the only one of Loleatta Holloway’s albums I’ve heard from A to Z. “Love Sensation” was a club sensation, but I guess clubs have changed in 35 years because when I listened to it just now I didn’t feel like throwing my hands in the air like I just don’t care. The album is not distinctive, despite her voice.

It should be noted that “Loleatta Holloway” is the perfect searchable name.

One thing I’ve learned from these disco divas is how long a record company was willing to wait, in the ’60s and ’70s, for an artist to become commercially viable. They were all given years to develop. Does the music business still work this way?

That’s it for disco. Tomorrow we fire our retro rockets and begin our descent from Diva Week!


From approximately 1976 until 1979, disco was the law of the land. Many people were unhappy under disco’s thumpa-thumpa-thumpa rule, and a rebellion broke out on July 12, 1979 in Comiskey Park, Chicago.

The White Sox, who were not enjoying a victorious season, had tried to lure paying customers into the ballpark with the promise of Disco Demolition Night. Fans were invited to bring their most hated disco records. The records were to be placed in a box in centerfield and blown up between games of a doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers.

You’d go to that, wouldn’t you? Explosives in a stadium where they sell beer. Fun!

The idea was the brainchild of a Chicago dj who was a cultural-reactionary or a shock-jock or simply attention-starved. In the days leading up to Disco Demolition Night, this dj whipped his fellow anti-disco insurgents into the kind of frenzy you only saw in, well, discos. His plan worked: The White Sox had hoped for an attendance figure of about 35,000, but what they got was 55,000, which was more than that stadium could hold. Also much like discos.

A lot of beer and hallucinogenics happened, records were thrown like frisbees at frightened ballplayers, the beleaguered security guards locked most of the gates which meant that the sane people couldn’t leave, the first game ended, and when the records blew up, so did the crowd. Due to multiple felonious assaults on the landscaping and Tiger manager Sparky Anderson’s refusal to let his team take the field, the White Sox and the Tigers were unable to play the second game.

(The Tigers won the first game, 4-1. The White Sox forfeited the second game because they were unable to provide a safe work environment.)

I’d like to remind everyone that when the Sox held a pro-disco night in 1977, it was completely non-violent, though I’m willing to bet that there was sex in the bathrooms. Just like in a disco.

So was Disco Demolition Night caused by a homophobic or racist reaction to shifting cultural standards, or was it simply the joy of morons who’d found each other? All I know is, white people always riot over stupid shit, and afterwards we never have a national conversation about family values.

White Sox pitcher Rich Wortham said, “This wouldn’t have happened if they had country and western night.”

I was a disco activist
I thoroughly enjoyed my disco years and if I still had my leisure suit I’d wear it to work. Actually, if I still had my leisure suit, my wife would’ve confiscated it at gunpoint. The late Donna Summer was always billed as the Queen of Disco, and I pledged my service to her. Let’s look at her collected works of the ’70s. This won’t take long, because most of these were – forgive me, my queen – crud.

(I’m not going to quote any of her lyrics, either, but I can’t help saying Toot toot. Hey. Beep beep.)

Lady of the Night (1974)
Ms. Summer’s debut demonstrates her astounding voice and her producer’s astounding confusion. Giorgio Moroder has no shortage of ideas, all of them bad:

“Born to Die” is country.
“Domino” is folk.
“Let’s Work Together” is from a Broadway show that closed in the middle of its first night.
“Sing Along (Sad Song)” is Judy Collins in an alternate, less-musical universe.
“Hostage” is ridiculous in any universe.
“Little Miss Fit” is right – Donna Summer doesn’t fit on this disc.

The only reason to listen to Lady of the Night is the title track, not because it’s good – it stands on stilettos to reach passable – but because of the way it showcases Summer’s voice, particularly that moment in the chorus when she ascends through laaaaaaaaady of the night.

All but one of these songs was co-written by Moroder, who despite this chaos is about to make Summer a star. Signor Moroder also has an excellent claim on the invention of disco. Brace for impact!

Love to Love You Baby (1975)
The title is 17 minutes long. Until this track, 17 minutes was the province of prog rock and heavy metal. The sex sounds are silly but the sensuality in Summer’s voice is not. I listened to all 17 minutes this afternoon, but I admit I took a couple of breaks. I found a flute solo in there! I might’ve been the first person to hear it in 40 years.

A Love Trilogy (1976)
This one opens with “Try Me, I know We Can Make It,” which is 18 minutes long. Oh no you don’t! And don’t try to sneak Barry Manilow past me, either (I found him in the credits).

Four Seasons of Love (1976)
This is a theme album. Based on the cover and the glamour girl calendar inside, the theme is Summer’s legs. Good call.

The five songs average 7 minutes apiece. The disco sounds routine to me now, but in 1976 this was an exciting record that would’ve kept you going at your favorite club.

By this time, Summer was writing or co-writing many of these songs. Moroder could use all the help he could get.

Once Upon a Time (1977)
Like Lady Gaga 30 years later, Summer acknowledges her enthusiastic gay following and tries to say something encouraging. Daring for that era, but this double-record set is too pretentious to contemplate.

I Remember Yesterday (1977)
An odd title for the world of disco, where everyone was living for the next bump, but the underrated “Love’s Unkind” does sound like the updating of a ’60s R&B hit even though it’s an original.

This album gave us “I Feel Love,” one of the most significant tracks of the decade. Entire genres of electronica (for example, “Tribal-Progressive House,” a name I don’t understand even though I listen to that channel), thousands of raves, and many career opportunities for techie djs with enormous egos all descend from “I Feel Love.” I can only wonder how many 38-year-olds are walking around today because their parents were inflamed by “I Feel Love.” (My parents were inflamed by Perry Como burning down the house with “Papa Loves Mambo.”)

You can find the extended version of “I Feel Love” on Donna Summer: The Dance Collection (1986), which also includes the extended “Hot Stuff” (but not “Bad Girls”), her “MacArthur Park Suite” (most of that one’s pretty good), and, out of nowhere, an appearance by Barbra Streisand.

Thank God It’s Friday (1978)
This is the soundtrack to the magna-crap film. “Last Dance” won an Oscar, crushing Olivia Newton-John and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” from Grease. In your face, ONJ! It’s particularly fun on a dance floor because of the 1:20 build-up to the 4 minutes of dancing. It always left me quivering with antici – say it already – pation.

Live and More (1978)
Way too many songs from Once Upon a Time.

Bad Girls (1979)
Was disco dying in 1979? Just like the Red Sox? No, it was evolving. Unlike the Red Sox.

Bad Girls gave Summer two mega hits (“Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff”). How do you beat an album with that pair in the first and second spots? They’re exciting disco/rock hybrids that are descended from all the funk/rock experiments that began 10 years earlier with Sly & The Family Stone, Isaac Hayes, and Curtis Mayfield. I remember standing on a dance floor in 1979 when the lights changed, the fog rose, and “Bad Girls” came on with that beat like a John Phillips Sousa march performed in jackhammers. I was happy and I didn’t even have sex in a bathroom.

There are not many albums you can put on at a dance party and let ride for eight tracks before you have to skip the slow songs or change the disc. Welcome to Bad Girls.

“Love Will Always Find You” is disco grafted to New Wave – it reminds me of Talking Heads’ “Memories Can’t Wait” and even some work by Graham Parker. “Dim All the Lights” and “Journey to the Center of Your Heart” are terrific dance numbers. They even have some Stevie Wonder-inspired keyboards. “One Night in a Lifetime” and “Can’t Get to Sleep At Night” (I admit that that one is too slow) finish this surprising set, which frankly kicks The Rolling Stones’ skinny asses on Some Girls.

In 1979, this is where you finished side two of the first record. You were supposed to put on side three of the second record, but that’s where Summer and Moroder reverted to their early form and delivered four awful ballads. One of them, “There Will Always Be a You,” was bad enough with a title like that, but Summer finished it off with a little yodeling.

So let’s return to 2015 and the present tense and with a single click head straight to side 4, because, Dear Readers, side 4 is as avant-garde as disco ever got. With these last three songs it’s as if David Byrne and Brian Eno had been turned loose with a synthesizer and a disco ball while Annie Lennox and Debbie Harry dirty-danced with Gary Numan and David Bowie.

In “Our Love,” the “Our love/will last forever” bridge is the most unusual 30 seconds in the disco genre. The rest of the song sounds like Bowie’s “Heroes” played at dance speed by Blondie.

Next there’s “Lucky,” which belongs in a category of music loosely called Synth Pop or New Romantics. Examples of bands that manufactured this stuff are all from the ’80s: Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, Flock of Haircuts, The Spoons, Spandau Ballet, Erasure, ABC, Talk Talk, The The (I’m not making these up), and sometimes Duran Duran but not Duran Duran Duran.

The closer is “Sunset People,” and at this point I’m out of metaphors and stuck with words such as weird and bizarre and other synonyms suggested by Microsoft. I’m still happy, though.

I have never compiled a Top 10 list of disco records, but if I did, Bad Girls would smash smash smash them all. This is the toughest disco ever made, a set that in places blows away many straight rock bands of that era, including The Cars, Foreigner, Supertramp, Cheap Trick, Little River Band, and REO Styxjourneywagon. Donna Summer doesn’t have the thunder of AC/DC or Aerosmith, but there are stretches on this record where she doesn’t trail by much, plus she has a better sense of rhythm and her stupid lyrics aren’t as stupid as these stupidheads’ stupid lyrics.

It took Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder five years to get to Bad Girls, and there were plenty of places along their journey where we could’ve abandoned them (I did, more than once), but the important thing is that they arrived. Summer has a crossover hit, “She Works Hard for the Money,” waiting for her in 1983, but after Bad Girls all the rest was commentary.

If I still had my disco regalia I’d wear it in your honor. RIP, Your Highness.


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!