Singer, Actress, Businesswoman, Icon, Scapegoat
"Nothing cures like time and love," is a lyric from the Laura Nyro song that begins the new Diana Ross Motown Anthology, a two-disc collection of million-selling popular songs and unreleased songs. "Time and Love" had been announced in 1970 as the singer’s first solo recording but until now had not been released. The singer’s actual first solo releases were "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)" and "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough" these latter two songs are sung in a beautiful light soprano voice with passion and authority and both are now a secure part of popular music’s history.
While time and love might cure many ills, each of us is haunted by death and threatened by hate, whether it be the hate that arises from personal entanglements or jealousy of another’s prosperity the kind of hate that has kept Mary Wilson, Ross’ ex-partner (in the 1960s music group the Supremes), going all these years. Wilson’s claim to fame continues to be negatively skewed stories about what Ross was like in her early twenties when she was a Supreme. However, Diana Ross’ recorded work and film and concert performances tell another story, and that story revolves around a tireless performer with a charming, intelligent, sincere approach to song, and great energy and a sense of fun before an audience. When all is said and done, the work will remain.
The Motown Anthology features Ross’s early solo hits and songs such as "Remember Me," "Reach Out (I’ll Be There)," "My Mistake (Was to Love You)" with Marvin Gaye, "Last Time I Saw Him," "Love Hangover," "Home," "The Boss," "Upside Down," "I’m Coming Out," "Endless Love" with Lionel Richie, "If We Hold On Together," and later recordings such as "I Will Survive" and the dance hit "Until We Meet Again." These songs are in a range of styles, all of which Ross easily mastered. "Remember Me" is the cheeriest kiss-off song imaginable: "Bye baby, see you around, I already know about the new love you found. What can I do but wish you well? What we had was really swell Remember me as the sound of laughter, and my face the morning after. Remember me as a good thing."
These lyrics by Ashford and Simpson manage to convey great generosity without losing believability. "Reach Out (I’ll Be There)" begins slowly and builds to a gospel call and response. The duet with Gaye finds Ross in her purest voice, achieving tenderness bonded with strength, and the same is true of her singing of "Last Time I Saw Him." Ross’s previously unreleased version of "Home" turns a sentimental affirmation of home and self-growth into something philosophical, probing, and profoundly truthful. "I’m Coming Out" retains its zesty fun, and "I Will Survive" and "Until We Meet Again" are dramatic, intense, and still incline one to dance.
"Until We Meet Again" is from Ross’s album Every Day is A New Day (1999), an album full of sad love songs, concurrent with difficulties in Ross’s second marriage (she’s since divorced). Some of the songs were featured in the television film the singer did with Brandy, "Double Platinum," in the year of the album’s release. The best songs on Every Day are "He Lives In You," a song about a god of love and featuring an African chorus, "Not Over You Yet," a sensuous song, "Hope Is An Open Window," a song with the same message as "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)" but with a hip-hop beat (where the earlier song had a waltz melody), and "Carry On," a self-affirming dance song. (The album’s producers include Arif Mardin and Daryl Simmons, among others.)
However, the best albums Ross released in the last decade are Take Me Higher (1995) and Stolen Moments (1993), a live jazz record. Take Me Higher‘s songs are about love, self-belief, and social awareness, with careful instrumentation and unexpected textures, an album very much about the way we live and love now. One can hear strong traces of hip-hop, gospel, Latin music, and balladry in these songs pop music by other names. "Only Love Can Conquer All" is a song on the album about race and the importance of racial bonding. Who better to sing it? With her career Ross broke racial barriers and set standards for popular success and in her personal life she’s loved and married two white men who seemed to have remained her friends after the marriages ended. The song begins with a verse about a playground in which a group of children are divided by color; they’ve inherited their parents continuing dis-ease with race. Though she didn’t write it, this mirrors Ross’s interview comments about her children’s encounter of race-consciousness at school. Of course, love is a ready answer to social problems, a cliché when so much of the work that needs to be done is intellectual, economic, and political and yet love can be the thing that inspires the imagination to know that these things need doing and that gives the spirit the energy to do the work.
The most impressive songs on Take Me Higher are that song and "If You’re Not Gonna Love Me Right," a sweet, sad, sexy warning to a business-minded lover, "Let Somebody Know," an encouragement to move beyond passive isolation, "Gone" a beautiful love ballad with the simple pop universalism of a Beatles song, and "I Thought That We Were Still In Love" a very slow dramatic song about lasting romantic feelings between former lovers who are now friends. Ross sings these songs with warmth and authority. She has worked with her producers, Babyface associate Jon-John, Michael Narada Walden, Brenda Russell, Nick Martinelli, and the Boom Brothers to produce one of her best albums ever.
Diana Ross’s visual and film image is akin to the glamorous mystique of Marlene Dietrich and Lena Horne and her bell-like voice might draw comparisons to Josephine Baker and even Billie Holiday. The range of pop music Ross has recorded is possibly rivaled only by that of Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, and Linda Ronstadt. These were also her contemporaries at the height of her career, which was, arguably, the 1970s, when for her everything seemed available and possible, doable and done (music, films and television, world tours and concerts on Broadway, fashion spreads). Such iconography is why younger singers feel compelled to voice admiration (Dionne Farris, Mariah Carey) or criticism (Whitney Houston) of her; and also why her fans posses a devouring love.
Ross’s most fervent critics have dismissed her with charges of superficiality and social irrelevance and sometimes these charges have merit. She also has been wrongly slighted for an ambition without which she would have achieved nothing. She has been just as wrongly resented for use of the power her own past work has brought, even when the use of that power simply has been in determining the production and presentation of her own ongoing work.
It is generally agreed that her 1960s work on the Motown label with the Supremes will last; the strength of this work is the songs of Holland-Dozier-Holland and Ross’s vocal drive and exuberance. However, her solo work, which began officially in 1970 with Motown and remained very popular until the late 1980s while she was with the RCA label, is sometimes now unfairly undervalued. Ross’s first solo album, originally self-entitled and now referred to as the Ain’t No Mountain High Enough album (1970), and The Boss (1979), both well-produced by Ashford and Simpson, are charming, thoughtful, and well-sung albums of songs about love, positive individuality, and social concern. They are bookends of her 1970s work, which included the albums Touch Me In the Morning (1973) and Baby It’s Me (1977) among others. Touch Me In the Morning has themes of motherhood and social harmony (with her versions of John Lennon’s "Imagine" and Marvin Gaye’s "Save the Children"), whereas Baby It’s Me was a Richard Perry-produced album with a terrific treatment of Bill Withers’ "The Same Love That Made Me Laugh." Baby It’s Me might be considered a prototype of Ross albums to follow in its mix of ballads, dance songs, and tributes to sounds of the past. In Baby’s case, tribute is paid to the Supremes’ sound in several songs; and in other cases, on later albums, tribute is paid to the equally vintage sounds of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," and "Rescue Me," and "There Goes My Baby." Produced at the end of the 1970s, The Boss contains her most honest singing; she conveys threatening anger, pride, love, exhilaration, sexiness, and resignation. (The Chic-produced diana album (1980), her last album for Motown before leaving for RCA in 1981, followed The Boss and remains her best-selling album, but lacks The Boss‘s feeling.)
Her 1980s work includes a couple of good albums on RCA, Why Do Fools Fall In Love (1981) and Swept Away (1984). The former contains a successful black rock experiment, "Mirror, Mirror," and the latter’s songs mine grief, romantic infatuation and frustration, friendship, and both an affirmation of youth and an acknowledgement of its fleeting existence. Swept Away was an exceptional pop music record produced at a time when the pop audience was collapsing into diverse, often opposing fragments, and contained her last major pop hit to date ("Missing You," a tribute to Marvin Gaye). Most of her RCA work is disappointing, though occasionally marked by wonderful songs such as Leonard Cohen’s "Summertime" on Red Hot Rhythm & Blues (1987). (Red Hot Rhythm & Blues was neither red hot nor rhythm and blues. The unnecessary mediocrity of this album is mystifying, as Ross recorded a duet with Ray Charles for it that was not included in the American release and also a version of Etta James’s "Tell Me" that was performed on a television special called by the album’s name. These two songs and songs such as these would have justified the title). Too much of the RCA work is merely pretty and thus substantiates her critics’ worst estimates. Most of her time at RCA was really about her learning to produce her own records, and possibly feeling adrift as aggressive youth-oriented rap and punk assumed the pop music hierarchy. The dominance of this anti-pop (hostile, sectarian, sometimes incoherent but also vital and truthful) must have seemed a paradox. Yet, Ross’s best and most popular RCA songs from "Muscles" and "Missing You" to "Chain Reaction," "Summertime," and "It’s Hard For Me to Say" are collected on her Greatest Hits: The RCA Years (1997).
Her 1989 return to Motown yielded the Workin’ Overtime (1989) and Force Behind the Power (1991) albums, and a 4-disc career retrospective box set in 1993, Musical Memoirs: Forever, featuring both her solo and Supremes work and even some of her RCA work. Her live jazz record with Jon Faddis, Roy Hargrove and Ron Carter, Stolen Moments, and the live Christmas in Vienna with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, both released in 1993, were a return to the diversely entertaining creative form of her best early Motown work. (In the 1960s, Ross did almost every kind of music, including country, with the exception of jazz and classical.) Stolen Moments has effectively sensitive versions of "Don’t Explain" and "You’ve Changed" and piercingly strong versions of "Little Girl Blue" and "Strange Fruit." The album works as a celebration of old-fashioned pop music (Rodgers and Hart), Billie Holiday, Ross’s own fine work in the film Lady Sings the Blues, and her lasting grace as a live performer. The Vienna album has her version of "Amazing Grace"; it is open and moving and can be placed next to versions by Aretha Franklin and Cassandra Wilson.
The new Motown Anthology is reason enough to review this singer’s career and its celebrated and neglected aspects.
Diana Ross’s work with the Supremes and her early solo work utilized a light voice that communicated the self-confident strength and energy of a young woman, an expressive, appropriately self-dramatizing sound, a public voice. Her later work often exposed a voice that embodied emotional vulnerability and introspection, a seemingly private voice. Take Me Higher reveals a voice that has grown darker and deeper with age, but still able to touch lighter notes, a voice which seems mature and responsive, both public and private. Every Day has both voices, public and private, but seems more of a personal statement. (It may be the only one of her albums that leaves the listener with sadness.) The Motown Anthology, like Musical Memoirs, works as both an introduction to and a summation of her career. In its charm, confidence, and energy, Ross’s music is very American, and it is also very civilized delicate, thoughtful, ethical, and sensuous, with orchestral arrangements conveying luxury; civility and fun are the basis of its international appeal. These qualities are that of both art and style and they touch the mind, heart, and body and capture the imagination and stimulate the spirit.
So much of a woman performer’s appeal is tied to her physical attractiveness and youth (I sometimes think the public views male performers as brothers and female performers as girlfriends and ex-girlfriends, and ex-girlfriends are to be forgotten, while the connection to brothers lasts). In recent years, mature woman such as Gladys Knight, Joni Mitchell, Patti LaBelle, Carly Simon and Chaka Khan have produced mature albums that have not been accorded the kind of public space they should have found. This was true of Ross’s Take Me Higher but should not be true of the new Motown Anthology. Remember: Ross is a good singer, and an ambitious, beautiful, dynamic, intelligent woman, a true individual, who has produced work of lasting entertainment and value.