Diana Ross, The Motown Anthology

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.

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