Diana Ross needs no introduction. Below is a selection of reviews of albums from her post-1970, post Supremes solo career. With a reputation as a diva, Ross never had the voice that Gladys Knight or Martha Reeves had and certainly not that of Aretha Franklin. For me, she was always successful beyond her abilities, but her longevity and continued charisma cannot be denied. She was always a star as opposed to a naturally-talented grafter.
Like Aretha Franklin, Ross is an artist that put out so many albums that it is a Herculean task to review them all in intricate detail, so I am dealing with some of them in this fashion. The albums included thus far are
Diana Ross (1970)
Reach Out And Touch (Somebody's Hand)/Now That There's You/You're All I Need To Get By/These Things Will Keep Me Loving You/Ain't No Mountain High Enough/Something On My Mind/I Wouldn't Change The Man He Is/Keep An Eye/Where There Was Darkness/Can't It Wait Until Tomorrow/Dark Side Of The World
This was Diana Ross's first solo album, after many years of being Motown's queen bee, even when part of the phenomenally successful Supremes, her rise to mega-stardom began here and Motown threw their whole weight behind it. The poppy feel of the Supremes was now left behind and Ross was being presented as a "diva"-style singer of big ballads. those ballads were still given a Motown backing, however, so this is a bit of a transitional album, between Motown orchestration and the more traditional "easy-listening" backing that would come as the seventies progressed. Strangely, on the front cover, Ross is pictured looking like a street urchin as opposed to a bejewelled diva.
This is a bit of an understated and appealing album that has sort of slipped under the radar somewhat. It begins with the well-known, dramatic Reach Out And Touch (Somebody's Hand) which needs no introduction. Now That There's You is similarly punchy and vibrant, a classic big-production Motown ballad. You're All I Need To Get By was made famous by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, here Ross takes on both vocal parts, in an impressive and uplifting manner. Her voice is as strong as it has ever been on this one. These Things Will Keep Me Loving You is a catchy and soulful number which was originally recorded by The Velvelettes back in 1966. This was continuing the Motown tradition of recycling old songs on other artists' albums. This was not necessarily a bad thing, as many of the alternative versions were excellent, as is this one.
Despite it being a cover, Ross takes Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's Ain't No Mountain High Enough and truly makes it her own, so much so that it has long been the definitive version of the song. It is included here in its full, six minute glory. Something On My Mind is one of those effortless, melodic mid-pace songs she coped with easily while I Wouldn't Change The Man He Is breaks loose from a laid-back bluesy opening into a big brassy soulful chorus.
Keep An Eye is a bassy, grinding Temptations-esque number warning girls to keep an eye on their close friends, in case they take your man. This is one of the best cuts on the album. Diana's vocal is excellent on this one. I have always preferred the voices of Gladys Knight and Martha Reeves, I have to say, but hers does the business here, no doubt about that. Where There Was Darkness is a delicious, light number with some sweet strings, brass and percussion and another strong vocal. The stereo sound on this, and throughout, is impressive. Can't It Wait Until Tomorrow is a soulful slow number, with some Bacharach-style brass backing. Dark Side Of The World is a rumbling, half upbeat, half brooding song that stands to exemplify this album - one that has not got to the syrupy "easy listening" or slick disco phases as yet, one that still has a bit of gritty soul coursing through its veins.
Everything Is Everything (1970)
My Place/Ain't No Sad Song/Everything Is Everything/Baby It's Love/I'm Still Waiting/Doobedood'ndoobe, Doobedood'ndoobe, Doobedood'ndoobe/Come Together/The Long And Winding Road/I Love You (Call Me)/How About You/(They Long To Be) Close To You
Hot on the heels of her debut solo album, this was another collection of cover versions (The Beatles/ Bacharach and David/Aretha Franklin), some reasonable Ashford/Simpson songs and two huge hits from the pen of Motown veteran Deke Richards.
My Place is a lively, catchy, poppy typically Motown opener that gets the album off to an enthusiastic start. It is actually very Supremes-esque. Ain't No Sad Song is a Temptations-style chugger of a soul number with that slightly funky early seventies beat to it. Everything Is Everything is a breezy number very redolent of its era. Baby It's Love is a standard turn of the decade Motown number, illuminated by some good saxophone.
Then we get the singles, I'm Still Waiting and the ludicrously long-titled Doobedood'ndoobe, Doobedood'ndoobe, Doobedood'ndoobe both of which are known to most. There is a reason they were hits. They are superb pop songs, with great hooks. Now come the Beatles covers, something which Motown albums had been including for six years or so by now. The balladic The Long And Winding Road would seem an obvious choice for Ross, but John Lennon's Come Together? It sounds predictably awkward, Ross not seeming comfortable (even in the "ad hoc" bit near the end) and the orchestration taking a lot of the gritty, shuffling funk out of it. It last nearly seven minutes - does Diana think she is? The Temptations?
Aretha Franklin's I Love You (Call Me) shows, unfortunately, why Diana Ross would never be Aretha Franklin. Her voice seems just too high in pitch for the song. How About You is another very early seventies number in its bright, melodic feel. It is almost Bacharach-esque, which leads nicely on to (They Long To Be) Close To You. The spoken intro is pretty awful but it rectifies itself quickly enough, although again, Ross is no Karen Carpenter. A better choice for the album would have been one of the bonus tracks on the "extended version" of the album, Wish I Knew, or the graceful ballad What Are You Doing The Rest Of You Life. Also covered in these bonus tracks is George Harrison's Something, which is far better suited to Ross than Come Together, despite its needlessly jazzy "bridge". Ain't No Sad Song is performed here too in an alternative way, more funky, more Stax-y. Baby It's Love is much better in its alternative version too. There is a fair case for a lot of the bonus cuts being better than the actual album.
I much prefer the albums either side of this one, Diana Ross and Surrender. Look, it is ok, but unfortunately doesn't really merit regular revisits.
Surrender/I Can't Give Back The Love I Feel For You/Remember Me/And If You See Him/Reach Out I'll Be There/Didn't You Know (You'd Have To Cry Sometime)/A Simple Thing Like Cry/Did You Read The Morning Paper?/I'll Settle For You/I'm A Winner/All The Befores
This is another appealing solo album from Diana Ross, who hadn't as yet become the "easy listening/adult market" diva/"lady showbiz" artist that she would have become by 1973. At this point, she was still putting out classic Motown pop/soul singles, such as the soaring Surrender and the sumptuous Remember Me (check out that bass line and percussion). Ross's vocal is top notch on the latter too, it is now a powerful one, far more so than in her Supremes days. The singing, as opposed to the whole image, was what still mattered on albums such as this one. This 1970-1972 period was the best one for her solo material, in so many ways. None of the albums were classics in any shape of the word, and it is pointless to try and assess them as such, but as pleasant Motown/soul albums of their time, they are more than acceptable.
I Can't Give Back The Love I Feel For You has a bit of a feel of Reach Out And Touch Somebody's Hand about it. And If You See Him has an infectious rhythm and brass backing to it. Her slowed-down, smoky cover of The Four Tops' Reach Out I'll Be There is a tough ask, but it is done in an inventive way, and comes off. Apart from this cover, the whole album is made up of excellent Nickolas Ashford/Valerie Simpson songs, such as the impressive, gospelly Didn't You Know (You'd Have To Cry Sometimes), the pulsating I'm A Winner and the bassy soul of A Simple Thing Like Cry. It is a credible and quality album of its kind, probably the last one she would put out like this. By 1973's Touch Me In The Morning some of the unbridled enthusiasm and genuine-ness that exists on this album had gone. It was big star schmooze all the way from then onwards.
Touch Me In The Morning (1973)
Touch Me In The Morning/All Of My Life/We Need You/Leave A Little Room/I Won't Last A Day Without You/Little Girl Blue/My Baby (My Baby My Own)/Imagine/Brown Baby/Save The Children
By mid-1973, Diana Ross's Motown pop Supremes years were a long time gone. This period saw the start of her transition to full-on mainstream diva. She is now a bona fide superstar. Not that this is not a good album, however. It is, in its lush, classic ballad style, a pretty good example of its Motown easy listening genre. A lot of soul music was like this in the period 1973-77. The socially aware "message", gritty, often funky material like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Curtis Mayfield's Roots was being overwhelmed by sweet, syrupy, orchestrated, perfectly produced soul ballads. This album contain lots of them, the first two tracks, both hit singles, are perfect examples. Ironically, though, the album ends with a cover of a track from What's Going On.
Touch Me In The Morning is just sumptuous, an all-time beautiful classic. It is full of grandiose but soulful atmosphere and is delivered with a gorgeous vocal, one of Ross's best. It is so nostalgic, for me, of the summer of 1973, when I was fourteen. All Of My Life is next, another huge hit and another wonderful song. We Need You is an orchestrated yearning ballad about a family split.
Leave A Little Room has those sweeping, lush strings again, but also a little bit of wah-wah guitar and saxophone creeps in there and it has a bit of anthemic feel about it. I Won't Last A Day Without You is a great song, and however well Ross performs it, Karen Carpenter's version is, for me, the default version. Little Girl Blue is a tender, acoustic guitar and strings number with a fifties air running all through it. My Baby (My Baby My Own) is another dysfunctional, absent father song, with a haunting, late-night torch song ambience.
It is a Motown album, so surely it's time for a Beatles/ex-Beatles cover? Coming right up, in the shape of John Lennon's ubiquitous Imagine. Funnily enough, Ross's cover is a good one and it sits quite well in this album's mood. Brown Baby is the most authentic piece of soul on the album and quality aware soul is paid due respect as it morphs into Marvin Gaye's Save The Children.
The albums ends on a high point, but although it is a perfectly pleasant, nostalgic listen, it is a little too saccharine for my taste. Yes, I still own the album though, but I prefer a more gritty feel to my soul. Having said that, it is redeemed by gorgeous, deep, melodious bass lines all over the album.
Diana & Marvin (1973)
You Are Everything/Love Twins/Don't Knock My Love/You're A Special Part Of Me/Pledging My Love/Just Say, Just Say/Stop, Look, Listen To Your Heart/I'm Falling In Love With You/My Mistake (Was To Love You)/Include Me In Your Life
It would seem that this apparently harmonious collaboration between two of Motown's biggest stars in the early seventies was beset with problems. The album of duets between Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross had been mooted once 1970 but Gaye was having problems getting over the death of a previous singing partner in Tammi Terrell. He also felt that singing duets was not a good thing, as both Mary Wells and Kim Weston suffered career contract breakdowns after recording with him. So, he was loth to join up with Ross. He also blotted his copybook by smoking marijuana in the studio (as was his wont) as the then pregnant Ross showed up. Arguments and tension ensued. Then there was the problem of the billing - whose name would be mentioned first. Ross got the nod.
It was surprising, therefore, that the album turned out to be a very successful and polished sounding affair. Some of the material was recorded with the artists in separate studios but you would never have known. The album has a high quality sound throughout - nice and warm with a fine seventies stereo separation and a deep bass sound.
The big hit You Are Everything is very well-known and the two singers combine superbly, as they also do on the lively, semi-funky Love Twins, declaring their love for each other (they weren't a couple). Don't Knock My Love has the pair going funky, impressively. Apparently Ross hated the song and didn't want to record it. It is one of the best cuts on the album for me and she would be singing many tracks like this in three years time and beyond. She no doubt was happier, though, in 1973, with You're A Special Part Of Me, which is a typical Ross big ballad, with Gaye's vocals sounding a bit superficial. He takes the lead, however, on the syrupy ballad Pledging My Love.
Just Say, Just Say is a nice, uplifting, soulful Ashford & Simpson song and Thom Bell and Linda Creed's Stop, Look, Listen To Your Heart was an appealing big hit. I'm Falling In Love With You is pretty unremarkable, but My Mistake (Was To Love You) was a fine, Gaye-led very Motown, upbeat and soulful number. It is another of the best songs on the album. Include Me In Your Life is another slow-paced, gentle ballad typical of the album. It was certainly an album with none of the social comment that Gaye was heavily involved in on his material at the time (even Ross got in on the act with Brown Baby). This was full-on, unthreatening romance all the way. The last word maybe should go to Gaye, who said "it's hard for me to deal with prima donnas..".
At the end of 1973, Ross, having given birth to a daughter, returned for another solo album:-
Last Time I Saw Him (1973)
Last Time I Saw Him/No-One's Gonna Be A Fool Forever/Love Me/Sleepin'/You/Turn Around/When Will I Come Home To You/I Heard A Love Song (But You Never Made A Sound)/Stone Liberty/Behind Closed Doors
Last Time I Saw Him was a bit of a musical departure, being a bit of a lively ragtime, jazzy piece of vaudeville fun. It was only a minor hit single. No-One's Gonna Be A Fool Forever is a very typical Ross number, with a big, string-backed chorus and some Bacharach/David-style brass backing. This was instantly recognisable as Diana Ross, the early seventies were full of this sort of thing from her. Her stock was falling a bit, though, from doing no wrong in the previous three years of her solo career. Love Me was also a single, and a nice, sensual one but the days of automatic bits hits seemed to be suddenly in the past. Ross would always have a big hit in her, as subsequent years would prove, but it was not a given anymore. Sleepin' is an impressive late-night ballad, with some nice bass and that oh-so-seventies brass sound once more. The lyrics contain a rather mysterious story about a character, Johnny, that they never quite reveal fully.
You is an Aretha Franklin-esque gospelly number. Ross is no Aretha, though, and her voice can't quite match the power that the song requires. The spoken vocal part is unnecessary, too. Turn Around, a Harry Belafonte song, is moving and emotive. This song, in comparison to the previous one, is Ross at her best. When Will I Come Home To You is a catchy, pleasant ABBA-esque love song with a light funk guitar backing on the chorus. Once again, this is where Ross shines.
The last three tracks are all good ones - I Heard A Love Song (But You Never Made A Sound) is an upbeat, slightly rock-ish, brass-driven number with the album's most pounding beat. It has a bit of a sixties Motown feel to it in places. Stone Liberty is a soulful number with a bit of a message to it - female empowerment, and also functioning as simply a song of freedom. It is an unusually hard-hitting song for Ross, lyrically and musically. Charlie Rich's hit country song, Behind Closed Doors, is given a soulful makeover that works well. It would be two and a quarter years before Diana Ross would release another solo (not soundtrack) album.
Diana Ross (1976)
Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To)/I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love)/Love Hangover/Kiss Me Now/You're Good My Child/One Love In My Lifetime/Ain't Nothin' But A Maybe/After You/Smile
By the time early 1976 had arrived, sweet soul had, to a certain extent, been taken over by the pounding rhythms of disco and Diana Ross got in on the trend early. She would, for subsequent years, be associated as much with classy disco as for her sweeping, polished ballads. The interesting thing about this album is that all the tracks (apart from Smile) have extended, chunkier, bassier alternative versions on the latest release of the album, which I much prefer.
This imaginatively (not) titled album (it was her second eponymous album, would you believe, after 1970's debut) contained two huge hits in the beguilingly beautiful Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To) and the now iconic disco groove of Love Hangover. These were classic examples of the big hits that Ross still had in her armoury. The latter is included in its full seven minute-plus glory. It sort of set the foundations for many disco/soul grooves in the same period and beyond. The way it builds up through a few minutes of slow-burning smooth soul before it breaks out at 2.45 into that instantly recognisable disco riff is one of the song's main strengths. It powers along on the one main riff, like Chic's disco material did. This would be the sound of disco from 1976-1979.
I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love) continues in the same easy, smooth ballad style as the opener, with some laid-back verses and a catchy chorus. Kiss Me Now, however, resists the vaudeville, camp, stagey feel of Last Time I Saw Him (the song) from two years earlier.
After You is a solid, appealing slow number, while Smile is a pleasant enough cover of the 1936 easy listening standard.
For me, this was a fine, varied album of quality soul with some disco diversions that was Diana Ross’s finest solo album thus far. I would always choose the "alternative" version of the album, though, every time. It is grittier, more "street/soul" and less "pop".