Artist in spotlight: Diana Ross

Nobel Peace Prize Concert 2008 Diana Ross1 cropped

Photo: Harry Wad

Of all the pop and soul legends, Diana Ross must be the most frustrating: a fantastic vocalist and dynamic performer, she’s also been very reckless with her recording career, often releasing songs and albums that are sub par and beneath her. And as with practically every artist who recorded for Motown in the 1960s and 1970s, Ross had very little control over her career and was seen as a hitmaking machine, and she was tasked to record a voluminous amount of music, so there’s a lot of wheat to separate from the chaff.

But it’s worth combing through her prolific resume because as a member of the Supremes and as a solo artist, Diana Ross was responsible for some of the most beautiful, inspirational and enjoyable sounds in pop music. She has a beautiful voice – a light, airy soprano coo.

In the 1970s, Ross’ biggest and best hits – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Touch Me in the Morning,” “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” were some of the brightest moments in pop music. As the 70s continued, Ross developed into a large-scale superstar, dipping into film and television to augment her music career. It was also at this time that she slowly started to move away from being a recording artist and becoming a celebrity.

In the 80s, she left Motown after years of massive success, and signed with RCA and let her recording career descend into eccentric mediocrity. As Ross’ career aged, she started to look at pop trends to maintain her success – she had some big hits still: she teamed up with her protegé Michael Jackson for the bizarre and kinky “Muscles”; she also had a huge hit covering Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers’ “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” and after Marvin Gaye’s murder, Ross scored her last US top ten hit with the elegiac Lionel Richie-penned tribute, “Missing You.”

By the 90s, Diana Ross was no longer a major hitmaker, but still a huge celebrity, and considered a legend. She still put out music, slowing her pace to releasing an LP every three, four years.

Even though Diana Ross’ discography is pretty extensive – she’s released over 20 studio albums – few of her studio efforts are worth investigating. There are also scores of compilations, so there are lots of CDs to comb through to find the best one.

Aside from being a singer, Ross had some limited success as an actress, scoring an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of jazz legend Billie Holliday in Lady Sings the Blues.

As said earlier, Ross’ career can be very frustrating. She could’ve been regarded with the same honor that contemporaries like Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, or Barbra Streisand have – but she’s slid into a camp artifact.

Product DetailsDiana Ross (1970) – Ross’ solo debut is among her most consistent efforts. This album came right after she left the Supremes, and before she became a huge superstar. Her singing is still unaffected by her diva mannerisms and pretensions. The songs are great Ashford-Simpson compositions – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is a wonderful epic with a thundering gospel chorus and a dramatic spoken word reading by Ross; there’s also a vaguely topical tune, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” a waltz that has since become the singer’s anthem. She also does a beautiful, languid cover of the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell hit “You’re All I Need to Get By.” There’s filler, but it’s all wonderfully produced and performed. As a great bonus, the expanded edition has Ross’ covers of two Laura Nyro compositions: “Time and Love” and “Stoney End” – an interesting look at the kind of range Ross possesses.

Product DetailsLady Sings the Blues (1972) – Ross scored an Oscar nomination for her superb performance as Billie Holliday, and got her sole U.S. number 1 album with the soundtrack. Ross succeeds because she isn’t trying to ape or mimic Holliday; instead, she takes on some of Holliday’s distinct diction and tone, even if she lacks the jazz great’s gravitas or timber. She pulls off an incredible feat being able to transcend her pop milieu and perform these wonderful classic songs with conviction. “Good Morning Heartache” is wonderful with lush support by Gil Askey and a top-notch orchestra. “God Bless the Child” has been covered over and over again, but Ross’ turn is very good. And if she lacks the vocal weight to carry off “Strange Fruit,”  she still does herself very proud with this collection of jazz standards.

Product DetailsDiana & Marvin (1973) – Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross were two of the biggest stars on Motown, as well as the two most distinct and engaging vocalists in soul music. While they respected each other’s gargantuan talents, they reportedly did not get along well in the studio. None of the rancor translates to vinyl, though – instead we get a sublime collection of dewy love songs. Ross and Gaye don’t have the explosive chemistry that he shared with Tammi Terrell, but their voices match well. Their cover of the Stylistics “You Are Everything” rivals the original, and “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)” is a nimble little number that has the two marquee stars trade verses.

Product DetailsThe Boss (1979) – Diana Ross’ first excursion to disco was the brilliant “Love Hangover,” and this LP has Ross singing some more dance tunes, including the excellent title tune which includes some of her most unrestrained, soulful singing in a while. As with her debut album, Ross finds musical kindred spirits with the songwriting team of Ashford-Simpson, who like Holland-Dozier-Holland, has been responsible for some of Ross’ greatest songs. Not all the songs are dance numbers, the ballads are just as well-done – “It’s My House” is especially fun with a light funky beat.

Product Detailsdiana (1980) – If you buy only one of Ross’ studio LPs, it should be this one. Disco band Chic produced this record which is probably one of the greatest post-disco dance albums, ranking up there with the greatest works of Chic, Donna Summer, Madonna, and Sylvester. This is a lean, tight, dance album with signature Chic sounds – stuttering strings, funky plucked bass strings, and ebullient horns. This is basically a Chic album, only fronted by Ross – which is great because it’s a great duet of two major talents. “I’m Coming Out” which would be appropriated as a gay rights anthem is a classic – sampled endlessly; “Upside Down” moves at a clipped beat with a tight-fisted guitar rift. This is a brilliant record – Ross’ only genre-busting studio album.

Product DetailsLove & Life: The Very Best of Diana Ross (2001) – There are tons of greatest hits collection out there, but I find this one the best because it combines hits from her work with the Supremes in the 60s, her solo work in the 70s, her spottier work in the 80s, and her comeback attempts in the 90s. This UK collection is split in two: uptempo numbers on the first disc and love ballads on the second.  A great bonus of this collection is the batch of dance mixes that show Ross could have a second career, if she chooses, as a house diva.

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