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The Divas and the Bee Gees

In the 1970s, the Bee Gees could do no wrong. Alongside Donna Summer, the band dominated the pop charts with a string of hit single (24 of their singles hit the US top 20 and 26 hit the UK top 20) and multi-platinum albums, most notably the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.

With the disco backlash, came an unfair revisionist assessment of the Bee Gees that lumped them with trashy disco artifacts like Disco Duck, Ethel Merman’s disco album, and the Brady Bunch variety show. That’s unfortunate because the Brothers Gibb – Barry, Robin, Maurice – were among the craftiest and most professional songwriters in pop music history. Don’t believe me? Just listen to the pillowy ballad “How Deep Is Your Love” and tell me you didn’t swoon.

But starting in the 1980s, the Bee Gees started to experience a decline in their commercial fortunes. But the Gibbs were ace songwriters so they were never in any danger of fading away. Even though pop radio lost interest in their music, they turned to producing other artists, and enjoyed a healthy second career in the 1980s as go-to songwriters. One of their biggest and most recognizable hits of the 80s was the classic Dolly Parton/Kenny Rogers duet “Islands in the Stream” (which appeared on Rogers’ 1983 Gibbs-written album Eyes That See in the Dark). 

The Brothers Gibb also found themselves working with three pop divas, revitalizing their careers and bringing them back to the top of the pop charts. Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick were the most successful female acts of the 1960s and for a large part of the 1970s. But by 1980, they started to feel a similar dip in their sales as the Bee Gees did. The trio of legends felt a jolt in their careers with their Gibbs-helmed records: Streisand’s Guilty, Ross’ Eaten Alive, and Warwick’s Heartbreaker.

GuiltyStreisand’s Guilty (1980) was the most successful of the three albums and one of the most successful albums in Streisand’s career (it went on to sell over 6 million copies). It went to number on the album charts in the US and the UK, and it spawned a string of hit singles, three of which found their way into the top 10. By 1980, Streisand had cemented herself as a crossover superstar, winning Oscars for her movie work and a bunch of Grammys. During the 1970s, she shifted away from her supperclub pop of the 60s, and became a soft-rock/adult contemporary star. Hooking up with gooey songwriters like Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Marvin Hamlish, and Michel Legrand, Streisand was the proto-Celine Dion, releasing albums of fillers larded with hit singles. Like a lot of mainstream pop singers, Streisand joined the disco craze and found success with some dance songs, including the monster duet “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” with Donna Summer.

But by 1980, Streisand, though still massively popular, looked like she was in a rut. Enter Barry Gibb – that hairy-chested Adonis of pop who completed Streisand’s Malibu by way of Brooklyn transformation. Guilty is easily one of the most sublime and listenable pop albums of the last 40 years. Gibbs joined their longtime collaborators Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson to produce a light and frothy record that works as a breezy soundtrack to a casual jaunt down Rodeo Drive.

Guilty sounds like high-quality leftovers from Saturday Night Fever. The Gibb trademarks are all there: the shuffled percussion, the frothy synths, the simple chord transitions, airtight backup harmonies. Streisand does a great job in easing up on her famous histrionics, too. The danger of pairing a powerhouse like Streisand with a seeming lightweight like the Gibbs is that she has the potential to overwhelm the music and production (the audio version of a bull in a china shop). But Streisand’s heavy, gigantic belt is kept in check, as she ably reigns in her near-operatic voice, sounding like a credible fourth Bee Gee.

As a duet partner, Barry Gibb proves to be a capable counterpoint to Streisand. Their voices blend perfectly and seamlessly, as if they were blended in a recording studio Kitchen Aid Blender. Streisand never goes full disco, though “Promises” with its galloping gait comes very close as does the plastic faux funk of “Never Give Up,” that fails to be convincing but is an admirable failure.

No, people listen to Streisand to luxuriate in that brassy voice, and she sounds best on ballads. Good thing the Gibbs are great at building solid slow dance songs. They’re corny, sappy, but impeccably crafted. And Guilty would be one of the few times in her career when Streisand doesn’t sound totally lost jumping on current pop trends.

HeartbreakerEven though the Bee Gees were known for their funky music, let’s be honest, they were squares, which is why it makes sense that they were a match made in heaven for Streisand as well as Dionne Warwick, a singer of uncommon talent and tonality, but one that not necessarily the most soulful on the radio (despite being tangentially linked to soul greats like Aretha Franklin, Cissy Houston, and Whitney Houston). Warwick’s early 1980s career was a strange animal. One of the leading hit makers of the 1960s, her 70s output slowed down, but then she hooked up with Clive Davis and Arista, and suddenly, she seemed somewhat relevant to pop radio again.

Like Streisand, Warwick found that hooking up with the Bee Gees would prove to be a commercial crafty thing to do as 1982’s Heartbreaker sold over 3 million copies. Its title track was one of Warwick’s biggest hit. Like Streisand, Warwick feels more at home in slower numbers, and so Heartbreaker is filled with romantic ballads. Unlike GuiltyHeartbreaker doesn’t feel quite as ambitious or well made. Nothing is wrong with the album per se, and the title song is infectious, but the album as a whole feels like a collection of songs that Streisand rejected for Guilty.

But like Streisand, Warwick’s voice is a perfect compliment for the slightly gauche production of the Brothers Gibb. She has a loud, husky voice that sounds at once affected and distant. Her phrasing is distinct and precise and there’s a chasteness in the way that she sings her love ballads. In the 1960s, she was paired with her musical kindred spirit Burt Bacharach, and he was the only musician who could make her dry delivery sound impassioned and urgent (“Don’t Make Me Over” is a gorgeous plea that Warwick sells beautifully). The Gibbs aren’t as successful and the result is that Warwick’s arch delivery sounds drained and mechanical. The whole affair feels drab and rote and the result is a parody of Adult Contemporary conventions (the songs – including a slick version of “Our Day Will Come) sound like something that would be played during the slow dance at cruise ship.

Eaten Alive (Expanded Edition)

Diana Ross is the only singer of the three had has the chops to do dance music. In fact some of her best solo work as been for the clubs. Like Streisand and Warwick, Ross also saw her audience shift as musical trends moved around. By 1985, when her Gibbs-produced LP Eaten Alive was relieved, Ross was in commercial limbo. She left Motown for RCA and her seemed to become merely an extension of her celebrity. She sold well, initially, but Eaten Alive came at a time when Ross was struggling to keep up with young pop divas like Madonna or Jody Watley. And unlike Streisand and Warwick, Ross always dove headfirst into pop trends, chasing them for pop success (she was rewarded for her foray into post-disco dance with the Chic-produced diana which sold four million copies and spit out a string of top 10 dance hits including the classics “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down”)

Eaten Alive is the least successful of the three albums covered, both artistically and commercially. By 1985, it seems as if the Bee Gees had given their best work to other artists and struggled to find something good for Ross. The title track is interesting because it not only features work by the Bee Gees, but superstar Michael Jackson. His fingerprints are all over the angular dance track; in fact, his tight-fisted, clipped sound crowds  out the Bee Gees pretend-soul  (Jackson’s soulful growl ends up stealing the show at the song’s end, despite Barry Gibb’s caterwauling). The other dance number “Crimes of Passion” works a little better, but that’s because Ross’ impassioned performance makes the slight song seem better than it really is.

The ballads aren’t any better. Often the production overwhelms and buries Ross’ pretty croon, and she can sometimes sound muffled. This is never more true than in “Experience” a by-the-numbers love song with Ross sounding lost in the song’s mix (there’s a crazy echo that acts like a reverb, rending her nearly incomprehensible).

But there is one unequivocal triumph: “Chain Reaction,” a cracking number in which the Bee Gees do a beautiful job aping Holland-Dozier-Holland, and give Ross a stomping Motownesque number that sounds like a top shelf song she would’ve recording with the Supremes. The production is grand and dramatic, and Ross is engaged and fantastic. It’s nostalgia at its best, and its brilliance overshadows the rest of the songs on Eaten Alive (and is easily Ross’ best single post from the mid 1980s) and is the best and most innovative song from the trio of albums reviewed. It also went to number 1 on the UK charts.

As they continued with their own recording career, the Bee Gees continued writing and producing for other artists, but Diana Ross’ Eaten Alive was the last time that the band devoted its combined talents to update an iconic pop diva’s sound and career. Streisand, Warwick, and Ross moved on from their brief Bee Gee sojourns with varying success. Streisand, followed up Guilty was a long list of platinum albums and reunited with Barry Gibb on the sequel Guilty Pleasures (2005). Warwick’s career continued to coast with periodic blips of huge career success, peaking with 1985’s “That’s What Friends Are For” a treacly ballad she recorded with Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder, which was a gigantic hit (the proceeds went to AIDS research). Ross had arguably the most fitful and frustrating career of the three. After the relative failure of Eaten Alive, she bounced back with the gold-selling Swept Away, which featured her last US top 10 hit “Missing You.” She then failed to ever regain her commercial fortunes in the US (though in the UK and Japan she was still a reliable hit maker scoring top 10 hits all the way into the 200os).

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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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