The Music Legacy Of Diana
noticed that several key music stars and artists have been lost in the shuffle
of everything from bad music to a record industry in flux, so we will take key
artists and not only notice them, but talk about them and explain why we think
they are significant. This will include
ten songs to back up why. Our first
subject is Diana Ross.
one of the founders and members of a four-member “girl group” who called
themselves The Primettes, a name that was a take-off of an all-male group at
the newly formed Motown Records called The Primes, who would eventually rename
themselves The Temptations. They were
actually a band as early as 1959, but under the older name and still in High
School. It took cutting eleven songs and
a name change before the group became a trio named The Supremes in 1961, but
they were formed and cut their first record at Motown 50 years ago this year.
Ross was not the original lead singer, as her voice was not considered as
richly soulful or “black” as other members like Florence Ballard, they signed
with Motown, Ross was tried out as lead singer and the result would include 12
#1 Pop hits on the U.S. Pop Chart alone.
They would become the biggest “girl group” of all time (even to this
day, after challenges by the likes of TLC, SWV, The Go-Gos and Destiny’s Child)
far exceeding that music cycle. The band
would go on to record hits until 1976, long after Ross left with an early
concert in 1970.
As a solo
singer, she also had many hits, outlasting the hit streaks of Dionne Warwick
and Aretha Franklin (both who made huge comebacks) becoming the premiere
African American female vocalist, even with the arrival of the groundbreaking Roberta
Flack and in general from rising successes elsewhere like Barbra Streisand,
Olivia Newton-John, Cher, Carole King, Helen Reddy, Kiki Dee, Linda Ronstadt,
Minnie Ripperton, Dolly Parton, Carly Simon, Tammy Wynette, Shirley Bassey and
newfound success for Gladys Knight & The Pips. She was also one of the most imitated
performers in the business until the late 1970s, when Disco and Donna Summer
arrived, but Ross was ahead of the game there too with one of the genre’s first
big hits: Love Hangover.
Disco was winding down, Ross found a further resurgence and in a change that
shocked the industry, she left Motown (where she could have likely stayed
forever and continued to get top rate treatment) and signed with rival RCA
Records for what was an industry record of a contract: $20 Million for five
albums. Until the label signed Kenny
Rogers a few years later for even more money, the deal was the envy of the
industry and led top more hits until Michael Jackson’s success eclipsed hers.
after her last Top 40 Pop hit Missing You,
her tribute to Marvin Gaye written by Lionel Richie (in what might be the best
composition he ever penned), she still had big hits overseas and on other
charts. Her records continue to sell
worldwide to this day and she continues to be one of the best selling female
vocalists ever even after the huge successes of Madonna, Janet Jackson, Whitney
Houston, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.
written her music work off as fluff and more about feel-good songs than
anything of substance, while personal attacks on her outside of the studio have
relegated her to Gay Icon status like any other outspoken woman in the business
who is considered too subversive for her (and supposedly our own good), yet
every new female wanna be singer (especially as Soul forms have become a more permanent
part of the Pop scene) cannot try to be anything like that success without
trying (knowingly or not) to be like Ross.
The Guinness Book Of World Records even lists her as the most successful
female music star of all time.
proof is in the recordings. Ross was so
successful for so many years, that every single writer, singer and producer in
the industry wanted to work with her and some of the biggest names of all time
did, including in her RCA years where the label went all out to back some
albums with serious talent that would be often unthinkable today (due to costs,
rights, industry changes, etc.) so here are the ten songs that most endure and
most define the Ross Legacy…
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (long version only) – Ross took
the brilliant Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell classic and turned it into an epic tour
de force in 1970 that showed she had arrived on her own and was ready for
anything. Nick Ashford and Valerie
Simpson, who wrote the song, produced this remake.
The Boss – Ashford and Simpson returned to
deliver the title song to her 1979 album which was Motown’s ambitious attempt
to give her a big Disco-era hit, but did not become the megahit that was hoped
for, but the song is one of her all-time classics and set up the “feel-good”
Ross that powered her huge commercial success that was on the horizon. Coy lyrics, great singing and Ross
personified makes this one of the greatest records she ever cut. The album also offers underrated songs like No One Gets The Prize and I Ain’t Been Licked.
Love Child – Though The Supremes had
outlasted the “girl group” movement to become its biggest success, this 1968
hit was highly controversial in its time and led to censorship battles as Ross
sang about illegitimate birth in frank terms unheard of before. The most realistic and daring song they ever
cut remarkably became their biggest hit song of all and is as relevant to day
as ever. Yes, they cut other great
records, but nothing like this before or after.
Love Hangover – As noted, Ross cut this huge #1
crossover hit in 1976 and the result was one of the first big female vocal hits
of what became the Disco Era. Like many
of the Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder hits that followed, the song started as a
soft, slow, standard composition, than broke out into something much more.
Muscles – Ross absolutely freaked out the
public at large very unexpectedly by cutting this 1982 hit about a woman who
loved built men. Though campy now, it
was shocking to hear a more mature woman sing openly and sexually (the AIDS
crisis was only just on the rise) this way and even more shocking it was
written and produced by Michael Jackson.
No female vocalist has dared to remake it since.
My Mistake (Was To Love You) – Ross did duets occasionally
including the megahit Endless Love
with Lionel Richie top the (as Bette Midler put it) “endless movie Endless Love”, but even more than the album
of Supremes/Temptations duets, her 1973 duet album with Marvin Gaye (Diana & Marvin) was the richest,
darkest and most ironic of them all with My
Mistake being the biggest hit that proved Ross could hold her own with Gaye
as much as any vocalist at the label and she would be his last duet partner
there or anywhere.
Remember Me – This 1970 song by Ashford and
Simpson was not only a hit for her across the board and the follow-up to Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, but
established the sound, style and feel of all Ross hits until Love Hangover and is one of the most
imitated songs of that period.
Swept Away – The title song from her last commercially
big album in 1984 (which also offered Missing
You, a Forever Young remake and All Of You duet with Julio Iglesias) was
written and produced by Daryl Hall and remains one of her strongest songs, a
huge #1 Dance Chart hit for her and showed the best possible direction for her
to follow, but her fan base was so diverse that her varied efforts on the same
album eventually backfired.
Telephone – Of all the Ross solo songs not becoming
a Pop hit that turned into a key Soul hit, this enduring 1984 track by the
late, great Bernard Edwards of Chic (also from the Swept Away album) was only promoted to R&B radio stations when
you had songs that we considered “too black” for mainstream radio. Decades later, we see how ahead of its time
it was. Edwards and Nile Rodgers
co-produced what remains her biggest-selling album ever, the 1980 Diana album with hits like Upside Down, I’m Coming Out and My Old
Piano. However, we now know the
label took the album away form them and remixed it to sound more Pop and Rock. You can read about both versions at this
10) Theme From
Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To?) – The 1976 film may have become a camp classic (reviewed
elsewhere on this site) with its share of controversies too numerous to go into
here, but this classic song was as great as any movie theme song at the time
and showed a new side of Ross with a maturity and sophistication that kept her
up to date and at the top. It also led
to the title song form the motion picture It’s
My Turn with Michael Douglas and one of the greatest movie theme clichés
since the 1980s, the self-congratulatory feel-good movie theme that has been
done to death so many times, most people writing them have no idea where they
also have hits overseas (like I’m Still
Waiting, a #1 U.K. hit that missed the Top 40 here) and on other charts
(the Barry Gibb produced Chain Reaction
missed the Top 40 twice in the U.S., but was #1 on many worldwide charts) as
well cut records with a near cult status (Dirty
Looks) and later tired more remakes that did not quite fit. But if all else fails to impress you, think
of her 1983 Central Park Concert, one of the greatest triumphs of her
career. Few artists ever could have taken
that on, faced what she had to face and triumph over its unreal circumstances.
why Ross is a legend beyond diva status that resists political marginalization,
an American treasure, innovator and giant performer in the music industry. That is why her first half-century is worth
celebrating and remembering because she too was a key part of the
counterculture that made the arts possible to this day no matter what anyone
- Nicholas Sheffo