When it comes to diva extraordinaire Diana Ross, I guess you could say I’m a closet fan. I hate on her on the regular because of how she treated her fellow Supremes back in the day on her road to superstardom, but one thing I can’t do is deny that she is a true talent. After all, when it comes to the black diva, she really is the blueprint. A consummate singer, live performer and actress, she is the prototype that Janet Jackson and Beyonce have followed throughout their careers. In all her doe-eyed, Motown charm school-honed brassiness, she changed the way black women in this country were viewed, and you can’t take that from her.
As a singer, her greatest strength was always her singles. Classic hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Remember Me,” “Love Hangover,” and “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” are defining moments for not only black music, but pop music in general, testaments to Ross’ undeniable charm and appeal. Her albums, however, tended to be a different story. Save for the wonderful early ‘70s trilogy that was “Diana Ross,” “Everything is Everything” and “Surrender” and 1979’s “The Boss,” many of Ross’ ’70s albums were nothing more than hodgepodges of tracks thrown together rather than unified, conceptual works, a phenomenon that arose out of her all-around entertainer approach. The worst offenders were “Diana Ross” and “Ross,” released in 1976 and 1978 respectively, as they come off as little more than addendums to her then-budding film career. (It’s obvious she loves issuing eponymous albums, too.) However, nestled in between those releases was 1977’s “Baby It’s Me,” a fine album of sublime MOR soul produced by Richard Perry. It wasn’t a blockbuster, but it’s one of the best albums in Ross’ lexicon.
Perry’s one of those producers who critics complain is a bigger draw than many of the artists he twists knobs for, but I like his work. His productions for The Pointer Sisters (“Fire”), Carly Simon (“You’re So Vain”), Art Garfunkel (“I Only Have Eyes For You”) and DeBarge (“Rhythm of the Night”) are among my favorites, songs that show material can marry a producer’s stamp to an artist’s approach and keep everyone’s identity in place. Critics are right in that it’s inoffensive, pristine West Coast pop – but it’s some of the best pop of the rock era and really nothing to pitch a bitch about. All of the notable L.A. session players are here: Raydio founder Ray Parker Jr., Michael Omartian, Lee Ritenour and Toto members David Paich and Jeff Porcaro all bring the professional sheen tied to their names to the table. And considering you don’t get any more pristine than the sweet-singing Ross, it made perfect sense to put Perry at the helm of the project.
By now, Ross had really sharpened her chops via jazz standards on the soundtrack to “Lady Sings the Blues” and the recently unearthed “Blue,” and Perry made the most of the singer’s growth and development. The album’s only substantial hit, the jazzy “Gettin’ Ready for Love” finds the singer in a Nancy Wilson-esque groove, pushing through the song’s bouncy lyrics with as much punch as the strings enveloping her voice. Though it only climbed to No. 16 R&B/No. 27 pop, it’s really one of her best late ‘70s singles and deserves a bit more shine. “All Night Lover,” “You Got It” (No. 39 R&B/No. 49 pop), “Top of the World” and her take on Bill Withers’ “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” follow a similar mold, leaving light, classy arrangements as the background to the foreground that was Ross’ ever-elegant, ageless delivery. To me, it’s in mid-tempo numbers that the true essence of her voice often comes out, as the extremes that mar a lot of her output simply don’t do her instrument justice. The schmaltz of a lot of the ballad material she waxed wasn’t a good look, and neither was the foot-stomping, faceless disco that emerged from various sessions in the late ‘70s. The album’s only misfire, the overwrought “Your Love is So Good for Me,” falls into the latter category, because it was a stab at capturing the disco fever that lifted the mercury of “Love Hangover” to the top of the charts. It did gain some traction with dance and R&B crowds, climbing all the way to No. 15 on the club play singles chart (co-listed with “Top of the World”) and No. 16 R&B, but it stalled at No. 49 pop. Still, you’ll find yourself grooving to it and singing the catchy hook.
The album’s highlights are the ballads, songs that, while fan favorites, remain some of Ross’ most underrated performances. Perry seemed determined to create slow jams worthy of Ross and succeeds by turning to the cover, a medium Ross mastered during her days as a Supreme. She turns in a tender, effective interpretation of the Carole Bayer Sager/Melissa Manchester composition “Come in From the Rain,” a selection that not only appeared on Manchester’s 1976 album “Better Days & Happy Endings” but also became a hit for The Captain and Tennille. Such superlative art also emerges on her reading of Stevie Wonder’s “Too Shy to Say,” which in my opinion is one of the best versions of the song ever recorded. Originally included on Wonder’s classic “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” LP, the song finds a feminine sense of want and longing with Ross that the original just could never capture. She doesn’t top Stevie, but she holds her own.
The tune that makes the album’s price of admission worth it is “Confide in Me,” another song from the pen of Melissa Manchester (along with Stanley Schwartz). Like a lot of songs I heard growing up, this was one that I had to get older to appreciate. My father’s youngest brother gave me the “Baby It’s Me” album when I first started collecting records as a pre-teen, and this cut simply fell off of my radar. Then about three years ago I rediscovered it on a compilation I have called “Soulful Divas: Softly with a Song” and it hit me like a ton of bricks. As I mentioned above, Ross isn’t always known for subtlety, which is why this grabbed me by the heartstrings. Sparse and romantic, it’s one of those songs that you just have to marvel at because it really captures the feeling of surrender that the newness of love can bring. I’ll go out on a limb and say that if beauty had a musical backdrop to call its own, this would certainly be part of it. Ross caresses the Fender Rhodes of Tom Snow and Schwartz’s acoustic piano with the ease and grace she’s known for, and in just over three minutes it becomes quite clear why she’s a star: It’s all in the voice.
The voice. I guess that’s why I’ve always been partial to this album. Some say it’s not soulful, others say it’s unremarkable. Maybe they are right on some level, but what I love about it is that you get a feel for Ross sans the hits they run into the ground on most adult contemporary stations and the production gimmicks and approaches that would often wash out her voice in the years that followed. Here, she’s just singing the way she does best, seemingly enjoying the material all the while.
Though various selections from the album have surfaced on hits compilations and packages – extended versions of “Top of the World” and “Your Love is So Good for Me” appear on the 2003 deluxe edition of the “diana” album – “Baby It’s Me” has been out of circulation on CD for a number of years. As one would expect, the few copies that are around go for hundreds of dollars on auction sites like eBay, which just shows not only the ferocity behind the loyalty of Ross’ fans but the lingering interest in this long lost classic.
Hopefully, the masses will get to experience the softer side of diva Diana in the future.
To read about Diana’s 1987 LP “Red Hot Rhythm and Blues,” jet over to my buddy Q’s site, The QH Blend.