Tuesday 2 March 2021

Diana ROSS: One Woman: The Ultimate Collection


(#492: 1 January 1994, 1 week; 22 January 1994, 1 week)


Track listing: Where Did Our Love Go*/Baby Love*/You Can’t Hurry Love*/Reflections**/Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)/Ain’t No Mountain High Enough/Touch Me In The Morning/Love Hangover/I’m Still Waiting/Upside Down/Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)/Endless Love***/Why Do Fools Fall In Love/Chain Reaction/When You Tell Me That You Love Me/One Shining Moment/If We Hold On Together/The Best Years Of My Life/Your Love/Let’s Make Every Moment Count


(* The Supremes

** Diana Ross and The Supremes

*** Duet with Lionel Richie)


“And yet she hadn't the air of a woman whose life had been touched by uncertainty or suffering. Pain, fear, and grief were things that left their mark on people. Even love, that exquisite torturing emotion, left its subtle traces on the countenance.”

- Nella Larsen, Passing, New York City: Knopf, 1929



- Diana Ross, from liner note to One Woman


She was not quite born Diana Ross – strictly speaking, she was christened Diane Earnestine Earle Ross, and the “Diana” was the result of a clerical error – and I am not sure what she wanted to be, other than a long way from where she had begun (although she appears to have had a relatively comfortable upbringing; her father, Fred Ross, Sr., worked as a successful middle manager for the American Brass Company).


Nevertheless, she had ambition; everyone with whom she came into contact recognised that, and Berry Gordy Jr. (or “BG” as the singer coyly refers to him in this album’s acknowledgements section) in particular thought that he could do something with it. I am uncertain whether many people at Motown actually liked her; reports of aggressive and competitive behaviour on her part were common, but all involved appear to have admitted that she worked very hard and determinedly, that she possessed those vital chimeras “class” and “style” and that she deserved what came her way – however you might wish to interpret that.


It would also appear that One Woman was a very hands-on exercise for Ross; she is credited as the album’s executive producer and compilation manager. This was how she wished us to perceive her; the Albert Watson photoshoot indicated to her core demographic that, hey, she was approaching fifty and was still sexy, still had “it.”


There was a contemporaneous four-CD box set, Forever Diana: Musical Memoirs, which purported to tell the whole story, but didn’t – while the limitations of a single CD may excuse the inclusion of only the single edits of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Love Hangover,” their duplication on the box is inexcusable.


One Woman attempts to tell what is actually a heavily-imbalanced tale. The Supremes material is consigned to four brief snippets at the album’s beginning, as though a juvenile embarrassment had been briskly and brusquely swept beneath the carpet. Given that Supremes compilations have topped our chart on two separate occasions, this is not a huge loss. However, the Supremes were three women – and the other two sound here as though they have been relegated to the very back of the mix. Certainly, the recently-deceased Mary Wilson painted Ross in a very unfavourable light in her 1986 memoir Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, and the latter’s (edited out) behaviour at the Motown 25 television special, abruptly snatching the microphone away from Wilson to terminate a Supremes reunion medley, appeared to confirm this.


Even in this severely limited context, it is difficult to find common focus with those Motown purists who consider that the Supremes were sugary pap and that it should have been the Vandellas or the Marvelettes. They were actually the exact counterpart that the Beatles (in America) virtually demanded, and moreover were the more glamorous half of the extended Holland-Dozier-Holland pop experiment (the rougher half being the Four Tops). Although H-D-H were generally careful not to meddle too much with the basic Supremes formula, they discovered and explored a wide field of variations. Note how in none of the four Supremes songs represented here is Diana ever happy or fulfilled, and proceed, if you can find it, to the superb 2001 double-CD reboot of their Anthology, which remains beyond question the definitive Supremes collection.


Also, the Supremes were about joy, and novelty, and much of that was lost, possibly intentionally, in the solo Diana. She became a pop-soul Mother Teresa, and that is not meant to be a denigration – the full six-minute and nineteen-second LP version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is one of the purest expressions of selfless compassion in the whole of pop; Diana, reaching out to Marvin (whom she might really have loved all along – listen to her intense 1985 tribute “Swept Away” then attempt to convince yourself that she didn’t), who in turn had just lost Tammi – Ashford and Simpson turned back to the ecstatic joy of the song as Marvin and Tammi had sung it and converted it into a requiem of hope. Ross’ scream at 4:28 is possibly more chilling (because far more brief, and looking outwards rather than inwards) than that of Lennon’s in “Cold Turkey.” BG hated the spoken-word stuff; what’s wrong with “Second Hand Rose”? But then the single edit went to number one and he had, not for the first or last time, to admit that he was wrong.


By the time Ross had got to 1973 and “Touch Me In The Morning,” however, the preaching routine had curdled into self-parody. It remained unclear what BG wanted Ross to be, artistically, other than perhaps the Black Barbra. She was surprisingly (to many) convincing as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings The Blues – a tremendous (because so deft) performance in a lousy and biographically-inept film. It was anticipated that she would win that year’s Best Actress Oscar but the Bunco Booth of embedded cultural racism imbued with elderly sentimentality instead gave the latter to Liza Minnelli for Cabaret (well, they’d never given it to Judy when they’d had the chance, had they? Admittedly, the old school of Hollywood, highly suspicious of the new breed, used the 1975 ceremony to teach those Commie whippersnappers a lesson; in the Best Actor category, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and even Albert Finney all lost out to Art Carney, co-star, with a pet cat, in the seldom-viewed Harry And Tonto. But BG took the snub as an insult, which was probably its intent).


It is noticeable that Ross’ most consequential moments at Motown occurred when she let the imposed pressure slip and rediscovered her old mischief. This is why “Love Hangover” works so brilliantly – and you need the full album version to appreciate the patience of the slow build before it gently gives way to this thing called “disco.” Hal Davis, the song’s producer, asked his engineer to install a strobe light in the studio; this helped put Diana in the mood, and she skips around the song’s contours with as much glee – and perhaps more glee – than she had exhibited since childhood. At one point she even launches into a Billie Holiday impression – fuck you, practiced haters, I lived and I WON!


Equally, when she bonded with the Chic Organization to make the diana album – represented here by “Upside Down” – she audibly relaxes with that song’s deliberate lyrical archaisms and crossword-puzzle swing. But BG was reportedly unhappy with the prospect of Disco Diana, and DJ Frankie Crocker warned the singer that releasing the album in its original form would torpedo her career; she went back into the studio and redid the record, including the vocal mixes, her way.


Perhaps it all proved too much – Ross was by now in her mid-thirties, and tired of being bossed around by BG to no discernible purpose. She negotiated a new record deal with RCA (Capitol in the UK) and to BG’s horror quit Motown. Her parting gesture to the label was to duet with its saviour, Lionel Richie – and even though this won’t be the last we see of “Endless Love” in 1994 alone, it is nonetheless this collection’s central song, since it signifies, at long, long last, happiness, fulfilment and contentment. It is true that Ross was never quite happy as one half of a duo, and, as happened on the Diana & Marvin album – which is not represented at all here – she tends to sing across the other voice rather than with it. But it stands as a happy ending, and an agreeable farewell to an age in her life.


Little that she did after leaving Motown, however, was of any consequence at all. Her bland cover of “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” was the most boring hit single of November 1981. By 1986 she was reduced to performing Gibb Brothers pastiches of what we hear at the beginning of this record, complete with lyrics which, typical of its authors, do not quite make sense – but “Chain Reaction” still became her second British number one solo single. The first one we will rewind to shortly.


A 1988 movie song (“If We Hold On Together,” from the animated adventure film The Land Before Time) notwithstanding, the rest of One Woman is given over to Diana “today” (1993 marked her thirtieth year in the music business) – and I cannot get with any of it. Interminable ballads of the “Thank You For This Harrod’s Gold Watch” variety abound in an expensive empty hall leading to nothing. One has to wonder; is this what Ross wanted all along? The Watson pictures would have you believe that she was an opera singer, but her vocal range is relatively limited – although, in her best music, these limitations work with, and for, her. A Black Streisand for the nouveau bourgeoisie, or just a willing ticket to a no-person’s land where “they” will hate you anyway?


Since One Woman there have only been four formal studio albums – five if you count 1994’s Christmas-themed A Very Special Season – and no albums at all since 2006. After that, she has evidently been happy to stand back, or sit back, and retire in the comforting cloisters of approval and acclaim. Did she mean this collection to be the mark she intended to leave upon the Earth, to serve as evidence that she was once here?


But I have deliberately held back on two of the Motown songs included here, neither of which appears quite in chronological order. “I’m Still Waiting,” written by Deke Richards, appeared as a track on Ross’ second solo album, 1971’s Surrender. The British disc jockey Tony Blackburn leapt on the song and talked Tamla Motown into releasing it as a single; one month later, it was number one.


There is a sadness here which cannot quite be ascribed. On its surface it is a simple song about a childhood love which goes away, except the singer can’t go away from it. He is twice her age – ten against five – and it is therefore highly possible that the boy is simply humouring her when he talks about presumably juvenile love. But he goes away – “You gave your folks the blame,” she intones with some acridity – and she finds that she cannot function without him.


She grows up, or thinks she does, but the memory doesn’t leave her. Eventually she finds someone else, or someone else finds her, but she ensures that it leads to nothing – “I put him off with lies/He could see I had no eyes.” Isn’t that an unsettling and rather disturbing confession? And what – or whom – is she waiting for, Vladimir and Estragon-style? The grown boy to come back? The photograph of childish perfection, now irrevocably smeared by the butterknife of experience? A lament for an era when she and her people had a chance and has now elapsed beyond her reach? “I’m just a fool” she and her backing singers repeatedly insist – but who is responsible for the fooling?


Then there is the theme from Mahogany, a mess of a movie about the rise and rise of a fashion designer which had been designed to make Ross a cinematic superstar. Tony Richardson was originally set to direct, but BG dismissed him and foolishly took over the direction himself. Ross did not find the film, mostly filmed in Rome, an enjoyable experience. She was thirty and sick to the back teeth of being ordered about by BG. Why was he even doing it? Motown meant nothing in the seventies, other than an agglomeration of its most profitable components. Marvin, Stevie and Smokey were all doing their respective things, and even the Jackson 5 – I note that Michael had just turned thirteen at the time “I’m Still Waiting” topped our charts – were making noises about leaving the label. It wasn’t what it had been supposed to be in the sixties.


During one shoot, BG loudly and angrily berated Ross for assumed incompetence, in front of the whole film crew. Outraged, Ross violently slapped BG across the face, knocking his sunglasses off. She packed immediately and got the next ‘plane back home, two days before shooting on the movie was due to end.


If anybody remembers anything about Mahogany it is its theme song, composed by Michael Masser and – logically – Gerry Goffin. I have listened to this song, I would imagine, hundreds of times over the last forty-five years, and even previously underestimated it here. But it wasn’t until I listened to it yesterday afternoon, in preparation for this piece, when I became ambushed by unexpected emotion.


This song might be one of the central songs in all of Then Play Long, and certainly one of the saddest. Diana is singing to, and about, somebody who has lost it – maybe even the protagonist of “I’m Still Waiting” or the boy in that song returning, grown up and disappointing. She sings of their times in the past, wonders where it’s all got to now – there is little imagery in pop more sheerly alienating than the line “When you look behind you, there’s no open door.” It never has to shout, this song, but this couplet particularly struck me:


“Now, looking back at all we planned,

We let so many dreams just slip through our hands.”


Is this a lament for Gordy and Motown, or for a movement which allowed itself to be put out like an inconvenient fire? It was not even an original new song; Thelma Houston had previously recorded it in 1973. However, as heard and experienced here, the song musically offers no easy answers; for almost a minute after Ross’ vocal ends, the music – as circular and poignant (and as French) as “The Windmills Of Your Mind” – carries on in various manifestations, fading into funereal uncertainty. My understanding was that, as with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Diana was singing to Marvin. But another quote suggests itself:


“Somewhere, within her, in a deep recess, crouched discontent. She began to lose confidence in the fullness of her life, the glow began to fade from her conception of it. As the days multiplied, her need of something, something vaguely familiar, but which she could not put a name to and hold for definite examination, became almost intolerable. She went through moments of overwhelming anguish. She felt shut in, trapped.”

(Larsen, op. cit.)


The horrific emotional clarity reveals itself when you realise that Diana Ross is almost certainly singing to, and about, herself.




(Ross, op. cit.)


Florence Ballard died almost exactly five months after “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” was released as a single in the USA.


On the other hand,  Beyoncé Knowles was born during "Endless Love"'s run at number one.