By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Voice too thin? Image too glitzy? Ambition too flagrant? The snipes against Diana Ross throughout her career have too often dodged the deeper truths of her talent and artistry. Now’s the perfect moment to re-evaluate Ross, and to stack her cultural spawn against her — much the way she was measured against Billie Holiday almost 40 years ago.
The occasion: Motown has just released Blue, a long-tucked-away jazz album recorded in 1971, right after Ross finished shooting Lady Sings the Blues, the highly fictionalized account of Holiday’s life. Still in Lady Day mode, Ross entered the studio with some of the same musicians she’d worked with on the Lady soundtrack and recorded an album of jazz standards that was mysteriously shelved shortly after completion. In a kind of synchronicity/serendipity, later this year Beyoncé will play the Diana Ross–inspired character in the long-awaited film of the Broadway hit Dreamgirls.
Blue is a collection of standards already stamped by the Olympian likes of Holiday, Vaughan and Simone; anyone comparing Ross to those titans might be tempted to wave off this effort. But that’d be their loss. Because Blue, save a misstep here and there, is exquisite.
Produced, conducted and arranged by frequent Ross collaborator/musical director and Motown pillar Gil Askey, the album shows that the spirit of Holiday was still in deep effect after filming on Lady wrapped. (The disc’s liner notes observe that when it was announced that Ross had been selected to portray Holiday on celluloid, the esteemed jazz critic Leonard Feather — who had known and worked with Holiday — wrote, “I can’t think of a less appropriate choice to play Billie.” After seeing the final film, he enthused, “I’m amazed. Diana Ross has pulled it off. Somehow she found the key to Billie’s approach. She doesn’t imitate Billie, but she suggests Billie with respect and intelligence.”)
The album kicks off with “What a Difference a Day Makes.” Aretha’s and Dinah Washington’s superlative recorded versions tap anguished relief and world-weary appreciation, respectively. But Ross’ drowsy, incredibly lovely vocals — so clear, so crisp throughout the collection — gently sway away from the “blue yesterdays” and “lonely nights” that most singers home in on and instead ride the “rainbow before me . . . that moment of bliss/that thrilling kiss.” It’s less flaming torch than lover’s glow. On “No More,” the blithe kiss-off stings so deeply because Ross’ reading is so wonderfully blasé, so sighingly indifferent to the demise of a love affair: “That look in your eyes don’t bother me now/Can take or leave you alone.” There’s the bite of dismissiveness, but also the slightest whiff of sadness. Other highlights include bouncing versions of “Love Is Here to Stay” and “Had You Been Around” (like many of the songs here, “Been Around” appeared in an alternate version on the Lady soundtrack), and the aching, plaintive gratefulness of “He’s Funny That Way.” The major misstep is the woefully misconceived “I Loves Ya Porgy,” whose Vegas-style arrangement (in contrast to the tasteful, appropriate musical backdrops of most tracks) completely undermines the torment of the song’s heroine.
For all the surprising, even thrilling moments on Blue, none tops the closing track, “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness if I Do.” The song is pure defiance and unapologetic defense of boozing, gambling, shame-free fucking. But more, it’s a defense of self and personal choices. Ross bites into the words with those famous teeth, grinningly snarling her way through, and the song becomes the ultimate fuck-off anthem from the ultimate diva.
Ross was always deemed the slight one, both in the Supremes and in the context of other female pop and soul singers. The great lie perpetuated by Ross detractors is that Diana’s voice was the weakest in the Supremes, that Florence Ballard was somehow cheated out of her rightful position as group lead. Had the inarguably talented Ballard been the lead singer, however, it’s likely that the group would now be one of those cult entities rhapsodized over by soul-music obscurists (purists). Ballard’s voice lacked that indefinable spark that makes less “powerful” or “traditional” voices vibrate in your ear and bounce around your head. (See: Madonna, Janet.) Ross’ voice was light, singular and capable of both breathy sexiness and deep wells of emotion. It cut through, anchoring those sublime Holland-Dozier-Holland compositions, quickly maturing from reedy and nasal to pliable, crystalline. Love it or hate it, it’s one of the most instantly recognizable voices in all of pop music.
Strangely enough, the Supremes in their diaphanous gowns and coordinated wigs, and solo Ross with her glitter and weaves, are all Amazon warriors compared to the desperation-driven women who now populate the popular realm — all nipped, tucked, Botoxed and starved, chasing adolescence and fleeing adulthood.
Yet Ross’ imprint and influence are everywhere: Janet Jackson, Madonna, Erykah Badu, Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, RuPaul, Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, En Vogue . . . a long list of insufferable drag queens. The roll call goes on, and what’s extraordinary is how easily the rail-thin, big-eyed, nasal-voiced girl from Detroit’s Brewster Projects — molded by the wills of self and Berry Gordy into a global icon — smashes most of her pop progeny.