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.
Madonna. From Detroit, like Ross, the Material Woman is a driven, hard-working, controversial figure assailed for her ambition and her sexuality — the latter via speculation on where the twain meet. Both women also inspire blind devotion in their hardcore (homo-base) fans. But where Ross basks old-pro style in the crowd’s adulation, Madonna sneeringly hoists ?herself above her audience while paying lip service to spiritual growth and counterculture consciousness. An even more crucial distinction: Ross can actually sing.
Whitney Houston. Houston has (or had) a stronger, arguably “better” voice — more conventionally black, soulful, church, etc. — but early in her career she, too, suffered the charge of being a black whitegirl. Where Ross is clocking in on a 50-year career, though, Houston cracked before reaching even half that mark and seems unlikely to get back on path.
Mariah Carey. An insecure mulatta teetering on high heels, stuffed with silicone and afflicted with ditsy-diva syndrome, Carey has zilch stage presence after all these years; Ross is still absolutely magnetic.
Beyoncé. The former Destiny’s Child sibling is a gorgeous, voluptuous void, as predictable and comforting as a Big Mac, if a tad less nutritious. Steely careerism is all that resonates in a voice that (a handful of great singles aside) is the sound of cash registers jingling.
Michael Jackson. In a 1967 film clip of the Supremes at the Hollywood Palace (available for viewing on YouTube), the closing “The Lady Is a Tramp” is sublime. At one point, Ross takes a talon-tipped finger and playfully windshield-wipes a lock of hair across her forehead; she vamps and mugs, shimmying down to her knees while throatily belting the final notes live, no lip-synching. It’s a hilarious, sexy, campy, confident, enthralling performance, full of she’s-brilliant-she’s-insane moments. The kind of shit Michael used to do before he became a creepy ?old white woman. It’s well known that Mike studied James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr. and a host of other captivating male singers in order to perfect his showmanship. His idol-worship of Diana Ross has been ?reduced to snickering speculation on ?his sexuality and sanity. In truth, ?Jackson simply spotted in Ross a kindred spirit — someone born to the stage, someone who is without peer when ?inspiration strikes.
Erykah Badu. Out of all the best-known Ross spawn, the only one who can be theatrical and larger than life without being robotic, canned and bloodlessly choreographed.
So why is so little credit afforded the avant-haired Ross? A lot of the slight is her own doing. Though her early-’70s solo records are hugely underrated (as are 1977’s sleek Baby, It’s Me, produced by Richard Perry, and the 1979 disco classic The Boss, written and produced by Ashford & Simpson), she’s had lackluster taste in album material thereafter, largely coasting on image and legend. Excepting, of course, 1980’s funky Chic-produced diana. An O.G. diva whose mercurial temper, outlandish backstage demands and straight-up bitchiness are the stuff of legend, she has let persona overwhelm art. For the endless parade of self-proclaimed divas now cluttering the landscape, Diana Ross is the ultimate cautionary tale. The thing is, few of them will ever amass the kind of legacy that she has let slip through her jeweled fingers.
DIANA ROSS | Blue | Motown