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Perfect 10: Diana Ross, respectfully A to Z

“I‘m ambitious
Believe me, I’m going to be big
I’m a slave to glamour
applause and clamour
my make-up, my wardrobe, my wigs“

Pet Shop Boys, Shameless (1993)

Respectfully I say to thee, when it comes to defining what star quality is, Diana Ross is unmistakably it. The very definition of showbiz glitz and glamour, Diana Ernestine Earl Ross grew up in Detroit (neighbours with Aretha, natch) and has captivated the entertainment industry for sixty years, patenting the blueprint for divadom in the process.

Kicking off as one third of The Supremes — the Motown pop-soul trio that every subsequent girl group in the world has been measured against — Baby Love, You Can’t Hurry Love, You Keep Me Hangin’ On, and Someday We’ll Be Together were just a smidgeon of the transatlantic No.1 hits the girls enjoyed. Moreover, The Supremes would go on to become the most successful American act of the 1960s, eclipsed only by The Beatles.

A waif-like beauty with a honeyed, breathy voice and big telly-ready eyes, Ross coos lyrics of love, loss, and as well as scores of solo smashes to her name — Love Hangover, Why Do Fools Fall In Love, Muscles, Chain Reaction, When You Tell Me That You Love Me et al — this effervescent ageless star has duetted with everyone from Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder to, er, Julio Iglesias and Westlife and wound up influencing not just African-American singers with her grace, elegance, style and flair, but also rock acts of the new-wave eras. Hell, she was even the unwitting inspiration behind Michael Jackson’s plastic surgery remodelling. Ow! As she celebrates turning eighty, we show you how Ross is boss.

For this birthday Perfect 10, the modus operandi is a mixed up chronology. Instead of going for all the most obvious signature tunes I’ve introduced an element of the A-Z by plumping for ten 45s, many of which have a personal resonance, based on the letters of her name — Diana E Ross. Yes, I know, both her middle names begin with an ‘E’, so you can take your pick which one is relevant to the chosen cut.

Not only that, but all except the ’N’ are included on a US or UK edition of the 1981 albums To Love Again and All The Great Hits, the latter of which was the first Diana Ross compilation I owned. Yes, I know that means only the post-Supremes catalogue and mainly Motown in the ’70s, so that means no tepid Tina Turner cribs (the anodyne Swept Away) or that unsettling attempt at a Thriller Part II with the Bee Gees and MJ himself (Eaten Alive, said to be a favourite of Hannibal Lecter).

We’re caught in a time trap, because I also fondly recall that I had two partners — one from Holland and one from Yorkshire — who were partial to some of Ross’ soundtrack showtunes: the Dutch thought there was no song like Home, from The Wiz, while the Brit raved about If We Hold On Together, from The Land Before Time. But hey ho, my own mother rates the Jacko duet Ease On Down The Road, more because it‘s not a ballad, I suspect. 

Having seen Diana in the flesh on a quartet of occasions (two Wembley, two Vegas, and a span of 27 years), I‘m reminded of the London shows especially: the first was used for the 1989 Greatest Hits Live album, but to refer back to the girl from Nutbush, I recall the 1991 concert where, in between songs, Lady Di mentioned something along the lines of ”I saw Tina Turner saying she was going to give up playing live… well, I‘m never gonna retire!”

May she last forever. Sing it to me Diana… 

Do You Know Where You’re Going To (1975)

Querulous and glorious, Do You Know Where You’re Going To was, as its alternate title suggests, was the Theme From Mahogany, a Motown film starring Miss Ross as a rags to riches fashion designer (no, I’ve never seen it either). 

This sensual and soulful ballad became her fifteenth Billboard chart topping 45 and also served as the album opener to her 1976 album imaginatively titled Diana Ross (there was a first Diana Ross LP in 1970, thus the later one is often referred to as “the black album”). With its sumptuous, orchestra and Diana’s empathetic performance, the track climaxes in a classically-slanted apogee and is undoubtedly one of Ross’ classiest numbers.

It’s My Turn (1980)

Although she was featured on a whopping 27 UK Top 40 singles throughout the decade, I don’t remember hearing tons of Diana Ross in ’70s Britain. However I do recall two beginning with the letter ‘I’ on Radio 1 a fair bit. In fact, as a British chart-topper in 1971, I’m Still Waiting was one of the earliest songs by anyone that registered with me, but as I covered that sweet chestnut here I could have gone for the other one: the homely and territorial It’s My House, from 1979, and sampled by Lady Gaga on her 2020 song Replay. 

But third time’s a charm, right? Because the one screaming “under-appreciated” is another soundtrack offering, from the film of the same name (some rom-com starring Michael Douglas, and no, I’ve not seen that one either). 

With a pretty piano and a swirl of strings, It’s My Turn is a sweeping, empowering ballad with an impassioned vocal that would give La Ross her third American Top 10 hit in a row when it was released in September 1980. Oh, and, though it was rarely reported at the time, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Diane Warren borrowed from it considerably for their Eurovision schlock It’s My Time, warbled by future Sugababe Jade Ewen. Cheeky blinders. 

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (1970)

You really didn’t think I could leave this one out, did you? 

When Diana’s eponymous solo debut hit the racks in June 1970, a mere five months after the singer gave her final Supremes concert in Las Vegas great things were expected. However, best laid plans and all that, because when its first 45, the Ashford and Simpson-penned Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand), failed to make much of an impact, Motown honcho Berry Gordy panicked and enlisted Deke Richards to work with the singer.

Suddenly, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough raced to the top of the US charts and she was out of the woods. An epic rearrangement of the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell ’60s classic, its authors Ashford & Simpson turned the song into an episodic, theatrical extravaganza that defies classification.

Together with Paul Riser’s lush orchestrations, the Simpson’s melodramatic retooling retained the essence of Ross’ star chutzpah while exploiting an alluring new vulnerability in her vocal performances. Instead of traditionally sung verses, the song was arranged to take advantage of her “sexy and silky” speaking voice. 

The LP version runs to 6:20 (almost three times the length of the longest Supremes single), giving Diana and the chorus of voices plenty of time to build up to one of the most exciting musical climaxes in pop history. At 4:18, when the dreamy, string-laden bed of music erupts into the thunderous “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough!” refrain, the Diana Ross that emerges is not only a singer unlike anything heard on a Supremes song; she’s also a completely different singer from anything on the rest of her first album. Very much a signature song, it earned Diana her first solo Grammy nomination, for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, Female, though she lost the award to Dionne Warwick. Ow!

No One Gets The Prize (1979)

With the disco craze in full motion, Ross, ever an adaptive force of nature all her own, stopped short of completely reinventing herself as a Donna Summer type dance diva. Instead, she began blending her patented soul-pop colours with disco’s brighter tones, and reached out to bring Ashford & Simpson back into the mix after a long absence. 

The husband and wife team wrote and produced all of Diana’s tenth solo set, The Boss, with the bittersweet No One Gets The Prize opening the set with a bang. It’s a high drama ditty dripping in brass, bass rhythms and subtle synth flourishes, and Miss Ross is in fine vocal form. A veritable firestorm that pointed the way to her eighties renaissance with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards.

All Of My Life (1973)

The first of three (count ‘em!) albums Diana issued in 1973, Touch Me In The Morning is most famous for its opening title track: a sexy lounge number that’s as much a West Coast jam as it is drinking a Manhattan in Manhattan. It’s a fabulous song (even if my mother didn’t rate it), but the successor in the running order, and as its second 45, was one of the record’s more plaintive cuts that deserves closer examination. 

The stately All Of My Life was yet another hit which did way better in the UK than US, and the singer’s soft honeydew tone is perfect for this passionate, twinkling ballad. It’s a vital listen, if only to hear what Ross can bring to a song she can connect with when she’s not just being forced to perform whatever the producer of the day brings to the table.

Endless Love (1981) 

Yet another Hollywood theme (its parent project stars Brooke Shields, and no, I haven’t seen this one either), in the US, Endless Love was released on my 12th birthday and swiftly became one of the blockbusters of the summer of ’81, even if the film didn’t.

A birrova love or hate it record, Diana’s duet with former Commodores frontman Lionel Richie would sit prettily atop the Hot 100 for a record-breaking nine weeks, giving Ross her sixth ‘solo’ No. 1, 18th chart-topping 45 of her career, and her biggest selling record of all time.

Billboard went as far as to name the song as the greatest duet of all time, though it didn’t do quite so well in Britain, managing to climb to No. 7 as the top two were hogged by new wave behemoths Prince Charming and Tainted Love, two of the top four biggest selling singles of the entire year. 

Nonetheless, as the diva’s final hit on Motown there is a pretty purity to Endless Love — overflowing with drama and tenderness while the tastefully understated production shines. Indeed, it would be easy for an emotive love song like this to be so wet and syrupy  that it becomes hard to listen to, but Di and Li keep that from happening thanks to some deeply shaded pitch perfect performances, with Ross harnessing the strength and power that she’d been cultivating ever since Quincy Jones pushed her to new heights on The Wiz soundtrack. 

Remember Me (1970)

Remember Me is an evocative slice of soul-pop with an intensity that ebbs and flows with each section; the verses begin with Diana’s breathy voice over a sizzling beat and build to explosions of slicing strings and the singer’s frenzied repetition of, “Didn’t I, boy?”

The assured vocals are matched by the soaring instrumentation of Ashford & Simpson, who clearly pushed Ross to expand her range. The lyrics are also particularly descriptive and, at times, quite whimsical; lines like, “Remember me as a funny clown/That made you laugh when you were down” give the singer plenty of opportunity to sing with emotions ranging from regret and resignation to moments of humour and wisdom. A good thing indeed.

One More Chance (1981)

After a chart renaissance with her sassy, hip Chic produced Diana album (need you ask – it’s the one with the tasty triumvirate of Upside Down, I’m Coming Out and My Old Piano), 1981’s To Love Again would be designated as Ross’ Motown swansong, a hotchpotch of old/new designed for her more adult audience who favoured slushy ballads over dance floor bangers. 

One More Chance was the 45 chosen to tie in with the LP’s release, and of all Diana’s collaborations with easy listening maestro Michael Masser, this one contains the most audible tension; the song’s climax features the singer going from passionate crooning to angrily growling the song’s title phrase repeatedly until it explodes into an eye-popping voice-shredding finale. 

Surrender (1971)  

If Ain’t No Mountain High Enough pushed solo Diana to new heights as a soul stylist, then Surrender sent her soaring into the stratosphere, becoming her fourth consecutive top ten hit in Blighty. Reuniting the diva with the writing, producing husband and wife team Ashford & Simpson, in the sleeve notes for the attendant album, Valerie Simpson described the big and ballsy opener as “edgy” and pushy”, which is an understatement for the full-on middle-finger-up attack waged by all concerned. Brits may also remember it as a sample in the early-2000s hit of the same name from Girls Aloud also-ran Javine, which you should revisit immediately after listening to the diva’s original.

Opening with thunderous, repetitive piano jabs and a pounding percussive beat, the track is gutsier than almost anything in the Ross canon. Erupting into a swirling storm of keys, blaring horns, and wailing vocals. Simpson’s piano work is displays a strong gospel influence, and the rest of the band turn in tour de force performances over clever, playful lyrics. And the singer of the song is completely committed to them here, turning in a powerhouse performance which erupts into soulful abandon at 1:30, when she begins ad-libbing with another startling “Ow!” that remains spine-tingling over half a century later. 

Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart) (1974) 

As former Detroit neighbours, Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye had a long history with each other – they’d both scored major success with the same song (Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, natch) and the diva’s last substantial Billboard hit, 1984’s Missing You, was a poignant tearjerker penned by Lionel Richie to mark the loss of Gaye at the hands of his father’s shotgun earlier that year. 

However, in the early ’70s, the king and queen of Motown were in completely different creative territories. Ross was settling down as a stately showbiz diva, while the Trouble Man was enjoying autonomy and ploughing a progressive path with sex and social commentary on What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On. Nonetheless, mutual admiration apart, what they shared was an undeniable vocal chemistry — their voices sounded terrific together. Ladies and gentlemen, the duet album. 

1973’s Diana & Marvin was not the classic many expected but solid enough for the LP to be one of Ross’ best efforts of the era. The standouts are the singles — the US 45s You’re A Special Part Of Me and My Mistake (Was to Love You); and the UK hits You Are Everything and Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart), which were both covers of Philly Soul jams by the Stylistics. 

A moderate summer of ’74 smash (ironically, The Three Degrees were in pole position with a rival Sound of Philadelphia offering, Gamble & Huff’s When Will I See You Again), SLL has been sampled by many R&B and hip-hop stars over the years, perhaps most notably by Ja Rule and Ashanti for Mesmerize. The D&M version of Stop also enjoyed prominent use in the Brit flick Bridget Jones’ Diary. Stop what you’re doing, look it up and listen — not only the tenth of the ten but all of the above deserve dusting off to let their luminescence shine once more. With feeling.

Because no one makes you feel like Di do.

Steve Pafford

With my sincere thanks to

“They didn’t think she could sing”: Why Madonna was elided from USA For Africa is here

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