Sunday, April 03, 2016

Kat's Korner: Diana Ross releases a masterpiece (belatedly)

Kat: The general consensus among some is that Diana Ross made the biggest mistake of her life when she left Motown and joined RCA in 1981.

She had been the Queen of Motown, after all.

The label was behind her.

But here's some reality: If Diana had stayed, music would have likely left her behind.

This became obvious in November when Motown released DIANA ROSS SINGS SONGS FROM THE WIZ.

Diana's recorded a new album!!!!

No, this is one from the vaults.

One Motown kept buried in the vaults.


As November drew to a close, they finally released the thirteen track album -- proving Motown's still not returned to being smart or first-rate album.

NBC broadcast their live musical of THE WIZ on December 3rd.

Motown supposedly released Diana's album on November 27th.

Did you know?

We noted it several times at THIRD (including November 15th when we offered our notion that Diana should do a tribute album to Michael Jackson) but I started to think either the album was a prank or Motown had once again made promises it couldn't keep.

I thought that because we are all over the country speaking about the never-ending wars and, everywhere I go, I always check music stores or music sections in stores.

I'd see NBC's DVD of THE WIZ, for example, but no Diana album.

Turns out Motown didn't have the brains (big surprise, right?) to get the album into stores -- let alone to promote it.

It's available strictly as a download (digital booklet is included).  If you're interested, you can find it at Amazon here.

Should you?

Diana's performance as Dorothy was trashed by some.

She was too old, some argued.

As if Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta were in high school when they filmed GREASE?

It's a musical, not a documentary.

There are problems with the musical she made.

I never would have picked 'gritty' Sidney Lumet to direct.

But if I did, I certainly wouldn't carp that the film lacked sparkle.

When you go with Lumet, you're going with the NYC of the mid-seventies -- and that's what's captured.

Based on CAR WASH and SPARKLE, I wouldn't have hired Joel Schumacher to write the script (even without knowing of his 'therapy' at the time).

When Berry Gordy and Rob Cohen teamed with Universal to make THE WIZ (with a one million dollar pay day for Diana), there was so much that was going to be wrong with the film.

(CRAPAPEDIA tells you Diana went around Berry.  Not true.  We correct the record here.  Berry told her she was too old.  Told Cohen the idea was crazy and Cohen said Diana would mean getting the film made and also mean she could get one million dollars for making the film.  At which point, Berry told Rob to make the deal.  Berry would then surprise Diana with the news.)

That's before you even bring up it being based as a homage to the pop fad of the time EST (Ron Hubbard's Scientology never had it so good).

But with all that going against her, Diana triumphed.

She plays Dorothy as someone scared of her shadow who discovers her inner strength over the course of the film.

Diana goes all out with her performance.

And she's stripped of her glamour because this is a Sidney Lumet film -- even his then mother-in-law Lena Horne isn't allowed to sparkle (despite the fact that she's largely playing a star in the sky).

THE WIZ is a fairy tale for adults, as directed by Lumet.

And possibly that's the only way to have gone in the seventies.

The demographics were such in the US, that no one was catering to children.

Pacific International Enterprises?

Were those poorly lit, badly filmed 'movies' catering to anyone or just stealing dollars from the wallets of parents?

It's no surprise that Disney's animated films would only experience a rebirth when the baby boomlet came along.

So THE WIZ is what it is.

And, even so, it's better than what NBC broadcast.

Sorry, kids, those sets were embarrassments. High school productions offer better.

Equally true, a bad overall vision (the film) is better than no vision at all.

The film's gone from scorn to applause as the years have passed and it's worth noting that some of the original objection had to do with Diana, or any woman of color, playing Dorothy.

The music continues to rescue the film.

As does the magic of Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.

As the seventies drew to a close, Motown had little magic.

Disco wasn't natural to Motown.

Donna Summer and other artists were emerging on other labels.

Diana's late seventies classic, THE BOSS, came about not because of Berry Gordy and Motown but in spite of them.  She and Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson camped out in NYC, far from Motown, and made one of the few releases for the label after 1976 that actually mattered.

As for the 1980 mega smash that was DIANA -- that's Diana Ross again.

She's recording with Chic's Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards.

And it's Diana's good taste that demanded remixes (leading Rodgers and Edwards to threaten to take their names off the album -- until, of course, the remixed version became a huge success with hits like "I'm Coming Out" and "Upside Down").

Diana leaving for RCA meant she finally made money from her recordings.

Motown gave 'gifts' but wasn't real good about paying and, as late as the 70s, she still needed Motown to co-sign for her to even buy a house.

RCA was a crap label.

And she possibly should have chosen a better one to leave Motown for.

But she was smart to leave Motown.

Motown had already lost the Jacksons and no one sees that as upsetting or a bad move.  Motown also lost Marvin Gaye and he was better for it.

Who stayed?

Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson.

1987's CHARACTERS demonstrates Motown didn't know how to market Stevie's music. (The same could be said of IN SQUARE CIRCLE which should have sold twice as many copies as it did.)  The same is true of Smokey's ONE HEARTBEAT (also from 1987) which featured two huge top ten hits (the title track and "Just To See Her") but only went gold in its original release. (A single disc that is certified gold has sold at least 500,000 copies.)

So Diana was smart to leave.

In doing so, she had a string of hits with RCA: "Why Do Fools Fall In Love," "Mirror, Mirror," "Muscles," "So Close," "Pieces of Ice," "All of You" (duet with Julio Iglesias), "Swept Away," "Missing You," "Telephone," "Chain Reaction" and "Dirty Looks."

From 1981 through 1987, I'm hard pressed to find any artist on Motown's label to score that many hits.  Not even DeBarge can make the claim and even Berry Gordy's own son Rockwell really managed to be only a one-hit wonder with "Somebody's Watching Me" (two hits if you count "Obscene Phone Caller").

She made two classic albums: SWEPT AWAY and EATEN ALIVE (I'd have left off the Michael Jackson title track).  She made several solid albums that would benefit from reappraisals.

But if you still don't get that leaving Motown was the smart thing for Diana to do, listen to DIANA ROSS SINGS SONGS FROM THE WIZ.

You can argue from now until the next musical revolution/innovation whether Diana Ross should have played Dorothy in a live action film.

What's not open to debate is whether or not Diana can interpret a score.

And she does an incredible job here.

She brings each song to life.

"Wonder Wonder Why" may be one of her strongest performances and, even if you're a fan of "Is This What Feeling Gets?" from the original soundtrack for THE WIZ, you'll love her version here even more.

Oh, and that's the thing.

This is not Diana's tracks from the film soundtrack being repackaged.

In 1978, she went into the studio with Suzanne de Passe and Lee Holdridge to record these thirteen songs.  In the years since, only "Home" has been released (in 2001).

And that's how you know Motown was over by the 80s.


These were not expected to be huge sellers or even strong ones.

The point was to make clear that Diana could handle more than top forty.

The point was to make clear that Diana was an artist.

This album was supposed to have been released in January of 1979, following the release of the film in October of 1978 (the film's soundtrack was released in September 1978).

The digital booklet notes:

When the film wrapped and Ross returned to Los Angeles, producer/arranger Lee Holdridge received a call from Motown.  "We've got to have her do some cover versions of these songs," he was told with some urgency.
"We literally ran into the studio in a great hurry to do this," Holdridge says.  Luckily, this was not Holdridge's first time working with Motown or Diana Ross.  "I did all the orchestrations and arrangements for the film MAHOGANY, and 'Do You Know Where You're Going To' was a big hit for her," he adds.  "So she knew exactly who I was.  We knew all the keys and stuff like that, so we tried to emulate what some of the film tracks were like.  Diana was excited about it."

Months later, Cher would star in her ABC's CHER .  . . SPECIAL featuring a 15 minute segment of her playing all the parts in the musical WEST SIDE STORY.  But before that happened, Diana should have been presented to the public playing all the parts from THE WIZ.

And the film could have been rescued somewhat by the album being released.

As it headed to the second-run houses, the dollar theaters, DIANA ROSS SINGS SONGS FROM THE WIZ could've provided incentive to check out the film.  It would have also telegraphed just how strong a singer, how great an artist, she is.

As she demonstrates on "Don't Nobody Tell Me No Bad News" and on "Believe In Yourself," she could have easily played the role of either Evillene or Glinda The Good Witch in NBC's broadcast last year.  Her medley of "You Can't Win"/"Slide Some Oil"/"(I'm A) Mean Ole Lion" argue she could have handled the roles of Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion as well.

"You Can't Win" will forever be identified with Michael Jackson's performance as the Scarecrow but damned if Diana doesn't put her own take on it.

And she runs with Aunt Em's signature moment "The Feeling We Once Had."  A brave and vital Motown would have issued that track as a single back in 1979.

The only argument I'd have with the release would be the cover.  I'd have found a way to blend the actual cover with what would be the back cover if this were released on vinyl or compact disc.


Diana's performing the score to a Broadway musical (plus Ashford & Simpson's "Is This What Feeling Gets?") and Broadway's about glamour, high energy and sparkle.  The photo used above captures that.


This is a tour de force performance and a reminder of just how talented Diana Ross is.  More to the point, the project's history argues clearly that Diana had to leave Motown which no longer knew how to market, let alone honor, the label's queen.