Friday, December 30, 2016

Kat's Korner: Diana Ross's diana and the RCA Years

Kat: "I'm coming out," Diana Ross insists.

And, eventually, she does after what seems like a never ending loop.

She has to shout ("that I am coming out") because the mix is so clutter.

I'm talking about the Nile Rogers & Bernard Edwards' mix.


In 2003, a deluxe edition of Diana’s 1980 classic diana was released.

The added bonus was that you could hear not just the hits you know and the album you love but also the album as two men intended it to be originally.

When Diana went into the studio with the twosome, they were more than just the creative juice of the band Chic (famous to this day for "Le Freak"), Rogers and Edwards were also work other artists to produce hits (most effectively with Sister Sledge on "We Are Family").

The horn solo flutters and sounds off key in the Rogers-Edwards mix of "I'm Coming Out."

What Diana did was strip down the mixes and laydown some new vocals to come up with the hit "I'm Coming Out."

Everything that was recorded for the album diana (lowercase) was overdone in the Rogers-Edwards mix and Diana’s frequently competing with the music just to be heard.

Now there are a few nice vocal moments in the Bernard-Edwards mixes.  For example, Diana has to use the raw, deep vocal she later used throughout "Fool For Your Love" (SILK ELECTRIC) on songs like "Have Fun Again."

But while there are these brief moments such as when Diana spaces out "Money won't be enough" (on "Have Fun Again"), the vocals on any given song do not add up and do not provide a performance.

"My Old Piano" is the closest she comes in the original mixes to a real vocal performance.  Yet even there, the constant overwhelming bouncing ball accompaniment renders the track tired.

"Now That You're Gone" is another song where she's trying to deliver a real vocal performance but is repeatedly undercut by the mix.  She's true to the song, conveying a woman whose "nights grow long now that you're gone."  And "gone" sort of just fades like a brief moment.

But with the sparse mix that Diana went with for the actual album, she reworked the song and added some Alicia Keys' like "uh-uh" grunts and vocal that’s more direct while also being more haunting.

In the original mixes by Bernard-Edwards and Nile Rogers, there are no big hits.  "Upside Down," for example, might have hit the top forty but that would have been solely due to the beat.  There was nothing that would have made it stand out from anything else on the radio -- let alone make it unique enough to hit number one.

The deluxe edition of the album diana was a revelation to me because I was aware of the conflict.
Diana went back into the studio and remixed everything.  Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards did not care for the work she produced and were insisting Motown take their names off the project.

They publicly griped about what she had done and only ceased whining when diana and its lead single "Upside Down" became monster hits.

diana, in fact, is Diana Ross' best selling studio album (studio -- we're not counting greatest hits and best ofs).  It's also one of the finest albums of her career (1979's THE BOSS would be another classic).

If you know all of the carping and griping and hissing Rogers and Edwards did publicly (before the album was a hit), you might have assumed Diana Ross destroyed something great.  She did not.

Diana Ross knew what she was doing when she said the album wasn't ready to be released and she knew what she was doing when she took  charge.

She did a complete overhaul and, in the process, created a classic album.

Her work on diana cannot be over praised because the difference on every track is so huge.
I think, for myself --  maybe some others as well -- Diana didn't get her due credit because of what followed as she moved to RCA.

Marvin Gaye left Motown.  Gladys Knight and the Pips left Motown.  Michael Jackson left Motown.  (Martha Reeves would probably argue she didn't leave Motown, Motown left her when they moved the base from Detroit to Los Angeles.) 

But when Diana left, it was seen as both a tragedy and, for Diana, a huge mistake.

She was coming off a string of hits: "Upside Down," "I'm Coming Out," "It's My Turn" and "Endless Love."
And when she left Motown, many predicted failure.

She would end up releasing six studio albums (and one best of) with RCA.  Of the studio albums, she'd have one gold album and two platinum albums. She'd have eight hit singles on the top forty charts alone.

But the notion would be that by leaving Motown and taking control in the studio, Diana had bitten off more than she could chew.

We could pin that on sexism but it didn't really follow Gladys (though she was part of a group so that might have been why).

Diana's RCA albums are generally seen as a failure by the general public and a treasure by Diana Ross fans.
I love Diana's singles, she sang the soundtrack of so many of our lives.  But I'm going to try to offer my subjective objective (not a typo) view of her RCA discography.

First up was 1981's WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE which had an amazing cover (like diana, it was a fold-out cover).  It had a solid musical cover with the title track which easily bounced into the top ten.  The other big hit, "Mirror Mirror" --  with a blistering guitar -- featured a classic Diana vocal and took her back into the story song realm she'd done so well with the Supremes on songs like "Love Child" and especially "Reflections."
However, the rest of the album suffered from sameness with many tracks covering the same terrain.  WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE is an album.  It's cohesive.  It's just not a classic.  I'd give it a B minus.

Next up was SILK ELECTRIC in 1982 with a great cover -- an Andy Warhol silk screen of Diana.  This album featured Michael Jackson's "Muscles" which he wrote and produced for her.  It was a classic from the first moment it was played on the radio. 

"So Close" was a lesser hit but an important one.  Diana wasn't just doing doo-wop, she was taking her voice somewhere else.

And that's the key to SILK ELECTRIC -- Diana didn't just sing in the style people expect from her, she explored other ranges, other pitches, other deliveries.

"In Your Arms," later a hit for Whitney Houston and Teddy Pendergrass under the title 
"Hold Me (In Your Arms)," features one of Diana's bravest vocal performances.  She's not just singing the song, she is living it at the microphone.  It's raw and naked -- like her Academy Award nominated performance in LADY SINGS THE BLUES.

Even on the throw away track "Turn Me Over," she's experimenting. 

For those who've only ever streamed music, in 1982, if you bought the album, you did so on vinyl or cassette -- and both formats had an A side and a B side requiring you to turn the album/cassette over when on side completed.

For her vocal work alone, the often confusing SILK ELECTRIC earns an A minus.

In 1983, she should have ruled the charts -- from the Central Park concerts publicity alone -- but instead repeatedly misfired.

The cover of ROSS was probably the first mistake.

Her eyes are narrow slits.  She's leaning back, away from the camera and wearing -- well what's the red thing she's wearing?  A drop cloth?

Neither sexy nor glamorous, not even cute -- it was an off putting cover.

"Pieces of Ice" was the first single and it did make it into the top forty.  However, this was a story song that should have come with a decoder ring.

Nights are long entropic
I can't seem to cope
It's cold when I look in your eyes
Pieces of ice

Maybe you're thinking, "Oh, her fella's staring at her coldly, now I get it"?

No, you don't.

Next up:

Where the zebra lightning strikes the room
Foreign words are strutted through the gloom
Women swooping down like birds of prey
. . .

Call it "Diana Does Fellini."

But no one called it a reason to rush and get the album.

While WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE went platinum (at least a million sold) and SILK ELECTRIC went gold (half a million copies sold), ROSS just bombed.

The lead single killed the enthusiasm for the album.

Which is too bad because "Let's Go Up" is delightful and has some of the best arrangements since "I'm Coming Out."

1994 saw the release of DIANA EXTENDED: THE REMIXES and that’s an amazing album containing he hit remix of "LOVE HANGLOVER."  That album was so strong, it should have resulted in a follow up album and "Let's Go Up" would have been a strong contender for a dance remix.

"Love or Loneliness" was a great song on the album and Diana’s co-written "Girls" was another stand out.
But after "Pieces of Ice," no one seemed to care.

A year later -- yes, Diana was doing yearly albums -- saw the release of SWEPT AWAY.

This 1984 album featured a fold out cover. I remember Michael Musto wrote a funny (and positive) review of the album for US magazine.

"All of You" was a hit ballad before the album was released and this duet with Julio Iglesias helped create interest.

"Swept Away," the title track, followed and this too was a hit single.  Another story song, with a spoken entry written by Diana, this was and remains a power house record.

In fact, Diana appeared to work on one strong record (single) for each album and she succeeded with "Swept Away."

Two hits in a row and a third bubbling up ("Missing You"), this was a year of success for Diana and she performed "Missing You" on the 1985 American Music Awards.  Lionel Richie wrote that hit and has always stated he didn't feel the recording was complete.

He may be right.

It's not a monster record the way "Mirror Mirror," "Muscles," "Swept Away" or even "Pieces of Ice" were.

But it does have a beautiful simplicity.

I think Diana knew what she was going for here and succeeded.

Simplicity is also found in her cover of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” (featuring amazing guitar work by Jeff Beck).  The recording, yes, is a thing of beauty and Diana delivers the definitive version of the song.
Fontella Bass' sixties hit "Rescue Me" is also a strong song on the album.  In fact, all the tracks are so strong,
I don't know what I'd remove.

But if I couldn't add a track, I'd have to remove something because "Fight For It" belongs on the album.
Instead it was relegated to the B side of "Swept Away." That's how strong SWEPT AWAY was -- even a B side crushed it.  A plus is the grade for this album.

As 1985 continued, SWEPT AWAY stayed on the pop charts, the dance charts, and the soul charts.   "Telephone," the last single released from the album (track produced by Bernard Edwards) would go top ten on the soul charts.  And she did a verse with Michael Jackson on USA For Africa's "We Are The World."

But during that time, Diana was already in the studio for yet another yearly release.

September 1986, EATEN ALIVE was released.

I didn't buy it at a record store.

I bought it at a grocery store.

Didn't know Diana even had a new album out -- RCA did a very poor job promoting Diana's albums.
I was standing in line and Diana was on the cover of some women's magazine -- COSMO? GLAMOUR?

The young lady checking me out mentioned Diana's new album and I said I'd have to get it.  She said they had it over in their cassette section -- which they did.  But this really is representative of RCA. Diana's coming off a hit album -- gold, and later platinum -- that featured 3 huge hits on multiple charts and 1 soul hit.  She's performed live selling out Radio City Music Hall throughout her performances (while dealing off stage during this with the death of her mother) and she's been all over the television singing and hosting (and in 1986 will host The American Music Awards) but RCA, in September of 1985 can't even promote the album?

"Eaten Alive."

Blame it on RCA.

The single bombed.

This is my least favorite track on the album.  I don't feel like it belongs.

But -- regardless of whatever it's saying -- this should have been a hit.

RCA made it the first track because it was written by and featured vocals from the hottest musical act of the 80s: Michael Jackson.

On a greatest hits collection (or on the radio), it's a good song.

But it does not belong on the album.

"Chain Reaction" is a better representation of what Diana and her main producer Barry Gibb (Bee Gees fame) were going for.

It's a great song.

And it didn't crack the top forty.

Over in England, where Diana was on the EMI label, it was a different story.

The song was huge.

A number one hit.

It was among many songs that prevented Whitney Houston from topping the UK charts with "How Will I Know."

I mention that because in England, Whitney was a chart contemporary of Whitney's but in the US, Diana couldn't get a break.

EATEN ALIVE is a classic album that deserves an A plus.

Every track is a classic -- "Love on the Line," "Crime of Passion," etc -- and they flow perfectly.

1986 was the year Diana got pregnant and a year where she didn't release an album.

1987, while four months pregnant, she released her final RCA album RED HOT RHYTHM BLUES and did an Emmy nominated ABC special featuring Etta James (among others) to promote the album.

"Dirty Looks" was the lead single. 

It should have been the gorgeous "Summertime."

Or even the upbeat "Shine."

It's a low key album where the ballads work the best.

I'd give it a solid B.

And that's her final RCA studio album.

The weakest, for me, is WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE.  I wish the non-single tracks were more than they are.  But SWEPT AWAY and EATEN ALIVE qualify as real classics.

On another level, she was with RCA for six years only -- so that album record is even more impressive.

And she had hits: "Why Do Fools Fall In Love," "Mirror Mirror," "Muscles," "So Close," "Pieces of Ice," "All of You," "Swept Away" and "Missing You."  That's eight top forty hits.

She rocked the dance charts. 

She also had a soul hit with "Telephone."

That's very impressive.

Especially when you realize she did it at RCA.

It was the worst label to be on.

Even given the hit factory that was Eurythmics, for example, RCA couldn't deliver.

EMI, the label she was on in Europe, with the same songs and albums could deliver.

What if she had stayed at Motown?

Lionel Richie left Motown in the mid-80s.  Stevie Wonder was the last big star on the label.
And Motown was failing him.

The same time Diana was releasing her last RCA album, Stevie was releasing his SKELTONS album.  It was complex and still stands as a work of art.  And the title track was his final top forty hit (thus far).  They destroyed Stevie's career, they didn't nurture it.  Berry Gordy had lost interest in music and in the label around 1981 (Martha Reeves might argue it was about a decade earlier that he lost interest). 

If Diana had stayed at Motown, it's doubtful things would have worked out any better.

It's highly likely that if she'd stayed, things would have worked out far worse.

RCA is a lousy label to this day.

And that's part of the reason Diana's RCA work has gotten such a bad rep.

Unlike most labels, RCA wasn't interested in selling discs in the 90s and 00s.

So you couldn't find SWEPT AWAY except via Ebay or overseas websites.

Same with EATEN ALIVE and all of her catalogue except for WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE which surfaced at a bargain price in the late 90s.

Fortunately, Funky Town Grooves has remixed and expanded the RCA albums  and maybe that will help jump start a long overdue critical reappraisal of that period.