1970 is likely remembered, at least within the U.S., for what came to be called the Kent State massacre. On May 4th, Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on college students protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War to Cambodia, killing four and wounding nine. It spurred an in-progress student strike at some 450 college campuses – which had begun on May 1st, the day after President Nixon announced the expansion – to explode. What had been a primarily peaceful movement flirted with violence, especially when 100,000 anti-war activists descended upon Washington, D.C., the following weekend. The anger was real and can be heard in the ardent strains of CSNY’s “Ohio.”
A month and change later, on June 19th, Diana Ross released her eponymous solo debut, which sports a soulful pop sheen that may seem miles removed from the revolution brewing on college campuses. But, at least from where I sit, it was – in its own way – revolutionary all the same: “Reach out and touch/Somebody’s hand/Make this world a better place/If you can…”
Working with writer-producers Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson for all but one of the 11 tracks, she crafts a set that both reflects and transcends its time. Some songs, such as “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” were recycled from other Motown artists; others are original to the album. No matter. By the time the tracks were set to wax, they were hers. It’s not a statement of purpose, but a declaration.
Of course, most everyone knows the basic outline of Diana’s story: Born in Detroit, her name was and is Diane everywhere but her birth certificate, where it was listed as “Diana” by mistake. At age 7, her father relocated the family to Alabama after her mother was felled by illness, but they returned to the Motor City in 1958, when she was 14. At that point, her dream was to become a fashion designer – but she was also flirting with music and soon joined the Primettes, whose other members included Florence Ballard and, in time, Mary Wilson.
In 1960, Ross convinced childhood neighbor Smokey Robinson to arrange an audition for the group with Motown; Berry Gordy liked what he heard but, after learning their ages, told them to finish school first. They signed with another label instead, released a single that went nowhere, and then began to hang out at Hitsville, doing this ’n’ that (aka backing vocals and handclaps) before, in 1961, officially joining the fold. Rechristened the Supremes, they languished at the bottom of Motown’s hierarchy until late 1964, when “Where Did Our Love Go” topped the pop charts – the first of 11 singles to do so. Intra-group (and intra-label, for that matter) tensions soon surfaced due to Berry Gordy’s infatuation with Ross, however, especially once he decided to do what it took to make her a star.
As I noted a while back, the final No. 1 single by Ross and the Supremes, the Johnny Bristol-produced “Someday We’ll Be Together,” was originally slated to be Diana’s debut single – and was actually recorded without the other Supremes. Its success, along with the ad-hoc Cream of the Crop album, pushed plans for her solo debut to the following year (plus gave Gordy more opportunities to milk money from her exit, including the live Farewell double-LP set that was released in January 1970.)
By the time of her solo debut, she was 26 – and, yet, still deemed a “girl” by legendary Hollywood hack writer Leo Guild in a 1970 newspaper series that spotlighted (I’m not making this up) “black beauties.” (One excerpt from the article about her: “She has a peculiar ambition in that she wants the general public not to think that she’s a symbol for the blacks. She wants them to accept her as just a groovy girl.” She’s also quoted as saying, “I don’t think anybody needs a sex symbol. That’s out of date. I’d rather be thought of as someone with brains and maybe have a little sex appeal in back of them.”) It wasn’t just the mainstream press that could be so callous, either; Rolling Stone wasn’t exactly a bastion of feminist thought and pretty much ignored artists of color. Part of that was the era, of course, but – to my ears, at least – it’s the casual affront to those attitudes that gives her debut its revolutionary zeal.
Although it’s probably best known as the original album home of two of her classic singles – “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” – it’s not a stereotypical singles-and-filler Motown album. Over the course of the 11 tracks, she’s independent, affectionate, confident and aware. Something’s on her mind, in other words, that’s been troubling her a long, long time…
Did I mention that, vocally speaking, she’s at the top of her game? Although I dispute the assessment, it’s sometimes said of her work with the Supremes that her vocals are light and frothy, essentially the frosting atop a layered cake. There’s none of that here. Her vocals are full and developed, driving the lyrics instead of riding them. You hear her smile, hear her frown. She pulls you into her world.
If you haven’t heard the album, definitely check it out. It sounds as fresh today as it must have in 1970 and is a true essential album – alongside her 1976 eponymous and 1980 Diana albums. (The 2002 “deluxe version,” I should mention, adds a bunch of bonus tracks, including two Laura Nyro songs that stem from unreleased sessions with 5th Dimension producer Bones Howe, and is available on all the usual streaming services.)
The track listing:
And for those curious: Here’s the newspaper article referenced above… if nothing else, it shows how far we have come in the past 50+ years. (Each section can be clicked on to enlarge; it was too lengthy to fit into one, unfortunately, so you’ll have to hop between the two images.)