Posts Tagged ‘Diana Ross’

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.)

It’s odd the way the mind’s turntable works. 

Earlier this week, singer-songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews posted to her Instagram account that she “can’t wait to sing with humans in a room, that’s what I miss most.” For reasons only a mystic may know, that simple admission caused my inner turntable to queue up the “Someday We’ll Be Together” 45 by Diana Ross & the Supremes.

The song was written by Johnny Bristol, Jackey Beavers and Harvey Fuqua in 1961, and was first recorded and released that same year by Bristol and Beavers (as Johnny and Jackey) on the Tri-Phi label. That version, however, features little of the magic heard in Diana’s rendition…

… which, though billed as a “Diana Ross & the Supremes” song, was recorded with Merry Clayton, Patrice Holloway, Maxine Waters and Julia Waters on backing vocals, not Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong. Johnny Bristol, who joined the Motown fold in the mid-1960s, had worked up the track for Jr. Walker and the All-Stars, but Berry Gordy decided it was better suited for Diana; at that stage, he earmarked it as her solo debut. He changed his mind after it was completed, however, and issued it instead as the final single from Diana Ross & the Supremes in order to help promote Diana’s departure from the group. Bristol’s vocal contributions, by the way, came about by accident: In an early take, the engineer accidentally recorded him while he was positioned off-mic singing along and offering words of encouragement to Diana. They liked the result, so kept it.

Released on October 14, 1969, it peaked at No. 1 on the pop charts for the week of December 27th, so is technically both the final No. 1 of the 1960s and first No. 1 of the 1970s. 

What’s wild about the song: Although written 59 years ago about love and regret (“Long time ago my, my sweet thing, I made a big mistake, honey/I say, I said goodbye”), it remains as relevant as ever – no more so than today, given that the pandemic is keeping loved ones apart: “I wanna say, I wanna say, I wanna say some day we’ll be together/Yes we will, yes we will say some day we’ll be together/Some day, some sweet day, we will be together…” 

The first song released under the Diana Ross & the Supremes moniker, “Reflections,” is a Holland-Dozier-Holland gem that, though about love, is also applicable to these times: “Through the mirror of my mind/Time after time/I see reflections of you and me/Reflections of/The way life used to be…”

Released on July 24th, 1967 (aka the Summer of Love), it rose to No. 2 on the charts by September 9th – and sports a soft (and somewhat dated) psychedelic sound due to the use of a test oscillator as part of its sonic makeup. Yet, it remains a great song – one of my favorites by Diana & Company.

(Both have been added to my list of songs Courtney Marie should cover – though I doubt she ever will.)

A year later, Diana and the Supremes released the Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl,” a sales misstep – it peaked at No. 150 – that, yet, is eminently enjoyable. One highlight – and another song that could have been written about life during the COVID-19 pandemic – is “People.”

If you listened, you heard Diana’s heartfelt plea, which could well be spoken today: “People, God’s children, were born to be free, to love/All the people have a dream/for peace, for security/let the world fall in love again/please, please, let our lives not be in vain…”

Another H-D-H classic, “My World Is Empty Without You,” released by the Supremes at the tail end of 1965, echoes modern life, as well:

Incidentally, its album home – I Hear a Symphony, which was released in early 1966 – is well worth many spins. The title cut is a classic, of course…

…and there’s also a touching cover of the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” Another highlight is their rendition of “Unchained Melody,” which had been a hit for the Righteous Brothers the year before:

Too often, songs of yesteryear are dismissed as relics from a bygone age – as if love, heartache and regret are modern conceits. Yeah, sure, the albums by the Supremes often include covers of then-popular hits, as well as Broadway favorites, but – to me, at least – that’s part of their charm. At their best, which is often, Diana Ross and the Supremes (both pre- and post-ampersand) simultaneously reflect and transcend their times, and remain as relevant and wonderful as ever.

It was a chilly December day in 1969 when my father, then 38, arrived home from Vietnam, where he’d worked the previous 15 months as an electronics field engineer attached to the 5th U.S. Marine Base at Da Nang. He maintained the Marine Corps’ communication system called TRC-97 at fire bases and outposts between Da Nang and the DMZ, and sometimes took sniper fire while riding a motorcycle from one site to the next. He wasn’t a G.I., having left the Army after serving in the Korean War the decade before, but an RCA employee.

According to the thorough family history written by my grandfather the following year, my dad left for Vietnam on Sept. 16th, 1968, and returned stateside on Dec. 15th, though I imagine he first touched ground in Hawaii or San Diego and, even if he flew straight through, made it home a day later. What I recall: my mom crouching beside me, who was all of 4 1/2, and pointing to a tall man dressed in fatigues walking toward us. “Daddy,” she whispered in my ear. I ran to him, arms outstretched, and bellowed the same.

Young children welcoming a parent home from war: It’s a scene played out many thousands of times every decade, it seems. And, as with me, I’m sure it’s the first memory many have of that parent.

I was reminded of the day by Herc’s thoughtful write-up of The Vietnam War, the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary series that recently aired on PBS. I haven’t watched it yet, though at some point I likely will, but it got me to thinking of December 1969 and the winter that followed – it’s the last time, I think, that I enjoyed snow. By the next Christmas we were in Saudi, and snow and frigid weather were non-factors for the next five years.

Anyway, Christmas of 1969, as I remember it, was great; the family was together and, in addition to my dad, I received one of the greatest gifts ever: Billy Blastoff. (It was an action toy, not a doll!)

To pull the magnifying glass away from me, major events of this month included, on the 1st, the initial draft lottery; on the 2nd, the 747 making its official debut; and, on the 6th, “Woodstock West,” aka the Altamont Free Concert, erupting into violence. Unemployment for the month was just 3.90 percent, but was about to begin a gradual climb to 6 percent by the end of 1970; and inflation was relatively high, at 5.5 percent.

Movies released this month included A Boy Named Charlie Brown, Hello, Dolly!, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Topaz and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Top television shows included Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Mayberry R.F.D. and Family Affair. Brady Bunch aficionados will know that the kitsch classic’s lone Christmas episode, when Carol came down with a bad case of laryngitis, aired on the 17th; another historic Christmas-tinged TV moment came 10 days earlier with the first airing of Frosty the Snowman.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: December 27th, 1969 (via Weekly Top 40):

1) Diana Ross & the Supremes – “Someday We’ll Be Together.” This, Diana’s final single with the Supremes, closed out the 1960s in spectacular fashion. (Producer Johnny Bristol can be heard harmonizing along, and giving Diana encouragement.)

2) Peter, Paul & Mary – “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” I never knew this was written by John Denver until the mid-2000s, when I watched an excellent PPM biography on PBS. There’s this, too: PPM recorded it in 1967 for Album 1700, but didn’t release it as a single until October 1969. It promptly ascended the charts and, on Dec. 20th, became their only single to hit No. 1. This week, it dropped a notch to No. 2.

3) B.J. Thomas – “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” Written for the Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid film, this classic Burt Bacharach-Hal David song, which won an Oscar, has been covered more times than than ASCAP/BMI can count. (Just a joke.)

4) Creedence Clearwater Revival – “Down on the Corner”/“Fortunate Son.” The double A-sided hit  – one of the best – dropped to No. 4 from No. 3 (its peak) this week.

5) Steam – “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.” Who knew, as 1969 came to a close, that the chorus to this ditty – which topped the charts for two weeks in early December – would become one of the de facto sing-alongs at sporting events within a decade’s time?

And two bonuses:

6) Neil Diamond – “Holly Holy.” The No. 6 this week is this gospel-tinged classic, which may well be Neil Diamond’s greatest song. (And even if it isn’t, it certainly feels that way when he’s singing it.) Here he is performing on the BBC in 1971:

7) Gladys Knight & the Pips – “Friendship Train.” Topping out at No, 17 is this under-appreciated Norman Whitfield-penned call for peace, love and understanding. Here’s Gladys & the Pips performing it in 1972:

Fifty years ago today, everything was as groovy as it had been 20 days earlier. It was a Saturday, so 13-year-old Valerie S. of South Pasadena was able to join her mother on a gift-buying excursion for her older sister, whose birthday was the following day – but not before sleeping until about 10am. She also “watched” her hair.

As she says at the end of her diary entry, she had a good day.

Sixteen-year-old Wendy D. of suburban Pittsburgh also went shopping with her mom this day – but for herself. She picked the Barron’s SAT book to prepare for the exam, which was scheduled for the following month, plus a study guide for Wuthering Heights. But the day wasn’t a total scholastic-related enterprise. She also bought a pair of loafers. It may seem like a hum-drum life, and it was for her just now – but that would change in the coming months.

I share their experiences for a reason: Yesteryear was not as different from today as we sometimes make it out to be. The 1960s are oft-romanticized because of the music, drugs, free love, social movements and Vietnam War, and assassinations, but – just as today – the reality that most people experienced wasn’t anywhere near as dramatic as what is portrayed in the movies or TV, or even in the news accounts of the day. Discrimination and prejudice were much more pronounced, no question, but – regardless – most men and many women went to work every weekday morning, and worried about the mortgage, bills and kids. And life unfolded for most teens much as it does, still: They slept late on weekends, went shopping with parents, worried about and studied for school, and hung out with friends. Most didn’t run away from home or descend upon Haight-Asbury (though they may have worn flowers in their hair).

What has changed: instant communication. Instead of trading texts, instant messages and Snapchats, as is common now, kids traded notes in class and called each other at night, if at all; and instead of turning to YouTube or Spotify for their music needs, they turned on the radio. Here’s Wolfman Jack doing his thing on XERB-AM, the Big 1090, sometime late this April (or possibly early May – Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” can be heard at the end, and that wasn’t released as a single until April 29th):

Anyway, enough of the preamble. Here’s today’s Top 5, pulled from this week’s charts from Weekly Top 40. (It’s not a straight countdown, but a hop, skip and jump through the chart.)

1) Frank & Nancy Sinatra – “Something Stupid.” For the second week in a row, this fun father-daughter duet held the top spot.

2) The Monkees – “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.” Jumping from No. 5 to No. 3 in its fifth week on the charts is this Neil Diamond-penned pop song.

3) Tommy James & the Shondells – “I Think We’re Alone Now.” In its 11th week on the charts, this classic single climbed from No. 7 to No. 4.

4) The Supremes – “The Happening.” The title song to the flop movie of the same name is this fun little number, which clocked in at No. 11. It was the last single released prior to the group being renamed Diana Ross & the Supremes; and the last Supremes single with Florence Ballard.

5) The Platters – “With This Ring.” If you listened to the Wolfman Jack air check above, you already heard this single, which peaked this week at No. 14. It sounds like was airlifted in from 1959. (Side note: A movie could and should be made of this group due to its ever-churning lineup.

And two bonuses:

6) The Easybeats – “Friday on My Mind.” Jumping from No. 46 to. No. 30 this week is this classic ode to the weekend that was written by band members Harry Vanda and George Young. Here’s a piece of trivia: Young is the older brother of AC/DC’s Malcolm and Angus Young, and co-produced (with Vanda) many of their early albums.

7) The Young Rascals – “Groovin’.” New to the charts, at No. 79, is this signature song from the Rascals, which would hit No. 1 on May 20th.