Up Front: Diana Ross’ “Ross” Turns 30

Alternate Photo from the Ross Shoot

Alternate photo from the Ross shoot

Define class. Define excess. The summation of those two notions were the crossroads Diana Ross found herself at in the third decade of her career. Ross’ freedom in the 1980’s had eluded her (at times) during her Motown stay.

But too much of a good thing could be bad, or so the saying went. For Ross’ third LP under RCA Records she made an effort to shorten the gap between excess and class. Sadly, Ross is neglected in major discussions of her career. In the 30 years since its creation, Ross has only sharpened its appeal as a mysterious, misunderstood masterpiece.

The History

It’s good to be right when you’ve got the platinum and gold proof. Those that ballyhooed that Ross’ switch in allegiance from Motown to RCA could spell disaster were at a loss. In two years, Ross had racked up hit albums (Why Do Fools Fall in Love 1981, Silk Electric 1982) and singles (“Mirror, Mirror,” “Muscles”) that kept her at the peak of black soul and white pop. There was something amiss in the sound of the discussed works though. Ross’ first two RCA albums felt hollow and not as rounded as her last two Motown platters: The Boss (1979) and diana (1980). Chalk it up to the growing pains of experimenting. Further, it wasn’t as though Ross hadn’t had uneven projects at Motown.

While that may have been true, it was still thought that Ross’ direct hand in her affairs would create a co-existence between her art and commercialism. However, being in her third decade Ross wanted to be both a sales savant and auteur. When Ross sat down to plot her third album under the RCA umbrella, she wanted something that could appeal to every audience without betraying her R&B roots.

The Record

Ross was cut when the art of the session player was very much alive; some of the brightest in the business wrote and played on Ross: Donald Fagan (of Steely Dan), Michael McDonald, Greg Phillinganes, etc. All of their talents were showcased by two primary producers for this outing, Gary Katz and Ray Parker Jr. The former was one of the principal masterminds behind the mentioned rock-soul crew Steely Dan. The latter, Parker Jr., was busy brewing hits that combined breezy hooks and complex urban rhythms; he was a year away from pop culture lightning in a bottle with the theme to the 1984 film ‘Ghostbusters’.

Ross on the video set of "Pieces of Ice"

Ross on the video set of “Pieces of Ice”

Ross surrounded herself with figures that were in the spheres of modernity, but they had an ear for crafting everlasting material. Ross herself contributed the clubby crush closer to the LP, “Girls”;  it was one of the stronger numbers she’d self-produce and co-pen during her entire RCA stay. Katz handled the first five cuts, while Parker Jr. turned in two.

Ross began with the churchy flush of “That’s How You Start Over.” Vocally pronounced, without being loud, Ross’ assured tone gave the song a palpable presence. The winding, patient tilt of “Love Will Make it Right” hid its stormy contents of an affair, Ross held the tale with care (and knowledge). “You Do It” was instantly vintage and recalled the approachability of her offering Baby It’s Me (1977). Immediately, Ross had landed three solid songs that combined classic Diana with just a touch of nouveau. However, the LP linchpin “Pieces of Ice,” penned by two newcomers John Capek and Marc Jordan, gave Ross its mystique.

Blending pop, dance and R&B, “Pieces of Ice” swarmed with its drum programming, vigorous bass and guitar, and a host of other synthetic flourishes. Functioning solely on analogy (lyrically), Ross’ interpretive skill flared brightly. In many ways she pre-dated Pat Benatar’s own “Love is a Battlefield” pulled off of Live From Earth, released later in 1983. Benatar’s hookier landmark hit followed the same blueprint of taking her cornerstone (rock) and caressing it with pop and dance.

The rest of Ross featured a happy-go-lucky number (“Let’s Go Up”) and one ferocious adventure (“Up Front”); then there was “Love and Loneliness.” Pulled between its dichotomous girlish sway and melancholic melody, Ross wore the track and its feeling on her sleeve.

In all, Diana Ross was at her most consistent on Ross. The finalized product had Ross operating between the poles of art and commerce; now it was only a matter of getting this set of songs to a receptive public and make it a “hit.”

The Impact

Ross in Central Park, 1983

Ross in Central Park, 1983

Ross fell between two massive promotional events for Diana Ross in 1983: the ‘Motown 25 Special’ and her Central Park concert. The Motown show, taped on 3/25/83 to air on 5/16/83,  included (almost) every standing legend from the label.

Remembered for Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalk” performance debut, the program also bore controversy for Ross. A very visible altercation took place between Ross and Supremes stalwarts Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong; it was cut from the broadcast version. The resulting publicity wasn’t the best for Ross, so her next event stood ready to rehabilitate her. The Central Park show was to donate its proceeds to build a new children’s play area in Central Park West; the park would bear Ross’ name of course. The event took place on 7/21/83. The rained-out show, and its next day repeat, became one of Ross’ career triumphs; it’s now immortalized on DVD.* The Ross LP itself preceded the concert on 6/9/83.

The first single from Ross was “Pieces of Ice”: U.S. #31, U.S. R&B #15, U.S. Dance #17, U.K. #46. The follow-ups came in the form of “Up Front” (U.S. R&B #60, U.K. #79) and “Let’s Go Up” (U.S. #77, U.S. R&B #31). The LP itself didn’t receive better sales in her two largest countries: America (U.S. Billboard 200 #32, U.S. Billboard R&B #14) and Britain (U.K. Album #44). Commercially, the album stalled in spite of her omnipresent stature during the year of its release. Even the high energy music video companion for “Pieces of Ice,” piloted by “Beat It” director Bob Giraldi, didn’t draw more than modest attention to the project.

“Pieces of Ice”

Directed By: Bob Giraldi

Music critic heavyweights, such as All Music Guide’s William Ruhlman, referred to Ross as “a noble, if failed experiment.” It didn’t help that gossip mongers like J. Randy Taraborrelli had become the gatekeepers for Ross’ legacy prior to the 2000’s; his comment on the Ross-era was shallow and erroneous:

A third album, Ross, generated no Top 10 songs, and one odd single called “Pieces of Ice,” a techno-pop confection the meaning of which even she (Diana Ross) seemed to not understand when asked about it.”

“Techno-pop”? Someone didn’t have their listening ears on. Taraborrelli’s further elaborations, or lack thereof, on Ross’ music can be read in his book Call Her Miss Ross (1989) and its update, Diana Ross: A Biography (2007). Ross’ selective historical preservation, on her part, also led to the decay of Ross.

Thankfully the 2000’s led a renaissance-like return of appreciation for Ross’ music, no doubt spearheaded by the Blue (2006) reissue and the internet phenomenon of blogging. This explosion of intelligent critique on Ross could be seen recently in essays by Paul Milliken (of The Diana Ross Project) and Dustin Fitzharris; both contributed exhaustive research on the Ross LP. The latter fielded interviews from Ross-period players that were discussed above in “The Record” section. My own thoughts on the overall arc of Diana Ross’ RCA albums can be read here.

As Diana Ross quoted Mae West in Central Park 30 years ago, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful…!” In the case of Ross, its expression of elegance and edge was exquisite. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: Ross is only in print in Japan; it retails for a fair amount of money. *=“Pieces of Ice” was omitted from the 2012 DVD release of Ross’ Central Park concert. I have a hyperlink to show the removed performance in the entry above; there is also an Amazon link for the aforementioned DVD of Ross’ concert above. For current information on Diana Ross, visit her official Facebook page.-QH]

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “Up Front: Diana Ross’ “Ross” Turns 30

  1. northcarolinafan

    Thanks for this intelligent piece. This CD, like most of her later work, is underrated and overlooked. What a tragedy!

  2. markus

    Excellent overview!!!! I must say I respectfully disagree with some of it (well, quite a bit of it…lol) but I love hearing contrasting thoughts and opinions about Diana’s work, especially when they’re as well-considered as this. That was one of the things that has made Paul’s Diana Ross Project so enjoyable!

    I don’t think Ross is really a bad album- Diana sounds great on it, and it definitely has a level of cohesiveness to it. But the majority of songs have always felt mediocre to me. Pieces of Ice and Love Will Make it Right have always been the standouts for me, while You Do It and Love or Loneliness are breezy, enjoyable songs. Unfortunately the rest of the album doesn’t do much for me (although Girls is campy fun- when is someone going to remix that!?) But anyway, thanks again for an enjoyable read. 🙂

  3. Glad to stimulate the conversation! lol-QH

  4. Diana Ross, to me, was more interesting when she’s wasn’t singing syrupy over-saturated ballads (sorry, never was a fan of them) so ‘Ross’ (and really a lot of her disco and 80’s stuff) is right up my alley as it has some terribly underrated gems on it. While I agree the album is patchy, I love love “Let’s Go Up”, “Pieces Of Ice” and “Love Will Make It Right”. They are constantly on repeat for me. “You Do It” is also a nice standout, but I sort of prefer Sheena Easton’s version over it.

    Great piece as always Q!

  5. gabriel

    Very interesting review ,I bought this album when i was 15. it captured me because of the great cover art,but to say the truth, “ross” didn’t have a classic cut that could hit the charts (as say Upside down or even Muscles) and the coolnes and phony ways of some of the tracks pulled out many of her followers,more used to tender and lovely ballads,or simply disco hits. Even when this change of direction started with Silk electric, it was even more radical on “ross” I liked the album,maybe because it sounded different and Pieces of ice, was a perfect track, Also That s how you…is a R&B masterpiece with it’s piano intro and Diana singing so relaxed….loved this, but yes sounded a little patchy too.
    Ross was edited same year in my country (Argentina)

  6. Pingback: “Ribbon In The Sky” (Live In Central Park, 1983) | THE DIANA ROSS PROJECT

  7. spookyelectric

    “Ross” is probably her most even album out of her RCA tenure with a consistent slick, AOR sound. Not sure it’s her most successful, but it’s certainly a fine, professional (sometimes too professional, a little soulless maybe) listen from start to finish.

    Something that’s always struck me about this album (especially true on the opening two tracks) is how Diana almost seems like a guest on her own album. It’s interesting that her instincts on what a ‘Diana Ross record’ should sound like were so spot on only a few years earlier with her insistence to remix the Chic record, but at this point seems to have slid a little. On the choruses of these two tunes she’s virtually absent which is odd.

    ‘You Do It’ is a great, bouncy feel good radio tune – it was recorded around this time by several other big female artists including Rita Coolidge and Sheena Easton (Sheena’s version is actually a bit more nuanced and interesting than Diana’s). Sometimes though Diana’s vocals actually seem a little ‘phoned in’ on this album, a bit disengaged. It’s not necessarily a problem as the songs are generally of such a high standard. For instance, ‘Let’s Go Up’ is good but could be so much better (her live version at Central Park beats the studio version easily).

    When everything comes together on the album it’s quite brilliant – and to me that would be ‘Pieces Of Ice’, probably the essence of 80s Diana. Props to Diana for trying to keep up with radio trends during these years. I think the reality is her old hardcore fans and radio just didn’t want ‘new wave’ Diana – maybe it was a step too far. ‘Pieces of Ice’ has a chilly, mesmerising quality (best heard in the extended 12 inch mix) and to me is one of her most successful singles of the decade. (You can’t blame RCA either for its lack of success – that wild video must have cost a fortune – I’m sure director Bob ‘Beat It’ Giraldi didn’t come cheap either at the time).

    Whereas ‘Piece of Ice’ totally works and still feels to me very true to Diana, ‘Up Front’ was too aggressive and rock-edged to be a single. I’m not surprised it wasn’t a hit anywhere. Again, I admire the attempt to ride current radio trends (it’s sonically very similar to Michael Sembello’s ‘Maniac’, huge at the time) I think this one falls a little short. Of the Ray Parker tunes – I think ‘Love Or Loneliness’ is the far more successful of the two. I’d go as far as to say it’s Diana’s best vocal on the record – full of sensuality and warmth, very old school Diana.

    It’s surprising how well the Katz and Parker productions blend together really (Diana’s ‘Girls’ is cute but not on the same level sadly). Interestingly Gary Katz went on to make one of the finest albums of the 80s with a female vocalist a couple of years later with Rosie Vela’s amazing ‘Zazu’ record (which isn’t a million miles away sonically from “Ross”). Goes to show you can have a great producer, great songs and top vocalist but it doesn’t necessarily always add up to more that the sum of its parts. And let’s not even start on that album cover!!

    • You know, I don’t think this record was anymore, or less, professional or slick than anything she cut after “Baby It’s Me,” but you make your points very, very well. I just liked the more…balanced tone of the LP imho, it was only matched by “Red Hot Rhythm & Blues” though that was a bit too staid in spots.

      But this record often causes major conversations in w/ Diana fans which is always a pleasure to engage in!-QH

      • spookyelectric

        Hey Q – I agree with you that “Red Hot” was a great album, a bit patchy maybe, but the best tracks “Summertime”, the Luther song, “Tell Mama” are some of her very best of that decade for sure. Got to say I think Donna’s “There Goes My Baby” trumps Diana’s though!

      • Yeh, Diana’s was a bit too thin & cutesy; in general Donna’s version is my favorite of the song period. She brought out its pathos.

  8. topher

    Since i’m not english speaking I’m sorry not to be able to express what i feel about this LP. This is the one that made me a super fan of the Diva.
    I had a crush for Muscles but was so disappointed by silk ! I couldn’t resist to the cover of Ross , she was so mysterious and imperial.
    the album was well received in France “le sommet de l’art sensual-sexuel de la diva du disque , de celle par qui l’émeute arrive lorqu’elle donne un concert à Central Park”. that could be ” the ultimate sensual and sexual art from the recording Diva”.
    It’s the same vein as “Baby it’s me” less commercial and to short , unfortunately . Why so short is the question ?
    All are my favorites except Girls . Not that bad but very 80’s working girl.
    “Pieces of ice” is a great song very easy to understand for us since french songs use those kind of fantasy words to create images.
    My top are “let’s go up” “love will make it right” “that’s how you start over” and “up front”. “You do it” and “love or loneliness” are very Supremes and very pleasant but less daring.
    Along with Baby it’s me, the boss, diana, Take me higher and Every day is new day .

  9. JJ

    QH Blend,

    I love your commentary on Ross (’83), to me it is a like a cross between a tone poem and a clutch of contemporary pop, R & B and rock of the early eighties. I think it needed a little more Gary Katz and I would have loved a duet with Donald Fagen but the album is like a little lost gem that gleams and rewards with further listening. I managed to get a Japanese release of this CD years ago and still believe it to be one of her best from her 80s output.

    I found your site and then got the news they were releasing five of Ross’ albums from the RCA catalogue. Great shame they are not releasing Red Hot… The production is poor but the songs and her energy still comes through bravely.

    Needless to say I am looking forward to your critique on these RCA albums upon their release.

    Love your expansive knowledge of pop music!!!!

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  11. I just ordered the US reissue of Ross and am certain I will enjoy it. Diana’s RCA period is often criticized for being spotty and undefined or worse. I personally have had a wild ride discovering songs I never knew existed and am enjoying each album as I purchase their reissues on their own merits. It’s nice also to be able to collect reissued remastered versions of each album with participation from RCA and hear the albums like they’re brand new. I love the song Let’s Go Up and have since I first heard it 13 years ago. Being 29, most of these albums came before my birth and so I never realized the magnatude of these releases in terms of variety.

    Why Do Fools, seemed to be the most uniform album, with a style similar to Diana from the year before. Silk Electric was eclectic in a way that made it probably hard to market (I’m a fan of the campy Muscles but see the merits of the other tracks as well). Swept Away was a great pop record to me with Missing You being just the tip of the iceberg. It’s Your Move with the Jeff Beck solo is a fave as is the undeniable Telephone. Eaten Alive is just as quality an album as Barbra’s Guilty or Dionne’s Heartbreaker and the title track despite its haters is another good MJ collaboration. Red Hot was a great album also. Dirty Looks is undeniable and sexy and stands up today as a timeless slice of romantic soul. Her collaboration with Luther Vandross is also a good one….

    Here’s hoping with these reissues selling for dirt cheap from Amazon’s Marketplace sellers (I’ve snagged all but one for under $7 and brand new(!!) too!) that these albums get some more audience and appreciation than they received at first issuing. Even if the albums have detractors they should be recognized for being extremely open minded and enjoyable sound landscapes that should be heard!

    Happy Listening
    –Adam Toroni-Byrne

    • Hi Adam. I’m so glad to see that you’re discovering Diana’s discography. There’s a lot to feast on, so take your time. Thank you for reading and commenting on my #Ross83 piece.-QH

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