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.
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.
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 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.”
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]