I’m like a number of people. When we look back on Diana Ross’s success as a performer for the past 57 years, I’m prone to put the metric of that squarely on her charisma and unstoppable drive. An unstoppable drive that made her quite the drag for her bandmates and labelmates to put up with.
Rare does much praise go to her voice and her lyrical interpretation, especially from people that prize R&B music. It’s with irony because her’s isn’t the only light, airy and versatile voice in soul music. Nasal or not, one has to recognize when in control of her talents, she’s a pretty stunning and arresting vocalist. More of her moments that allowed her to truly shine were less on the parade of hits The Supremes doled out throughout the 60’s, but hidden in nooks and crannies on B-sides, Album tracks and unreleased material.
Here I pit her up against Frienemy Gladys Horton in one of Motown’s weird moments of insecurity. When originally recorded in 1963 it was full of bluster and tambourines trying to do what Castanets did for Phil. There was Gladys, Wanda Young doubling her lead, the rest of The Marvelettes and The Andantes providing the “Wall.” It’s a weird curiosity in that form that reached #117 Pop and competed for attention against a proper *actual* Marvelettes single (“As Long As I Know He’s Mine”). Spector nuts love it, I find it a big waste of everyone’s talents in the abbreviated, overblown form.
Where a number of Motown singers shine is when the flotsam is stripped away. Gone is the attempt to make a dancing galloping song with the tambourines and 4 layers of vocals. Front and center is the increasingly confident once Diane Earnestine Ross. At this point, with 3 #1 hits utilizing her star turn talents, she breathes a new life into a recycled Spector clone that elevates it from its imitative beginning to something transcendent and heart-wrenchingly personal.
Where Gladys Horton seems to just be going through the motions, Diana Ross has plenty of time (in terms of the full 17 second intended intro from the original 1963 backing track, full of arresting organ stabs that reference “Hello Stranger” more than “Be My Baby”) to gather her thoughts and emotions. By the time the song build to the climax of
I’ll go on like nothing has happened instead
Some things are better unsaid
But if could cry
I wouldn’t feel so sad
Diana on her own, on the traditional uplift of Florence’s wordless soaring Soprano lays a refined veneer over sheltered and shattered heartbreak. The first two lines here are delivered with searing, soaring emotions, and as the backgrounds drop out for the next utterances, Diana turns deadpan, realistic, far too raw and aware of ones own emotions.
It helps that many a Motown song was rendered as a 3 minute movie, giving their artists time to practice their craft of leaving songs dripping with splendid emotions. Sometimes you look over your own prejudices and analyze accordingly why someone became a legend.
Here’s to Diana Ross, and her countless brilliant moments, on her 72nd Birthday.