Friday, April 4, 2008

Diana Ross - The Boss

Diana Ross - The Boss
by Christian John Wikane

Why doesn’t the critical cognoscenti consider Diana Ross an album artist? Diana Ross is scarcely represented in the canon of popular music by anything other than singles —but with good reason. Her solo efforts at Motown, by and large, varied in quality and didn’t always build on the strength of her biggest hits. For every “Touch Me in the Morning” or “Love Hangover,” there were two tracks of filler. Quite often, her albums were even padded with songs recorded from sessions up to five years old. With an average two album a year release schedule during the 1970s, inferior tracks were inevitable. You can almost forgive the oversight of Ross’ albums during that post-Supremes era.

“Almost” is the key word. Of the seventeen albums Ross released for Motown between 1970 and 1981 (excluding two compilations), four contain consistently superb material: Diana Ross (1970), Surrender(1971), The Boss (1979), and diana (1980). Each record paired Ross with individuals whose writing and producing styles pushed her to give the strongest performances of her career. Not coincidentally, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson produced three out of the four (the latter was produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards). From the outset of Ross’ solo venture, the dynamic songwriting duo gave her two signature songs, “Reach Out and Touch” and her masterful reworking of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” It figures that they’d also create the gold standard against which any Diana Ross album should be adjudicated—The Boss.

In his Rolling Stone review of The Boss, Stephen Holden wrote, “Diana Ross looks and sounds like a sexy human being instead of a gaunt mannequin.” His observation is not without merit: Ross’ previous three studio albums, Diana Ross (1976, not to be confused with her 1970 debut), Baby It’s Me (1977), and Ross (1978) depicted the singer with an alluring but chilly visage. The music itself ranged from sublime dance floor cuts to beautiful, understated ballads to second-rate disco to forgettable schmaltz.

Ross had also starred as Dorothy in The Wiz (1978), a known flop. Suffering a critical and commercial blow was difficult for the star, but the film actually worked to Diana Ross’ advantage. Singing a vocally demanding song like “Home” strengthened her voice and expanded her vocal range exponentially. By the time The Boss sessions commenced, she was in command of her voice like never before. When the album hit record store shelves in May 1979, listeners saw and heard a completely confident and reinvigorated Diana Ross.

Track for track, Diana Ross brings sensuality and sensitivity to Ashford & Simpson’s pop-soul gems. Whether shouting with defiance or screaming with elation, there’s a vitality jumping out of her performances. Within seconds of “No One Gets the Prize,” the album’s sizzling opener, Ross unveils her newfound vocal prowess with a prolonged cry that intimates a kind of catharsis. Her muscled, exuberant timbre is the defining quality of the album. Ashford & Simpson made her sing harder and sassier than she’d ever sung before. “Back off,” she hisses to a backstabbing girlfriend. “I was denied the love that satisfied,” she cries towards the song’s conclusion. Though Ross plays the victim on “No One Gets the Prize,” her performance is triumphant.

Slowing the BPM count down a few beats, “I Ain’t Been Licked” contains Ross’ winning recovery from heartbreak. Ashford & Simpson weave a little gospel into the refrain, “They keep a-holdin’ me down but (I) rise.” The duo’s soaring background vocals, along with Ullanda McCullough and Raymond Simpson, complement Ross’ vocal elasticity here and on the album’s seven additional tracks.

“The Boss” is the exclamation point that closes side one. In fact, it was the only cut from the album to dent the both the pop (#19) and R&B (#12) charts. The winning combination of lush strings, punchy horns, Anthony Jackson’s winding bassline, and the propulsive kick-drum by John Sussewell could hardly be accurately transmitted through radio. This song was meant to be played loud in a club. (Interesting note: Ashford & Simpson’s own “Found a Cure” unseated “The Boss” in the number one spot on the dance charts.) “The Boss” is arguably Ross’ greatest performance, if only for the incendiary vocalizing she unleashes midway through the song.

The first-rate production by Ashford & Simpson, of course, is the album’s other star. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the gorgeous ballad, “Sparkle.” Buoyed by Valerie Simpson’s piano, the instrumental track is tinged with exotic flair. Ross’ voice rises from a misty backdrop of flutes, muted bass, cymbal brushes, harp, and percussion. Michael Brecker’s sax solo and Ross’ “ooh-ooh-whoo” intertwine for a sexy climax. Ashford & Simpson layer all the ingredients to underscore Ross’ longing in a way that’s both romantic and erotic.

Even though the album is chock full of such exceptional moments, The Boss narrowly missed the Top 10 (it eventually earned a gold record) and didn’t spawn a string of hits outside its incessant club play. Allegedly, the lack of promotion stemmed from Berry Gordy’s resentment that Ross was boldly stepping out from under his protective wing. The self-reliant spirit of the album foreshadowed Ross’ ultimate departure from Motown one year later, but not before she released the most commercially successful album of her career, diana, a masterpiece of a different kind.

What makes The Boss special is that every song is a vessel for Diana Ross’ gifts. Whereas other producers approached the singer like a fragile pearl, Ashford & Simpson treated her like a rough diamond. Whether the flirtatious charms of “It’s My House” or the tension of carnal desire and fulfillment that paints “Once in the Morning,” The Boss holds its own nearly thirty years later and dismantles any notion that Ross was only capable of hit singles, Classy, thrilling, and eminently soulful, the album remains a stunning musical achievement for Diana Ross.

Christian John Wikane is a contributing editor for PopMatters. He also writes for SoulTracks and David Nathan’s He resides in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well it's about time someone gave 'The Boss' album some recognition! A very thoroughly researched and well written analysis of one of Ross' best albums for Motown. Ashford and Simpson always seemed to get the most out of her vocally. A reunion of the trio is long overdue.

April 4, 2008 at 4:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Believe or not,I've been listening to this cd for the last three days, some of Ms.Ross' best work. I would love to see her work with A&S again. Great cd from track 1 to the end. I'm a big fan, and enjoy all most of her music....but this by far is one of my favs. The song "I'm in the World" is my favorite song of all time!

April 18, 2008 at 10:21 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

I love this album and agree that the synergy between Ross and Ashford & Simpson is magical. Istill marvel at these songs--the amazing production values and the sensational vocals -- not to mention an album cover that is just plain HOT!!!!!

March 10, 2010 at 9:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've said it before, and will say it again: The Boss is Diana Ross' masterpiece!!! There are no other producers that do for Diana Ross what Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson can do. Together they create musical magic.

March 12, 2010 at 10:45 AM  
Blogger rossfan said...

Please check out Dick's Diana Ross Website:

Thank you!

April 3, 2010 at 11:25 AM  

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