“In the 1960s, Berry Gordy found a way to take R&B music, which had been kind of a niche music, and make it be popular music at a time that transcended race and geography,” says Don Was. “I think Nile and Bernard came up with a way of doing the same thing in their time. It’s as original and as distinctive.” Perhaps it was inevitable that Rodgers and Edwards would eventually contribute to the empire that Gordy built. After all, many of the tracks that the Supremes recorded with Holland-Dozier-Holland were the club music of the mid-‘60s, whether “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” or “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart”. Rodgers and Edwards were well-equipped to build upon that lineage of danceable Motor City magic. With songs like “Le Freak”, “I Want Your Love”, “We Are Family”, and “Good Times” ruling the charts and the clubs, the producers had established a “hitsville” all their own.
Rodgers and Edwards relished an outlet to expound on the qualities that spun gold and platinum for CHIC. In the past, they’d been offered the chance to produce Atlantic acts like Bette Midler, the Rolling Stones, and Aretha Franklin, but they’d felt the timing wasn’t exactly right. “It was well thought out of who these guys wanted to produce,” says Kathy Sledge. “In our case, we were some oblivious act in the states but Diana Ross is Diana Ross!” It was a considerable jump from producing Sister Sledge, who’d previously only had hits in other territories and some minor chart action in the U.S., to producing an artist that Billboard had declared “Entertainer of the Century” three years earlier.
In his autobiography Le Freak (2011), Nile Rodgers vividly details how the diana project unfolded, from the producers’ first meeting with Suzanne de Passe to the initial conversations he and Edwards had with Diana Ross at her New York abode. Inspired by what they saw and heard, Rodgers and Edwards endeavored to paint a well-rounded musical portrait of the singer. Eight songs quickly geminated from visiting the singer at home and observing her new life on the east coast. A new Diana Ross was about to “come out” from the CHIC cocoon. (Note, as it’s been well-documented in Rodgers’ book and in Universal’s 2003 re-issue of diana, Motown engineer Russ Terrana remixed the tracks that Rodgers and Edwards recorded with the singer. Henceforth, all commentary reflects Motown’s “remixed” version of diana as it was originally released to the public in May 1980.)
Recording at the Power Station in late-1979, the producers summoned the core unit of the CHIC organization: Tony Thompson on drums, keyboardists Rob Sabino, Raymond Jones, Andy Schwartz, and the CHIC Strings (Karen Milne, Cheryl Hong, and Valerie Heywood). Lead singers Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin shared background vocals with Fonzi Thornton and Michelle Cobbs. “Strangely enough, I heard Diana’s songs before she did,” says Anderson. “She wanted reference vocals. I think it was ‘Upside Down’ that I said, ‘Oh no. We got to have this one! Why are you giving this one away?’” (laughs). Thornton continues, “They had given Diana songs with Alfa singing the lead on the reference vocals. Reportedly, Diana said that she didn’t want to hear a woman’s voice singing the song. They called me up and said, ‘Fonzi we want you to come to the studio’. The songs were all in keys that were too high for me but I could really sort of navigate that territory.”
“Upside Down” was a gripping gateway to diana. All it took were two sixteenth notes on the hi hat doubled by Rodgers’ guitar to trigger the groove. The rhythm was undeniably CHIC, but with a slight twist. “The way Nile and Bernard slipped those half measures and chromatic progressions in there was so creative,” notes Sandra St. Victor. Compared to “Good times / these are the good times”, the opening chant was a mouthful. The syllables accentuated the rhythm with a punchy gait. Thornton explains, “That staccato sound—‘upside down you’re turning me, you’re giving love instinctively’—became our signature through that time. I think that when Michelle and I started singing with Alfa and Luci, the style of the CHIC vocals changed a little bit so by the time we got to diana, it was a case of me as a male singer singing higher than I normally sing and the girls singing alto along with my voice. That staccato sound is what we lent to Diana on that vocal part.”
Those only familiar with the singer’s biggest solo hits might have been taken aback by her close-miked vocals. The languid sensuality of her voice on “Love Hangover” or the polished cadences of “Touch Me in the Morning” were replaced by something sassier and spunkier. “There was no riffing,” says Martha Redbone. “That’s hard to do. To have a singer with as much discipline to just sing, ‘Up-side down / boy you turn me / in-side out, and / round and round’ ... I remember admiring her because I realized how difficult it is to sing that way and how much self control that she has.” An air of suspense shrouded the verses as the singer spelled out the situation with her lover. She’s no pushover—she knows the guy is fooling around—but she can’t resist his “instinctive” kind of love. This was real talk from Miss Ross.
Rodgers doubled the melody underneath the vocals on the closing vamp. His signature was immediately identifiable. “Nile’s guitar is very distinct,” says Ray Chew. “He calls it ‘the hitmaker’. It’s the one guitar that he’s played on every song. Nobody else plays like that.” Rodgers carried out the melody after the last round of vocals. Philip Bailey notes how his guitar solos complement, rather than upstage, the track. “He’s not jammin’ all over the doggone track, playing stuff to impress him and a lot of other musicians. He’s not trying to see how fast and how slick he can play ... and in doing that, he ends up impressing the musicians.” John Oates concurs, adding, “For Nile, it’s not about the flashy solos or how many notes per measure that he can play. Nile is really like a harmonic drummer. Human beings have the ability to play on the beat, ahead of the beat, or behind the beat. Nile has the unique ability to play perfectly in time slightly behind the beat.” Parsing Rodgers’ style even further, Vincent Henry ties it back to the guitarist’s New York roots. “I hear the Bronx when he’s playing. That Bronx is in there. It’s that boogie that just makes you jump.”
Tony Thompson launched a spry and spirited rhythm on “Tenderness”. Rodgers introduced the melody while the strings mimicked his notes with sharp accents. Addressing a lover, Ross exhibited a range of feelings, coy one moment, vulnerable the next. She wants to overcome her inhibitions but softly implores, “Will you be please be gentle”. She’s assertive even in her vulnerability.
The background vocalists added nuances to the emotional thrust of the scene. Whereas Ross was more delicate in her approach, they’re insistent and direct—“Come on love me”. They’re like the inner voice of the singer, reflecting her fervent desire even as she played it cool. The call and response of “tenderness / is the best” was sung in perfect unison—the hallmark of CHIC vocals. Anderson explains how the background parts for a song like “Tenderness” would have been constructed:
“Bernard would play the track and then he would phrase the background part for us. We would sing in the control room until it had a groove and it was what we felt it should be. We would listen to see who among us got the inflection and got the essence of the song the quickest. We would all move to that person and then the inflections would all be like that person. We’d go out in the studio and get around the microphone. Usually, we’d start with the vamp because that would give you an opportunity to work it out. The inflection is the same but you still infuse it with your own personality. I would always try to bring the breath because I didn’t have the deep power of Fonzi or Michelle. I would add the highs to the whole thing.”
As flawless as the background parts sounded on “Tenderness”, Anderson emphasizes how exacting the recording process was in the studio. “The inflection has to fit in the pocket,” she says. “In order to do that kind of singing, you have to know each other.” Eddie Martinez continues, “Singing in unison is really difficult because all of your pivot points, in terms of breath and phrasing, have to blend. Then the pitch comes into play too. There was no Autotune back then, let’s put it that way. There were no easy outs. You had to get it right and create a blend and all be singing in pitch. That’s not easy.” The interplay between Ross and the backing vocalists, plus the interlocking rhythms of Rodgers, Edwards, and Thompson, made “Tenderness” a deceptively complex successor to the more obviously intricate grooves of “Upside Down”.
At first glance, “Friend to Friend” seemed beamed from an entirely different album. However, Rodgers and Edwards also specialized in writing ballads, whether “At Last I Am Free”, “Somebody Loves Me”, or “You Can’t Do It Alone”. Even among those ballads ,“Friend to Friend” was unique. “The melody and the cadence of it was so specifically Nile,” says Thornton. “The way ‘When I gave all my love to you’ was expressed was very much the way Nile wrote.” The song was a valentine to Diana Ross, a way to spotlight the clear, crystalline qualities of her voice in a softly compelling way. “‘Friend to Friend’ gave her an opportunity to just shine,” says Alfa Anderson. “That’s when you really appreciate her articulation, her tonality.”
Contrasting with the glowing, high-pitched tones of the keyboard, the singer called upon the deeper part of her register. Like a siren luring a sailor out to sea, she’s a magnetizing presence as Edwards’ bass cushioned the rich and resonant tone of her voice. “I have often thought that I / had no love to give / But it’s yours for the asking”, she sings. It’s the most intimate sequence on the album. During his solo, Rodgers became the instrumental counterpart to the singer, merging seamlessly with Ross as her voice returned to the foreground. Her exquisite harmonies on the last line captured the hushed poignancy of the song. The slow dissolve of the strings connoted anticipation, as if something dramatic was about to happen ... and not three seconds later, something did.
“I’m—com-ing—out”, the singer shouted. Within mere moments, Diana Ross went from confiding intimacies on “Friend to Friend” to making a grand proclamation. “The way ‘I’m Coming Out’ opens was so great,” enthuses Brenda Russell. “I mean, you’re already in. By the time the intro’s over, you are in.” Rodgers whipped up the rhythm like a turbine while Tony Thompson announced his arrival with the fanfare of a one-man band marching down the street. “Tony hit those drums so hard, I’m surprised they stayed up,” Derek Bramble laughs. “He was a smasher but he had a great groove.” Alfa Anderson adds, “Tony’s drum playing was excellent. He brought that pizazz to that. We used to call him ‘Dark Gable’ because he was so handsome and had such a flair.” Milking the moment, Thompson teased and taunted with drum fills for half a minute before setting the main rhythm into motion.
Of the eight songs on diana, “I’m Coming Out” was the one that evinced a major shift in the singer’s personal and professional life. It foreshadowed her imminent departure from Motown in 1981 and her determination to forge ahead away from the powerful entity that had directed her career for nearly 20 years. “I’ve got to show the world all that I want to be and all of my abilities / There’s so much more to me”, she sang. Within the musical context of diana, “I’m Coming Out” provided a dazzling climax to the album’s first half. The effect was like a New York block party. After a trombone solo by Meco Monardo, the marching band motif from the introduction reappeared. Every instrument sewed its own pattern into the groove while Ross ad libbed. Thompson redirected the beat back to the chorus rhythm before Ross unleashed a victorious cry, “I’m, I’m coming OUT!!” She’d crossed the finish line in the race towards her independence.
The singer harnessed the ebullience of “I’m Coming Out” for the first track on Side Two. “Hey everybody!”, she exclaimed before the groove kicked in on “Have Fun (Again)”. The background singers intoned the song title with a clipped and precise manner while Ross sang “I want you to” like a one-way dialogue between her and the listener. The playful spirit of the song manifested in a number of ways: from the singsong “just like little children” hook, to how “have fun, have fun, have fun” crescendos through a wall of reverb, to the way the track drops out and suddenly fades back in.
“Have Fun (Again)” was like the album’s unofficial manifesto, the guiding principle for why Diana Ross was working with Rodgers and Edwards in the first place. “The lyrics were brilliant,” states Tomi Jenkins. Beneath the frivolity, the producers were writing words based on their candid conversations with the singer. “Money won’t be enough, when the going gets tough it’s rough”, she sang over the verse’s jagged rhythm. The lyrics were based on the very real dynamics she experienced between fame, love, fortune, and happiness. In a more global sense, “Have Fun (Again)” entreated the listener to seek a respite from troubles through a carefree kind of play.
The concept of play continued in more literal terms on “My Old Piano”. Inspired by the actual baby grand that held court in the singer’s apartment, the song cleverly anthropomorphized the piano into a living, breathing object with an “88-key smile”. There’s a palpable joy in Ross’ performance. “I like ‘My Old Piano’ because it was so different,” says Alfa Anderson. “It seemed different for Diana than anything else she had done. You just wouldn’t have expected it.”
In each verse, Rodgers’ guitar is an omnipresent force underneath the singer’s breathless lead vocal. “Within the funk realm or the pop realm, Nile has the innate ability to make the guitar be a focal point relative to his style because it’s so unique,” says Martinez. “Prior to CHIC, Nile was playing in jazz groups and things like that so his knowledge of chords is coming from someone who’s a jazz guitarist but he breaks it down for a funk idiom rather than a blues guitarist who’s playing a funk line.” Leaving no part of the fret untouched, Rodgers revealed even more of his multi-faceted guitar skills as he and pianist Rob Sabino faced off in a friendly duel for the singer’s affection.
“Now That You’re Gone” swung the pendulum away from the jouissance of “My Old Piano”. It’s the only track on diana that contains even a hint of melancholy. For her part, Ross communicated the resigned acceptance of a fizzled love affair through crisp, robotic phrasing. Musically, Rodgers and Edwards veered from anything predictable. Rather than render the story line as a ballad, they shaded it with exotic accoutrements like percussion and reggae-tinged rhythms. Never before had CHIC grooved quite this way on a record. “Nile and Bernard had always been avant garde in their thinking,” notes Anderson. “This allowed them an opportunity to express all of the other things that they had inside of them. They might have been Living Colour had they been allowed to do that.”
Edwards’ bass lines were especially pronounced on “Now That You’re Gone”, giving the groove an interesting kind of elasticity. “He was kind of like James Jamerson,” says Don Was. “You could sing the bass lines. They’re melodic. They’re lyrical.” Derek Bramble was awestruck by Edwards’ style. “It was like Bernard walked on water,” he says. “He was one of those bass players that just spoke to you directly. He was just incredibly nimble but he laid it down.” Near the song’s conclusion, Edwards deftly snuck some unscripted moves into the groove.
Shifting into a different gear, Edwards sent “Give Up” into orbit with his agile moves on the bass. Diana Ross screamed “ow!” over the song’s sudden burst of bass and drums. It was a suitable exclamation given the track’s exuberance. Alfa Anderson recalls how the background vocalists also enjoyed laying down their vocal parts on the song. “I remember being in the studio and looking over at Michelle Cobbs. She had this smile on her face. She got ‘Give Up’ on a very visceral level. You could just see all the joy and passion in her face as she was singing it.”
Thematically, “Give Up” mirrored “Upside Down” but with a different reflection. This time, Ross demanded that her lover surrender his love to her. “Although your heart’s locked up, my love will assist me so that you can’t resist me”, she sang. The cool composure of “Upside Down” was supplanted by an insatiable ardor. The singer’s performance contained a strength, stridency, and improvisational quality that was unlike any of her other vocals on the album. Clearly, these were her “good times”.