Part VI: diana: The Impact
Anyone walking into a record store in June 1980 might have been a tad shocked. Under a layer of shrink wrap, diana depicted Diana Ross casually attired in jeans and a white short-sleeve shirt. It looked like the woman from The Boss album cover had gone for a dip in the pool. What Francesco Scavullo caught from behind his lens perfectly corresponded to the music. His photograph defined diana even before the listener dropped the needle on the vinyl.
MC Lyte: I just remember the cover saying a lot with a little. It didn’t need a lot of color. It was just black and white and it was her. It was beautiful.
Dionne Farris: I love when Diana diva’ed down! This choice of style was a welcome shift after seeing her in gowns and fancy dresses for so many years. This cover evokes a natural state of being much like the cover of her eating the apple, looking like a little kid (Diana Ross, 1970). She’s got that fresh out-of-the shower feel. The simple styling made her seem like one of “the people” and more approachable.
Tomi Jenkins: Diana looked fresh, young, and new. It fit what was inside that album jacket to a tee.
Aziza: This is one of my favorite pictures. It’s naturally her and you still see the confidence, love, and beauty. It’s an aura.
Alfa Anderson: I think it’s one of her best covers. This is a stripped-down Diana. That’s what they wanted this album to be for her. Just a white T-shirt and jeans. Not the big “La Ross” hair, which I love. To me, it was so incredibly brave of her to do that. It shows a side of her and a vulnerability that “I’m ready to let my fans really see me and see my heart”. That really speaks directly to her having fun and really wanting to do something different.
Brenda Jones: It looked like she’d gotten to a place of contentment and comfort. “I’m free and confident and happy. I’m comfortable.”
Patrick Adams: I see a very confidant yet vulnerable artist telling the world, “I’m just gettin’ started. I’ll let the music speak for me.”
Martha Redbone: It’s stunning. I love the simplicity of it. It’s a beautiful, powerful picture. I like that they chose this one. Simple, black and white, in the moment. I thought, I wanna be her when I grow up! That’s who I want to be.
Sandra St. Victor: I see all the possibilities of young black womanhood. This particular cover was like Diana’s “unplugged” look. Even in a tee and jeans, she embodied this searing beauty, almost a woman-child. She showed us she was “down”, she was you. It said, “I have nothing to prove. I am.” In a way, this visual declaration of “I am” helped us all say, “Yes, we are.” We are serious yet sexy. We are independent yet alluring. We are beauty, unhindered by forced conceptions of glamour.
diana was the summer album of 1980. The singer’s new groove echoed from penthouses and playgrounds alike. “Nile and Bernard brought ‘da funk and a cool NY edge to Diana’s music,” says Nona Hendryx. On the airwaves, Diana Ross turned listeners “inside out” with “Upside Down” while Stephanie Mills sang “Never Knew Love Like This Before”, Chaka Khan wailed “it’s gonna rain” on Ashford & Simpson’s “Clouds”, and Mary Davis chanted “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” with the S.O.S. Band. Everyone from a young MC Lyte to recent Grammy winner Gloria Gaynor was digging the tune.
“Upside Down” debuted on the Hot 100 in July 1980 and capped the chart on 6 September, awarding the singer her fifth solo number one pop single. It completed a triple victory when it also crowned the R&B singles chart and the dance chart. “Let me tell you when I heard ‘Upside Down’ I was done,” says Sandra St. Victor. “To have that level of musicality at the top of the charts was inspiring.” As “Upside Down” commenced the first of four weeks at number one, “I’m Coming Out” marched onto the pop chart, eventually peaking at #5. Across the Atlantic, “My Old Piano” charmed UK audiences and spawned another Top 5 single from the album. The album itself shot to #2 on the Billboard 200 and followed Cameo’s Cameosis (1980) to the top of the R&B albums chart, where it owned the number one spot for eight consecutive weeks from July through September 1980.
In newspapers and music trades, critics applauded the pairing of CHIC with Diana Ross. “Mr. Edwards and Mr. Rodgers have seen fit to stretch their formulas in interesting ways for her,” wrote John Rockwell in The New York Times. Highlighting “I’m Coming Out”, he continued, “The familiar symmetries of the pop-disco song are varied and displaced in most refreshing ways. There are sudden interruptions of the flow, rhythmic displacements and dynamic irregularities” (6 June 1980). Writing in his “Consumer Guide” column, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau noted, “Her perky angularity and fit-to-burst verve could have been designed for Rodgers and Edwards’ synergy. And Nile is showing off more axemanship than any rhythm guitarist in history”. Rolling Stone was similarly effusive: “Ross’ reedy soprano conveys the spirit of child’s play with amazing ease as she converts the emotion of The Boss into pure rhythmic energy” (2 October 1980).
As 1980 yielded to 1981, Diana Ross placed a gold single for “Upside Down” on her wall while diana rewarded the singer with her first platinum album. During the star-studded awards season of winter 1981, “Upside Down” picked up a Grammy nomination for “Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female” and won Diana Ross an American Music Award for “Favorite Soul/R&B Single”. Sitting with Michael Jackson at the 30 January 1981 AMA ceremony, the artist also took home the prize for “Favorite Soul/R&B Artist”, a category that included Chaka Khan and Stephanie Mills.
Diana Ross was back on television in March 1981 with Diana, a one-hour, Emmy-nominated special that combined footage from her concert at The Forum in Los Angeles with taped vignettes that featured Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Larry Hagman, and The Joffrey Ballet. Whether singing “It’s My Turn” in a photographer’s dark room suffused with pink light or singing “Ease on Down the Road” with Jackson, the singer was a beguiling force of nature. The Forum footage showed a sold-out audience charged with excitement as Ross sang her latest hits from diana. When she asked “Are you ready for the record that you made number one for me?”, the crowd knew what was coming. Performing “Upside Down”, the singer strutted, flirted, cavorted, and got down right funky. Watching her hold the audience rapt with “Upside Down” left little doubt that Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards had helped ignite a whole new movement in the singer’s career.
Philip Bailey: Diana Ross is a superstar par excellence, no question about it. Nile and Bernard gave her some swag and some hipness for that time. They were able to fit her into the New York scene and the club scene and all that was going on at that time without her having to become somebody else.
Brenda Russell: Nile and Bernard nailed it for her. They didn’t make her sound like she was trying to be someone she wasn’t. She still was Diana but with this whole funky sound that was just the sound of the day, of the moment, with those guys. It was very, very musical and soulful.
Eddie Martinez: What they really brought to the fore was a currency that was going on. Diana was a real bonafide superstar. Nile and Bernard were at the helm in terms of charting a course for her. It’s a combination that can’t be beat. My God, those are some iconic songs! Those songs stand out. What I love about it is how stripped down it is compared to what was being done before with Diana and her productions.
Fonzi Thornton: They brought a modern sound to diana. It was so different. It was so angular. It was written from such a different point of view. They catapulted her into the future, musically. I think it opened up Diana’s whole world. The album is not just about her singing. It’s really more about presenting her a different way.
Kathy Sledge: It’s Mozart that said simplicity is genius. If you think about all of Nile and Bernard’s hits, they’re pretty simple—chants that we sing along to. They had a formula. It was always simple. You had that formula with Diana Ross and it was massive.
Don Was: They brought simplicity to Diana Ross’ music. You certainly didn’t lose the essence of Diana, even though it had the CHIC stamp on it. It grooves more than some of her other records. It’s a raw groove. It doesn’t have layers. It does but ... It’s like a Beatles record. I don’t think people can keep track of more than three or four things going on behind the vocal. The Beatles were masters of that, I don’t mean “I Am the Walrus” but Rubber Soul (1965) or those kind of records where there’s just a few things going on but they’re major events. If you’re going to make a record like that, every part’s got to be really major and distinctive.
Irene Cara: They brought their vibe to her and when it was combined with hers ... it was crazy in the clubs. It was a smart move. The fact that both Diana and Berry Gordy agreed to go in that direction really spoke to a lot of people of my background who were from the projects.
Gloria Gaynor: They made her music bigger, they made it stronger, and they helped her to really stay with a black audience but also cross over into pop. She reinvented herself.
Alfa Anderson: Diana reinvented herself with simplicity. At this point in her career, she needed to relate to a younger crowd. She was not afraid to do that. She knew who she was and she was able to maintain her sense of identity in the middle of all that.
Dionne Farris: They brought the elements of disco, funk, fat bass lines, and fun to her sound. Her evolution gave me valuable insight. For longevity, a recording artist will have to reinvent themselves and keep up with the times. She seemed willing to be open-minded in order to pull off a sound that was not traditionally her own. I loved when Ms. Ross was in this era. The music gave a new generation, who may have been too young to experience her in the Supremes days, an opportunity to be exposed to her artistry.
Sandra St. Victor: They brought her back squarely into the sights of forward-thinking youth. This was not your momma’s Diana Ross.
André Cymone: I think CHIC exemplified that sort of funk rock foundation. They projected that new sound in Diana’s music, which updated her and her music and in turn opened her up to a new demographic.
Derek Bramble: They gave her a fresh lick of paint. I think she’s earned her stripes just by the nature of who she is. Nile and Bernard came along at just the right time. She was able to re-catch her wave at a time where however long you’d been around didn’t matter.
MC Lyte: They brought this surge of energy. You hear those songs and ooh, it is time to get busy! With a talent like hers, everybody wants to work with her. The producers have fabulous ideas of what it is that they want to bring to you as an artist to help you shine. They were able to bring out those qualities that everyone wants to hear from her and present them in a different fashion.
Tomi Jenkins: When I heard “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out”, I knew who was behind the production. No one else could groove like that, but listening to the record, there were so many wonderful songs on it. “Now That You’re Gone”, for instance. Great changes. That album defied categorization. There were so many levels to it—musically, sonically, emotionally.
Fonzi Thornton: “Upside Down” reminds me so much of Nile and “I’m Coming Out” reminds me so much of Bernard. Both of them were funky guys but Bernard was sort of a “hominy grits” guy. He always brought the hot sauce and the black pepper. Nile had lots of rock influences and bohemian influences. You could always tell Bernard’s language as opposed to Nile’s language. “I say to thee respectfully” reminds me so much of Nile in the way that Nile writes lyrics and “I want the world to know, got to let it show” reminds me of Bernard. You could hear their signatures in the music.
Vincent Henry: You can hear the polish that they have but by the same token, there’s another kind of freedom on “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down”.
Alfa Anderson: I sang ‘I’m Coming Out’ and Luci sang ‘Upside Down’ on tour. We loved those songs. We did a medley. When I would hit that first note—“I’m”—I would hear everybody go, “Wooooo!” Everybody would just sashay down to the front. It was such a powerful song: just “do you” and speak your truth.
Martha Redbone: I remember being really thrilled that “I’m Coming Out” ended up being a gay anthem. I think for her, it was coming out of her shell but I love that the gay community embraced that as their anthem and I love that she embraced them as well. To me, that was really special and helped iconize her even more than Mahogany, more than the Supremes, more than the big wigs. The idea of “I’m Coming Out” is really a progressive message for anyone who wants to come out, to break free and turn over a new leaf. I think that song helped change the world.