A quarter century into the CD age, The Definitive Collection presents the most complete single-disc overview of Diana Ross’ very best work as a solo artist. Other such compilations have either incorporated her recordings with The Supremes or completely ignored her stint at RCA Records (1981-1987). The Ultimate Collection (1994), released in tandem with the four-disc box set Forever Diana (1993), attempted to group each phase of Ross’ then 30-year career onto one disc but only skimmed the surface of her solo hits. The reality is that Ross’ most commercially successful period, sans Supremes, extended well beyond her solo years at Motown, a fact that The Definitive Collection illuminates in a fashion most “supreme”.
Gracing the cover of this collection is an iconic photo of Miss Ross—her lips bathed in crimson red, eyes staring just past the lens of Douglas Kirkland, conveying the glamour, drama, and allure that shapes Ross’ legend. She was the little girl from the Brewster Projects in Detroit who not only became one of the most successful female vocalists in popular music history but also inspired an entire generation of black American women. Her musical achievements have withstood the passage of time. Diana Ross recast Ashford & Simpson’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” into a rousing, orchestral anthem; dared to reinterpret Billie Holiday standards like “Good Morning Heartache” for her screen debut in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), and created the template for the modern-day pop diva who’s as adept with soaring ballads (“It’s My Turn”) as with sizzling dance numbers (“Love Hangover”).
Throughout the first decade of her solo career, Ross evolved from the breathy, slightly nasal waif of “Reach Out and Touch” to the regal yet feisty lioness of “Upside Down”. Her voice, like iridescent crystal, is a stronger, more versatile instrument than is commonly acknowledged. While not soulful in the way of contemporaries like Aretha Franklin or Patti LaBelle, Ross had a singular style that effortlessly translated to both pop and R&B audiences. Of all the producers Ross worked with over the years, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson knew, intuitively, how to elicit the strength in Ross’ unique instrument. The title track to her 1979 masterpiece, The Boss, for example, showcases Ross’ vocal prowess to scintillating effect. She woops and hollers her way through the “The Boss” unlike any song she’d previously recorded. (Contrary to popular opinion, that is Miss Ross wailing during the instrumental break!)
Seeking more artistic control over her career, Ross fled Motown shortly after the release of another masterwork, diana (1980), and signed an eight-figure contract with RCA. Less known is that Ross assumed production duty for much of her RCA output, including her first album for the label, Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1981). Both the title track and “Mirror, Mirror”—each a “Diana Ross Production”—landed in the Top 10 of the Pop and R&B charts and validated Ross’ skill in the control room. Silk Electric (1982) (featuring a cover portrait by Andy Warhol) and Swept Away(1984) yielded the production and songwriting talents of friends and colleagues, including Michael Jackson (“Muscles”), Darryl Hall (“Swept Away”), and Lionel Richie (“Missing You”), as Ross sought to diversify her repertoire with different styles. The latter tune, a touching tribute to Marvin Gaye, stands as Diana Ross’ last charted Top 10 pop hit in the U.S. to date.
Though Diana Ross returned to Motown in 1989 and recorded five more albums on the label through 1999, her albums were not heavily promoted in the U.S. market and suffered declining sales. Across the Atlantic, however, Ross consistently scored hits in the Top 10 of the UK charts with tunes like “Chain Reaction”, “One Shining Moment”, “Not Over You Yet”, and a 2005 remake of her own 1991 hit, “When You Tell Me that You Love Me”, with Westlife. None of these hits appear on The Definitive Collection, which is something of a missed opportunity. Trading a couple of these songs for her marginally successful 1974 hit “Last Time I Saw Him” or “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes”, which was not a hit and is clearly a marketing ploy for Universal’s recently unearthed Blue album from 1972, might complete the story more thoroughly.
However, The Definitive Collection remains an excellent primer for listeners who wish to acquaint themselves with the cream of Ross’ singles-chart entries in the U.S. yet aren’t ready to plunge for the pricey two-disc Motown Anthology (2001) or rather spotty Best of the RCA Years (1997). Diehard fans exasperated at the prospect of purchasing yet another Ross compilation will be persuaded by this collection’s generous selection of rare photos, superb audio re-mastering, and creative song sequencing.
One last thought: Billboard named Diana Ross “Entertainer of the Century” in 1976. Thirty years later, The Definitive Collection is a dazzling testament to that still prestigious honor.
// Notes from the Road
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