Diana Ross Red Hot Rhythm and Blues

Diana Ross Explored Black Music’s Rich History on ‘Red Hot Rhythm & Blues’

Thirty-five years ago, Red Hot Rhythm & Blues saw Diana Ross ambitiously and affectionately placing herself within the history of Black music.

Red Hot Rhythm & Blues
Diana Ross
RCA Records
8 May 1987

Red hot rhythm and blues – a form of music born in America. Its origins began from children of children of slaves singing their beliefs. This is a journey through gospel, soul, rock, Motown, funk, reggae, through the popular music of today. The combination of it all equals rhythm and blues!

Diana Ross, Red Hot Rhythm & Blues1

To celebrate and explore Black pop music, Diana Ross’ 17th studio album—Red Hot Rhythm & Blues (1987)—is an ambitious and affectionate way of honoring the past and present of Black music. Of course, it’s also a way for Ross to place herself within that history. Along with the LP itself, she headlined a television special that was a simultaneous advertisement for the album, and she a filmed homage to the music that influenced her sound. ­The project was Ross’ contribution to the story of Black popular music, as Ross told its story by covering songs from yesteryear and recording current material. On the television special, she made this tribute visual by paying homage to American popular music, and she specifically highlighted the influence of Black artists.

Diana Ross’ place in pop history, as well as Black pop history, is secure. With the Supremes, she defined pop music of the ’60s, and her generational influence was almost as integral as the Beatles. The Supremes projected an image of class, elegance, and aspiration. As music journalist Mark Anthony Neal points out, “Motown, particularly The Supremes, were symbols of breaking racial barriers.” He also stresses that the success of the Supremes “said a great deal about the position of Black women in society”.

As the leading group from the legendary Motown Records, the Supremes fulfilled label founder Berry Gordy’s main ambition: to elevate profoundly gifted and talented performers into superstars. Crossover in the ’60s meant finding success among white audiences, which Gordy sought by having his artists record pop standards, sing Broadway show tunes, and appear at supper clubs and prestige venues like the Copacabana.

In addition, he employed etiquette and style coaches to help create the sleek, glamorous image that he was cultivating. These coaches saw their work as integral to combatting reductive and racist ideas of Black people in popular culture in the midcentury. Maxine Powell, an iconic figure of Motown’s “Artist Development”, explains her work with the stars of Motown: “All my life, I was thinking of things that would help my race become outstanding.” 2 Though retrospective assessment of this goal can find troubling influences of respectability politics, Motown’s thought process back then was to counter problematic stereotypes with images of elegance and beauty.

None of these crossover goals obscures Motown’s enduring dominance of Black popular music. The white-hot success of the Supremes was a profound shift in expectations of Black entertainment. Radio broadcaster Trevor Nelson draws particular attention to the commercial success of the girl group as aspirational for Black audiences: “The word ‘success’ in America was always associated to ‘white,’ not ‘black’”. Nelson goes on to say, “To have three Black girls … become the biggest-selling female artists in the world, must have given a lot of hope … to every Black girl in the projects”. 3

As a solo artist, Ross regularly paid tribute to the Black musicians who influenced her sound. In her concerts, she spoke—and sang—of her reverence for artists like Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith. As her legend grew, Ross eventually influenced younger creators in much the same way, and by 1987—when Red Hot Rhythm & Blues came out—she was an established pop icon.

Artists popular in the mid-’80s, such as Jody Watley, Janet Jackson, and Madonna, were vocal fans of Ross, and her influence was heard in their music and seen in their visual presentations. Thus, Ross was in an interesting position when recording and releasing Red Hot Rhythm & Blues because she was simultaneously a current recording artist and a veteran music legend. She was commenting on Black pop culture and was an important figure in Black pop culture.

The album is significant because it concurrently mines Black pop history, looks to current Black pop trends, and finds a place in that history for Ross. The record came at an important period in popular culture, which saw groundbreaking strides by Black popular culture figures. These creative Black artists made lasting impressions on mainstream culture by influencing television, music, theatre, literature, and film. As Red Hot Rhythm & Blues arrived, American pop culture saw people like Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, and Eddie Murphy dominating mainstream entertainment. As cultural critic and writer Greg Tate puts it,

What happens in the ’80s, is really the fruit of the Civil Rights Movement. These doors that have been shut down by Jim Crow, segregation, Black people actually having some agency and autonomy within pop culture within media. Every week, there’s a new breakghthrough, in terms of Black presence in culture. People that were impossible to even imagine before the ’80s, There’s no question, they’re breaking the wave. That’s a “storming the gates” moment.

– Greg Tate, The Andy Warhol Diaries4

According to music journalist Paul Milliken, Red Hot Rhythm & Blues’ original focus was “covers of classic soul tunes”. However, the resulting album was far more representative of Ross’ sound in the mid-’90s. Some classic R&B tunes made it to the tracklist, and there were original tunes, too, giving the record a broader sound than if it were just a covers album. In a sense, it acts as a broad survey of Black pop music up until 1987. The album works hand-in-hand with the accompanying TV special to tell an important story about Black American music history and its powerful influence on mainstream pop music.

The LP features songs released while Ross sang with Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard in the Supremes. She records Jackie Ross’ “Selfish One”, Etta James’ “Tell Mama”, the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby”, the Bobbettes’ “Mr. Lee”, and Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music”. The latter was a No. 2 pop hit on the Billboard Hot 100 charts that was kept from the pole position by the Supremes’ 1967 smash, “The Happening”. It’s with these songs that Ross engages with her contemporaries, though significantly, she was still recording music two decades later.

Though Etta James was still making music in the ’80s, Ross was the only one on the list having noteworthy chart hits. In other words, she was one of the few veterans of the ’60s who managed to score some longevity. While a testament to her talent, her enduring success is also an indictment of the music industry’s treatment of Black artists in the ’60s. For many such performers of that era, show business meant having their material stolen and re-recorded by white artists. Sadly, it also meant being cheated out of their royalties and suffering from hostile indifference from their labels once pop tastes shifted and changed.

Because Berry Gordy favored Ross, she escaped much of the tragedy that befell many other Black artists of the time. The television special dramatizes the adversity that Black artists faced in the mid-century. In a nod to her Oscar-nominated work in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Ross portrays a legendary—if somewhat forgotten—soul-jazz singer named Birdie Pickett who, in a flashback, has her material scooped up by a less soulful white singer (played by Bernadette Peters). This happens at the behest of the white label executives looking for mainstream/commercial success. The scene is followed by a sequence that begins with Little Richard’s fiery “Tutti Frutti” followed by a syrupy version crooned by Pat Boone. In an archival interview, Boone even admits to not understanding the lyrics and being pressed to record the tune.

Because the covers were written when Ross was recording material herself, she was performing those tracks as a peer. At times, she seems to be channeling the original artists. For example, the similarities in her rendition of “Selfish One’s” vocal performance compared to Jackie Ross’ original are uncanny. Producer Tom Down creates a sound that is a fitting tribute to the older version without encasing it in dated mid-’80s production. Both Rosses have beautiful high voices, though Diana Ross’ is lighter, whereas Jackie’s sounds a bit more substantial.

Interestingly, Jackie Ross’ interpretation was recording when she was 18 years old, though she sounds far more mature. Diana Ross recorded the tune when she was over 40, yet because of the girlish timbre of her voice, she sounds like Jackie’s contemporary. Dowd’s faithful reproduction of the 1964 version also means that the newer, more modern version sounds timeless.

It’s crucial to compare Ross’ covers to the Boone cover because it reveals a disconnect in Boone’s handling of Little Richard’s material due to intent. When white artists swiped Black records—smoothing out any grit and soul in the process—the goal was to market them to white audiences. In contrast, Ross wasn’t interested in sapping the soul or fire from the songs she was covering. On the contrary, she was paying tribute. She listened to these songs on the radio as a very young woman, whereas Boone’s admitted ignorance of the piece highlighted the crass cynicism at play.

When listening to the covers, it’s clear that Ross understands the material. Before becoming a star with the Supremes, she talked of singing doo-wop songs on the stoop with her girlfriends at the Brewster Projects in Detroit, Michigan. There are echoes of doo-wop in some of Motown’s early ’60s hits, mainly when listening to the male vocal groups. Given that Ross had a history with and affection for doo-wop music, it makes sense that she would be successful at covering the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby”.

Again, Dowd does something very smart when producing the song because he doesn’t try to make it hip or trendy by obscuring its lovely melody with synths or drum machines. The Drifters were a male vocal group, so in turn, a chorus of female vocalists back Ross (though it doesn’t sound like a Supremes retread). Because Ross’ voice eerily resembles Frankie Lymon’s (whose hit tune “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” she covered in 1981), she sounds comfortable in a doo-wop setting, even if it’s not her genre.

Though Ross was a cultural and pop icon by the mid-’80s, one of the criticisms she’s faced her whole career was that her soft coo of a voice wasn’t as soulful or spirited as those of her peers like Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, or even Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard. It’s a charge that has followed her career, allowing some critics to underestimate her contribution to soul music if not dismiss it outright.

It’s not an entirely unfair assessment since Ross’ voice is airy and pretty. It’s high with a fluting tone. She doesn’t have the lung power or churchy grit of Franklin, nor does she have the awesome range of LaBelle. That said, it would be a mistake to underestimate her many gifts. Despite her timbre being dismissed as a “pop” voice, Ross has a beautiful, evocative instrument that conjures genuine emotion. Beyond that, she is also a top-notch songstress and stylist.

So, to some naysayers, Ross’ decision to cover Etta James would seem like a mistake. James’ voice is a powerful thunderclap with a beguiling rasp, and she has a bluesy power to her voice that can melt the vinyl on which it’s captured. Just listen to the soulful force of her belting on “At Last”. It’s a wonder to behold. As for James’ relationship with Red Hot Rhythm & Blues, it’s twofold. Not only does Ross do a credible version of James’ 1967 hit, “Tell Mama”, but the legendary soul shouter appears on the television special and sings “At Last”. When Ross struts through “Tell Mama”, she displays a rare gutsiness in her voice. Although her version is no match for the original (James’ funky performance is really brilliant), the song works as an apt tribute.

An essential part of the Red Hot Rhythm & Blues project was acknowledging and referencing the current sound of Black music. In her introduction to the television special, Ross sought to link rock ‘n’ roll to Black music (specifically, R&B). Therefore, the contemporary material on Red Hot Rhythm & Blues acts as a snapshot of ’80s Black pop music. Compared to the covers, the new tunes feel the most time-stamped with some dated flourishes that link the music to that era in ways that the soul covers didn’t. Ross introduces rapper LL Cool J on the television special, who offers a blistering performance of “Go Cut Creator Go”. He embraces the subversive and bracing musical genre born out in the Bronx, a musical destination that would rival even Detroit as a significant urban source of musical innovation and ingenuity.

Ross doesn’t rap on the album—though she does during her intro for LL Cool J on the special. But the album’s first single, “Dirty Looks”, is a soul-pop number that borrows funk from hip-hop rhythms. The track opens the television special and presents the archetypical image of ’80s Diana Ross: glamorous, beautiful, sensual, grooving to the music, preening, and posing. So much of Ross’ contribution to popular culture was aesthetic, which explains how her impact is sometimes muted, and the singer cannot divorce fashion from her music. There’s also a nod to UK soul on the record via the inclusion of “Shine”, an original composition by Simply Red frontman Mike Hucknall. The contemporary material on Red Hot Rhythm & Blues was not only an attempt to comment on contemporary Black pop music, but it was an unintended survey of Ross’ work in the ’80s. In particular, of her work with RCA Records.

Because she was so inexorably linked to Motown, Ross’ sound became synonymous with the label and Detroit. When she left the label in 1981—for RCA Records—she cleaved a symbolic tie and became an artist on a far less singular label. This meant that she was no longer part of that important story, which was never more apparent than on the 1983 television special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. Alongside Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson, and the Jackson 5, Ross was a major figure on the Motown label. Truthfully, her music with Motown defined Black pop music for much of the ’60s and ’70s. Thus, it was a wistful feeling to see Ross pay tribute to Gordy and her old label and reunite with the Supremes, yet be firmly placed in the “yesterday” camp of the title. Like Gaye and Jackson, she represented a glorious past that both she and Motown were facing in the ’80s by weathering shifting pop fashions and trends.

As a result, some sterling moments on the newer album songs rank among the diva’s best. For instance, her gorgeous cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Summertime” is stunning. She wraps the austere ballad with a lovely, dreamy croon. It’s a performance that would rival her most stirring work with Motown. The other highpoint among the new tunes is Ross’ empathetic performance of Luther Vandross’ “It’s Hard for Me to Say”. This track is significant because of its excellence and because Vandross was almost as huge a Ross fan and disciple of her work as Michael Jackson. He created pop magic for his other idols, Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick, in the ’80s, and this fantastic work indicates that the pair should have made more beautiful music together.

And yet, in the ’80s, Ross jumped on radio trends to remain commercially relevant. As a result, we get the high-tech glossy “Shockwaves”: a messy, very dated number that may have sounded stylish and stylized at the time but, in retrospect, comes off as somewhat silly and beneath her dignity. The song doesn’t hold up and is further hampered when sitting aside such gems as “Mr. Lee” or “There Goes My Baby”. These flash-in-the-pan moments hampered much of Ross’ work in the ’80s at RCA, and the contemporary pop tunes threatened to entomb the album into its decade.

Ross’ contract with RCA ended in 1988, and she returned to Motown the following year. Naturally, her return was met with some hype and a narrative centered around a queen going back to her queendom. Her return album—Workin’ Overtime (1989)—which reunited Ross with Nile Rodgers, was as defined and inspired by Black pop music as Red Hot Rhythm & Blues. When doing press for Workin’ Overtime, Ross would talk about watching music videos on BET and being inspired by hip-hop and house when recording the album. Unlike Red Hot Rhythm & Blues, Workin’ Overtime was a dogged attempt at staying current by wholly ignoring the past. Both records showed audiences a veteran artist who had her feet planted firmly in both the past and the present.

Works Cited

1 Layton, Joe. Red Hot Rhythm & Blues, 1987, Anaid Films.

2Powell, Maxine. Interview. Victoria & Albert Museum, The Story of the Supremes.

3Nelson, Trevor. Interview. Victoria & Albert Museum, The Story of the Supremes.

4Tate, Greg, Interview. “15 Minutes”, The Andy Warhol Diaries. Dir. Andrew Rossi. Netflix, 9 March 2022.