Leaving Motown was a profound experience. The truth is I did not leave Motown because I was upset or angry or hurt. I left because I was growing as a person and it was time for me to move on.–Diana Ross, Secrets of a Sparrow
By 1981, Diana Ross was at the peak of her solo career. She had come off a year of major success, her 11th album, the Chic-produced diana, peaking at number two on the Billboard album charts, selling over a million copies, and going platinum. diana spun off three hit singles, two of which – “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out” – would go on to become post-disco dance classics. She also had a top ten smash with the pop ballad, “It’s My Turn” and possibly her greatest triumph as a solo artist, “Endless Love”, a romantic duet with Lionel Richie, which would top the pop charts for nine weeks, becoming Ross’ biggest-selling single of her career.
At this momentous time in her career, Diana Ross decided to leave Motown, a label that she called her musical home for 20 years. She was seen as the First Lady of Motown and, along with Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye, one of its greatest figureheads. More than any other star on Motown – except for Michael Jackson – she embodied the word Superstar.
Having defined pop music in the 1960s with Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard (later with Cindy Birdsong) as the Supremes, Ross was lavished special attention by the label’s founder, Berry Gordy, with whom she shared a personal relationship. Together, Gordy and Ross blueprinted a career that would encompass music, television, even film. Though Wilson and Ballard were very talented singers in their own right, Ross was the focal point, and her inevitable solo career established her as the ultimate pop diva.
From 1970 to 1980, Ross released hit albums and scored 13 top 40 hit singles, five of which hit number one. As a performer, she grew into a leading pop/soul singer and became one of the most influential stars of the disco era. In 1980, Ross joined Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards from the iconic dance band Chic to record diana, a brilliant record that injected life and spirit into Ross’ sound. As 1980 drew to a close, Diana Ross was at the height of her career and began to chafe under the Svengali-like relationship she shared with Gordy.
When Ross left Motown, it made a perceptible dent in the label’s fortunes. In the 1970s, Motown was experiencing a significant evolution. Moving from its native Motown to Los Angeles, Berry Gordy’s ambitions saw Motown artists headlining television specials, crooning pop standards at showbizzy venues like the Copacabana, and becoming crossover superstars. Ross was at the center of this growth, often the catalyst for it, continuing to record hit albums, guest on variety shows on television, even earning an Oscar nomination for her performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues.
Though Motown remained legendary thanks to their pioneering work in the 1960s, fending off the British invasion and making its roster of talented, young Black performers household names, the 1970s also saw a perceptible dim in label’s innovation as it started to chase trends to stay commercially viable (as opposed to setting them). Motown still had Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, two incredibly creative and inventive singer-songwriters who created some of the most stunning soul music of the decade. But the focus on Diana Ross’ ascendance to superstardom epitomizes much of the slick Hollywood makeover of the label.
As a critical figure of Motown, Ross’ departure was a defining moment for the outfit. As writer J. Randy Taraborrelli put it,
Diana’s leaving Motown closed the final chapter in Berry Gordy’s book of dreams-come-true.
Stevie Wonder was still with the label, so was Smokey Robinson and a few of the other
stalwarts. But without Diana Ross as Queen, the kingdom just didn’t matter much anymore.
Motown would never again be the same— Call Her Miss Ross 392
Ross planned to work with Edwards and Rodgers again for her RCA debut, but the duo wasn’t available, tapped to work for Debbie Harry and Johnny Mathis, so Ross took on producing duties by herself. She wasn’t a songwriter or producer. The first time she took on producing duties was on 1973’s Touch Me in the Morning, working on a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and a medley “Brown Baby”/”Save the Children”, an eight-minute sprawl that had Ross attempt Gaye’s spiritual soul music. But her work was primarily created by other artists, most notably Ashford & Simpson and Edwards and Rogers. On her first album for RCA, Ross put together a light and lean album which worked to introduce the pop diva to a new decade, building on the tremendous success of diana.
Why Do Fools Fall in Love was a great clue into what would become of Ross’ recording career in the 1980s at RCA. It’s a solid, fine record, but one that points at a more superficial and trendy approach to pop music. As a vocalist, the album had some of her best singing, but the at-times lean production and dated arrangements make the album more important because of its place in Ross’ career than the music itself. The album did very well, selling over a million copies and boasted a number of top 40 hits, but much of that success was due to Ross’ then-white hot stardom as well as the glow of diana. The Rolling Stone Album Guide opined that Why Do Fools Fall in Love was a “diluted version” of diana.
The title track is a fascinating choice for Ross’ RCA debut – it’s a cover Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers 1956 doo-wop classic. Lymon’s gorgeous, bell-like voice exuded youth and enthusiasm. Ross’ high voice sounds similar, though she adds her patent coquettish coyness yet sounds joyful, trilling the bouncy pop tune. The production, however, takes Lymon’s on the stoop harmonizing to shiny Las Vegas. Ross’ musical background was strikingly similar to Lymon’s – both singers were Black teens from large cities who banded together with childhood pals to form vocal groups.
However, Ross had evolved into a grand entertainer who found the stages in Vegas, Reno, and Atlantic City like home. Lymon, tragically never had a chance to see his career grow as he died of a heroin overdose at 25 years old. So, refashioning the song as a finger-snapping ditty seems very apt, given the kind of performer Ross had become by that point in her career. Lymon’s original tune climbed to number six on the pop charts, and Ross’s version went to number seven (number four in the UK pop charts). Ross integrated “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” into her repertoire and reveled in the poppy nostalgia of the song.
The album’s second single also hit the top ten. “Mirror, Mirror” was written by Dennis Matkowsky and Michael Sembello (of “Maniac”, Flashdance fame). A squealing rock guitar accompanies the strutting beat and horns, as Ross introduces the song with a spoken-word intro that plays on the “Mirror, Mirror on the wall…” line from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When she sings, she offers a gutsy vocal performance. It’s a solid song that felt a touch anonymous – except for the distinct guitar work of Bob Kulick (known for his work with KISS).
The record sounds like nothing Ross would have recorded under the care and curation of Berry Gordy, which is simultaneously empowering but damaging. Ross had earned the right to direct her career and her sound. Her instincts were strong because she had been in the business for over two decades at that point. However, the song is fussy with trendy pop flourishes, which ages it immediately. It’s Ross’ celebrity that carries the record.
Speaking of trendy, the album’s third single, “Work That Body”, is probably the song that ages the most. Taking a cue from Olivia Newton-John’s monster hit single “Physical”, Ross flirts with the aerobics craze with this song which is so campy it’s practically a novelty record. Ross wrote the song with Ray Chew and the late, great disco genius Paul Jabara. Ross plays the role of an aerobics instructor barking orders for her listeners to “reach” and “stretch” and “push” while the choir of women wail, “Every morning when we wake / To make up for that piece of cake / We ate last night / We do what’s right!”
Ross is inherently a camp icon and a legendary icon among gay artists, including drag queens (Chic was inspired by Ross’ devoted queer fans when penning “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out”), so the song leans into that occasional absurdity of Ross’ star image. But the music does nothing to propel the album or Ross’ sound further and feels like a niche footnote that delights dedicated completists – like RuPaul, who covered the song on her 1996 album Foxy Lady.
The album’s final single, “It’s Never Too Late”, was released in the UK, just missing the top 40. Written by dance-pop singer-songwriter Dan Hartman is the song that seems to age the best. Like the title track, it’s fun and bouncy with an ebullient Ross singing the catchy lyrics, and there’s a great thick, bobbing bass. It’s (relatively) unadorned and organic, eschewing some of the flashier moments of the other tracks. It would prove to be one of the better songs she would record for RCA and reminiscent of her latter work at Motown.
The other song of note on Why Do Fools Fall in Love is a solo version of “Endless Love”. The song’s inclusion makes sense as it worked as a smooth transition from Ross’ Motown presence and RCA future. The song is a romantic classic, and Lionel Richie’s lyrics of adoration are affecting. The production is lush and full, and Ross’ vocal performance is solid, with a stirring moment of wordless vocalizing before she tears into the song’s conclusion with a powerful keening belt. It’s not an improvement on the original but a stunning reminder of just how fantastic a singer Ross is.
Overall, the songs on Why Do Fools Fall in Love present an excellent product that feels like a faded echo of a more superior project. Ross’ vocals are excellent, her singing spirited and engaged, but the song choices lack the care and attention that was a hallmark of her best work at Motown. She may have felt stifled at the label, and female artists who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s were often unfairly dismissed as pretty songbirds. But the oversight meant that Ross’ recording career was stewarded with far more care, considering how important she was to the label and Berry Gordy. Though she came to RCA as a superstar and arguably the biggest female artist at the time, she did not have a history with RCA as she did with Motown. The album’s success proved that Ross could be a competent shepherd of her sound if given the proper support. The resultant dipping quality of her subsequent albums proved that RCA didn’t’ give her that support.
When Why Do Fools Fall in Love was released in September of 1981, it reached number 14 on the album charts and started Ross’ tenure at RCA with a considerable commercial bang. It would be the first of six studio albums that she would put out for the label. That run of albums would also signal Ross’ progressively diminishing commercial power as she saw her albums and singles fail on the pop charts. Though she maintained an incredible touring career and she was still a vital recording artist on the international market (especially in the UK), her work with RCA would be increasingly erratic and haphazard; most of the music she recorded at RCA was dated and thin and somewhat superficial (with the exception of the career-high “Missing You” that she recorded in honor of her slain Motown label mate Marvin Gaye).
When she returned to Motown in 1989, she was a different recording artist than when she left in 1980. No longer a hitmaker, she transitioned to pop legend, whose appeal was now in her legendary past than her present. In a 1989 interview with Barbara Walters, she acknowledged that when answering a question about her dwindling record sales. “I think somehow I’ve established a career in these last 28 years, Barbara, that… you’re not as important as your last hit record.”
In 2021, Ross plans a comeback with a new album, Thank You, her first in 15 years. The first two singles are vintage Diana Ross – the kind of joyful, breezy, evocative work that she did at Motown in her peak years during the late 1970s. The songs recall the elegant glamour and divine fabulousness that made her such a vital superstar and performer in the last 60 years. The fearless, adventurous artist of 1980 who took a calculated risk when leaving the protective gauze of Motown is still there.
Brackett, Nathan and Christian Hoard, The New Rolling Stone Album Guide
Ross, Diana. Interviewed by Barbara Walters. The Barbara Walters Special: 1989
Ross, Diana, The Secrets of a Sparrow: Memoirs
Taraborrelli, J. Randy, Call Her Miss Ross: The UnAuthorized Biography of Diana Ross