Diana Ross 1976
Photo: Motown Records, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

45 Years Ago ‘An Evening with Diana Ross’ Proved to Be Her Defining Album

Diana Ross’ seminal live LP, An Evening with Diana Ross, captures nearly every side of her expansive talents, diverse gifts, and lofty career goals.

An Evening with Diana Ross
Diana Ross
Motown
18 January 1977

I realized it was wonderful to be young and Black. But to be gifted and to know what you wanted to do. Hey, that was doubly dynamic, doubly important.

Diana Ross

Diana Ross‘ career results from a lot of hard work, careful planning, and of course, prodigious talent. Ever since her days with the Supremes in the 1960s, she’s approached the cultivation of her career with ambition and calculation. Her goal wasn’t merely to be on the radio or sell records. She wanted to be a superstar. Though she was a proven talent on vinyl, she was an even more dynamic live performer. On stage, her gifts and talents gelled with her vision. There, she was the ultimate diva, able to guide her audiences through whatever narrative she and her musical director cooked up.

On An Evening with Diana Ross, Ross tells her story through a careful selection of songs. It’s a cocktail of contemporary pop tunes, signature hits, songs from her Motown past, and songs that point toward her grander superstar ambitions (pre-rock jazz and pop standards, as well as Broadway show tunes). The show was recorded at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1976, during the tour version of her one-woman Broadway hit show (which earned her a Tony Award). The album works as a soundtrack to Ross’ career at an exceptionally high point and as a musical autobiography. More so than any of her studio LPs, An Evening with Diana Ross is the ultimate Diana Ross record. It’s a seminal work because it captures nearly every side of Diana Ross’ expansive talents, diverse gifts, and lofty career goals.

Upon release on 18 January 1977, Ross was seven years into her solo career. She put out a string of successful albums and hit singles, embarked on a successful film career (earning an Oscar nomination for her turn as Billie Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues), and developed a sterling reputation as a brilliant live performer. Ross also built a reputation as a performer of high and exacting standards, one who saw pop music as merely a facet of a larger career. Although her career started in Motown—when she was an idealistic and hungry young performer from the Detroit projects—she worked very hard (under Motown founder Berry Gordy) to transcend those beginnings. Ross was incredibly determined to become a pop institution. Despite being only 32 years old when she strode on the stage at the Ahmanson, she had managed to become a legend.

When looking to put together her one-woman show, she turned to Joe Layton (who’d eventually work with other iconic divas such as Bette Midler, Cher, Olivia Newton-John, and most significantly, Barbra Streisand). By the time Ross tapped him, he had two Tonys and an Emmy. The duo put together a show that operated as a theatrical autobiography. It mined Ross’ history as well as her present. In-between the songs, there was stage patter to reference her family and childhood. As with any Ross performance, she took great care to engage with the audience. True, the album loses some dramatic visuals—including mimes, dancers, and multiple costume changes (another Diana Ross trademark). However, it nonetheless does an excellent job of capturing why the show presented such special documentation of Ross’ career.

In terms of musical direction, Ross worked with Gil Askey, an instrumental figure at Motown. Though his most successful work was with the pop-soul of Motown, he also worked with some great jazz performers (Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Billy Eckstine, among others). A longtime collaborator with Ross, he matches Ross’ grand showbiz instincts. There are shades of Atlantic City, Broadway, and Las Vegas in the arrangements that put a razzle-dazzle gloss and sheen on the songs. These versions may lack some of the soul of the originals, but Askey replaced them with a brisk and bombastic theatricality that fit within Ross’ and Layton’s project.

And as with any theatrical event, the show starts with an overture: Askey’s souped-up interpretation of “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)”, which is mashed up with the instrumental “My Hero Is a Gun” (also from Mahogany). The film was still fresh in the audience’s mind because it was released a year earlier, and the theme song was a huge hit, climbing to number one on the Billboard pop charts in January of 1976. In the context of a live performance at the theatre, Askey emphasizes the songs’ cinematic origins, making the horns far more prominent. That creates a larger, more expansive sound that serves as a theatrical opening for Ross’ entrance.

Once she appears on stage—to generous and enthusiastic applause—she begins with “Here I Am”, the Burt Bacharach/Hal David tune initially recorded by ’60s pop diva Dionne Warwick. Ross’ interpretation couldn’t be more different from Warwick’s. Whereas Warwick glides thoughtfully, yet casually, on a swinging beat, Ross attacks the song with a piping belt, pushing herself vocally more than she does on her records. The lyrics see her vowing devotion and long-lasting fidelity to a lover; in Ross’ hands, she turns the tune into an athematic promise to her audience, too. After all, her performance style has always been about the connections she forges with her devotees, so when she shouts, “Here I am / And here I’ll always stay!” she’s pledging allegiance not just to one man but to a theater full of devoted fans. Askey matches Ross’ intensity with brassy instrumentation that recasts the tune as the climax of a Broadway musical.

The piece segues into Johnny Bristol’s “I Wouldn’t Change a Thing”, a 1970s soul number that—again thanks to Ross and Askey—is rendered into a powerful and inspirational theater moment. Bristol’s original take is a romantic song about a man’s hard-won love for his mate. In contrast, Ross’ version transforms its urgent lyrics about “living a life that’s full” and having to “pull my way to the top” into an allegory for the hard work she put into her career. That tenacity resulted in her standing triumphantly in front of this roaring crowd.

Once she establishes affection with her audience, she changes tactics and throws herself into a rendition of Lorenz Hart’s and Richard Rodgers’ “The Lady Is a Tramp”. It’s critical to note that she followed up an opening medley with a pop standard. You see, ever since her days with the Supremes in the 1960s, Ross worked to show her audiences and the public that she was a versatile performer who could handle material outside of contemporary pop. Berry Gordy pushed his roster of stars to record pop standards and perform in venues like the Copacabana to propel them into mainstream crossover successes. He envisioned his artists to be entertainers rather than mere pop stars.

No star on his label fit that ambition better than Ross, who also sought that kind of stardom. Yet, “The Lady Is a Tramp” is an essential link to Ross’ musical foremothers as well. Though an original, Ross is also a product of her influences, and her echoing of pioneering veteran artists can be seen and heard in her work. One of the biggest and most apparent influences is Lena Horne (with whom Ross would work on Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz). Horne’s interpretation of the Hart/Rodgers tune is one of the most important, so Ross taking on the composition is an excellent way to connect with the older songstress.

Following the supper club pop of “The Lady Is a Tramp”, we finally get a Ross tune: 1973’s No. 1 hit, “Touch Me in the Morning”. Before she starts crooning the opening line, the band hums along quietly as she speaks to the excited crowd, fielding tossed “I love you’s” as she responds in kind. When she finally sings, her voice is almost drowned out with happy cheers, wolf whistles, and applause. The tingly, jazzy pop ballad perfectly encapsulates Ross’ solo sound. “Touch Me in the Morning” is a dreamy, gooey love song that gives her lots of space to show off her considerable warbling.

The studio version is produced by Michael Masser and Tom Baird, who couch Ross’ luscious voice in plush orchestration. The effect is smooth, and Ross’ voice is a lulling coo. On the other hand, the An Evening with Diana Ross rendition finds Ross attacking the song by responding to the relatively robust orchestration. Consequently, the track loses its aching vulnerability, becoming a victorious call of triumph. Like the songs she chose to open the show, she uses her pop hit to again wow her fans with the power and strength in her voice (not to mention her glittery showmanship).

Because Ross’ preceding studio LP was her self-titled 1976 release, it makes sense that some of the songs from that album found their way here. An Evening with Diana Ross is a souvenir from a concert tour, but she wasn’t the type of artist that would pile her setlists with tunes from whatever album she was supporting. Like many artists with a long and storied career, Ross looked to her extensive catalog to create her shows. And even though Ross was only 32 at the time, she was already a pop culture icon with a heady history behind her. So, her current hits were included in the show, but her vision makes the performance far different than just a live recital of her new album.

Tellingly, one of the tunes she performs from Diana Ross is “Smile”, the sentimental ballad from legendary comedian and filmmaker Charles Chaplin. The piece—from Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece, Modern Times—is a lovely, heartbreaking song. Nat “King” Cole was the first to record the song with lyrics (penned by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons) in 1954. Its introduction is a variation on the “tears of the clown” motif, and Ross and Askey tone the show’s somewhat frantic pace considerably. That said, her vocals are still stretched and mannered to fill the cavernous theater.

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