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

Another track from Diana Ross, “Love Hangover”, works as a capper for the first segment of her show. Luckily, it’s also one of her greatest songs. Like many mainstream artists of the 1970s, Ross tried her hand at disco music, too. But, unlike many other singers who made game attempts at dance music, she found a natural affinity to the genre. “Love Hangover” would become a monster hit not only on the dance and soul charts but the pop charts, too. It was a huge hit just a few months earlier, and the deafening reaction from the audience proves that it was still beloved. Honestly, it’s the only track that genuinely suffers from having its visuals removed. Ross does some costume changes to the audience’s merriment because her live vocals are overtaken by a prerecorded track, so we end up listening to a live clip of a studio recording.

After performing various pop songs, Ross returns with a series of conceptualized segments around a specific theme. First, she sings the obscure show tune “Girls” (from the 1975 musical Man on the Moon, written by the Mamas & the Papas’ John Phillips), using it to introduce a rather charming episode of the show that is the main part of the album that will age. Next, she performs a medley of tunes from the animated TV special The Point!, which included music by Harry Nilsson. The special complemented Nilsson’s 1970 concept album of the same name. The message behind The Point! was about embracing nonconformity. Ross indulges in the stage patter she tells how her young daughter urged her to include Nilsson’s The Point! in her show. “It’s a kid’s story”, she concedes before launching into the material, “But I think it says a lot to all of us. It’s about being on the outside, about being different”.

Nilsson’s songs have a warmth that conveys a lovely moral about being an individual and not worrying about what other people think. Ross matches Nilsson’s empathy with a relaxed performance as well, turning down the brassiness of her earlier versions. As the suite chugs along, she shares the plot by playing the different characters, mugging, and doing funny voices. There are shades of Sesame Street and Free to Be…You and Me to this segment, and much of it feels maternal.

The Nilsson segment is a bit of a throwaway. However, it does have a significance in Ross’ life and works, so it makes sense that if she’s plotting a stage show after her public life, she features this medley, too. Ross found motherhood fulfilling and rewarding, returning to it repeatedly throughout her career; she even recorded an album of children’s songs in the early ’70s that was supposed to be called To the Baby. Initially shelved, it was ultimately released in 2010. She also appeared on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, and she recorded a track for Free to Be…You and Me’s soundtrack.

From the childlike and childish The Point! Ross moves onto one of the most ambitious and challenging segments of the show: her “Working Girls” sequence, which pays tribute to the women who came before her. This song list contains revelatory work from Lady Sings the Blues, as well as her tribute to Bessie Smith and Josephine Baker. (Ross would later try in vain to bring Baker’s story to the silver screen.) When Ross was announced to play Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, her casting was met with some skepticism because detractors wondered if she would be up to the task. It didn’t help that some critics also found Ross’ prettily lyrical voice thin in comparison to churchier-voiced divas like Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, and even Natalie Cole. True, her soulful contemporaries may have had bigger, more muscular timbres (even some of her fellow Supremes—Mary Wilson, Cindy Birdsong, and especially the late Florence Ballard— had larger voices). So, with her tackling of jazz and pre-rock pop, Ross works to silence those critics with these sterling recitals.

Askey turns to his jazz strengths to back Ross while she channels Holiday with a brisk suite of three tunes: “Lady Sings the Blues”, “T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do”, and “I Cried for You”. Ross’ affected belt works for these numbers as Askey heightens their jazziness, swinging hard. The full orchestra doesn’t fool listeners into thinking that we’re in a nightclub. But, again, if we accept that we’re watching a Broadway show about Billie Holiday, the oversized sound and slightly too excited and snazzy instrumentation work fine. After her tribute to Holiday, she breezes through an exciting Baker number, “Aux Iles Hawaii” (which also features garbled French vamping).

From there, she throws herself into the bluesy classic “Stormy Weather”, which Ethel Waters made her own. Ross then turns to the gloriously ribald Bessie Smith with the merrily salacious “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl”, which includes double entendres and blue lines such as: “Honey, you havin’ trouble with your man? / Send him to Dr. Bessie, honey / She’ll put one hand on his heart, the other hand on where it counts / ‘Cuz she can heal the sick and raise the… uh”. Ross trails off suggestively to the audience’s laughter. When she growls, “I need a hot dog between my rolls”, she delights her fans with a much-too-buried sense of comedy and humor. (It’s easy to see Joe Layton’s influence in this segment since it shares some similar tones to Bette Midler’s bawdy comedy shows.)

She closes this segment with another standard, the beautiful “My Man”. It, too, shares a history with Ross’ influences, but also her rival, Barbra Streisand, who herself recorded the song as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. Ross’ relationship with jazz would be spotty. Although she found success with singing material associated with Billie Holiday and included pop standards in her live shows, she wouldn’t release an album of jazz standards until 16 years later, when she revisited Holiday on Stolen Moments: The Lady Sings…Jazz and Blues. Ross also recorded a studio LP of jazz standards in 1972 to work as a sequel to her hit soundtrack from Lady Sings the Blues, but the album was shelved in favor of the pop album, Touch Me in the Morning.

The jazz segment of the stage show is done expertly, highlighting one of the greatest successes of Ross’ career. Sadly, the large orchestration and large venue strip away the intimacy inherent in jazz (which explains why many great live jazz albums are recorded in nightclubs, supper clubs, or cabarets). It shows the intersection of jazz and pop that Ross straddled. She was the biggest pop diva globally, selling out large theaters and music halls. Yet, she also had ambitions to include jazz music in her repertoire, so there is a noticeable compromise. This can be heard in the 1993 live album that she recorded at the Ritz Theatre, which was devoted to jazz standards. There, she’s able to modulate and shift her tone and timbre to match the tight intimacy of jazz music when she’s placed in a more appropriately modest venue.

The next 15 minutes of the show are devoted to the music most associated with Ross’ sound and history. She and Askey dive into the rich history of Motown, first with a medley of tunes associated with the label. She covers pop hits from her colleagues like “Money (That’s What I Want)”, “Please Mr. Postman”, “I Want You Back”, and Stevie Wonder’s spunky “Fingertips”. As part of Ross’ lore, when she sings the Jackson 5 hit “I Want You Back”, she returns to the fictional story of how she discovered the Jacksons on a trip to Gary, Indiana. (Of course, the Jacksons were initially spotted by Gladys Knight at a talent show.) By this point in her career, Ross was a seasoned vet, and her voice lost that lean, tight, and hungry zeal. Her renditions of the Motown tunes are tossed off with a good-humored and affectionate air, but with a casualness that belied their historic place in pop culture, too.

After the Motown medley, she quickly jumps into a Supremes suite, running through some of the essential songs of the 20th century. These renditions have weight, fondness, and distance from age and success. The Diana Ross who fronted the Supremes and keened these expertly-crafted pop ditties is a different Diana Ross from the glossy, professional superstar who was in the midst of a gigantic, international career. Her early recordings (in the ‘60s) were flirty and girlish, and she adopted a slightly nasal croon. As a concert performer, she had developed into a consummate live entertainer and singer, showing off a mature voice that looked to trill not only canny pop songs but also stylish ballads and jazz and pop standards.

Ross introduces the showbiz part of her history for the show’s final act. She’d established a fledgling acting resume at this point in her career, starring in two films, earning an Oscar nomination, and headlining a TV special. This one-woman show on Broadway (at the Palace Theatre) won Ross a Tony Award. For the final segment, Ross acknowledges the stagey, Hollywood aspect of her career by including numbers from the Broadway musical A Chorus Line. The classic stage musical is all about young hoofers trying to make it on Broadway. Ross identifies with these young upstarts, despite her lofty success.

As a way to close the show, she chooses two of her most popular hits: “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough)”. When she introduces the former, she gives a stirring speech about her youth and coming-of-age. “I was a nice point in my life”, she says, “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”. She then pays tribute to her heroes, giving her audiences a hall of fame of transformative Black artists (James Baldwin, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Langston Hughes, Eartha Kitt, and Duke Ellington, among others).

It’s somewhat poignant that Ross would also be included in such lists of significant 20th-century Black performers a couple of decades later. When she paraphrases Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted and Black”, she pays homage to the Black is Beautiful movement of the 1960s Civil Rights movement (which Ross witnessed first-hand). The celebration of Black excellence was an important part of her career in the 1970s, and it’s a fitting way to close her show. It’s a tribute and history not just to Ross but to Black pop culture and Black pop music of the 1960s and 1970s in general.

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