Happy 35th Anniversary to Diana Ross LP Diana, originally released May 22, 1980.
A lifelong music obsessive, my passion for song can be traced all the way back to my very early childhood, which spanned from the late 1970s into the 1980s. Music commanded a staple presence in my familys home, with the turntable spinning on the regular, and my parents blessed my and my sisters ears with a delectable variety of records. Their tastes were thankfully broad, encompassing nearly everything from classic rock (e.g., Rolling Stones, Simon & Garfunkel), AOR (Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan), the Blues (John Lee Hooker, Bonnie Raitt), R&B (Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and the entire Motown roster), Jazz (Billie Holiday, Miles Davis), classical, and beyond. And while discos popularity was already well into freefall mode as the 70s concluded, it remained a familiar sound emanating from our living room speakers into the new decade.
One of the first songs I vividly recall hearing played frequently in our home was Upside Down by Diana Ross. Though I was just a few months shy of 3 years-old at the time of the songs ascendance in the summer of 1980, and my aural sense was obviously still developing, I was keenly aware that this was a damn funky song that you couldn’t help but dance to. Sonic awesomeness aside, the track also resonated so profoundly with me at the time because the whole notion of something (or someone) being turned upside downor inside out and round and round, for that matteris a magical concept to pretty much all toddlers. The eldest of my own two daughters also approaching her third birthday, as we speak can surely attest to this. Did I understand that Upside Down was really about a woman struggling to reconcile her complicated feelings of frustration and forgiveness toward her unfaithful lover, ultimately conceding the latter in the songs final verse (As long as the sun continues to shine / There’s a place in my heart for you)? Well, no, of course I didnt. Not that it mattered. All I knew was that I adored the song, and this woman named Diana Ross had a pleasant, reassuring voice.
As I got older, I naturally explored more of Ross discography both with The Supremes and solo and discovered that Upside Down was the first single released from the album Diana. Following the modest success of its direct predecessor, 1979s Ashford & Simpson produced The Boss, Diana was the soulful sirens tenth LP released following her exit from The Supremes in 1970. It would prove to be the biggest commercial triumph of her solo career and her final studio album recorded under contract with Motown, the only record label she had called home since The Supremes first official release, their 1961 debut single I Want a Guy. While Ross was the star of the album, its success was largely driven by the revered production team she hired to orchestrate the whole affair: Chics Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards.
In the summer of 1979, despite the growing backlash against disco, Rodgers and Edwards were on top of their game and the Billboard charts. Chics album Risqué was selling like hotcakes on the strength of #1 single Good Times and the dynamic duo had also recently produced Sister Sledges mammoth We Are Family album, including the iconic title track and Hes the Greatest Dancer. As Rodgers explains in his 2011 autobiography Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny, Ross homed in on the pair upon meeting them backstage during their 1979 performance at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, and subsequently propositioned them to oversee her next album:
The situation was almost otherworldly. Two contrasting soundtracks were meeting in the room: Dianas silkily angelic voice and the frenzied crowd screaming at the top of its lungs. Backstage, it was all decorum and dignity, while out front, uncontrollable insanity prevailed. The elegant diva looked like she just jumped off the cover of Vogue; our fans looked like they were ready to storm the Bastille. But Diana was perfectly cool with it. A veteran performer herself, she knew wed have to put our little convocation on hold until after an encore. We did our encore and completed one of the best shows of our lives. Wed clearly made a strong first impression on Ms. Ross, and she told us as much when we saw her in our dressing room after wed finished. There was something in the air that bonded us. She was almost like a sister, and Bernard and I started our typical tomfoolery, making fun of each others performances. Diana was delighted watching the two of us, giggling like a kid watching the Follow the Yellow Brick Road sequence from The Wizard of Oz. She was ready to join us.
During subsequent meetings, Ross confided to Rodgers and Edwards that she desperately craved a transformative change of creative direction. After churning out nine albums in as many years, Ross had reached the inevitable point of artistic stagnation and wanted to taste inspiration once again.
Part of her quest for reinvention involved her relocation from L.A. to New York City, as she later explained to Ebony in 1981: In California, I was turning into a recluse. Im a young woman. I was sitting in my house all the time, watching television. Im not going to watch television anymore. Im inspired by New York. It keeps me filled with energy. I get a lot of work done here. Ideas come my way because Im surrounded by creative people. So employing the production wizardry of New York Citys very own Edwards & Rodgerswhose band had originally been known as The Big Apple Band before transitioning to the Chic monikerseemed a perfect fit for her comeback album.
Unfortunately, the recording and production process behind Diana proved to be far from perfect. The working relationship between Ross, Rodgers, and Edwards was fraught with tension, which, to be fair, is often par for the course when three stubbornly perfectionist artists combine their creative forces. As the story goes, Ross was none too thrilled with the initial record the duo delivered. More specifically, she was critical of the longer-form, disco-jam format of the songs and believed that her vocals were not sufficiently elevated atop the backing tracks. Unbeknownst to Rodgers and Edwards, Ross demanded that Motown remix the album in favor of more radio-friendly song structures and more prominent vocals. When Rodgers and Edwards ultimately discovered that their original work had been manipulated without their authorization, they were incensed, and at one point, the duo even threatened to remove their names from the albums credits. Ultimately, however, Motown and Ross prevailed and the remixed version of the album was released.
Despite the ego-driven turmoil and clandestine adjustments to the album, the finished output remains quintessentially a Rodgers and Edwards blessed record, while effectively harnessing Ross vocal versatility, natural charisma, and star power. The duos Midas production touch, Rodgers signature guitar grooves and Edwards trademark bass lines are all unmistakably ubiquitous throughout the album. Granted, the deep-groove soundscapes that Rodgers and Edwards bestowed upon Ross were more adventurous than she may have been accustomed to, but they played to her strengths and succeeded in providing her with the sonic reinvention she had been seeking. Hip-hop legend MC Lyte, who sampled Upside Down on her 1996 single Cold Rock a Party, contends that:
(Rodgers and Edwards) brought this surge of energy. You hear those songs and ooh, it is time to get busy! With a talent like hers, everybody wants to work with her. The producers have fabulous ideas of what it is that they want to bring to you as an artist to help you shine. They were able to bring out those qualities that everyone wants to hear from her and present them in a different fashion.
While Diana possesses a timeless allure and still sounds so fresh today, its easy to imagine how people succumbed to its rapturous charms during the waning days of the disco era, as they shook their asses across the most hedonistic of dancefloors in New York City and beyond.
Not only does Diana sound like liberation on wax, but the albums cover imagecourtesy of the revered fashion photographer Francesco Scavulloexemplifies Ross newfound freedom and approachability. Theres little overtly diva about the black and white photograph, with Ross adorned in a plain white t-shirt and blue jeans. Looking as stunning as ever, Ross exudes a natural confidence and subtle sultriness consistent with the essence of the album.
With just eight songs clocking in at a mere 34 minutes, Diana is a wonderfully lean, bloat-free album that packs a viscerally euphoric punch from first song to last. Rodgers and Edwards were sure to avoid superfluous embellishment and flare, so the album was not necessarily designed to showcase Ross far-reaching vocal range. Nonetheless, Rosss voice stretches and shines, even with the more challenging material, like the staccato singing style mandated by Upside Down. The songwriting approach is similarly straightforward as well, as most of the songs lyrics primarily revolve around the easily relatable themes of celebrating love and independence, and fighting for both in the face of lifes adversities.
Upside Down was a massive hit, of course, and just narrowly lost out to Stephanie Mills equally wonderful Never Knew Love Like This Before for the Best Female R&B Vocal performance honor at the 1981 Grammy Awards. But the albums vibrant second single, Im Coming Out, has proven to be an even more transcendent phenomenon over the years. Boasting one of the most thrilling intros ever recorded, whereby the energy and anticipation methodically build to a fever pitch across the songs first 52 seconds, Im Coming Out is quite simply one of the most exhilarating songs in the history of pop music. Younger heads less familiar with the songs rich history will most immediately call to mind The Notorious B.I.G.s mighty posthumous 1997 single Mo Money, Mo Problems, which sampled the track to glorious effect and ensured that the songs brilliance resonated with a whole new generation, the hip-hop generation.
A universal paean to celebrating ones self-identity that can also be interpreted as Ross personal declaration of independence that envisaged her departure from Motown the following year, the song quickly assumed a much broader cultural significance upon its release in August of 1980. Understandably, Im Coming Out was widely embracedand to some extent, intentionally positioned by its creatorsas a unifying anthem of gay pride and empowerment, providing sonic fuel to those struggling to reconcile internal and external pressures to suppress their homosexuality. As Rodgers explained to Billboard, the songs relevance within the gay community was a notion that Ross wasnt entirely comfortable with, at least not at first:
We went to this transvestite club but everyone went there. I went to the bathroom and I happened to notice on either side there were a bunch of Diana Ross impersonators. I ran outside and called Bernard and told him about it and said, What if we recognize Diana Ross’ really cool alignment with her fan base in the gay community? So we sat down and wrote, I’m Coming Out. Meanwhile Diana took a rough mix to the top DJ in the country who hated it and she came back really down in the dumps and she asked us, Why are you trying to ruin my career? She asked us point blank if this was a gay record and if people were going to think she was gay. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever lied to an artist. I looked her straight in the eye and said, Are you kidding? You have to put this stuff in context. Now it just sounds like a pop song. This was the summer of disco sucks. When [the infamous Disco Demolition Night] happened it was because they hated gay people, they hated black people and women. Look at the pictures of who was there at that disco sucks thing. There ain’t a gay person in that baseball stadium, there ain’t a black person there and it was a sellout, 70,000 people. And Diana Ross lived in a bubble; she lived in the world of Motown which totally protected her.
Though she has never adamantly embraced (nor dismissed) her importance within the gay community notwithstanding her 1996 performance with RuPaul in West HollywoodRoss place within the gay icon hall of fame is likely cemented for generations to come.
Its futile and, quite frankly, foolhardy to argue that Upside Down and Im Coming Out are not the albums obvious centerpieces, but there are plenty of other righteously rhythmic delights to enjoy across the rest of the long player. The spirited Have Fun (Again) reinforces the albums recurring theme of learning to embrace lifes more fundamental pleasures and, according to journalist Christian John Wikane, represents the albums unofficial manifesto, the guiding principle for why Ross was working with Rodgers and Edwards in the first place. Other notable highlights include the sweet swaying groove of Tenderness, the love letter to a cherished instrument My Old Piano, and the boldly seductive Give Up.
In 1993, the Guinness Book of World Records dubbed Ross the Most Successful Female Singer of All Time, owing to both her prolific work with The Supremes and her fruitful solo recordings. Although Madonna now holds this exclusive honor and has for a handful of years, Ross indelible legacy continues to grow, as evidenced by her more recent Kennedy Center Honors (2007) and Grammy Lifetime Achievement (2012) recognition. Indeed, the 71 year-old chanteuse has collected a myriad of accolades across her 50-plus year career, with even more honors surely to come. For me, her single greatest achievement is Diana, an indisputable masterpiece that defined the last days of disco and remarkably still wields the magnetic power to get butts movin and souls stirrin thirty-five years later.
My Favorite Song: Upside Down
Im Coming Out & The Boss (Live at The Great Western Forum, Los Angeles, CA, 1981)
Upside Down with Michael Jackson (Live 1980)
BUY Diana Ross DianaStream Here: