unCOVERed: “Home” Featuring Stephanie Mills VS. Diana Ross
by Matthew Allen
October 24th marked the 39th anniversary of the film version of The Wiz. Although it was a flop from a monetary and critical standpoint, the movie is considered a classic in the African-American community and, with a cast that featured Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor and Lena Horne, it’s a golden pillar of Black Star Power. The film is an adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name. Unlike the film, the show was a smashing success, winning seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. The music is one of the elements that makes The Wiz soar off the stage, out of the screen and into the hearts and minds of millions. The musical’s finale, “Home,” is a perfect piece of the Broadway magic. The song that finds Dorothy learning lessons of love and overcoming fear in dramatic fashion. To pull a song like “Home” off, you need the right voice. On one hand, you have Stephanie Mills, the original Dorothy during the award winning mid to late 1970s run (and during a mid 1980s revival) and on the other, you have Diana Ross, who portrayed Dorothy in the film version.
Which version is the best? With soulhead, the topic will be unCOVERed.
Stephanie Mills, 1975
When we think of Stephanie Mills, we think of her impressive run of R&B hits from the late 1970s all the way into the 1990s. The Brooklyn girl lent her wide and expressive alto vocals to bouncy and funky cuts like “Never Knew Love Like This Before” and “(You’re Putting a) Rush On Me,” as well as enourmous ballads like “Feel the Fire” and “I Learned to Respect the Power of Love.”
We first fell in love with Stephanie at age 18 when she got the part of Dorothy in The Wiz, an all-Black adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. Her voice illuminated off the stage and she gave life to Charlie Smalls’ score with songs like “Ease On Down The Road.” She brought the house down eight times a week with “Home,” unleashing a mature, robust delivery that helped everyone in the audience feel the song, like she was singing it only to them. Unfortunately, her amazing performance during the musical’s initial run was never caught on tape, and we can only imagine what it was like. However, on a 1975 episode of Sammy & Co., the country was privledged to witness Mills perform “Home” in front of a TV audience with the flexibility and strength of a seasoned superstar.
Diana Ross, 1978
Rising up from Detroit’s Motown Records, Ms. Diana Ross is one of the most beloved vocalists in music history. As the front woman of The Supremes, she piled up one chart topper after another, like “Where Did Our Love Go,” and “Baby Love.” In the early 1970s, she transitioned to a successful solo career and became a budding movie star, receiving a Oscar nomination for his first film, Lady Sings the Blues. In 1977, Motown Productions, the film division of Motown Records, had gotten the rights to Broadway’s The Wiz for a film version. Stephanie Mills had been originally pegged to revise her role for the big screen, but Ross insisted to Motown head Berry Gordy and film producer Rob Cohen that she had to play Dorothy.
Despite her fame and accolades, people were curious to see how a 34-year-old Ross would fair in the role of Dorothy as well as handle the music that was so definitive established by Mills’ voice. Ross was known for carressing the music; she was a vocalist with finesse and nuance, built for pop music.
The Wiz’s score was meant for down home, gut wrenching “sangin’.” Well, against all odds, she delivered perhaps the most powerful, dynamic singing performances that she ever committed to wax, and “Home” was the climax. Underlaid by stellar production and orchestration from Quincy Jones, Ross’ rendition of “Home” required the same type of melodramatic emotion that she pulled from Lady Sings the Blues, not to mention a heft that until then, few could imagine she was capable of.
When comparing pure vocal power, Stephanie Mills can out sing Diana Ross on six out of seven days of the week. Her benchmark on the original The Wiz score and “Home” especially, makes the song hers forever. Diana Ross not only had the benefit of people seeing her perform the song on screen but also the wall of sound provided by Quincy Jones to increase the dramatic emphasis. Mills’ voice carried the song through with far less. However, Ross was able to embody the full range of emotions she portrayed throughout the entire two hours of the film into just under four minutes of the song; fear, joy, redemption, sadness and revelation. So, by the slimmest of margins, Diana Ross wins.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based music journalist and television producer. In addition to soulhead, his work can be found on EBONY, JET and Wax Poetics Magazines. To keep up with his work, follow him on Twitter and visit his blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict. Check out some of his work for soulhead.