Before Madonna, Whitney, Mariah, Britney and Christina, there was another female artist whose first name became synonymous with fame and talent, that being Diana. Including her work with the Supremes, she is considered to be the most successful female artist in recording history, but I’m not even sure that Berry Gordy himself would have predicted stellar releases by either of his original Motown superheroes forty years past the time he signed them. Smokey Robinson’s Timeless Love was released at the same time nationally as Diana Ross’ Blue, and both are stellar albums. Smokey was the first to sign with Motown and the Supremes, featuring the young Diana Ross followed suit a mere two years later. It seems as if every decade, Ross leaves her imprint, or makes some kind of spectacular comeback. The Supremes dominated the charts in the ’60s, Diana as solo artist became a disco superstar and gay icon in the ’80s with “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out” in particular, and continued strong singing and acting in the ’90s. But the one decade that can be said truly `belongs’ to Diana is the ’70s. In that decade, Ross made her solo debut, her film debut, and continued her string of huge hits.
One of the biggest turning points in her career was playing Billie Holiday in the film biopic, Lady Sings the Blues. Before seeing a single frame of the film, critics lambasted Ross, wondering at her audacity in playing such a jazz icon. After the film released, the stories began to change. Not only was she good, she was fantastic. Her success stemmed from the fact that she didn’t try to imitate Holiday so much as capture her essence. She did just that, as the film earned five Oscar nominations, garnered Ross a `Best Newcomer’ Golden Globe and found Ross seeing her only number one solo album in the United States, the double album soundtrack. It was a magical time for Ross and no small amount of redemption against those who said not only that she couldn’t cut it as an actress, but also those who doubted her success as a solo artist. To capitalize on the popularity of Lady Sings the Blues, Ross recorded another standards album, called Blue, or sometimes The Blue Album. Berry Gordy shelved the album, deciding on a more pop direction for Ross, albeit one that paid off. Blue was seemingly lost forever in the Motown vaults, until now.
Where does an artist go when they want to jumpstart their popularity with the broadest mix of consumers on the planet? Why, Starbucks, of course! Blue first saw the light of day in the omnipresent coffee chain one month before being released to other retailers, and it looks like the gambit, as it has for Bob Dylan and Alanis Morissette, worked swimmingly. On one hand, it was a long shot. Ross has been out of the spotlight for years (except in England and Japan, apparently), and this album is over 34 years old. On the other hand, this album was recorded during Ross’ most critically and popularly successful times in her career, stemmed from an Oscar nominated film with a number one soundtrack, and standards are all the rage once again. I realize that I still haven’t written about the quality of the songs or the album yet, but it’s almost as if that was a foregone conclusion. How can anyone disparage this record? Ross’ voice is sublime, captured at her peak, with soft subtle phrasing and breathy sexiness. Standards hadn’t sounded this good since Holiday, Fitzgerald and Vaughan themselves were all the rage. Just like Smokey, Diana could do it all: doo-wop, soul, R&B, pop, disco and yes, even hip-hop (would “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems” have been near the smash that it was without the samples from “I’m Coming Out”?). But playing Billie Holiday and working these standards took Diana to a whole new level and Blue is simply and beautifully more proof in the pudding.
Lady Sings the Blues soundtrack
Sarah Vaughan- Swingin’ Easy
Billie Holiday- Lady Sings the Blues