Thursday, May 5, 2011

Silk Electric: Diana Ross' RCA Years

"The '80's were about creating a new life."

Disregarding the obvious holes in Diana Ross' '70's output, Ross' tenure at Motown is stuff of legend. Everyone knows of her rise as a Supreme during the '60's, but it was her work the following decade that intertwined dramatic, emotional soul-pop threads to create a sonic tapestry familiar to so many. The start of the '80's had begun with a bang, the monopolizing victory of diana (1980) proved she had done everything she could at Motown. Now, Ross was ready to fly and explore, proving once and for all that she was more than a thrall, romantic or otherwise, to Berry Gordy.

Polygram, Casablanca, and Geffen all began to cajole Ross to join their ranks, but RCA Records snared Ross with a $20 million price tag and promises of creative fulfillment. She signed to RCA Records in 1981. The label at various times during her stint there housed Hall & Oates, the Eurythmics, and the Pointer Sisters. Another jewel to the RCA crown, she remained there until 1987. For some, the RCA period was seen as one of excess, recognized for indulging in Ross' garish pop fantasies.

That, of course, is only a casual assessment. There are portions of Ross' RCA work that aren't as peerless as her Motown material, again that period had its own flaws which revisionists tend to "forget." The freedom exercised at RCA was without equal, mirroring the peaks and valleys of the most transitional decade in black music. Where others feared to tread, Ross walked.

Ross gave an eloquent statement about her time at RCA Records in her 1993 memoir, Secrets of a Sparrow:
I was given the opportunity to produce my own records, from finding the musicians, to setting up studio time, mixing, mastering, layering the music onto the tracks, finding the engineers, overseeing the photographs, creating the title, choosing the costumes, the names, the liner notes, every single ingredient. I also inspected the label copying, the layouts for the (album) jacket, selected the release dates, and most important sat through hours and hours of producing. It was a magnificent experience.

On the 30th anniversary of Diana Ross taking a seminal role in her career that has spanned five (and counting) decades, a glance back at the albums that defined a time of change is definitely in order.

Why Do Fools Fall in Love
Released: 10/4/81
Produced By: Diana Ross
Chart Placements: U.S. Pop #15, U.S. R&B #4, U.K. # 20
Singles: "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," "Mirror, Mirror," "Work That Body," "It's Never Too Late"
Synopsis: The first Diana Ross serving to emerge off of the RCA label was a solid seller, it continued her upward trend that kicked off in 1979. The title track was a cute cover of the Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers doo-wop cut of the same name. The remainder of Why Do Fools Fall in Love concerned itself with established comforts and a few surprises. The familiar sonic forms sported whipped disco-lite delights in "It's Never Too Late" or pretty nonsense like "Sweet Nothings." The camp fest "Work That Body" and the rock-funk bump of "Mirror, Mirror," a dual pop and R&B format crossover smash, became fan favorites. Why Do Fools Fall in Love ended up Ross' bestseller from RCA, though it wasn't her strongest in what she would do later.

"Mirror, Mirror" music video

Silk Electric
Released: 9/10/82
Produced By: Diana Ross
Chart Placements: U.S. Pop #27, U.S. R&B #5, U.K. #33
Singles: "Muscles," "So Close," "Who"
Synopsis: Ross' RCA freedom came to fruition, with some miscalculation, on Silk Electric. Ross sat again in the driver's seat and produced a clean, spontaneous set of black pop. The record is remembered for the Michael Jackson penned "Muscles."

"Who" bewitched and a fascinating conceptual breakthrough was heard in "Turn Me Over." A clear indication of the time, an eerie, lush call directed the listener to turn the record over before the first side concluded. The energy on Silk Electric fell squarely on the uptempos leaving the slow jams to become soggy in MOR milk. Silk Electric was Ross' luminous step forward but showed she still had improvements to make.

"Muscles" music video 

Released: 6/9/83
Produced By: Gary Katz, Ray Parker Jr., Diana Ross
Chart Placements: U.S. Pop #32, U.S. R&B #14, U.K. #44
Singles: "Pieces of Ice," "Up Front," "Let's Go Up"
SynopsisRoss was the RCA long player that played as a coherent album. Diana Ross decided to bring in producers Gary Katz and Ray Parker Jr. Both men were accomplished in fields of jazz, pop, and R&B. Ross piloted the funk rave-up "Girls." Split into two sides, Katz handled the first half, while Parker took the second, the previously mentioned "Girls" closed side two. Katz and Parker sewed a seamless pattern of classic Diana Ross and the future ambitions heard on Silk Electric. The giddiness of "You Do It" sat comfortably next to the tense "Love or Loneliness". Ross revved "Up Front" with heat and took on an affectionate hue on "That's How You Start Over."

"Pieces of Ice" was the enigmatic linchpin of Ross. Its suspenseful opening led to sharp, shooting synths that pounded while Ross rode the cryptic lyrical analogy of sexual attraction with skill. This song, along with several others, were highlighted in her Central Park concert in New York City on July 21, 1983. Though not a major seller, this record was Diana Ross at her best from the RCA age.

"Pieces of Ice" music video

Swept Away
Released: 8/2/84
Produced By: Raymond Arcusa, Arthur Baker, James Anthony Carmichael, Bernard Edwards, Daryl Hall, Richard Perry, Lionel Richie, Diana Ross
Chart Placements: U.S. Pop #26, U.S. R&B #7, U.K. #40
Singles: "All of You," "Swept Away," "Touch By Touch," "Missing You," "Telephone"
Synopsis: The salve to the sales slump of Ross, Swept Away was a multi-helmed recording that included ingredients from several producers, including Ross herself. It tied with Silk Electric's pop and fragmented pacing. "Missing You," Ross' last Top 10 pop hit, sincerely connected to the audience like her best ballads often did. Daryl Hall (of Hall & Oates), a label mate, was one of the hands in Swept Away's pot. He and John Oates were at the height of their powers with Big Bam Boom, also out the same year as Swept Away. Lending his pen, voice, and ear for sharp dance-pop he steered the sound of the title track. The tropical twitch in "Touch By Touch" and the spidery "No One Makes Me Crazy (Like You Do)" came on with alluring pressure.

"Telephone," another of Ross' many R&B hits from this time, was directed by Bernard Edwards of Chic. Nile Rodgers and Edwards had been behind the diana album four short years earlier. A few other trinkets lined Swept Away, but errors existed with the schmaltz shock Julio Iglesias duet "All of You." Swept Away's function as a high-octane, state-of-the-art crossover album was executed well even if it was uneven majority of its spinning time.

"Missing You" music video

Eaten Alive
Released: 8/23/85
Producers: The Bee Gees, Albhy Galuten, Michael Jackson, Karl Richardson
Chart Placements: U.S. Pop #45, U.S. R&B #27, U.K. #11
Singles: "Eaten Alive," "Chain Reaction," "Experience"
Synopsis: Stepping away from producing, Ross began picking others to lead her records to new sounds to expand her appeal again. By this time, Ross was only making contact with her two major markets: U.S. R&B and U.K. Pop. "Eaten Alive," co-produced by Michael Jackson, was an ambitious and busy customary U.S. R&B chart grazer. The bulk of the record was directed by The Bee Gees. The trio slicked up Eaten Alive, giving it an organized, if sanitized vibe. Excusing the exquisite "Experience," "Chain Reaction" was the star of Eaten Alive. A stomping, sweet salute to Motown gave Ross her second U.K. chart topper since "I'm Still Waiting" in 1971. The British pop act Steps scored a hit with their accomplished cover of it in 2001. The remainder of Eaten Alive found Ross in good voice, emoting here ("More and More"), seducing there ("Oh Teacher"), but Eaten Alive felt like a holding pattern for something a bit more engaging.

"Chain Reaction" music video

Red Hot Rhythm & Blues
Released: 6/9/87
Produced By: Tom Dowd, Luther Vandross
Chart Placements: U.S. Pop #73, U.S. R&B #39, U.K. #47
Singles: "Dirty Looks,"
"Tell Me Again," "Shockwaves," "Mr. Lee"
Synopsis: This final RCA offering was meant to restore Ross' chart crown, it didn't work out that way. The album was preceded by a lavish television special of the same name that paid tribute to black music history. The late Tom Dowd, known for working with Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding brought maturity to Red Hot Rhythm & Blues. A loose concept record, Red Hot juggled covers of soul chestnuts and new songs. The covers included a moody sketch of the Leonard Cohen penned "Summertime," one of Ross' finest recordings, and the Detroit wink of Jackie Ross' "Selfish One."

Original work was also lovely on the Luther Vandross produced and backed "It's Hard For Me to Say." The late night snack of "Stranger in Paradise" was savory too; "Dirty Looks," her final RCA hit (#12 U.S. R&B), was slinky and posh. The British version of the album featured additional songs in "Mr. Lee" (a single there) and "Tell Mama." Though Red Hot failed to find an audience in 1987, it wasn't any less fair as a proper adult R&B record.

"Dirty Looks" music video

The RCA era closed on the quiet hush of Red Hot Rhythm & Blues. Diana Ross collected herself and spirited back to Motown Records. Taking a hand in owning a percentage of the company, the lesson of control from RCA close to the hilt, Ross steadied onward at Motown Records from 1988 through 2000. There, she experienced a second British blossoming as she achieved victories with The Force Behind the Power (1991) and Take Me Higher (1995). She still stands in 2011 undiminished as a live act globally.

Diana Ross' run during the 1980's, even with her bumps and stumbles, racked up an impressive number of awards and charts hits. Focusing on the latter, Diana Ross placed a combined total of 28 singles on the U.S. R&B and Pop charts. Of the 28, 15 were R&B scores with the highest entry of "Missing You" (#1), and the lowest entry of "Chain Reaction" (#85). Pop stood strong with 13 scores, featuring the highest entry with "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" (#7), and the lowest entry with "Chain Reaction" (#95). The United Kingdom birthed 18 chart hits in this period, their highest entry seen with "Chain Reaction" (#1), and lowest entry with "Let's Go Up" (#79).

Six records were released in the span of 1981 through 1987, all reaching the Top 50 on the three previously mentioned market charts, except Red Hot Rhythm & Blues (U.S. Pop #73). In America Why Do Fools Fall in Love achieved platinum security and gold was locked in for Silk Electric and Swept Away. Record labels have to pay to have records re-certified. It has been rumored that many of these albums sold gold and platinum units in all three areas Ross appeared in over time. Of course, this was pre-Soundscan and adjustments for current inflation would need to be made, until re-certification one cannot be sure.

Critically, division occurs for this section of Diana Ross' music. It also remains to be completely anthologized properly, though the 1997 package Greatest Hits: The RCA Years made a decent effort. Joseph F. Laredo, the essayist for the mentioned RCA best of, summed up the ethos of this time perfectly:

They (The RCA Years) were challenging, transitional years for her (Diana Ross) during which continued commercial success, as well as the occasional setback, were attended by a level of creative freedom and artistic independence she had never known.

Diana Ross's discography has been popular for reissuing, starting with the unreleased Blue in 2006. The reissues for her Motown material have been constant since. It could be that the RCA works are waiting in the wings for their second chance at remastered life, as they're out of print in the U.S.A. and only available as Japanese imports currently.

Performing "Touch By Touch" @ the American Music Awards '87

A toast then to the Diana Ross who braved the unknown and usually won out. Here's to the odd, beautiful, and refined touch of her silky soul that became "electric" during the '80's.

[Editor's Note: Again, all of these records are available, via Amazon, or other Internet music outlets as Japanese imports. It looks as if Silk Electric is the only one of the six here to go out of print recently.-QH]


Reg Jones said...

how thorough. I think if she'd stuck with MJ and the Sembello's alone, she'd wouldn't have missed a beat. I remember vividly how big a deal the release and success of Why Do Fools Fall in Love (album) was.

Diva Incarnate said...

Stunning post. I have recently been re-visiting her albums myself, but will be using this to discover more about her music. I can't believe her biggest selling album only sold 6 million though - I guess she's a bigger star than musical artist, or maybe that's still not quite the correct way of putting it. She's like Cher in that respect, but more glamorous at all turns.

Tommy said...

Great overview of this often neglected period of her career. In spite of the mixed reviews that her RCA output often gets, I personally loved this period of her career. Like you, I thought it was a testament to her strength and longevity, that even if the results weren't always fruitful, she wasn't afraid to be bold and adventurous and take some risks. For one thing, I've always thought "Pieces Of Ice" (again, one that a lot of fans are mixed on) is probably one of the best things she ever did.

hype said...

Ah I love the RCA years oh so much and was really happy to hit this post!

Anonymous said...

Amamazing the aesthetic influence in see belonging to Diana in today's artists.

Anonymous said...

I bought all of her albums during the RCA years, from Why Do Fools Fall in Love to the Gibb-produced one but never knew the background (in terms of her unprecedented creative control). This post has been enlightening as now I understand why many of the songs struck me as quite eccentric or at the very least off-centre at the time (eg Girls, Love Lies, Dirty Looks). Those albums obviously provide a much greater insight into who she was creatively. Thanks for the post.

un_taco said...

Thank you SO much for this post, I learned a lot and was greatly inspired! I. LOVE. YOUR. BLOG.

Jennifer said...

Her RCA years are my fave, even though 1980 Diana is my fave Diana record. 83's 'Ross' is my favorite from the bunch. Just criminally underrated and I love the varying of styles on it. Almost a straight listen for me.

Her other RCA albums have some magic moments. I'm the oddball who loves the "non-singles" like "Oh Teacher" from 'Eaten Alive' and "Stranger In Paradise" from 'Red Hot'. Dig a little and Diana has some other gems aside from her classics.