The Boss, the Music, the Dreams
THE QUEST FOR RESPECT, THE NEED FOR ACCURACY
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining,” playwright Anton Chekhov is said to have once advised his brother, “show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Many have described the music that is their shining moon, yet few capture its glint on glass. What’s that remark, variously attributed to Elvis Costello, Martin Mull, Frank Zappa and others? “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture – it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”
All this came to mind as the latest remix of “The Boss” ruled the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart, and I found an intelligent essay on the Pop Matters website which triangulated the Diana Ross LP that was home to the original version. Better still, the article placed that album in the context of the singer’s recording career, with freshly-obtained insights from writer/producer Valerie Simpson, arrangers Paul Riser, Ray Chew and Rob Mounsey, and bassist Francisco Centeno.
Writing of that calibre about the music of Motown is rare. Sure, there have been acres of prose about Hitsville citizens and their circumstances: the stars and their enablers, those who helped and those who hindered, those who gave and those who stole. But about the music? Much less writing of merit.
Inevitably, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye have attracted the most attention. Indeed, you know that someone, somewhere, is conjuring up another treatise about What’s Going On at this very minute. The same applies to Stevie’s work, although I cannot fathom why anyone would want to write anything further about him after Giles Smith’s wondrous, 7,500 words in the New Yorker more than two decades ago.
Smokey Robinson has occasionally been well-served; by Stephen Holden, for one, in the New York Times. Peter Doggett is another able author, judging by the liner notes which accompanied Robinson’s The Solo Albums CD reissues circa 2010-11. (Past and present “keepers of the flame” at Universal Music’s catalogue division – Harry Weinger, Andy Skurow, George Solomon – have frequently employed fine writers for their physical reissue sets and compilations.)
Across the breadth of Hitsville’s Detroit output, you’ll be hard pressed to find better than the music portraits by Steve Devereux in Motown Junkies, as described here last month. Still, it was a surprise to stumble across the excellence of The Diana Ross Project, created in 2012 by Paul Milliken. Obviously, I’m seven years late in discovering this – many of you may already be familiar with the site – and in realising that Diana’s music is its entire point. Or, as Paul asserts on the home page: “The web’s first & only track-by-track analysis of the diva’s discography.”
AN AEROBICS TEACHER: WORK THAT BODY
You can swiftly experience the delights of The Diana Ross Project for yourself, but what struck me as noteworthy was that Milliken came to appreciate the singer after she had left Motown. “My mother bought the Why Do Fools Fall In Love LP when it was released [in 1981],” he explains, “as she was an aerobics teacher and, obviously, wanted to use the album in her classes.” He continues, “My earliest memories are of playing the album over and over again, and being mesmerised by the woman on the cover. As I grew older and discovered the depth of her catalogue, stretching all the way back to her beginnings with the Supremes, my interest in Diana’s life and career, and Motown in general, only intensified.”
By the time he had advanced to professional journalism, Milliken says he was disappointed by what had been published about Ross, “which lacked focus on her actual work and instead centred on her personal life and image.” In particular, he contends that few people – diehard fans aside – have listened to the Surrender, Baby It’s Me or Take Me Higher albums from start to finish, “and her performances on these and others rival anything released by her peers at the time.”
It’s that sharp focus on Ross’ music, both with and after the Supremes, which distinguishes the project (it also encompasses the post-Diana Supremes’ recordings for Motown). In the track-by-track analysis, Milliken identifies songwriters, producers and musicians, while setting each album in Ross’ career context. He readily identifies the sources of quotes and commentary by others, while brightening it all with visuals, such as album artwork, photographs, trade and consumer press clippings, and charts.
“I’m really pleased that Diana seems to be getting the kind of critical attention she was denied for a really long time,” Milliken concludes. “It’s been fun to watch her music be rediscovered through dance mixes, etc. I hope I had at least a small part in helping some people realise what a gifted vocalist she really is, and what an important place she and the Supremes hold in popular music history.”
DAY BY DAY, YEAR BY YEAR
That place is the priority of another worthwhile Diana Ross/Supremes website, Go For Your Dreams, created by Laurent Bendelé. Here, the emphasis is on career detail – some might call it minutiae – including a comprehensive timeline of recording sessions, concerts and media appearances, at home and abroad; a discography of singles and albums for the U.S. and beyond, with release dates, catalogue numbers and other data; and a “TVgraphy,” with year-by-year listings of the programmes on which the Supremes (and later, Ross solo) have appeared, each complete with airdate, location, show description, other guests, images and more. There are scores of illustrations for each of these three components.
The purpose and rationale for the site is spelled out by Bendelé in the introduction, and it certainly mirrors Milliken’s mission in one respect. Ross is not given due credit, agrees Laurent, as “an incredibly gifted performer, one of the best in pop-soul-contemporary music as well as a fantastic entertainer. Her voice is, of course, unique, captivating.”
Bendelé, who once wrote about Ross for a Dutch-based, now-defunct international fan club, created a website in 2000, mostly featuring picture sleeves. He committed more seriously to the project some three years ago, having built up a sizeable collection of recordings (and more) by the Supremes and Diana. He started logging information from books, newspaper/magazine archives and other credible sources, while systemising the research and organising the data. Go For Your Dreams debuted last June.
It is, Bendelé freely admits, a work in progress. The site’s main timeline for 1958-69 has been posted, although illustrations for 1968-69 are still being assembled. Other content lies in the future. He aims to verify and amplify as much career detail as possible, and to correct what he calls “vague, dubious or conflicting information” which has appeared elsewhere.
“I am not the holder of the truth,” emphasises Bendelé, but his devotion to the task and to Ross is obvious. The Frenchman also acknowledges that English is not his first language, while welcoming both facts and feedback so that Go For Your Dreams (the phrase is said to be a Ross favourite) is thorough, illuminating and accurate, regardless of nationality.
Just be warned: the site will draw you in, much as The Diana Ross Project does. In both, you’ll want to catch the glint of light from a shimmering career, and enjoy the reflections on music – remixed or not – which has moved millions.
Music notes: The latest remixes of “The Boss” are available on streaming services, of course, as is the original 12-inch disco mix from 1979. The Diana Ross Project keeps tabs on the singer’s current activities, while waiting – hoping – for new recordings. Go For Your Dreams is hoping, too.