Diana Ross is an interesting proposition for soul music fans, it has always seemed to us. Despite being one of the most famous and biggest selling solo female artists of all time, and along the path of her career defining elements of pop, soul and disco music, true critical acclaim always seems somewhat lacking, or at the very least given only grudgingly. Arguably the original soul diva, Ross’ image always seems to be one of glittering saccharine style over substance, with commentators never really acknowledging her as a particularly great singer. People talk about the greater natural talent of her fellow Supremes Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard especially, of favouritism and solo stardom as much to do with Ross’ relationship with Berry Gordy as her own ability, and of a rise to superstardom based on the song-writing and production talents of others.
While her incredible success is celebrated and her position as an icon of music assured, there always seems to be a slight sheen of thinly veiled criticism in her accolades, a sense that doesn’t accompany fellow soul legends and contemporaries from Aretha to Stevie, Marvin to Smokey. Put it like this, if you are to ask people to name their favourite ever singer, soul or otherwise, I just get the sense that Ross would not feature at the top of many lists. And this would be true for us also, but this should not hide the great admiration that we have for much of Diana Ross’ music, both as part of The Supremes and as a solo artist. Indeed, there is some of it that is just outstanding beyond belief, a verdict that we were reminded of recently by a chance listen to perhaps the most iconic of Ross performances, the massive ‘Baby Love’, released in 1964.
There can be little doubt that legendary song-writing team Holland-Dozier-Holland enjoyed a special rapport with The Supremes, and their combined run of 5 consecutive US number ones (of which ‘Baby Love’ was the second) is truly remarkable, but no less so than the other material they provided for the group throughout the 1960s. Any one of these hit records is worthy of some attention but there is something about ‘Baby Love’ that is simply stunning, in its apparent simplicity certainly, but also in the vocal performance that it inspires. The opening breathy “Oohs” that Ross drops on top of the sandbox percussion and tingly cymbals are the stuff of legend. And according to the legend were nothing more than an afterthought following Gordy’s verdict that the song was not catchy enough in its original recording. But what an afterthought it was, elevating an already enticing intro to the presage of something remarkable.
The Motown snare rolls in the background and house band the Funk Brothers do what they do best, carving pop soul grooves of wonderful consistency. But it is the full vocal that takes the song into the upper reaches. There is nothing complicated about the lyrics, a typical ode to teenage love, but Ross’ sweetly sub-soprano tone seems to imbue it with sophistication above mere teenage angst. There is a genuine yearning to the singing which wrings every bit of emotion possible from the words, while remaining ear-pleasingly constant and free of any melodrama. ‘Baby Love’ is not our favorite Supremes song by any means, but never fails to please when we hear it. And that is true of much of The Supremes music, and that of Diana Ross more generally. It is not the type of music that springs to mind immediately, but generally jaw-dropping when it does rear its head. And as far as importance for Motown itself goes, this tune also marked something of a commercial watershed, ushering in the true golden years and providing a group who could deliver hit after hit at the very highest reaches of the charts. So before you overlook Ross for a truer soul heavyweight, remember to pause to consider that sometimes greatness is easy to overlook. As Ross herself might ask as her legacy becomes defined, where did our love go?