Thursday, July 4, 2019

Black Music Month 2019: Diamond R&B Divas

This time last year, I don't recall if any of us knew that by summer's unofficial end, we would be saying our earthly goodbyes to Aretha Franklin, but we were. If there are any lessons that we should learn from that, one must be not to take anyone for granted. So for the last big Black Music Month piece (yeah, I know it's July), let's give some proper respect to a few R&B Divas who celebrated their 75th birthdays this year!

Apparently, 1944 was a great year to be born. On the Busy Black Woman FB page, I posted mini-tributes to Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, and Gladys Knight on their respective dates of birth, so in keeping with my goal to provide an index of those selections for posterity, here are those playlists. In addition to those music selections (with contributions that were made by my guest music editor and good friend RC), there are a few other song choices, remakes, memorable performances, and additional biographical information on each diva.

The Boss, Diana Ross (March 26)

So I am going to state my case at the outset about Ms. Ross--there is NOTHING you can say about her that will ever lower her status in my mind as one of the greatest divas on the planet. NOTHING. I am an eternal fan of hers ever since I saw her in The Wiz and decided that she was a better Dorothy than Judy Garland had been in The Wizard of Oz (and I am not here for any back talk about Stephanie Mills either).

I made individual posts on the Facebook page, so I can't link to them as a whole, but here is the initial post (from The Wiz) and I chose four others. From the early days of her career with The Supremes, my favorite song has always been their first hit Where Did Our Love Go (1964).  From her solo career I chose Reach Out And Touch Somebody's Hand (1970), Upside Down (1980), Endless Love (1981) her duet with Lionel Richie, and Missing You (1984) her song released in tribute to Marvin Gaye.

At first glance, that would appear to be a very straight-forward playlist, so let's deep dive into several of these choices. I have to admit that my fascination with The Supremes was a by-product of my love of Ross, so nowadays my reaction to a lot of their songs is meh. While I am 99.9999% sure that I heard the original version of "WDOLG" at least a hundred times before I heard this remake by the British group Soft Cell in 1981 (part of the extended version of Tainted Love), if we're being honest there is that .0001% chance that it was the other way around...

The other Supremes songs that I liked were not even sung by the entire group. For example, Someday We'll Be Together (1970) was supposed to be the farewell number sung to set up the transition of Ross to a solo act, but Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong aren't singing background on the track. Instead, they appear in the performances and are recorded on the B-side song, He's My Sunny Boy (which sounds better as a Jackson 5 song, too bad it was unreleased). The version of "Someday" we know was recorded with Johnny Bristol, one of the original writers of the song, which had previously been released with another singer, Jackey Beavers when they were a duet known as Johnny & Jackey in 1961. Later when the Supremes performed, Jean Terrell who replaced Ross in 1970, sang the lead (here with Smokey Robinson). Another song in that same category is Ain't No Mountain High Enough (1970) which I have seen billed as sung by the Diana Ross and The Supremes...which it technically was, but as a duet with The Temptations in 1968. The older version sounds like an okay karaoke rendition next to the superior Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell megahit from 1967; the remake was on Ross's solo debut.

Speaking of Marvin Gaye, the one thing I recall hearing when he died in 1984 was that he and Ross had a tumultuous working relationship on Diana & Marvin (1973), so it was ironic opportunistic that she would dedicate "Missing You" to him. Apparently, that wasn't a rumor... Nevertheless, their album had several UK hits, including You Are Everything and Stop, Look, Listen To Your Heart, both remakes from the Stylistics self-titled debut album released in 1971.

As for remakes/samples of Ross's hits, I heard "Endless Love" every day during a cross-country family trip, so the original is hard-wired into my memory, but the Luther Vandross/Mariah Carey remake isn't half bad. On 1997's Life After Death, Biggie Smalls famously sampled Ross's I'm Coming Out on Mo Money Mo Problems, but he also less famously sampled Missing You. Is that why Puffy sampled Sting's Every Breath You Take for his tribute to Smalls (to avoid confusion)?

So back to what I said at the outset--nothing diminishes Diana Ross in my eyes as a diva. She didn't discover the Jackson 5, but they did tour with her so theoretically, she introduced them to the world. She got to be Dorothy in the movie because she wanted the role and in hindsight, I still don't care that y'all think Stephanie Mills sang Home better because Ross was the bigger star at the time. Yeah, it might have been potentially dangerous to continue an outdoor concert in a thunderstorm, but YOLO and it was in Central Park and it was to build a playground (and sentimentally, I remember watching it with my Mom). It is entirely possible that she and Marvin Gaye had patched things up by least it looked like they had during the Motown 25 tribute. Over the years, everybody has had their say about Diana Ross: from Dreamsgirls, the Broadway play (1981) and the film (2005); to Mary Wilson's original memoir (an excerpt of which I recall reading when it was published in ESSENCE magazine in 1986); to Barry Gordy's 1994 autobiography (which inspired another Broadway production in 2013, Motown: The Musical); to the Unsung episode about Florence Ballard (2009).

So if there is anything more we need to know, we can read her memoir, or we can just listen to what she sang in the Theme from Mahogany (1975)...she's always known where she wanted to be.

The Godmother, Patti LaBelle (May 24) 

If there was ever a sanging sister who defies all categories, it is Mama Patti. She is a music diva, an accomplished actress, a published author of several cookbooks, an entrepreneur, AND (I know this is shouting, but) SHE HAS HAD THE SAME SINGING VOICE throughout her career! My little tribute can't do justice to all that she is, but I'm undaunted...

First, here are the selections from the mini-Patti Playlist that was posted to the FB page. From her days with LaBelle (with Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash) hits include Lady Marmalade (1974), What Can I Do For You? (1975), and Isn't It A Shame (1976); and then solo Patti was represented by a definite disco/roller-skate jam Music Is My Way of Life (1979), and these Quiet Storm standards You Are My Friend (1977), Over the Rainbow (1981), Love, Need and Want You (1983), If Only You Knew (1983), and Somebody Loves You (1992).

And each of those selections offer an adequate sampling of the classic Patti that we all know and love, but if you dig a little deeper, there is so much more to discover. For example, there is very early Patti from her days as the lead singer of The Bluebelles singing Down the Aisle (1963), as well as an earlier version of Over the Rainbow (1966). If you've never heard her version of You'll Never Walk Alone (1964), you'd be surprised to learn (like I was) that was originally a show tune (1945) and a sports anthem, not gospel (1985)! Such is the transformative power of Patti's voice. She can do Broadway just as easily as she can do church. And jazz. And country.

There is also Patti the actress, who made one of her first appearances on screen in A Soldier's Story (1984) as Big Mary, and then later turned up as Dwayne Wayne's mother, Adele, an epic scene stealer on A Different World (in one of my favorite episodes). She also had her own short-lived sitcom Out All Night in 1992. There is Patti the lifestyle guru who had her own show on the Cooking Channel and is now planning to venture into the frozen food business (beyond those legendary Patti pies). And again, that just barely scratches the surface.

As is always the case whenever I put these playlists together, I learn so much, so the big revelation here was the interesting rivalry between LaBelle and Diana Ross. Not that it isn't surprising among the various girl groups of that era, but if you are at all familiar with the plot of Dreamgirls, this interview is classic #PettyPatti. At the end, it references how Cindy Birdsong, who had been a member of the Bluebelles left that group to join The Supremes, under circumstances that allegedly influenced Nona Hendryx to write Can I Speak to You Before You Go To Hollywood. (By the way, Patti told Andy Cohen in a more recent interview that she and Ross are on better terms now. She and Cindy Birdsong have made up as well.)

So on that note, let's give an Honorable Mention to Nona Hendryx, who will also celebrate her 75th birthday this year (October 9). This gem from the 80s archives, I Sweat comes from the soundtrack of one of those utterly forgettable 80s movies, Perfect...about aerobics. Sarah Dash, who will celebrate her 75th birthday next year (August 18), pursued a solo career as well, but she is probably better known for her work with Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones. Here is Patti reunited with Hendryx and Dash in 2008 (not missing a beat after 30-some years singing solo).

So how does one sum up such a fascinating career? Well you can't, so either check out her memoir or sit back and listen to When You Talk About Love (1997).

The Empress , Gladys Knight (May 28)

Now I know she's been a solo artist for 30 years, but it is nearly impossible to talk about Gladys Knight without acknowledging the Pips, with whom she recorded all of her hit music during the first half of her career. In fact when the FB list was published, only one of those songs came from her solo career.

From their days at Motown, the hits included: I Heard It Through The Grapevine (released in 1967, before Marvin Gaye's 1968 release, and after it was recorded by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in 1966); If I Were Your Woman (1970); and Neither One Of Us (1972). Then they decamped for Buddha Records and scored major hits and success with Midnight Train to Georgia (1973) and The Makings of You (from the Claudine soundtrack in 1974). In the 80s hits included Save the Overtime (1983), Love Overboard (1987), and License to Kill (1989).

But the fact that she spent the greater part of her career in a group doesn't diminish her stature, especially since she was the lead singer. It isn't like they broke up and the Pips went on to score hits for themselves...At Last (1977). As this hilarious clip from the Richard Pryor Show (1977) demonstrates, the Pips were always a class act, but without Gladys, they were three guys in tuxedos. And that skit is even funnier when viewed along with this clip from the PBS special of the Three Mo Tenors (2001), with their tribute to the Pips (around 4:30) as well as this spoof (circa 2008). It just took a while for us to adjust to seeing and hearing her as a soloist as was the case in this memorable scene from A Different World--part of an entire episode about her needing new backup singers.

While her music career was inextricably connected to the Pips, her forays into acting allowed us to see her as a star in her own right. She guest-starred as herself on The Jeffersons (1983) and was good-natured enough to tolerate the joke that Diana Ross was a better singer (and then later came by to rehearse). As is always the case when I research these types of pieces, I found this gem from Charlie & Co. (1986), a show that I had forgotten about (so we'll be revisiting the topic of forgotten Black sitcoms in the near future). We saw another examople of an unfazed Gladys in this episode of Living Single...because only a saint could endure Denise Nicholas's off-key singing (it cuts off, but if you're a fan of the show you've seen it and know that Gladys mercifully takes the mic). At least Jamie Foxx was able to hold his own during this touching duet when she guest starred as his estranged mother.

Hence, my premise is that of these three divas, Gladys is the Gamma Girl, the type who possesses the quiet confidence to let you realize her greatness without her having to announce it. Listen closely to her music, and that is how nearly every song unfolds. She starts off sweet, as she does here in her first hit song, Every Beat of My Heart (1961), then allows the excitement to build, like she does in I Don't Want To Know (1994). Then she just knocks it all the way out of the park, as she does with this version of How Great Thou Art (1968) and the Star Spangled Banner at the most recent Superbowl (yeah, I know but goosebumps). She can hold her own with other divas and knows exactly how much to give and keep (after all, this was on her album). And despite the crazy costume, how could anyone not recognize her unmistakable voice (come on Dr. Ken, Anita Baker???)!

The other big revelation from this project is that when Gladys Knight and the Pips were signed to Motown during that storied label's heyday, they discovered the Jackson 5 and made the initial recommendation to sign the group. But as she recounts in her understated manner, she didn't have the stature of her label-mates, so the credit went to others. That story also hints at the rivalry that has existed between her and Diana Ross all of these years...but I am not here to take sides. Because Gladys ain't never been shy about spilling tea, which we know from her 1997 memoir in 1997 and 2013 reality special on OWN.

But I am here to pay tribute and give credit where it is due, and as such, Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me (1974) is one of the greatest songs. Ever.

WHEW. There is so much more to these three women, and as you might imagine, the attempt to compile and condense 55+ years (about 170 years or more combined) in the music business into brief career snapshots is more than a notion for some casual music blogger. But I tried. Happy Black Music Month!

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