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Music

Six Definitive Songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to Diana Ross

Diana Ross was supreme. Indeed, she sang for The Supremes and even sounded supreme in the years after. She worked with Michael Jackson, Barry Gibb and Nile Rodgers, accumulating influences far and wide. She was far-reaching, intellectual, fiercesome: There was even a touch of swagger to her voice.

The singer is still furnishing music, decades after her commercial zenith had dwindled. But as a means of creating more interesting work, she stayed true to the melody that approached her, no matter the guise it presented itself as. And she was often superb.

It’s always hard to whittle any career down to a tidy number of vignettes, but it’s to Ross’s credit that she can ably cater to both beginners and completists. Each of her vocals holds a strength unto itself, and the songs tellingly hold a vision of a world of their own.

We the listener grow with the performances, just as the recordings immortalise the singer on a higher plane of creative thought and style. Where she will go next is anyone’s guess, but the songs are richer because of her involvement.

Diana Ross’ six definitive songs:

‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’- 1968

Diana Ross and The Supremes weren’t the only ones to release a cover of this tune. The Temptations joined the band of female singers to complete this duet. The mixture of vocals creates an interesting hybrid, every voice piercing the mosaic in one tidy whole, and together the group of vocalists create something grander than they might have done on their own.

It’s a scintillatingly well-produced number, bringing the tightly coiled voices under one tidy umbrella. The song captures the ebullience, adulation and grandeur of the era through its production, but it’s the voices – shimmering, and sung with great style and poise – that really hold up all those years later. Check out your local choir, they’re probably singing it.

‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ – 1970

It’s the original, it’s the thunder, it’s the pull, it’s the work of a brilliant artist, but that’s not the version we’re talking about here. We’ll save the fiery Marvin Gaye number for another time, but in this instance, the cover is also noteworthy and provided Ross with a solid solo hit when her solo career was just launching off the ground. Indeed, the recording features one of her sparkier vocal deliveries and still holds up 50 years after it was recorded.

The song hit the number 14 spot in Ireland, but it did even better in Britain, where it charted in the top ten. But neither chartings compared to the success she enjoyed in America, where she topped the Billboard with great effect and admiration. She was on the cusp of great success and would enjoy greater plaudits during the disco era.

‘I’m Coming Out’ – 1980

Written and produced by Chic frontmen Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, the song brought Ross pirouetting and leaping into the 1980s. Brilliantly executed, and produced in a similar manner to the jaunty disco tracks of the era, the single was adopted as an anthem for the LGBTQ+ communities across the world. The disco-pop tune remains part of her mainstay.

For Ross, this is an integral part of her life’s journey. “See, there’s nothing that you can do that doesn’t lead to something positive,” she told The Guardian.”I think it’s all a part of life’s journey. No matter what it is, it’s good, it’s part of the work you do here, it’s part of the lessons learned. So it’s all good. It’s not bad. I don’t think I even know that word. I try to be a good example. To be an example.”

‘Muscles’ – 1982

Written and produced by Michael Jackson, the song is one of the more outright sultry numbers in the singer’s canon. She sings as though aping the arrival of a hunk who can bring her to the point of sexual nirvana, through his charisma, charm and great use of hands. What’s clear is that the singer isn’t searching for someone to bring her on a point of self-discovery, but for a man who can help her realise the many sexual fantasies building in her head.

Jackson sings the harmony vocal and does so very well, but the performance is predominantly Ross’, who sings like it’s the last song she will ever record. Considering the diversity of her career, Ross could be forgiven for singing something so dirty and sexy, but she didn’t make a habit out of it, perhaps understanding what it might do for her career.

‘Chain Reaction’ – 1985

There was a period when anything the Bee Gees touched turned into solid gold. Even when they weren’t performing, they were writing for other artists, many of them hitting huge success. There was Dolly Parton’s ‘Islands In The Streams’, one of the more enduring karaoke favourites; there was the yearning of ‘Heartbreaker’, which featured one of Dione Warwick’s smokier performances; and there was ‘Chain Reaction’, styled in the manner of The Supremes.

“We had ‘Chain Reaction’ all along but didn’t have the nerve to play it to her because it was so Motown-ish that we were scared she wouldn’t go back there,” Barry Gibb recalled. “Robin Gibb persuaded her by saying, ‘We think it’s time you did something that you would have done with The Supremes and not just Diana Ross.’ Once Diana had recorded it, she sat down and heard the playback and realized it was a credible tribute to the past.” Indeed it was, but it’s as much Barry’s work as hers, which might explain why it wound up on Hawks, a film he produced starring then Bond, Timothy Dalton.

‘Your Love’ – 1993

And now the list is near, showing the many virtues of Ross’s voice. ‘Your Love’ returns the singer back to her roots, creating a gospel tinted hybrid song, wet with the sound of her voice. Age has not diminished her voice, as it creates a wiser, more wistful sound to the work, creating a newer, fresher exhibition that only stands up with the best of the recordings she has issued in the past.

The song features on Forever Diana: Musical Memoirs, a tidy collection of songs the performer had released over the decades. As it happens, the singer was turning a corner, and singing from a more reflective standpoint. It was less about the hits and more about gaining the truth from the situation at hand. And it’s a very truthful vocal she performs.