When Berry Gordy took the decision to relocate Motown to the West Coast, he was clearly planning to take the stars of Motown in a new direction that involved television and cinema. His trump card was Diana Ross, who had the talent and the confidence to develop as an artist beyond the sphere of Motown music. The success of the move to Los Angeles, completed in 1972, depended massively on what Diana Ross could achieve on screen.
The first film was released that same year, with Diana Ross in a starring role. It was a biopic of the jazz singer Billie Holiday, entitled “Lady Sings the Blues”, based on Holiday’s 1956 autobiography. The film was produced by Motown Productions for Paramount Pictures and was directed by Sidney J. Furie. The cast included Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, James T. Callahan, and Scatman Crothers. Some critics found the presentation of Holiday’s life story “offensively simplistic” and “factually … a fraud”, but Ross’ performance was praised. Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Ross gave “one of the truly fine screen performances, full of power and pathos and enormously engaging and sympathetic”.
The film was a smash hit at the Box office in America. Ross won a Golden Globe as “Most Promising Newcomer” and was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award and a BAFTA (British Academy Award).
The film enabled Motown to produce its first hugely successful soundtrack album. “Lady Sings the Blues” was performed entirely by Diana Ross and includes a brilliant interpretation of several songs originally recorded by Billie Holiday. The soundtrack peaked at number one on the Billboard Top 200 Albums Chart week-ending 7th April 1973 (2 weeks). This became Ross’ fourth number one album, eventually selling over one million copies according to Motown’s Promotion Department. The album also did extremely well in the UK, selling over 100,000 copies and receiving a gold plaque from the BPI on the 1st May 1974.
The album featured on drums on several tracks the legendary Earl Palmer (famous for playing on many New Orleans major hits during the city’s golden era). The entire album was conducted by Gil Askey, with input from Michel Legrand, a French-born prolific classical music composer, jazz pianist and arranger who was a master of film scores from the 1950s. Many of the musicians who played on the soundtrack had originally played for Billie Holiday. These musicians, with the help of Michel Legrand and Gil Askey in the role of arrangers and conductors, gave the entire recording a very special quality.
The R&B, Stage & Screen soundtrack masterpiece was recorded at Glen Glenn Sound Studios and Mowest Studios. One of the key sound engineers on the project was Art Stewart (who collaborated with Marvin Gaye on his “Let’s Get It On” album), with additional engineering by Calvin Harris and Russ Terrana, who together helped create the melodic, relaxed, passionate, romantic sound.
Miss Ross is a brilliant interpreter of sophisticated jazz music drawn from the time of Billie Holiday and her contemporaries. Her versatility is remarkable and sets Diana Ross apart from other female singers of that period. She performed each track with such ease. The soundtrack has become an enduring classic, winning the Favorite Pop Album American Music Award at the American Music Award event in 1973.
Personnel credited on the soundtrack are:
- Diana Ross – vocals
- John Collins – guitar, banjo
- Arthur Edwards,Max Bennett, George “Red” Callender – bass
- Chester Lane, Don Abney, Gerald Wiggins – piano
- Earl Palmer, Jessie Sailes – drums
- Caughey Roberts – soprano saxophone, clarinet
- William “Buddy” Collette, Ernie Watts, Georgie Auld, Jack Nimitz, Marshall Royal, Plas Johnson – saxophone
- George Bohanon, Grover Mitchell, Henry Coker, Jimmy Cleveland, John Ewing, Maurice Spears – trombone
- Al Aarons, Bobby Bryant, William “Cat” Anderson, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Teddy Buckner – trumpet
- Benny Golson, Gil Askey, Oliver Nelson – arrangements
- Michel Legrand- arrangements, conductor
- Gil Askey – conductor
- Berry Gordy- executive producer
“Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)” is a gorgeous song with an absolutely beautiful instrumental break, arranged by Gil Askey. This tune was apparently written for Billie Holiday in the early 1940s, and relaxes the atmosphere after the much more brash “Fine & Mellow”. Diana’s smooth, almost fragile, reading of the bridge does really recall Holiday’s sound, especially when she is hitting the higher notes required by the song. Her performance here is miraculous when compared with the singing she displayed on her solo work with Ashford & Simpson; she truly sounds like a different singer and yet this song was probably recorded mere months after the soul/gospel tracks on “Surrender”.
The rest of the album sees Diana Ross matching the essence of much of Holiday’s vocal style. Throughout the album Ross masterfully captures the haunting and smokey voice of the late Billie Holiday, with Diana’s soprano as clear and clean as it would ever be on record. She notably handles the lyrics with authority, expressing the pain and loneliness of the songs in her voice. It is obvious that Miss Holiday was a complex individual with a lot of emotional swings. The album portrays some of the many sad moments in the lives of African Americans experienced during the dark period of racism, seen through the eyes of Billie Holiday. It is truly a jazz masterpiece that, in its versatility and richness, captures the flavour of one of the genre’s best-loved singers.
The whole project must have given Diana Ross enormous satisfaction, as she proved she could handle Berry Gordy’s expectations. It was a good start to life in the West!