From Diana to Mariah

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday December 30, 2008
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Grand diva Diana Ross had so much to sing about after she left the Supremes that Motown released not one but two solo discs by her in 1970. The first one, an eponymous masterwork that featured mostly Ashford & Simpson compositions, including "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)," remains a career high-point. The second, Everything Is Everything (Motown/Hip-O Select), recently reissued in an expanded edition, didn't fare as well, as it was a much less focused effort. Still, Beatles covers including "Come Together" and "The Long and Winding Road," as well as the Bacharach tune "(They Long To Be) Close to You," are evidence that Ross was able to work outside of her comfort zone and not embarrass herself. Among the bonus material is another Beatles cover ("Something"), a reading of the schmaltzy ballad "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?," a 1982 remix of "Come Together" from a scrapped collection, and the Phil Chill remix of "I'm Still Waiting."

Would there be a Mariah Carey without Diana Ross? Carey's most obvious influences, Madonna, Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson, might be more closely connected to Ross, but there's no denying there's a familiar diva thread stitched into the fabric. On E=MC2 (Island), Carey is pushing 40 but still working the sex-kitten angle that catapulted comeback disc The Emancipation of Mimi to the top of the charts. She's distancing herself from the mainstream songbird of her early years, while maintaining her status as the voice of the urban diva. Anyone who remembers her first few albums must miss the Carey of old, who used to just open her mouth and sing. The formula for the new album is all about studio trickery and sharing the spotlight with unnecessary male guests, including T-Pain on "Migrate," Damian Marley on the pseudo-dancehall of "Cruise Control," Young Jeezy on "Side Effects," and Jermaine (please shut up) Dupree on "Love Story" and "Last Kiss." It's not all a total loss: the retro dance of "I'm That Chick" is a sexy treat that doesn't have to work too hard to be a delight, and in spite of an unfortunate title and chorus, "I'll Be Lovin' U Long Time" virtually glows.

Carey better watch out for UK upstart Estelle and her trailblazing Shine (Atlantic/Homeschool) disc. Estelle is really more in league with Amy Winehouse, especially in the way she comfortably assumes a vintage stance on songs such as "Wait a Minute (Just a Touch)" and the Cee-Lo duet "Pretty Please (Love Me)." Not even egomaniac Kanye West can spoil the pleasurable "American Boy." Of course, it doesn't hurt that Estelle can rap with the best of them, something she does with regularity on the disc. This disc doesn't just shine, it shimmers.

A retro-soul sensation in their own right, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings keep the vintage vibe going strong on 100 Days, 100 Nights (Daptone). There is an authenticity to the performances of these songs that will have listeners flipping it over to check the copyright date. But these are all new recordings that sound like R&B classics. So much so you can almost imagine Winehouse clenching her fists, squinting her eyes, and snarling. But Jones has been around for a while, which could explain why these songs sound so lived in and experienced. Standouts include "Something's Changed" and "Humble Me."

Dionne Warwick may have gotten her start in the church, but she made her name as a secular pop singer of renown. Sure enough, there are gospel-oriented releases in her past, but none of them came close to matching the sales of her non-religious recordings. Despite that fact, her recent disc Why We Sing (Rhino) is a collection of gospel tunes on which she revisits her roots. Warwick still sounds good, her voice has retained its power and personality. But as with all religious material, one can't help but wonder what kind of message such a potentially exclusive album sends to longtime fans who might not share Warwick's beliefs.

Could be that a glut of soul divas, making music around the same time as Ross and Warwick, was the reason that Margie Joseph never became as famous as she might have become. From 1973-78, Joseph released a string of albums, including Sweet Surrender and Feeling My Way for Atlantic, all of which have been reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. Joseph's talent is undeniable, and although she never achieved star status, her performances of original compositions, and her interpretations of songs by Carole King, Johnny Bristol, Al Green, Dolly Parton, Paul McCartney, David Gates, Lamont Dozier, Billy Joel, and others may finally get the audience they deserve through these reissues.

Poor Taylor Dayne. After hitting it big in the late 80s and early 90s, she began to fade into obscurity without major-label support. Her unmistakable voice can still excite on her album Satisfied (Intention/Adrenaline), but much of the material leaves something to be desired. Dayne does deserve credit, however, for daring interpretations of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge" and the Rolling Stones' "Fool To Cry."