When Diana Ross turned to the then lava-hot Chic Organization in late 1979 to produce her, she made one of the smartest moves of her career. Ms Ross was seen as somewhat past her best by this time; she had been a star for best part of 20 years with a diva-esque reputation and three children. Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards' had only been stars for little over two years. It was clear to them both that in order to move forward, Ross had to be turned upside down, come out of the superstar bubble she was in, and most importantly, to have fun again.
To that end, Diana is an artistic portrayal of complete freedom; Rodgers and Edwards' writing symbolises Ross' breaking free of the shackles of Motown on one level, but moreover, the work has a universality; celebrating gayness, blackness, equality; an album of challenging ideas, friendship and freedom. And who better to pilot these themes than the most successful African American female artist in the world?
The tale behind the making of the Diana album was a classic saga of the old meeting the new. Recording sessions took place at Nile and 'Nard's studio of choice, The Power Station in New York. It was the first time that the duo had worked with an established artist, and their speedy and benignly dictatorial working methods were alien to Ross. When Edwards, often seen as the 'bad cop' of the Chic producing partnership, suggested that she may have been singing 'underneath' one of the tracks, she stormed out of the studio, stating "Berry Gordy never said I sing flat!". She was not to return for several weeks.
Rodgers and Edwards were accused of trying to make their sound shine and Motown's first lady look poor by comparison, so Ross and long-time engineer Russ Terrana pulled the album and remixed it at the eleventh hour. And that's what we have all known for the past 23 years. Well, now we can compare both.
The original mix is largely wonderful; all edgy, angular and close mic'd. The grittiest manifestation of Chic's initial ideas is "Have Fun (Again)", which demonstrates the knotty structures Rodgers was accustomed to using in his jazz-rock days and for once, Ross sounds as if she's on the street instead of looking down from a penthouse window. It also gives a whole new flavour to "Upside Down" the extended play-out of Rodgers guitar at its most frenetic is no longer smothered. "Friend To Friend", one of Chic's most poetical slowies, enjoys the best original version here; sounding almost like a minuet.
However, the original version of ''I'm Coming Out'' is a rare moment that it proves Ross' instinct was right. It's one of those delicious tracks that you have always heard but have hardly ever listened to. Check the elegant simplicity of Edwards' bass - always in the pocket; Meco Monardo's trombone and the ever-present gang vocals of the Chic choir (Chic's Luci and Alfa, plus Fonzi Thornton and Michelle Cobbs). Terrana's tightening-up makes all the difference and the sloppiness of Meco's trombone solo on the original does, somewhat,undermine Ross.
Disc two provides the disco-oriented sides that led to Diana, and it proves illuminating listening. It is full of delights, the writ-large hopes and aspirations of mid-70s America, fighting back against the backdrop of recession. The Richard Perry produced "Your Love Is So Good For Me"; "Sweet Summertime Lovin'" and the ten-minute Disconet mix of "Love Hangover" make this an interesting, if occasionally formulaic listen.
Universal's Deluxe series truly delivers here; well-packaged, informative, a historical document; but unlike many worthy albums that are recovered, this one is actually for using regularly, not keeping on the highest shelf.