Happy 30th Anniversary to Diana Ross’ Red Hot Rhythm & Blues, originally released in May of 1987. (Editor’s Note: select sources cite May 1987 as the official release month, while others reference June 1987.)
It had been quite a ride for Diana Ross by 1987. The former Motown architect transitioned to RCA Records in 1981 for even more autonomy, putting to rest any implication of creative passivity that had erroneously haunted her during her iconic tenure at her previous label home.
In her 1993 memoir Secrets of a Sparrow, Ross aptly described her RCA stay as “a magnificent experience.” And so, from 1981 to 1987, Ross created boldly, evident in every facet of her career. There were hits, misses and surprises, all of it a bellwether to the reimagination of her brand of R&B and black pop.
Red Hot Rhythm & Blues, her sixteenth album overall and sixth for RCA Records was, like its predecessors, purposeful. It shared the tightest kinship with Ross (1983). Producers Gary Katz and Ray Parker Jr. lent a stabilizing influence to Ross’ experimentation and her established strengths. Though a mild seller upon its release, time would be kind to Ross as it circumvented the excesses that later dated its companion RCA projects Silk Electric (1982), Swept Away (1984) and Eaten Alive (1985). Though Eaten Alive spun off her second British chart topper in “Chain Reaction,” the LP was seen as a decadent holding pattern. Red Hot Rhythm & Blues set about to do what Ross did, but with the commercial returns which eluded that record.
The late and respected Tom Dowd dressed Red Hot Rhythm & Blues sonically, barring the glassy contribution of “It's Hard For Me to Say” from the equally cherished Luther Vandross. Dowd's mission was to strip Ross down to―and emphasize her knack for―melody. He seemed to grasp that Ross was about musical alchemy and that her best records demonstrated this. In short, he wished to bring focus back to this prime ingredient in her sound.
Conceptually, Red Hot Rhythm & Blues served as an intersectional “tribute” to standard and modern R&B via original compositions and covers. However, the framework of the record sidestepped the more “assertive” vibes of mainstream black music in 1987: house, hip-hop and New Jack Swing. Instead, despite its fiery title, Red Hot Rhythm & Blues went with a soft, pastel take of Quiet Storm, adult contemporary pop and vintage soul.
Only the urbane percussive funk of the LP's first single “Dirty Looks” (U.S. R&B #12, UK #49) and the tasteful take of Simply Red's guitar soul injected “Shine” broke the enchanting, but still surface of the album. Ross' Simply Red cover―taken from their second record Men and Women which debuted earlier in 1987―aligned with the otherwise expected anachronistic cast of songs she tackled. Like Simply Red, Ross was a confessed fan of all the individuals whose material she reworked: Jackie Ross (“Selfish One”), The Drifters (“There Goes My Baby”), Etta James (“Tell Mama”), The Bobbettes (“Mr. Lee”) and Arthur Conley (“Sweet Soul Music”). The Conley track featured in the accompanying television special that aired the same month that the album dropped in May 1987. It remained unreleased until the 2014 reissue of the record which included it. The reissue also reunited the British only tracks “Tell Mama” and “Mr. Lee” with the remainder of the album proper.
As the roster of aforementioned covers attested, Ross drew from the well of 1950s-to-1960s rhythm and blues. It suited her. Her rendition of Ross' “Selfish One” was a sugary, Supremes-esque throwback success much like “Chain Reaction” two years beforehand. Throughout the record’s run time, Ross favored restraint over punch in regard to the arrangements, with another highlight of this method emerging with the orchestral water color sketch of “Summertime.” Written by the incomparable Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson, the song was evidence of Ross’ unmatched excellence as an interpreter.
However, there were instances where the production played muted rather than expressive. Two examples, “There Goes My Baby” and “Shockwaves” (the sole Ross written number), felt neutered structurally with Ross being the only point of energy on the songs themselves. Where a well-placed bass line or a commanding burst of brass could have given a healthy tension to Ross’ silken performance, Dowd kept the spotlight on the melody. To be fair, on the two preceding records, the dial may have been turned a distance away from the melodic aspect, but to go aggressively the opposite way ended up giving the record a lush, but austere finish.
Red Hot Rhythm & Blues wrapped Ross’ RCA stay on a continued commercial downturn: U.S. Billboard 200 #73, U.S. Billboard R&B 100 #39, UK Official Albums Chart #47. Three subsequent singles came behind “Dirty Looks,” the U.S. only release “Tell Me Again,” and two for her faithful British public―“Shockwaves” (UK #76) and “Mr. Lee” (UK #58). All three were met with a tepid response.
The singer returned to Motown Records in 1988―as a signee and stakeholder in the company―with Workin’ Overtime manifesting in 1989. For the long player, she paired again with Chic founder and producer magus Nile Rodgers. Rodgers sought to tailor the aforementioned house, hip-hop and New Jack Swing music of the period to Ross. The LP granted her a sizable R&B hit in the title track (U.S. R&B #3), but the record was seen as a failed gamble. Yet, the remainder of Ross’ secondary Motown stay saw her popularity in the United Kingdom hold steadfast through the rest of the 1990s. Her final recording released a decade ago on Manhattan Records, I Love You was a critical and commercial boon for Ross.
Elegant, but ultimately flawed, Red Hot Rhythm & Blues displayed a contradictory demure grandeur in how it concluded the most exciting, if still largely misunderstood, chapter in Diana Ross’ canon. But, the record in its finer moments maintains that unmistakable Ross magic that continues to cross generations.