In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Berry Gordy had big plans. It made sense for Berry Gordy to have big plans. In the ’60s, Gordy had established Motown Records as, quite possibly, the most important record label in existence. He’d co-written classic songs. He’d become arguably the most successful black entrepreneur in America. In the ’70s, Gordy, who had freshly relocated his entire Motown empire to Los Angeles, aimed to do something similar with the movies. It didn’t work out, but at least he got a big song out of it.
In his attempt to conquer Hollywood, Gordy enlisted the services of Diana Ross, the woman who, more than any other single performer, had been responsible for Motown becoming a pop juggernaut. (Gordy and Ross had a relationship that was as personal as it was professional. The two had a years-long affair, and their daughter Rhonda was born in 1971.) Ross, of course, had led the Supremes, the most successful non-Beatles group of the ’60s. On her own, she’d broken out and gone solo in 1970. Her solo career was spottier than her run with the Supremes had been, but it was still plenty successful. And on those Supremes and solo singles, Ross had always been something of an actress — a voice capable of conveying the entirely fictional emotional weight of the circumstances that the songs described. She was beautiful and driven and precise and galactically famous, and it was only natural that she should become a movie star, too.
The movie careers of Gordy and Ross both started out promisingly. Gordy produced the successful 1972 Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings The Blues. Ross played Holiday. It was her first film role, and she won a Golden Globe and was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. (She lost to Liza Minelli in Cabaret.) Ross didn’t take another movie role for three years, though she did co-host the Oscars in 1974. (Ross was also reportedly considered for the role in the 1976 A Star Is Born remake that ultimately went to Barbra Streisand.) When Ross did come back, she went to work with a first-time director: Berry Gordy.
Mahogany was the story of Tracy Chambers, a secretary at a Chicago department store who dreams of becoming a fashion designer. (Ross designed her own dresses for the movie.) She eventually gets her chance, but only because Anthony Perkins, playing a predatory photographer, transforms her into a supermodel and renames her Mahogany. In the movie, Ross’ character is split between her life in Rome with Perkins and her attraction to Chicago community organizer Billy Dee Williams. (Williams had also been Ross’ co-star in Lady Sings The Blues.) Mahogany has to make some hard choices.
Gordy wasn’t originally slated to direct Mahogany. He was merely the producer. The director was Tony Richardson, the British filmmaker behind movies like Tom Jones and The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner. In his autobiography, Richardson later described Gordy as a larger-than-life tycoon who had lost all touch with reality, living in a giant house that was “part Playboy mansion and part fortress.” The estate was full of exotic animals, including Egyptian geese and peacocks who’d had their vocal chords surgically removed, since Gordy didn’t like the noises they made. In Richardson’s version of the story, Gordy was micromanaging the movie, and he sensed that Gordy really wanted to direct, so he stepped aside. In any case, Berry Gordy ended up getting credit for directing Mahogany.
Mahogany bombed. It got terrible reviews and did bad business. Gordy never directed another movie. Ross only took one more big-screen role, in the 1978 musical The Wiz. These days, Mahogany has its defenders, but it’s mostly just remembered for its camp value. The movie did, however, spawn one unqualified success: The soft and elegant theme song, which became Ross’ third solo #1.
Gordy had asked the Motown staff songwriter and producer Michael Masser to write the score to Mahogany. Masser had never worked as a film composer before, and he would only score one movie after: The Greatest, the 1977 biopic where Muhammad Ali plays himself. But Masser had already done a bunch of work with Diana Ross, and he’d co-written Ross’ previous #1 hit, 1973’s “Touch Me In The Morning.” Gordy wanted a theme song for the movie, and Masser had something for him: “Do You Know Where You’re Going To,” a song that was supposed to be a single for another Motown artist.
Masser had gotten together with Gerry Goffin — Carole King’s ex-husband and one of the great on-demand pop songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s — to write “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” for Thelma Houston, one of the persistently ignored singers on Motown’s sprawling roster. Houston had already recorded her version of “Do You Know Where You’re Going To,” but her recording of the track never came out, though it eventually leaked. Instead, Masser took a look at his lyrics, rewrote them a bit to fit the movie’s themes, and gave the song to Diana Ross instead. (Thelma Houston will appear in this column eventually.)
Considering the byzantine story of its creation, “Theme From Mahogany” is a slight song, but it’s a pretty one. On “Theme From Mahogany,” Ross’ character attempts to take stock of her life and the places it’s gone. She mostly sings in second-person, talking to an ex about a warm, amber past and an uncertain future. She sings about her past with a rich, fond sense of regret: “Now looking back at all we planned, we let so many dreams just slip through our hands.” And the song’s central question hangs unanswered — like she’s not even sure if she’s asking it of someone else or of herself.
“Theme From Mahogany” sounds like centrist ’70s movie music — not the rich blaxploitation funk of “Theme From Shaft” but the hammy balladry of “The Morning After.” It’s a song that practically drowns in its own drama, filling up the mix with sighing strings and wailing backup singers and fluttering acoustic guitars and pianos. Musically, the song has nothing to do with the effervescent pop-soul of Motown’s ’60s past. It’s closer to down-the-middle Los Angeles pop, and at its biggest crescendo, it sounds a bit like the work of Gerry Goffin’s old collaborator Phil Spector. The musicians who play on the track aren’t Motown’s great session guys. Instead, they’re Los Angeles hired guns like the omnipresent Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine.
So “Theme From Mahogany” is a pretty generic song. But Diana Ross knows how to sing a generic song. Almost single-handedly, Ross lifts and dignifies “Theme From Mahogany,” taking this syrupy track and turning it into a rich reverie. She enunciates every word of the song with thoughtful precision, like a type-A personality attempting to have a deep and meaningful conversation. She gives off the impression that she’s trying to keep her feelings in but that she’s helpless to stop them from subtly showing through. It’s a hell of a vocal performance on a song that probably doesn’t deserve it.
The week that “Theme From Mahogany” hit #1, Motown got word that the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences had deemed the song to be “qualitatively ineligible” for an Oscar nomination — or, in other words, not good enough to be considered. But after an entertainment-industry outcry, the Academy reversed its ruling, and “Theme From Mahogany” was nominated for Best Original Song. Ross was on tour in Europe when the Oscars aired, but she still performed “Theme From Mahogany” on the telecast. She was shown via satellite, singing the song while walking down a nighttime street in Amsterdam. “Theme From Mahogany” lost the Oscar to “I’m Easy,” Keith Carradine’s song from the soundtrack to Robert Altman’s Nashville. (“I’m Easy” peaked at #17.) The failure of Mahogany didn’t end up doing any lasting damage to Ross’ music career, and she’ll be back in this column very soon.
BONUS BEATS: Toward the end of his 1988 single “Teenage Love,” Slick Rick sings the chorus of “Theme From Mahogany.” Here’s his video for the track:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: On “Come On” — a 1993 Lord Finesse-produced Sadat X collab that later appeared (with a new beat) on the posthumous 1999 collection Born Again — the Notorious B.I.G. also sang the “Theme From Mahogany” hook. Here’s the original:
(Biggie will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Billie Joe Armstrong’s Green Day side project Pinhead Gunpowder ended their 1994 album Carry The Banner with a cover of “Theme From Mahogany.” Here’s video of them playing that cover in Anaheim sometime around then:
(Green Day’s highest-charting single, 2004’s “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams,” peaked at #2. It’s a 5.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Me First And The Gimme Gimmes’ Pinhead Gunpowder-esque cover of “Theme From Mahogany,” from the 2008 album Have A Ball!:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Big Sean & Metro Boomin’s “Go Legend,” a Travis Scott-assisted track from the 2017 collaborative album Double Or Nothing, is built from Metro’s sample of “Theme From Mahogany.” Here’s the song:
(Travis Scott will appear in this column eventually. So will Metro Boomin, though as a producer, not as an artist. As lead artist, Big Sean’s highest-charting song is 2016’s Metro-produced “Bounce Back,” which peaked at #6. It’s a 6. As a guest, Sean also rapped on another song that peaked at #6: Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me.” That one is a 3.)