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Diana Ross

Many MOR-soul disciples will know, only too well, the iconic DIANA ROSS as she rose to fame as lead singer with The SUPREMES. As The BEATLES emerged from the other side of the Atlantic in 1962/63 to kick-start a British Invasion, the demure Diana helped define the sound of Tamla Motown with No.1 hits such as `Where Did Our Love Go’, `Baby Love’, `Come See About Me’, `Stop! In The Name Of Love’, `Back In My Arms Again’, `I Hear A Symphony’, `You Can’t Hurry Love’, `You Keep Me Hangin’ On’, `The Happening’, `Love Child’ and `Someday We’ll Be Together’; the latter couple as DIANA ROSS & THE SUPREMES. Subsequently groomed for solo superstardom by former beau/boss Berry Gordy Jr. as a new decade loomed large, DIANA ROSS (born March 26, 1944, Detroit, Michigan) unveiled her new sophisticated soul sound on her immaculate Top 20 hit, `Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’. It was a long way away from her salad days in high school band The Primettes, who, of course, evolved into The SUPREMES.
With her former group (quite successfully) continuing without their main focal point, 1970 finally saw ROSS’s first solo chart-topper, `Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ (a hit in 1967 for MARVIN GAYE & TAMMI TERRELL). The “solid-as-a-rock” writing/production team of ASHFORD & SIMPSON had already furnished her with a transatlantic Top 20 eponymous debut set, DIANA ROSS (1970) {*7}, a record that – at least on the cover shot – showed her as a MICHAEL JACKSON lookalike rather than a polished soul diva in the making.
Her glitz and the glam restored with the not-so-fruitful and rush-released EVERYTHING IS EVERYTHING (1970) {*6}, Diana was now in the capable hands of veteran producer/scribe Deke Richards; one of his songs being the soon-to-be UK chart-topper, `I’m Still Waiting’, a classy soul ballad that surprisingly only reached a lowly #63 on home-soil. `DoobeDood’nDoobe…’ was another that belatedly graced the British charts in 1972. Interspersed by side two covers of LENNON-McCARTNEY’s `Come Together’ and `The Long And Winding Road’, ARETHA FRANKLIN’s `I Love You (Call Me)’ and BACHARACH & DAVID’s `(They Long To Be) Close To You)’, in-house writers included that of Berry Gordy’s clan.
Already a veteran of late 60s TV show soundtracks with The SUPREMES & The TEMPTATIONS (`T.C.B.’ and `G.I.T. On Broadway’), DIANA ROSS was the subject of another ABC Special, entitled DIANA! (1971) {*5}. Containing a live take of a recent hit, `Remember Me’, and co-starring the JACKSON 5, Danny Thomas and Bill Cosby (on medleys and skits), this was her third set in a year!
Delivered only a matter of months from her previous TV enterprise, and featuring the aforesaid `Remember Me’, Holland-Dozier-Holland’s `Reach Out I’ll Be There’ and the title track from SURRENDER (1971) {*6} reunited ROSS with the ASHFORD & SIMPSON alumni. Whereas in the States it stalled outside the Top 50, the album fared much better in Britain where it dented the Top 10, cast as it was under the re-titled I’M STILL WAITING (cashing-in on the UK smash). DIANA ROSS was then presented with her biggest challenge to date – to take on the demanding lead role in the film and No.1 soundtrack to LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1972) {*6}.
While the legendary BILLIE HOLIDAY, herself, had to make do with playing a singing house servant (in Jules Levy’s 1947 jazz short: New Orleans), by the early 70s, Hollywood had at least moved on to the extent that a contemporary black female singer could take a leading role in a biopic about a legendary black female singer, even if it was – in the end – endorsed by a black record mogul (Motown don, Berry Gordy, Jr.). Even then, DIANA ROSS had to negotiate a blizzard of critical flack, much of it from within the black community itself. Jazz writers and fans were up in arms about the prospect of a youthful pop/soul star taking on the mantle of such a singular, iconic talent.
Ironically, the film’s soap-operatic treatment of a troubled, ambiguous life actually rendered ROSS’s performances one of its few saving graces. She didn’t sound like HOLIDAY, but then no-one realistically expected her to. Instead she got round what would have been a technically impossible feat by simply extending the limitations of her own style to fit the asymmetric conventions of jazz, and at least approximate Billie’s phrasing. And while she couldn’t have hoped to communicate the full extent of Lady Day’s emotional turmoil, she gave it her all in trying. Minus the dialogue and MICHEL LEGRAND’s overbearing and largely superfluous score, this could’ve been a pretty accomplished double-album soundtrack. As it was, ROSS’s interpretations were too often cut short, even on the a cappella title track, where she came closest – along with `My Man (Mon Homme)’ and inevitably, `Strange Fruit’ – to HOLIDAY’s signature combination of finesse and trouble. The presence of many of the original musicians nevertheless added authenticity, while EDWIN STARR associate Blinky Williams offered a very un-HOLIDAY-esque and refreshingly raw counterpoint with her own reading of `T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do’. The Oscar-nominated movie only featured one measly hit, the Top 40 `Good Morning Heartache’, flipped with her rendition of `God Bless The Child’.
If the chart-topping title track from the 1973 album of the same name, TOUCH ME IN THE MORNING {*6} saw the quality control begin to slip, then at least there was variety in the multi-produced Top 5 LP; the variety in question from Rodgers & Hart’s `Little Girl Blue’, JOHN LENNON’s `Imagine’ and the finale medley of MARVIN GAYE’s `Save The Children’ (twinned with `Brown Baby’).
Gordy had already scheduled ROSS to follow in the wake of TAMMI TERRELL (MARVIN GAYE’s fated singing partner), and in DIANA & MARVIN (1973) {*6}, the baby-boomer set was in place. A match made in soul heaven, both Motown parties proved they were still value for money; the record spawning a trio of chart splashes through `You’re A Special Part Of Me’, `My Mistake (Was To Love You)’, (its UK counterpoint `You Are Everything’) and `Don’t Knock My Love’; the latter co-scribed by WILSON PICKETT.
Once again, saturating the market and released only weeks after the “duets” set, DIANA ROSS was accommodating another solo success (namely the country/jazz title piece) from her modestly-placed follow-up, LAST TIME I SAW HIM (1973) {*5}. Prolific, or just a puppet pulled by the corporate strings of Motown, one could’ve forgiven Diana had she just called it quits. Resting little between takes (so to speak), Gordy fired in another concert document, DIANA ROSS LIVE AT CAESARS PALACE (1974) {*5}, gambling that the lady with the Midas touch could reach out to a richer and more mature Las Vegas audience.
ROSS once again turned her hand to acting with 1975’s `Mahogany’; the accompanying soundtrack (scored by Michael Masser) furnishing her with a third US No.1 in the shape of the heart-wrenching theme `Do You Know Where You’re Going To’. Probably as a consequence of her workaholic ethos, her marriage to band manager Robert Silberstein (whom she’d married in ‘71), finally ended in divorced in March ‘77.
Nothing if not versatile, ROSS flagged down the disco bandwagon for her chart-topping, Grammy-winning 1976 boogie classic, `Love Hangover’ (from her DIANA ROSS (1976) {*7} set). It was many miles from the not-so-epic `I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love)’ and the aforesaid Oscar-heralding “Theme from Mahogany”. Motown had finally allowed the lady to sing her blues, albeit, with, as always, a touch of nostalgia on `Kiss Me Now’ (briefly impersonating LOUIS ARMSTRONG) and her fourth attendant 45, the 60s soul-drenched `One Love In My Lifetime’.
Following on from a storyboard, career-spanning, live double-LP, AN EVENING WITH DIANA ROSS (1977) {*7} – yet another pick-pocketing exercise to squeeze every last penny from her plethora of fans – the sophisticated soul star surrendered a selection of Top 50 hits (`Gettin’ Ready For Love’, `You Got It’ and Your Love Is So Good For Me’) from her studio set, BABY IT’S ME (1977) {*6}.
With the advent of punk and new wave in Britain, both this LP and 1978’s low-point ROSS {*3}, were posted missing in a chart relatively free of soul; in her homeland the latter set only just managed to breach the Top 50. Meanwhile, back on terra firma, at least until the public got wind of her next role as Dorothy in the musical re-make of The Wizard Of Oz, Diana was back in tinseltown. Disguised loosely as The Wiz, complete with a star-studded cast of singers, comedians and actors (chief among them, Motown graduate MICHAEL JACKSON and first lady DIANA ROSS). A modest hit from the best-of-friends pairing, `Ease On Down The Road’ was Michael’s showcase, a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps anthem that should’ve had a larger piece of the yellow brick road; in fact, JACKSON threw himself into the song with the kinetic conviction of a faith-healer, bouncing over QUINCY JONES’ arrangements and, more importantly, breathlessly stealing ROSS’s thunder. But that’s what friends were for. Ironically, in its wake was the moving Motown single by Diana, MARVIN GAYE, SMOKEY ROBINSON and STEVIE WONDER: `Pops, We Love You (A Tribute To Father)’, for the recent passing of Berry Gordy, Sr.
ROSS again aimed for the dancefloor with the Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson-smothered THE BOSS (1979) {*6}. Some nine years since her debut LP and looking splendidly sensuous in her desert-island garb a la sleeve photo shoot, the disco disc was her post-Studio 54 workout, Complemented by a sweeping Top 20 title track splurge and a few minor ones to boot (`No One Gets The Prize’ and `It’s My House’ keeping up appearances in the UK), the ROSS was still the Boss on a chart-topping, Brit-only “20 Golden Greats” album.
An inspirational meeting of Motown minds pitted together the glossy, mirror-ball production values of CHIC’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards with the quiet storm of the helium-addled ROSS. The results had an immediate impact when the funk-driven `Upside Down’ shot to the top of the charts in summer 1980. Spawned from her most successful album to date, DIANA {*8}, the Studio 54-friendly `I’m Coming Out’ traced its flighty footsteps into the Top 5, while `My Old Piano’ whipped up a mean groove in a normally restraint UK.
It was back to movie theme slush with subsequent title themes to `It’s My Turn’ (a Top 10 hit) and `Endless Love’, the latter a No.1 duet with LIONEL RICHIE that was both the biggest-selling single of her solo career, although it was indeed her last for Motown – for now.
Inking a deal at R.C.A. Records (Capitol in Britain), a self-produced ROSS turned the clock back somewhat for the title track, Top 10 re-vamp of a FRANKIE LYMON & THE TEENAGERS’ WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE (1981) {*6}. Not a particularly inspiring set of songs (that also gave way to a cover of BRENDA LEE’s `Sweet Nothings’), the set nevertheless hosted other outsider contributions from Michael Sembello: `Mirror Mirror’ (Top 10 US) and her own `Work That Body’ (Top 10 UK).
Playing safer than safe (but for an Andy Warhol sleeve design), the diminutive Diana delved deeper into her urban soul on SILK ELECTRIC (1982) {*5}, a rather average record which featured co-producer MICHAEL JACKSON’s `Muscles’ and the not-so-enterprising `So Close’. Confusing as to why she called her follow-up album, ROSS (1983) {*3}, when only five years back she’d bombed with the same title, it left fans baffled. But she was in control and she was… the boss, albeit alongside co-producers Gary Katz and (songwriter) Ray Parker Jr. When `Pieces Of Ice’ failed to rescue a Top 30 position, Diana was still cool. Even with the advent of a DONALD FAGEN cut (`Love Will Make It Right’), the album couldn’t thaw out from relatively dismal sales figures.
The formulaic synthetic approach of uptempo dance tune or soft-shoe ballad was apparent on SWEPT AWAY (1984) {*5} and its DARYL HALL-authored title track hit. Following on from the similarly-successful Top 20 collaboration with Spanish crooner JULIO IGLESIAS, `All Of You’ (not forgetting LIONEL RICHIE’s hit contribution, `Missing You’), the sprawling diversion between a closing cover of DYLAN’s `Forever Young’ and the FONTELLA BASS cue, `Rescue Me’, was immense and therefore mystifying; while Bernard Edwards, Arthur Baker et al, all produced their own gifts, utilising the guitar talents of one JEFF BECK was somewhat understated.
Responsible for reviving the respective careers of easy-listening singers BARBRA STREISAND, DIONNE WARWICK and KENNY ROGERS, diva Diana was next to receive the brothers Gibb (er… BEE GEES) face-lift on 1985’s EATEN ALIVE {*5}. Fashioned in a 60s-to-80s-styled production throughout, both the title piece (with MICHAEL JACKSON on board) and `Chain Reaction’ 45s proved to be running on empty Stateside, although Britain handed ROSS her first chart-topper in 15 years with the latter dance track – a spit of her times with The SUPREMES .
In the meantime, on October 23, 1985, she married Norwegian shipping tycoon Arne Haas, who duly provided her with a few more kids; she’d already had children from her previous marriage; she later divorced Arne in February 2000.
The latter half of the decade proved more difficult for the ageing but still youthful-looking DIANA ROSS; only in the UK and parts of Europe was she greeted with enthusiasm and a proverbial red carpet. Lack of homeland hits and diminishing album returns were part and parcel of future sets from RED HOT RHYTHM & BLUES (1987) {*5} onwards. Produced by Tom Dowd and augmented by LUTHER VANDROSS (he donated `It’s Hard For Me To Say’), the Euro versions added covers of `Mr. Lee’ and `Tell Mama’ to already in place `There Goes My Baby’ (once a hit for The DRIFTERS).
ROSS returned to Motown, but despite a flurry of hype, neither her NILE RODGERS-produced comeback effort, WORKIN’ OVERTIME (1989) {*4}, nor its successor, THE FORCE BEHIND THE POWER (1991) {*4} – or for that matter her GREATEST HITS LIVE (1989) {*4} – made any positive commercial headway outside of her loyal fanclub in Britain, where `When You Tell Me That You Love Me’ just missed out on the top spot; `One Shining Moment’, `If We Hold On Together’ and `Heart (Don’t Change My Mind)’, also reached out and touched the hearts of her raft of supporters.
On the back of her nostalgia-spinning live STOLEN MOMENTS: The Lady Sings Jazz and Blues (1993) {*5} – re-vamping tunes from her debut solo soundtrack days – ROSS subsequently published her autobiography, Secrets Of A Sparrow. 1994’s festive A VERY SPECIAL SEASON {*4}, drew her back into the easy-listening market, although she was still a hot concert ticket as the “First Lady of Motown” – as she was affectionately known.
Having return to acting in 1994, starring in TV movie, Out Of Darkness, Diana was back in business for the urban/dance-soul of TAKE ME HIGHER (1995) {*5}. Top 10 in Britain due to her minor hit of the same title (`I’m Gone’ and a rendition of GLORIA GAYNOR’s `I Will Survive’ also proved fruitful), at 50, Diana’s career was still on the up and up; producer Narada Michael Walden, among others, helping her along the way.
Repeating her comeback TV movie-to-TV-promotion prescription, the film Double Platinum heralded a comeback and coincided with the release of umpteenth set, EVERY DAY IS A NEW DAY (1999) {*4}. Sadly, only the single `Not Over You Yet’ came up trumps as her career once again took a nosedive. Duly divorced from her hubby and estranged from media attention, a SUPREMES reunion concert tour in 2000 pitted Diana ($15m in her account) alongside Lynda Laurence and Scherrie Payne (and shockingly not her former group members Mary Wilson or Cindy Birdsong, who’d turned down much lower fees), she entered a rehab clinic for drug and alcohol problems. This was on top of her DUI conviction that led her to serve a 2-day sentence in prison.
In 2006/7, many critics who regarded her as a spent force were made to eat their words when her album, I LOVE YOU {*5}, almost reached the Top 30, having spent a week in the British Top 60. The album reprised romance and dance tunes from her heyday, none of them from her own solo repertoire, or SUPREMES cues. Instead, a 15-strong tour de force had the golden girl (or indeed “Dreamgirl”) delivering choice readings of `The Look Of Love’, `Lovely Day’, `Only You’, `You Are So Beautiful’, et al.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-BG/MCS // rev-up MCS Dec2015

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