(WWETV Writer Venom) Tonight at the Grammys we witnessed the celebration of Motown. The legendary music label that paved the way for independent labels of the future for urban music in the 90’s such as BadBoy Records and Deathrow Records. One of the leading stars of Motown that broke ground in becoming a mainstream crossover star was none other than Diana Ross. She is perhaps the original diva who laid the blueprint for stars such as Beyoncé today.
DIVA: a famous and successful woman who is very attractive and fashionable ; especially : an attractive and successful female performer or celebrity
Diva is an Italian word used to describe a female person who has portrayed an outstanding talent in cinema, theatre or music. The word ‘divo’ describes the outstanding male celebrities. The above terms are derived from Webster’s Dictionary.
In recent times the word has become known for more in urban circles. A certain style and presence that brings talent that stands out from the rest of the pack.
Tonight I will take you down memory lane to see why Ms. Ross should be celebrated being a pioneer of urban music. A surviving member of the historic Motown Records, Diana Ross is widely considered to be one of the true original divas in entertainment. The 1960’s was a state of turmoil in America in terms of the civil rights movement and Diana Ross came onto the scene like no other making young women proud and men desire her as she rose to prominence as leader of the group The Supremes.
She received 14 #1 hit records which was only rivaled by the legendary Beatles. As a member of The Supremes the trio scored 12 number one hits, including “Stop! In the Name of Love” (1965) and “Someday We Will Be Together” (1969).
According to Ross, her mother actually named her “Diane” but a clerical error resulted in her name being recorded as “Diana” on her birth certificate. She always went by “Diane” at home and at school. Her high school yearbook listed her as “Diana” and as early as 1963, when The Supremes released their first album, she was listed in the liner notes as “Diana”. At The Supremes’ first Copacabana engagement in 1965, she introduced herself to the audience as “Diane”, but later that year she started introducing herself as “Diana”, but all her intimates still call her “Diane”. Today marks the birthday of the legend.
At fifteen, Ross was brought to the attention of music impresario Milton Jenkins, manager of the local doo-wop group the Primes, by Mary Wilson. Paul Williams, then member of The Primes, convinced Jenkins to include Ross in the Primettes, considered a “sister group” of the Primes. Ross was part of a lineup that included Wilson, Florence Ballard and Betty McGlown, who completed the lineup.
In 1960, following their win at a singing contest in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, the group auditioned for a spot on Motown Records after Smokey Robinson introduced the young group to Berry Gordy.
Upon learning of their ages, Gordy advised them to come back after graduation. Undeterred, the quartet stayed around Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A. headquarters, offering to provide extra help for Motown’s recordings, often including hand-claps and background vocals. That same year, the Primettes made their first recordings for Lu Pine Records, with Ross singing lead on her and Ballard’s composition, “Tears of Sorrow”.
During the group’s early years, Ross served as the group’s main hair stylist, make-up artist, seamstress and costume designer. In January 1961, after having replaced McGlown with Barbara Martin, Berry Gordy agreed to sign the young act under the condition they change their name. Each member picked out various names from friends. Eventually they settled on The Supremes, though Ross initially had apprehensions toward the name – she felt the name would mistake them for a male vocal group.
Gordy agreed with the new name and signed them on January 15 of that year. Following Martin’s exit in 1962, the group remained a trio.
During the group’s early years, there was no designated lead vocalist for the group as they had agreed to split lead vocals between their choice of song material; Ross favoring the uptempo pop songs. That changed in 1963 when Gordy assigned Ross, who had already sung lead on the majority of their early singles, as the main lead vocalist, considering that her vocals had potential to reach Gordy’s dreams of crossover success.
Following this, they recorded their first hit single, “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes”, later that year, where it peaked at #23 on the Billboard Hot 100. Before this song, the Supremes were unfavorably pinned as the “no-hit Supremes”. Following this, the group reached number-one with “Where Did Our Love Go” and reached unprecedented success: between August 1964 and May 1967, Ross, Wilson and Ballard sang on ten number-one hit singles, all of which also made the UK top forty. The group had also become a hit with audiences both domestically and abroad, going on to become Motown’s most successful vocal act throughout the sixties. The group was not absent of what we call haters today as more traditional singers such as Etta James felt her backup singers were vocally more talented and should be lead. This mindset also started to seep into the actual group.
After a period of tension, Florence Ballard was removed from the Supremes by Gordy in July 1967 and he chose Cindy Birdsong to take her place. Gordy’s decision to rename the group, Diana Ross & The Supremes, hinted that he had plans on making Ross a future solo star. Gordy initially thought of Ross leaving the Supremes for a solo career in 1966 but changed his mind when he figured the group’s success was still too massive for Ross to pursue solo obligations.
Ross would remain with the group until early 1970. Between their early 1968 single “Forever Came Today” and their final single, “Someday We’ll Be Together”, Ross would be the only Supremes member to be prominently featured on the recordings, further dissolving the group’s former rapport. Gordy worked Ross diligently throughout this period and Ross chose to not eat much as the group went on countless rehearsals and recording sessions. By the time the group performed at places like The Copacabana and Coconut Grove, there were rumors that Ross had been suffering from anorexia nervosa due to her extremely skinny frame.
After some performances, Ross would collapse from exhaustion, forcing Gordy to cancel or postpone several concerts until Ross felt well.
In 1968, Ross started performing as a solo artist mainly on television specials, including The Supremes’ own specials such as TCB and G.I.T. on Broadway. In mid-1969, Gordy decided to have Ross leave the group by the end of the year and Ross began sessions for her own solo work that July. One of the first plans for Ross to establish her own solo career was to bring in a new Motown recording act. Though she herself didn’t claim discovery, Motown pinned Ross as having discovered The Jackson 5. It’s been well documented how Michael Jackson had a childhood crush on her and would later make her the godmother of his children.
Ross would introduce the group to several public events including The Hollywood Palace though she added in “Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5”, which didn’t sit well with the Jacksons’ father, Joseph Jackson and Gordy. In November, Ross confirmed a split from the Supremes on Billboard. Ross’ presumed first solo recording, “Someday We’ll Be Together”, was eventually released as a Supremes recording and became the group’s final number-one hit on the Hot 100. Ross made her final appearance with the Supremes at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas on January 14, 1970.
In 1971, Diana Ross began working on her first film, Lady Sings the Blues, which was a loosely based biography on music legend Billie Holiday(A Diva review will be done on this individual). Some critics lambasted the idea of the singer playing Holiday considering how “miles apart” their styles were. At one point, Ross began talking with several of Holiday’s acquaintances and listened to her recordings to get into character. During an audition to acquire the role, Ross would act on cue to the film’s producer’s commands, helping Ross to win her part. When Berry Gordy heard Ross perform covers of Holiday’s material, he felt Ross had put “a little too much” Holiday in her vocal range, advising Ross to “put a little Diana back into it.”
Ross also talked with doctors at drug clinics in research of the film, as Holiday had been a known drug addict. Ross would later make a crucial decision when it came to interpreting Holiday’s music: instead of flatly imitating Holiday, she only focused on Holiday’s vocal phrasing. “Lady Sings the Blues” opened in theaters in October 1972, becoming a major success in Ross’s career. Jazz critic Leonard Feather, a friend of Billie Holiday, praised Ross for “expertly capturing the essence of Lady Day.” Ross’s role in the film won her Golden Globe Award and Academy Award nominations for Best Actress.
Alongside Cicely Tyson, who was nominated for her role in the film, Sounder, they were the first Black actresses to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress since Dorothy Dandridge. The soundtrack to “Lady Sings the Blues” became just as successful, reaching #1 on the Billboard 200 staying there for two weeks and breaking then-industry records by shipping 300,000 copies during the first eight days of its release. At nearly two million in sales, it is one of Ross’s best-selling albums to date.
After the film, Ross returned to her music career, reemerging with another film in 1975 with Mahogany, her second film, in which she starred alongside Billy Dee Williams and whose costumes she designed. The story of an aspiring fashion designer who becomes a runway model and the toast of the industry, Mahogany was a troubled production from its inception. The film’s original director, Tony Richardson, was fired during production, and Berry Gordy assumed the director’s chair himself. In addition, Gordy and Ross clashed during filming, with Ross leaving the production before shooting was completed, forcing Gordy to use secretary Edna Anderson as a body double for Ross.
While a box office success, the film was not well received by the critics: Time magazine’s review of the film chastised Gordy for “squandering one of America’s most natural resources: Diana Ross.” Diana did win the coveted French Cesar, the French equivalent for the Oscars, for her performance in “Mahogany” which gave her another global hit.
In 1977, Motown acquired the film rights to the Broadway play The Wiz, an African-American reinterpretation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The film initially was to include the stage actors who had performed on the play. However, the role of Dorothy, which had been performed onstage by Stephanie Mills, would be given to Ross after she convinced film producer Rob Cohen to cast her in the role of Dorothy. This decision eventually led to a change in the film’s script in which Dorothy went from a schoolgirl to a schoolteacher. The role of the Scarecrow, also performed by someone else onstage, was eventually given to Ross’s former Motown label mate, Michael Jackson. The film adaptation of The Wiz had been a $24 million production, but upon its October 1978 release, it earned only $21,049,053 at the box office. Though pre-release television broadcast rights had been sold to CBS for over $10 million, the film produced a net loss of $10.4 million for Motown and Universal. At the time, it was the most expensive film musical ever made. The film’s failure ended Ross’s short career on the big screen and contributed to the Hollywood studios’s reluctance to produce the all-black film projects which had become popular during the blaxploitation era of the early to mid-1970s for several years. The Wiz was Ross’s final film for Motown.
Ross had success with movie-themed songs. While her version of Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache” only performed modestly well in early 1973, her recording of “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” gave Ross her third number-one hit, in late 1975. Three years later, Ross and Michael Jackson had a modest dance hit with their recording of “Ease on Down the Road.” Their second duet, actually as part of the ensemble of The Wiz, “Brand New Day,” found some success overseas. Ross scored a Top 10 hit in late 1980 with the theme song to the 1980 film It’s My Turn. The following year, she collaborated with former Commodores singer-songwriter Lionel Richie on the theme song for the film Endless Love. The Academy Award-nominated title single became her final hit on Motown Records, and the number one record of the year. Several years later, in 1988, Ross recorded the theme song to The Land Before Time. “If We Hold On Together” became an international hit, reaching number-one in Japan.
Ross would be given movie offers over the years, which she reportedly rejected because of either contractual obligations or fears of typecasting. Ross had campaigned to portray pioneering entertainer Josephine Baker in a feature film even during her later years in Motown. However, in 1991, the feature film turned into a TV film with Lynn Whitfield playing Baker instead of Ross.
Ross was also offered a role in an early adaptation of The Bodyguard with Ryan O’Neal. However, plans for this film fell through and it was never made. Years later, the script began circulation around Hollywood again and this time a film studio gave it the green light. Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner assumed the lead roles in the 1992 film. In 1993, Ross returned to acting with a dramatic role in the television film, Out of Darkness. Ross won acclaim for her role in the TV movie and earned her third Golden Globe nomination, although she did not win.
In 1999, she and Brandy Norwood co-starred in the television movie, Double Platinum, which was aired prior to the release of Ross’s album, Every Day Is a New Day.
You can check out the original Diva in the modern era with her Official Facebook Page: