Oxford AASC: Ross, Diana

Ross, Diana

(26 Mar. 1944– ),

singer and actress, was born in Detroit, Michigan, the second of six children of Fred Ross, a college-educated factory worker, and Ernestine Moten. Although Fred and Ernestine had intended to name their daughter Diane, a clerical oversight at the hospital altered the name to Diana. She was known as Diane to family and close friends, and the use of this familiar name has remained an indicator throughout her life of those among her inner circle. The family lived in a black middle-class neighborhood where, as she ironed her family's laundry, she could see from her window fifteen-year-old Smokey Robinson singing with his friends on his front porch (Taraborrelli, 36). When Ross turned fourteen the family moved to the Brewster projects, a low-income development that had not yet warranted the stigmatizing nomenclature of “ghetto” or “slum.” The Rosses had an affordable three-bedroom home and attended Olivet Baptist Church, where Ross sang in the junior choir with her siblings, while her parents sang in the adult choir.

Ross attended Cass Technical High School, an esteemed public school, where she registered high marks in cosmetology and dress design; upon graduating in 1962 she was voted the best dressed in her class. In high school many of Ross's peers had begun singing at parties and on street corners. One of these groups, the Primes, would eventually become the Temptations—but in the meantime their manager wanted a sister group to complement their local performances. The manager began with his girlfriend's husky-voiced sister, Florence Ballard, as the centerpiece; recruited two of her friends, Mary Wilson and Betty McGlown; and searched exhaustively for the final voice. The Primes' singer Paul Williams finally suggested Ross, and the Primettes—undaunted by McGlown's leaving the group to get married—quickly established themselves on the Detroit scene, earning fifteen dollars a week in local clubs and signing a deal with LuPine records, with whom they recorded two singles that were never released. But Berry Gordy Jr. at Motown Records, heeding the advice of his young star in the making, Smokey Robinson, was ready on 15 January 1961 to sign the four women. (They had recruited Barbara Martin to replace McGlown.) Gordy renamed the group the Supremes and began processing them through the Motown Artists Development Department, where they were schooled in style, public speaking, and overall deportment.

Ross, Diana

Diana Ross keeps singing despite a heavy downpour during her free concert in New York's Central Park to an audience of approximately 80,000 people, 21 July 1983. (AP Images.)

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Hardly an immediate success, the Supremes floundered for three years, one album, and eight mediocre singles, in addition to weathering the first of many personnel changes. Ballard briefly departed in 1962 to tour with the Marvelettes, and Martin quit in order to have a baby. Ross sang lead only about half the time, and, at that point, the Supremes were attempting to succeed as a trio that sang songs with four-part harmonies. They toured briefly in 1962 under the auspices of a Motown revue, but it was not until another tour in June 1964, when Motown released “Where Did Our Love Go?,” that the Supremes had their first number-one hit. Written by Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland—three of Motown's premier writers and producers—the single was the first of a string of hits that helped define the Motown sound as a successful crossover hybrid of gospel, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and pop.

The Supremes made numerous television appearances, most often on The Ed Sullivan Show, where their glamorous evening gowns and dashing wigs projected an image of black womanhood rarely seen by white Americans. During the mid-1960s the Supremes could boast a yearly income of $250,000 each. Ross literally took center stage by this point, singing lead and prompting Gordy to change the group's name to Diana Ross and the Supremes. By 1969 they had hit number one with eleven singles, registering about a half dozen in the pop music canon: “Baby Love” (1964), “Come See about Me” (1964), “Stop! In the Name of Love” (1965), “I Hear a Symphony” (1965), and “You Can't Hurry Love” (1966). They finished the decade with their twelfth hit, titled “Someday We'll Be Together.” Ironically, on 14 January 1970, almost nine years to the day after signing with Motown, Ross left to pursue a solo career. The Supremes continued shuffling personnel for another seven years before disbanding in 1977, never again hitting number one.

Ross continued manufacturing hit after hit for Motown, starting with 1970's “Ain't No Mountain High Enough.” She would eventually score seven more numberone hits as a solo artist, first with Motown and then with RCA, with whom she signed in 1981 for $20 million. But the most dynamic element of her career to develop in the 1970s was her acting. She landed the lead in the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues (1972) and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Her next project, the Motown-backed vehicle Mahogany (1975), attempted to capitalize on her superstar status. The film's production was notoriously troubled, as rumors surfaced about Ross's demanding personality and Gordy's curious decision to direct the film himself. Mahogany garnered hardly any positive reviews, but Ross did gain another numberone hit from the soundtrack, “The Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To?).”

In 1978 she again compelled her critics to claim that she was overbearing—and her supporters to praise her business acumen—by purchasing the movie rights to the Broadway smash The Wiz and reworking the story so that she could play the lead of Dorothy. The ensemble cast of Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, and Lena Horne was not nearly enough to salvage this African American retelling of-The Wizard of Oz from more sternly negative reviews.

The 1970s were also tumultuous personally for Ross. In 1970 she married Robert Silberstein, a music manager, with whom she had three children (though the first, she later admitted, was fathered by Gordy). They divorced in 1975; two years later, Ross married an international businessman named Arne Naess Jr., with whom she had two more children, but they divorced in 2000. Musically she seemed to fall into a rut, always staying even with the latest trend, as with her tepid disco tracks, rather than innovating, as she had with the Supremes earlier in her career. In 1989 she returned to Motown as both a performer and a director of the company. She continued releasing albums but seemed to drift further and further from mainstream pop success. Ross wrote her autobiography, Secrets of a Sparrow, in 1993. In 2000 a “reunion” tour for the Supremes was cancelled after poor ticket sales. The tour received widespread criticism from conception since the two living Supremes with whom Ross had sang Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, declined to participate, allegedly because of the relatively small fees they were offered. Subsequently, Ross was a frequent tabloid target as reports of alcohol problems emerged. Nevertheless, she returned to the album charts in 2007 with I Love You.

Further Reading

  • Ross, Diana. Secrets of a Sparrow (1993)
  • Haskins, James. Diana Ross (1985)
  • Itkowitz, Leonore K. Diana Ross (1974)
  • Taraborrelli, J. Randy. Call Her Miss Ross (1989).
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