Diana Ross truly reigned supreme on 21 July 1983. That was the day she stood before an audience of 400,000 New Yorkers in Central Park and emerged as a formidable force against thunder, lightning, wind gales, and sheets of rain. When she resumed the concert less than 24 hours later, the only elements soaking the stage were rays of sun.
Only one song could herald her triumphant return on 22 July 1983. A spectacle of glittering fuchsia, Diana Ross captivated nearly half a million sun-kissed Gothamites with the words “I’m coming out!” It was a gift-wrapped anthem, one that was penned by two New Yorkers who’d channeled their influences in funk, jazz, and glam rock into a fusion of R&B, disco, and pop called CHIC. Indeed, it was Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards who’d given Diana Ross the soundtrack to a defining moment in her career.
Three years earlier, “I’m Coming Out” had accompanied the boldest, most unexpected musical statement Diana Ross had made in her first decade as a solo artist. Working with Rodgers and Edwards on diana (1980), she fulfilled both her and the CHIC producers’ desire to grow artistically. The result was 35 minutes of streamlined grooves that yielded commercial success and unanimous praise from the rock press. diana also evidenced that Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards could tailor their talents to an artist who, as James Ingram declares, is “the epitome of pop music to the world”.
In 2013, both Diana Ross and Nile Rodgers are having fun again, to paraphrase a line from diana. Currently, the singer’s story as both a solo artist and lead singer of the Supremes is the backbone of the Tony-nominated Broadway play Motown: the Musical, while Rodgers has collaborated with Daft Punk on the group’s long-awaited Random Access Memories (2013) album. Both projects underscore how Diana Ross and Nile Rodgers are pioneers whose past and present contributions remain relevant to the world of pop music and beyond. In the following pages, 25 artists and producers explore the legacies of Diana Ross and Nile Rodgers, and attest how diana laid a musical foundation from which the world’s most innovative musicians still derive inspiration.
Part I: “The Supremes Were Everything”
The Supremes released 25 albums between 1962 and 1970. More importantly, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard became trailblazing icons who bridged audiences across racial, musical, and generational lines. Recorded at Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A in Detroit, the songs of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland provided the ideal vehicle for the Supremes to introduce “The Sound of Young America” everywhere from Harlem to Tokyo. Show business royalty like Gene Kelly, Carol Channing, and Sammy Davis, Jr. wrote glowing tributes on the back covers of the group’s albums. Between the trio’s original incarnation as “The Supremes” and their refurbished line-up with Cindy Birdsong as “Diana Ross & the Supremes”, the group scored twelve number one hits on the Hot 100, including five consecutive chart-toppers. Future generations of renowned singers and vocal groups memorized every inflection the Supremes sang above the Funk Brothers’ infectious rhythms. When the Supremes raised their hands and cried “stop!”—a gesture orchestrated by legendary choreographer Cholly Atkins—everyone listened.
Melba Moore: The Supremes entered my life through The Ed Sullivan Show. I was sitting around the TV saying, “Oh my God. Look at this! Look at these gorgeous people!”
Brenda Russell: When they performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, it was a very big deal, especially for young black girls at the time because we didn’t have any role models on television or anywhere in the media. We couldn’t look up to anybody except maybe someone that they allowed to play a maid on some show. The Supremes became a major idol for black girls who wanted something more than what they were seeing.
Ruth Pointer: We saw the Supremes on the variety shows. I was in high school and I remember going to my mom’s friend’s house just listening to 45s because we weren’t allowed to play the records at our house. I would sit there all day playing the Supremes.
Alfa Anderson: The Supremes were my favorite female group. I remember playing 45s until they were so scratched that the stylus skipped across the vinyl. When I heard that the Supremes were going to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, I was ecstatic. We gathered around the television at eight o’clock, anxiously awaiting their appearance. They sang “Come See About Me”. I loved their look and their choreography. Miss Diana was fabulous even then—self assured and glamorous.
Fonzi Thornton: Everything in my house stopped every time the Supremes were on Ed Sullivan. The first time they were on Ed Sullivan they did “Come See About Me”. I remember seeing these three girls in these ruffled dresses. At that time, we had a black-and-white TV. I never really knew until many years later that those dresses were pink. I met Luther (Vandross) around that time. Our friendship began largely because we were into the Supremes and the Temptations. When our mothers would let us talk on the phone, we would remind each other that the Supremes were going to be on Ed Sullivan on Sunday. After the Supremes were on, and after everyone in my house had gone to sleep, I would be sitting next to the phone. It would ring quickly and it would be Luther. We’d say, “Did you see Florence miss that step?” (laughs) That kind of stuff.
Kathy Sledge: My older sister Carol, who Dick Clark used to refer to as “the closet sister”, was the one who kind of introduced me to Motown and all of the Supremes’ hits. We used to line up in the mirror and we would be the Supremes to her Diana. Because my mom’s name was Flo, my favorite song was “Back In My Arms Again”—“Flo, she don’t know, ‘cause the boy she loves is a romeo”. I love that song!
Gloria Gaynor: There were female groups before that, of course, but the Supremes’ sound was more sophisticated. Their sound was more pop than R&B, which is what you were used to hearing from black female groups. Theirs was a mixture of pop and R&B. It really transcended all of the different areas of music.
Melba Moore: Of course, the music is so magnetic—that rhythm, something about the Motown drum beat. You’re just in awe and mesmerized the first time you hear it. Many sounds that were R&B were more rough and bluesy and gutbucket. The Supremes were sweet and smooth and classy.
Brenda Russell: The massive hits the Supremes had back in the day influenced a lot of people, subliminally sometimes. Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland were some of my heroes as a writer. The combination was devastating. The Supremes and Holland-Dozier-Holland? Whoa!
Aziza: Motown was like breath. It really shaped our lives in ways that are unforgettable. I got introduced to the Motown sound through seeing shows at the Apollo. I saw Stevie Wonder when he was Little Stevie Wonder and I remember seeing Diana Ross & the Supremes there. I just fell madly in love with the Motown sound.
Irene Cara: Motown was huge when I was a child. It was pretty amazing in the ‘60s for a black-owned company and their entire glittering roster of stars to be the pop label. Motown became mainstream American black pop music that was in everybody’s household. “Love Child” is very meaningful for me. I was from the South Bronx so I lived around people who were living that song. There were so many young girls that I knew who were dealing with teenage pregnancy. That song made an impact.
Ruth Pointer: When we first started off, of course, the Supremes were our idols. It was not so much that we wanted to be like them but we just admired them so much. Their fashion, their poise, their dedication, everything about them. We wanted to sing a different type of music but we definitely wanted that presence that they had.
Brenda Jones: We were living in Detroit. It meant so much to have Motown around us because when you live in it, you really have hope. I must have been about eight or nine and I was just crazy about the Supremes. It was their classiness, their look, their choreography. Diana’s whole demeanor, her movement, everything about her was so wonderful. The Supremes were just divine. They were everything.
// Notes from the Road
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