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Nile Rodgers

Part IX: Diana Ross: the Icon

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“Ain’t no mountain high enough. Nothing can keep me, keep me from you.” Those words are forever entwined with the voice of Diana Ross. On the evening of 9 April 2000, however, three generations of pop and R&B artists that had been influenced by Diana Ross joined her onstage at Madison Square Garden to sing that iconic refrain. Donna Summer, Mariah Carey, and Destiny’s Child assembled for the grand finale to VH-1’s DIVAS 2000: A Tribute to Diana Ross, a concert that honored the singer’s solo career while also paying tribute to her accomplishments with the Supremes and her work in film.  Ashford & Simpson cheered from the audience while Nile Rodgers led the house band. Appropriately, diana was well-represented with Destiny Child’s spunky rendition of “Upside Down” and an extravagant performance of “I’m Coming Out” by RuPaul. The sentiment behind DIVAS 2000 had been articulated three years earlier by no less an icon than Whitney Houston. “(Diana) set a pathway for us, for women like me, to walk through,” Houston stated in a 1997 interview with Keenan Ivory Wayans.


Diana Ross continued tilling that pathway after diana became the biggest-selling solo album of her career. In 1981, her duet with Lionel Richie on “Endless Love” became, at the time, the most successful single in Motown’s history, spending nine weeks at number one on the Hot 100. She arrived at RCA Records with a lucrative recording contract, launched a production company with a publishing division, and maintained complete creative control over her music. Ray Chew, who arranged and played on Why Do Fools Fall In Love (1981) and Silk Electric (1982), emphasizes that “Produced by Diana Ross” was more than a vanity credit. The artist took a serious, active role in producing her own music:


“This was the liberation of Diana Ross. These were the first records where she was a producer. She was in on all of the rhythm sessions. She’s in there all day with us for twelve hours. She was there from start to finish, giving her input on things that she liked and things that she didn’t like. That was a great experience for all because we got to see Diana Ross in a different way. At Motown, a lot of the stuff was already done when she’d come in and do her vocals. In this case, we’re in the studio with her. She’s in there working it out with all of the takes.”


As the ‘80s continued, she scored major hits in the U.S. and UK through high-profile partnerships with Michael Jackson (“Muscles”), Daryl Hall (“Swept Away”), Lionel Richie (“Missing You”), and Barry Gibb (“Chain Reaction”). Throughout the late-‘90s, she hit the U.K. Top 20 more than a dozen times with singles produced by Peter Asher, Stevie Wonder, Ric Wake, and Narada Michael Walden. “She always managed to stay current,” says Brenda Russell, whose “Let Somebody Know” and “What About Love” appeared on the singer’s Take Me Higher (1995) and I Love You (2006) albums. “Sometimes people get stuck in an era and she didn’t do that. She kept growing and blossoming. That makes her different from a lot of her peers from that time.” She also strengthened her ties with DJs that had embraced “Love Hangover” and The Boss, and pushed diana to platinum territory. Diana: Extended (1994) saluted her lineage in the clubs with contemporary remixes of “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out” while a video for her cover of “I Will Survive” featured RuPaul and reflected the long-standing mutual love between Diana Ross and the LGBTQ community.


In 1993, the “Guinness Book of World Records” named Diana Ross the “Most Successful Female Singer of All Time”. While the singer had amassed a library of awards during the first 30 years of her career, the next two decades evidenced a truly remarkable and well-earned series of honors. The Soul Train Music Awards and The Songwriter’s Hall of Fame commemorated her achievements with The Heritage Award (1995) and The Hitmaker Award (1998), respectively. In 2005, Oprah Winfrey celebrated her as one of 25 legendary African-American women at The Legends Ball. Two years later, she was a recipient of the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors. More recently, she received both the BET Lifetime Achievement Award (2007) and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2012).


An honor of a different kind occurred on 15 April 2013. Diana Ross and a family of Motown legends gathered at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on W. 46th Street in New York for opening night of Motown: The Musical. Authored by Berry Gordy, the musical dramatizes the rise of Motown as a cultural force and a musical empire. Speaking to reporters after the show, Berry Gordy shared just how important Diana Ross was to him when he created “The Sound of Young America” during the ‘60s. “She was responsible for all of my inspiration to do what I did,” he said with a luminescent smile. From Hitsville, U.S.A. to diana to Central Park to the Broadway stage, Diana Ross has always led the way ... instinctively.


James Ingram: Ms. Diana Ross was truly the First Lady of Motown. Her sound and performances helped make Motown what it has always been: the best music on the planet.


MC Lyte: Diana Ross comes from the royalty of music. She’s regal. She keeps you engaged. Her voice commands attention. Her spirit alone can capture every eye in the room.


Irene Cara: She was the first glamourous black pop star. We had Lena Horne in movies. We had Diahann Carroll on television. As far as music goes, that was Diana Ross’ territory. She did that for black women on records. There’s no doubt about it.


Fonzi Thornton: I think that that silhouette of the Supremes, of two chocolate girls and one light-skinned girl, was so important. People don’t realize that we watched the Supremes grow from women out of Detroit into world-class figures with Diana Ross leading the pack. She was plowing territory as a black woman that had been unplowed. We had the beauty of Lena Horne and we had the beauty of Eartha Kitt and some of the people that went before but we did not have a modern day woman who was a singer and an icon. If we look at Beyoncé we see Diana Ross, we also see Tina Turner. If we look at Whitney we see her mother Cissy and we see Dionne Warwick but we also see something from Diana. Diana set that bar of, This is what you’re supposed to reach for. There are only a few artists that are singular. Diana is one of them.


Ruth Pointer: I think Diana was always more polished and I think it had to do with her training at the Motown school with Berry Gordy. I really believe that. I think that is why Diana stood out on her own for a very long time before Patti and Tina ever got the recognition that they have today. Diana was it, baby. She was it!


Melba Moore: She’s a genius and a star. She was the one who designed and made the wardrobe for the Supremes when they were back in the projects. She has a natural gift for design and fashion and for artistic structure. She has that energy that, if it’s focused and channeled, turns into a higher discipline than most of us have.


Martha Redbone: She’s so stunningly elegant. She didn’t just learn that in school, that’s what she was born with too—style and grace. It was God-given. She just honed the skills and cultivated what she was born with.


Sandra St. Victor: What I’d truly love to witness is the reemergence of the care and self-respect that Diana personified. She took her position as this focal point to so many young women seriously enough to know her actions, her music, her life, really meant something more than another hit record. I’d appreciate a bit more of that from some of our divas today.


MC Lyte: She creates an enormous amount of balance, understanding that family means so much to her. To see the time that she has taken to raise all of her boys to men and girls to women, and also hear her kids rave about her as a mom is another thing that shows that she was able to pull away enough but also be the star that she was destined to be for decades.


Ray Chew: You can have a level of success in more than one period of your life and you can also morph into something else later on. She and Stevie Wonder spanned decades of making music and being relevant. She’s able to perform things out of all those periods in her career. That’s absolutely a great thing to have.


Dionne Farris: Ms. Ross is the quintessential Diva O’ the day. She was always a showman, with an extremely expressive face when performing. Her expressions always matched the lyrics of the song; that doesn’t always happen in music today. With Diana Ross, Berry Gordy set a standard for what it means to be a solo female recording artist. Technology is adjusting that model somewhat these days, but the pillars of her image and presentation remain.


Aziza: She has the expertise. She has the drawing power. That’s how Diana Ross made my concept of “Divas Don’t Apologize”. Divas have that thing that you can’t really describe but they can pull you in to their world. It’s just a natural thing where they just have you because they are the best at what they do. Everyone is drawn to a winner. Everyone is drawn to someone who exudes that confidence.


Kathy Sledge: She has a great level of confidence. That’s one reason why she has had the ability and longevity that she’s had. I think a lot of new artists could learn from that. Know who you are and what you do and own it. It’s all about the presence.


Melba Moore: She’s one of my great, great influences. I don’t have a big Aretha Franklin kind of voice or a big gospel sound in my voice. It’s bigger than it was, because I worked at it and wanted to have that, but Diana made me feel as though if I just keep searching for what my talent or what my niche is I can be an artist and be somebody special too.


Alfa Anderson: Musically, what I take from her is her pitch and tonality. She was very creative with what she had. She maximized her gift. She understood who she was. She developed it so that it became her signature and became one of a kind.


Gloria Gaynor: What makes her unique is the fact that she crosses into every genre. I don’t think anybody else really does that. She appeals to a broader audience than anyone else I know.


Brenda Jones: The three years we spent with her were phenomenal. Being from Detroit, she related to us. We were the only girls on the road with all of these guys in the band—they had a jones for The Jones Girls!—so she was trying to show us the ropes and be like a big sister at the same time. She said, “These girls are so good, they must sing a song in the show”—this is something she had never done before. We started singing “If I Ever Lose This Heaven”.  We learned a lot from her. To this day, there’s nobody like her. If it was not for her there would be no Beyoncé.


Ruth Pointer: A couple of times when we were performing in Vegas at Caesar’s Palace, Diana would be waiting in the wings for our last show. We’d look over and see her standing there cheering us on and then she’d come into our dressing room and talk to us. It just made us feel so special that someone of her caliber would take the time to just say something to us to keep us confident and validate us. Whenever we knew she was going to be performing near us, we would go to her concert, especially Anita and myself. We were like cheerleaders at her concert. She could always spot us from the stage and she would acknowledge us. I remember one night at the Amphitheater, she said right onstage, “The Pointer Sisters are in the audience and so I know that this show is going to be great because they are our cheerleaders!” It was always incredible. She is my diva girl. She is my hero. I love her.


Sandra St. Victor: This woman is a chameleon, a survivor. She revealed herself artistically over three decades and won us over every time, without breaking a sweat. She resides permanently at the core of a generation, a culture. She puts her very life force into every note she sings, every performance.


Brenda Russell: I think she’s up there with civil rights legends on some level because she helped millions of young black girls. She showed that you could be a young woman of color with money and class and power and prestige and respect. She’s a pioneer in that regard. She crossed the color barrier. At a time when people couldn’t even vote in some states, or sit next to each other, or get married interracially in some states, the Supremes were out there doing this thing. The world loved these women. Diana Ross was an amazing role model. She touched everyone.


 


Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 


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