Have Fun: A Tribute to Diana Ross, Nile Rodgers, and the CHIC Groove of ‘diana’ (Parts 7-9)

[21 May 2013]

By Christian John Wikane

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Part VII: CHIC Redux

Read Parts 1 - 4
Read Parts 5 - 6

Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards began the 1980s on top. diana was a cross-format smash, an international sensation that delivered hits in major territories around the globe and would eventually sell upwards of ten million copies worldwide. Though the producers were initially distraught over Motown’s remix, they couldn’t deny the album was doing exactly what it was supposed to do: bring Diana Ross back to number one and raise their profile as credible producers who could generate hits for artists outside the CHIC organization. The industry anxiously awaited their next move.

In the world of CHIC, 1980 also witnessed the producers’ work on Real People (the group’s fourth album), plus Love Somebody Today by Sister Sledge and King of the World by French outfit Sheila & B. Devotion, but all three albums scarcely replicated the seven-figure units of diana. Ironically, the biggest success Rodgers and Edwards had in 1980 beyond the diana album was with records that weren’t even CHIC releases: Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” brought the bass line of “Good Times” back to the summit of the pop charts (one week after “Upside Down” hit number one), Rodgers’ guitar riffs inspired Blondie on “Rapture”, and the Sugarhill Gang sampled the rhythm track of “Good Times” on “Rapper’s Delight”—a crucial moment in the mainstream’s introduction to rap and hip-hop.

The next couple of years would be marked by trial and error. After diana, Rodgers and Edwards produced Debbie Harry’s solo debut, KooKoo (1981), an album that went gold and earned critical acclaim even though it confounded some fans of both Blondie and CHIC. They also shopped tracks for Fonzi Thornton and produced an entire album for Johnny Mathis that was ultimately shelved by Columbia. (Over the past few years, a few tracks from the latter project have surfaced on both CHIC and Johnny Mathis compilations.) A one-off single with Carly Simon called “Why” shot to the U.K. Top 10 and appeared on the Soup for One (1982) soundtrack, which featured the producers’ work with Teddy Pendergrass (“Dream Girl”) and a cut from the Thornton sessions (“I Work for a Livin’”).

Beginning with Real People, CHIC’s record sales declined with each successive release. Take It Off (1981), Tongue In Chic (1982), and Believer (1983) got lost as dance music and R&B reshuffled and grew into new forms during the early-‘80s. By the end of 1983, Rodgers and Edwards would dissolve CHIC as both a group and a production entity, even though much of the pop music that was beginning to hit the charts was unequivocally CHIC-influenced, from Culture Club to Duran Duran to Madonna’s eponymous debut.

However, the CHIC story was far from over. The producers re-united in 1992 for CHIC-ism while hip-hop artists who were raised on CHIC began excavating the group’s catalog for samples. Both MC Lyte and Salt-N-Pepa sampled “Upside Down” in 1996 on “Cold Rock A Party” and “Upside Down (Round ‘N Round)”, respectively. A year later, “I’m Coming Out” powered the chart-topping success of “Mo Money Mo Problems” by The Notorious B.I.G. 20 years after “Le Freak” hit #1, Will Smith brought the CHIC sound to number one with his sample of “He’s the Greatest Dancer” on “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”.  Through samples, a younger generation of acts brought the brilliance of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards to a new audience. “I can only presume that they were looking for the best sources of hot grooves,” says Patrick Adams about the prolific sampling of CHIC by hip-hop acts. “After James Brown it doesn’t get much better than Nile, Bernard, and Tony.” In a 1979 interview with Rolling Stone, Rodgers made a stunning prophecy, “Fifteen years from now, maybe CHIC will be thought of as really innovative” (18 April 1979). Over the past three decades, the consensus that Rodgers and Edwards were innovators has only proliferated across all factions of the global music community.

CHIC

CHIC

Dionne Farris: What’s real always is, what’s not real, never was. Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards had the archetypal disco sound. Their sound stood apart and held its own. Moreover, “Good Times” as used by the Sugarhill Gang was the introduction to hip-hop for most people. With what hip-hop means to the world today, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards’ work is required knowledge for all music enthusiasts.

Vincent Henry: Once each generation goes through whatever social, creative, or artistic phases they go through, they reach a point where they want to get another level of sophistication. They look back to the previous generation. Nothing represented that funky sophistication better than CHIC.

MC Lyte: Outside of it being great music and bringing back great memories, CHIC definitely influenced so many of us in the generation that I come from. Puff and his whole entourage were able to tap into all of these songs that felt really good to our generation and to others. I would attribute it to classic music that stands the test of time and then also the Bad Boy collective of producers tapping into it.

Kathy Sledge:  Some things you don’t even need to try and do over. It’s a huge compliment when you hear your music or your voice used for another plane. In Will Smith’s case, he took a groove that he thought was the epitome of a clean groove and used it in his record. I’m sure that whole new market that never heard “He’s the Greatest Dancer” said, “Where did that come from?” It reintroduced my sisters and myself and Nile, and my voice. It’s funny how things come around full circle.

Fonzi Thornton: Janet Jackson sampled “I Work For a Livin’” for a song that she did called “Make Me” (2009). There was a song Luther did with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis called “Shine” where they sampled the track to “My Forbidden Lover”. Everybody’s been sampling CHIC forever!

Vincent Henry: When I came into Change, I realized that they were very influenced vocally by CHIC’s unison singing. You hear it throughout “A Lover’s Holiday” and “Paradise”. Then Change became its own thing. Jimmy and Terry were so astute with Change on “Change of Heart”. The Minneapolis thing is obviously there for them but they paid attention to what everybody was doing.

Don Was: Was (Not Was) had a song, “Tell Me That I’m Dreaming”. I was thinking of Bernard playing that thing. The version that’s on the album has got a lot of clutter to it. We were trying to mess with people in clubs. Then it was like, “Stop frightening the DJ, man, and just do a decent club record!” I used “Good Times” as a template for the 12” version. It’s a different song but I used the same principles of arrangement for that. It got us onto the R&B charts for the first time ... just by applying what Nile and Bernard were doing!

André Cymone: It’s hard to say exactly how their productions influenced me, I just know they did because they were creating a sound that, before them, I had not quite experienced. I think their work as producers and musicians influenced me more in a subliminal way because I just tried to personally breathe in the music of the moment as opposed to studying the music of the moment. When I heard it I would acknowledge it but wouldn’t always check to see who it was. I’m sure it went in one ear and came out through the music I was working on at the time. What I learned from them was you didn’t have to stick by any preconceived production template—you could create your own with guitar, synths, or horns leading the way.

Patrick Adams: Much to their credit, Nile and Bernard created their own lane of music. The sound was an incredible original mix of funk, pop, jazz, and R&B. Everybody could find something to like and it made you move.

Irene Cara: They had a groove that was just the bomb. They had a fusion of dance, funk, R&B, pop, and rock. A lot of bands copied that sound and had hit records because of it. I even think Prince got a little bit of them. By the time he came on in the ‘80s, he had his own unique way of interpreting it, but as far as that fusion that Nile and Bernard had, Prince also had it in terms of punk, rock, funk ... all of that.

Ray Chew: Nile and Bernard are great producers and songwriters who were able to have a great impact on that period of time that we call disco. In a unique way, they added the soul and funk style to disco so it wasn’t wooden. The records that they did will last forever.

Derek Bramble: They captured a city. They made New York their playground. They just ran the town from the time the first single came out. It just encompassed so much but it always derived from the music. Between the three of them, that was a hell of a rhythm section. Bernard was a quiet guy. He wasn’t very in your face. Nile was a great guy with a great smile and was great fun. Tony was just a wonderful, lovely lunatic. I loved him. They all had a sound that was amazing and wonderful.

Kathy Sledge: Bernard seemed to be the glue of CHIC. Nile had a sense of freedom and playing and creativity. Tony just exuded a coolness. Tony was a huge part of that pocket, that groove. All of those were essential puzzles pieces to what made CHIC.  Time will move on and I do believe that some things will keep going. Nile and Bernard’s music will do that.

Alfa Anderson: I realized that what we were doing, the diana stuff and the CHIC stuff, was cutting edge because it brought people together in a way that people had not been brought together. It’s a part of my history. It signifies that I’ve been here, that I’ve contributed, and that I’ve left my mark, however small or however great. My energy is there.

Fonzi Thornton

Fonzi Thornton

Fonzi Thornton: When I hear these songs today, I am so proud of what we did. I’m proud of Nile and Bernard and I’m proud of Alfa and Luci, I’m proud of Michelle Cobbs. We had a wonderful opportunity to create something that’s probably going to outlive all of us. These songs are like towers and we built them.

Sandra St. Victor: They had a recognizable sound, a strong formula, that simply worked. Their hooks were immediately memorable, strong unison melodies accentuated by Bernard’s bass lines and Nile’s funky guitar riffs. Instant hits. Their music and production work spans genres and defies definition. They’ve left an indelible mark on the industry. They’ll be remembered as kings of disco, princes of pop, and hitmakers of everything.

John Oates: They’re great producers, everything from disco to R&B to rock and roll to funk. That’s a unique ability that’s not easy to do. There’s a million different qualities that it takes to be a great producer. It ranges from getting out of the way to imposing your will on the artist and everything in between.

André Cymone: I think they were true artists who made it a point to step outside the lines and create their own sound and they achieved that. They basically gave birth to the cutting edge approach to the modern day rhythm section and they deserve credit for that. It’s a formula that has had a lasting and enduring effect on music that I think will always remain, in some form or fashion, part of our musical consciousness.

Tomi Jenkins: Nile and Bernard, God rest his soul, brought elements to music never heard before. The marriage of bass and guitar was sacred. The lyrics, the inventiveness of the productions were always top-notch. They were, and remain, greatly respected for the musicianship they displayed. They will never go out of style.

Part VIII: The Hitmaker Rides Again

In between Believer and CHIC-ism, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards each began new chapters as independent producers, working with the industry’s most in-demand musicians and producing rock legends and emerging artists alike. “Bernard produced my solo album (E.P.M.) back in ‘83,” says Eddie Martinez. “It was his first production after he and Nile parted ways for a bit.” Edwards also released his own debut Glad to Be Here (1983) that same year. It featured a stellar supporting cast that included Rodgers, Martinez, Ray Chew, Philip Bailey, Jocelyn Brown, Alfa Anderson, Fonzi Thornton, Luther Vandross, and other members from the extended family of New York session singers and players. In 1984, he reunited with Diana Ross for “Telephone” on her Swept Away (1984) album and formed Power Station, a supergroup named after CHIC’s studio home that featured Robert Palmer, Tony Thompson, and Duran Duran members Andy Taylor and John Taylor.

The following year, Edwards produced “A View to a Kill” for Duran Duran and The Heat (1985) for Nona Hendryx. “With me, Bernard was very laid back but also knew what he wanted to capture from both me and the musicians,” says Hendryx.  “Because he was a musician he understood the musician mentality and because CHIC included female lead vocals, he understood working with singers.  Bernard also wanted to serve the song more than anything and knew where the pocket was because he played bass.  Bass players are about space, at least Bernard was, not how many notes they can play.”

Later that year, Edwards produced Palmer’s Riptide (1985) album, arguably the most enduring of Edwards’ solo production work. “Up until that point, Robert was selling maybe 300,000 copies of a record if it was doing well but Riptide catapulted him into the multi-platinum realm,” says Martinez, who played guitar on the album. “Bernard created a dynamic that he knew when it was right: we’ve taken this thing where we need to take it and, if anything, we need to subtract instead of add.” Edwards rounded out the ‘80s by producing acts as diverse as Jody Watley, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, and another supergroup called Distance that featured him alongside Thompson, Martinez, Jeff Bova, and vocalist Robert Hart.

On 17 April 1996, Bernard Edwards reunited with Nile Rodgers onstage at Budokan in Japan. The occasion was a major concert that honored Rodgers as “Super Producer of the Year”. It was the last time Rodgers and Edwards ever played together. One of the saddest chapters in the CHIC story came to pass in the early morning hours of 18 April 1996. Bernard Edwards, the man who showed the world how bass lines could sing, passed away at age 43. Seven years later, Rodgers bid adieu to another friend and compatriot in CHIC—Tony Thompson. In their memory, Rodgers continues to keep the legacy of CHIC alive and honor the work he created with one of the most groundbreaking rhythm sections ever to set foot inside a studio.

Though CHIC disbanded in 1983, Rodgers was actually never too far from Bernard Edwards or Tony Thompson. He invited Edwards aboard his maiden solo release Adventures In the Land of the Good Groove (1983). Just like Edwards’ debut, it also featured CHIC alumni, including Thompson, Rob Sabino, Raymond Jones, and Fonzi Thornton. Of course, his first solo album was the first step towards an illustrious production career that’s shaped the terrain of popular music over the last 30 years. His earliest solo triumphs as a producer included re-energizing David Bowie on Let’s Dance (1983), producing “Original Sin” for INXS, and remixing tracks like “The Reflex” for Duran Duran and “Adult Education” for Hall & Oates. He helmed Like A Virgin (1984) for Madonna and Here’s to Future Days (1985) for the Thompson Twins, which made the producer as much of a presence on the pop charts in 1985 as he’d been in 1979. Throughout the ‘80s, Mick Jagger, Grace Jones, Peter Gabriel, Jeff Beck, Al Jarreau, Laurie Anderson, Philip Bailey, the B-52’s, and countless other artists all enlisted Rodgers to produce albums or key cuts while his distinctive guitar playing appeared on hits like “Higher Love” by Steve Winwood and “Change of Heart” by Cyndi Lauper. Rodgers closed his first decade of production victories by re-teaming with Diana Ross and producing her return to Motown, Workin’ Overtime (1989).

In more recent years, everyone from Cerrone to Bryan Ferry to Adam Lambert has called upon Rodgers’ peerless skills but no one could have predicted what would happen in April 2013. Exactly 30 years to the month that “Let’s Dance” held the number one position in the UK, Rodgers’ collaboration with Daft Punk and Pharrell on “Get Lucky” rocketed to the top spot of the U.K. singles chart. After reaching number one in more than half a dozen countries, the overwhelming success of “Get Lucky” signals that there are certainly more good times to be had for the “hitmaker”  ...

John Oates: You have to give credit where credit is due. If you listen to those records, Nile’s guitar parts are the signature musical element of those records. They’re just absolutely elegant.

André Cymone: I would describe Nile’s approach as rhythmic and foundational. His guitar licks were often the signature melodies to the songs. In the past, it was usually a horn riff or a vocal chant. CHIC made the funky guitar riff the signature sound. As soon as I heard that guitar stroke or funky melodic riff I knew Nile Rodgers was on it no matter what group it was.

Ava Cherry: You knew the minute you heard that guitar that it was Nile, in the same way that you would hear Jimi Hendrix and know that it was Jimi Hendrix and not anybody else. What he did with the guitar is that it wasn’t like anybody else’s guitar playing. It moved the song along in ways that a lot of guitar players did not do. It made you want to listen when you heard his guitar. He’s a phenomenal guitar player. I have the utmost respect and admiration for him.

Kathy Sledge: When you pick up an instrument, it comes to life. When you hear Nile on the guitar, that guitar is Nile and you know it. Like B.B. King, you recognize his playing. It’s not just how they play it, their soul comes through that. That gives me goosebumps. To be able to carry through something that doesn’t have life and give it your life is pretty phenomenal. Nile does that with his instrument. It’s effortless and clean.

Eddie Martinez: You can hear Nile’s flavor whether he was playing on some of the Duran Duran stuff or the Thompson Twins or Debbie Harry’s solo album or Bowie. You listen to “Let’s Dance” and the way he’s voicing those minor 6th chords is so hip. I’ll never forget the first time I heard it in Studio C at the Power Station with Bob Clearmountain. I was just so blown away. I was working with Stanley Clarke and George Duke in those days. I had a break from the tour so I stopped by to say hello. When I met those guys again on the tour, I said, “Man I just heard this thing called ‘Let’s Dance’ from Bowie. It’s going to be the biggest thing. This is going to be huge.” It’s a classic piece of work.

Vincent Henry: I remember when I first heard “Let’s Dance”. I was working on a Broadway show that went to Paris. One night we went to a club and this song came on. Man, it just knocked my socks off. Oh my goodness! I couldn’t stop dancing.

Philip Bailey: Nile’s songwriting is very unpredictable. It’s not calculated. The way he moves is very unexpected. It’s not like just because he did something one way and it was a success that he’s going to go back to the drawing board and do it exactly the same way.  He just allows each project to unfold with the artist that he’s working with. That’s a cool way of looking at it.

Don Was: “Good Times” was a milestone R&B record. No one made a record quite like that before. It’s kind of like Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way (1969) where that music didn’t exist before they went into the studio that day and made that album. It’s kind of the same with “Good Times”. It sums up a lot that came before but takes it into the other in a very original and unique way that’s been part of the vocabulary of people making R&B records ever since. That record was incredibly influential to me but also Nile’s career as a whole. He was doing exactly what I aspired to do, the way he was able to take that signature thing and apply it to other artists, I just wanted to do that. Our first gig as Was (Not Was), which was a pivotal gig, was at the Mudd Club in 1981. Nile came to the show. That blew my mind. It was really significant for me to look out into the audience and see Nile. He might be six days younger than me but he’s a real hero.

Fonzi Thornton: The connection between Madonna and David Bowie and everybody is that thread that Nile brings, which is part of the thread that he and Bernard developed together. They had such a shared space. When they were wood-shedding together, they taught each other something that has lasted in this music and that is still underneath the music we’re listening to today. When I heard the Daft Punk song with Pharrell, I said, “This is amazing. This is classically a CHIC record”. It’s great to see Nile burn so bright doing that thing that he does so well that nobody else does.

Derek Bramble: The good ones are good for a reason. The new Daft Punk single is just made of that stuff! It’s a brilliant idea—Nile with Daft Punk. Nile can go anywhere and fill up a concert theater. People are going to love it and enjoy it and be taken back and, hopefully, taken forward. He’s that great of a musician.

John Oates: Nile has always been, and even to this day, one of my favorite guitarists. I don’t think he gets enough credit in the pantheon of guitar gods for the fact that he’s really more of a rhythm guitar player. In a way, I believe that Nile Rodgers defined modern R&B rhythm guitar playing. So many guitar players after him played in his style or tried to play in his style. He’s absolutely one of my favorite guitarists, without a doubt. He’s one of the great rhythm guitar players of all time.

Philip Bailey: It was an extreme honor for me to get a chance to work with Nile. There’s a lot of lessons to be learned from hanging around with Nile. He’s just as likely to stop and have a conversation on the street with somebody’s that’s off the radar as he is to talk with dignitaries or superstars, and with the same ease. He’s not one of those kind of pretentious people who’s full of himself and unapproachable. At the same time, he conserves his energy. He’s kind of like a funnel that a lot of musical genius flows through. He actually stays open in that way. The way he thinks, the way he moves and breathes, the way he handles life, adversity, and success. He’s made an indelible imprint on the world at large.

Nile Rodgers is probably the only producer who could put both Daft Punk and Diana Ross on top. While the world gets down to “Get Lucky” and delves into Random Access Memories, there’s a new audience primed to discover diana. As ubiquitous as songs like “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out” have become over the years, they’re part of a larger work that reflects one of Rodgers’ earliest successes as a songwriter, player, and producer. The only thing that really separates “Get Lucky” from a song like “Tenderness” is a calendar: the guitar riffs on both songs could have been recorded yesterday. Perhaps a Diana Ross/Daft Punk mash-up is next or maybe even a brand new Diana Ross-Nile Rodgers project. As recent events indicate, Diana Ross sure is having fun these days ...

Part IX: Diana Ross: the Icon

“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. 


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/171754-have-fun-a-tribute-to-diana-ross/