August 1977 marked the last time Kings Theatre ran its projector. Within two months, Diana Ross would relocate to New York from Los Angeles and begin filming The Wiz (1978). Kings Theatre never screened Miss Ross’ turn as Dorothy in the Hollywood adaptation of Charlie Smalls’ hit Broadway musical. However, the historic venue has now made up for lost time. Diana Ross inaugurated the Kings’ grand reopening after a $95 million restoration rescued it from the wrecking ball. Singing “Ease on Down the Road”, Miss Ross led a sold-out audience of 3,250 Gothamites to a whole new Oz, one that stands majestically along Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn.
Diana Ross was the perfect artist to unveil a refurbished jewel in New York’s glimmering crown of cultural landmarks. In a sense, Miss Ross and the city of New York belong to each other. This is the city where “The Boss” spun at Studio 54 and “Love Hangover” powered Paradise Garage and Harlem drag balls. It’s the city where Miss Ross recorded two career-defining albums, The Boss (1979) and diana (1980), with two of the city’s greatest production teams, Ashford & Simpson and the CHIC Organization, respectively. It’s also the city where Miss Ross promised “No wind no rain … can stop me babe” while actually conquering a deluge of wind and rain during her ’83 concert in Central Park that helped fund the Diana Ross Playground off W. 81st Street.
Like her Central Park concert, or any Diana Ross concert for that matter, the singer’s entrance at the Kings was worthy of a Queen. A sheer scrim bathed in purple light hung floor-to-ceiling across the stage. Masterfully led by bassist and Music Director, Cecil Thomas Jr., Miss Ross’ twelve-piece band initially appeared in silhouette and stoked the crowd’s anticipation. A driving beat punctured an ambient mist of sound and accelerated to a crescendo before that voice pierced the purple light: I’m … coming … out! A follow spot illuminated a mane of flowing black tresses stationed in the audience. Wrapped in a diaphanous swirl of aquamarine, the singer sauntered up the right aisle, crossed the middle orchestra seats, and marched down the left aisle as the scrim dropped to the floor. Flanked by iPhones and camera flashes, she climbed the steps and arrived center stage just in time to sing the first verse of “I’m Coming Out” — “There’s a new me coming out, and I just have to live, and I want to give”. Based on their ardent response, the audience was only too willing to receive whatever Diana Ross had to give that night.
A sprightly cover of “More Today Than Yesterday” by the Spiral Starecase (sic) signaled the 1960’s portion of the show while also referencing the singer’s last studio album I Love You (2006). Though an entire set could be dedicated to the songs Diana Ross recorded with the Supremes, the singer served up half a dozen hits that evidenced why the trio collected twelve number ones between 1964 and 1969. Beginning with “My World Is Empty Without You”, Ross’ band faithfully rendered the Funk Brothers’ high-octane soul that fueled Motown’s legendary recordings.
Miss Ross imbued “Come See About Me” and “Baby Love” with the same beguiling sweetness that dominated the airwaves during autumn 1964. Her coy rapport with the audience continued on “Stop! In the Name of Love” as she embellished the youthful melodrama of the lyrics. “You Can’t Hurry Love” took the energy up a notch while the four-piece horn section swung and swayed in time to drummer Gerry Brown’s infectious backbeat. The song’s breakdown — “You gotta wait / You gotta give and take / Love don’t come easy” — triggered a roar of recognition from the audience. The enduring appeal of these particular songs is a testament to the fated union between the Supremes and songwriting team Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland.
The show’s Supremes segment concluded with one of the trio’s later hits written outside the H-D-H unit, “Love Child”. Forty-seven years after it topped the charts, the song remains a gripping tale that touches on poverty and pregnancy. At the Kings, “Love Child” transcended its dramatic three-minute storyboard and showcased the band’s remarkable musicality. Percussionist Ron Powell maneuvered both tambourines and congas, extracting some of the tune’s latent Latin rhythms. After Miss Ross exited for a costume change, horn players John Isley (baritone sax), Carl Fischer (trumpet), Mark Miller (trombone), and John Scarpulla (tenor sax) walked center stage and put the exclamation point on a series of solos.
Proceeding ten years or so, the next segment of the show basked in that moment during the 1970’s when Diana Ross became one of the world’s greatest solo attractions and was rewarded with accolades like Billboard‘s “Entertainer of the Century” (1976). As background vocalists Valerie Pinkston, Fred White, and Lamont Van Hook intoned the opening phrase to “The Boss”, Miss Ross entered from stage right, her voice coasting above the song’s anthemic melody. Her gait imparted the same kind of confidence that emanated from Douglas Kirkland’s cover photo of the singer on The Boss. In both her vocal approach and attitude, she owned the song, accentuating some diva flair with an outsized red fan. Powell worked overtime on the congas as the horn section replicated Robert Mounsey’s original arrangement.
Ten songs into the set, “Touch Me in the Morning” was the first ballad of the evening. It was worth the wait. George Mitchell rendered every last nuance of Michael Masser’s melody underneath the singer’s bewitching vocal. It’s interesting how the passage of time shades lyrics with new meanings. When Diana Ross sang “Let’s just be glad for the time together”, it registered not so much as a consolatory bromide from one lover to another but an acute awareness that time is indeed precious, no matter the relationship. The more subdued arrangement of the song spotlighted guitarist Michael Sechrest whose appealing solo contained elements of jazz that didn’t stray too far outside the song’s pop orientation.
“Upside Down” resumed the party. “Come on, let me see you move in your seats,” the singer commanded. The audience needed little encouragement and gamely danced along to the song’s angular rhythms. While Miss Ross addressed the audience several times throughout the show, the open-armed gesture that accompanied “I cherish the moments with you” seemed like a special Valentine’s Day nod to her fans. She then invited a gentleman up from the audience to display some freestyle moves as she and the audience cheered him on. “You better go for it now,” she cried. “Give me some of that!”
Diana Ross revisited her long line of number one dance hits with a medley of “Love Hangover” and “Take Me Higher”. Of course, the former needed no introduction while the title track to Take Me Higher (1995) was a refreshing reminder that Diana Ross was still a force in the clubs two decades after “Love Hangover” first wielded its power. Illustrated by footage of the singer’s photo session with photographer Firooz Zahedi, “Take Me Higher” elevated the set beyond “greatest hits” fare and intimated how many hidden gems are waiting to be excavated for future concerts. As the singer raised her arms in victory, her background vocalists nailed the deceptively simple notes of the tune’s closing harmonies a cappella. A rollicking rendition of “Ease on Down the Road” bookended “The Boss” and once again burnished the memory of the singer’s ascent to solo superstardom through records, concerts, and movies during the 1970’s.
Tenor saxophonist John Scarpulla introduced a trio of songs that examined love from alternately sultry, sad, and lighthearted points of view. He wailed a round of Bacharach and David’s “The Look of Love” before the singer returned in a silver gown that refracted all colors of the rainbow. Having recorded the song on I Love You, Diana Ross is among the countless artists who’ve lent their voice to Bacharach’s timeless melody. At the Kings, she drank every bit of sensuality from the lyrics, teasing the audience with slowly undulating hip movements as Scarpulla’s sax moaned softly in the background.
“Do I have any jazz and blues lovers out there?” she asked. “We’re gonna do something from Lady Sings the Blues (1972), okay?” In the early ’70s, Diana Ross’ Oscar-nominated performance as Billie Holiday sparked a whole new facet of her career. Her recordings of standards like “My Man (Mon Homme)” and “You’ve Changed” revealed a newfound depth that was light years away from the Supremes. Over the last few decades, the singer has only rooted herself more firmly in the songs that Lady Day popularized. Before singing the opening line to “Don’t Explain”, it was clear the Miss Ross slipped into another skin. Everything about her stage presence shifted. A faraway look in her eyes supplanted her smile. “I’m glad, you’re back. Don’t explain,” she sang in a measured cadence. Her performance exhibited the kind of intimacy that’s drawn from a kinship with the lyrics. Each member of the horn section heightened the ambience with a solo, including the sumptuous tone of Carl Fischer’s flugelhorn, plus additional solos by Sechrest on guitar and Mitchell on keyboards. The singer held the crowd spellbound with a performance that exuded both vulnerability and strength. A few more numbers from Lady Sings the Blues would have been warmly received before the show quickly shifted gears to the singer’s spirited take on Frankie Lymon’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”
The familiar melody line of “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” heralded Miss Ross’ re-emergence in resplendent layers of yellow and gold. Midway through the song, the music swelled underneath her cries of “Do you know? Do you know?” The chords segued from Mahogany to the rousing chorus of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. This particular arrangement has anchored Miss Ross’ show for decades and with very good reason: the two songs are emotionally symbiotic. The introspection of one yields the bold declaration of the other. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” still carries a transformative power that’s only magnified over the past 45 years through the singer’s show-stopping performances of the song. Ashford & Simpson’s brilliant re-imagining of their own composition gave Diana Ross an anthem that, to this day, resides in a class of its own.
The fact that Diana Ross followed “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with a song that’s so closely aligned with another singer is worth contextualizing. As far back as 1979, specifically in her show at Caesar’s Palace, the singer cited Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” as a source of self-empowerment along the continuum of songs like “I Ain’t Been Licked” from The Boss. When she recorded “I Will Survive” on Take Me Higher, her version made the UK Top 20 and became a staple of her set. Of course, Diana Ross is not the only Diva who’s taken a turn with the song. No less a Queen than Aretha Franklin recorded “I Will Survive” on Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics (2014), Gladys Knight covered it in 1981, and even Donna Summer warbled the tune at the 22nd Annual Grammy Awards during a “Song of the Year” medley. That said, Diana Ross’ catalog is chock full of songs that she originated (“I Ain’t Been Licked”, for starters) and could certainly revamp with the same vigorous approach that “I Will Survive” is currently accorded. For the time being, “I Will Survive” keeps the crowd on their feet and gives substantial and well-earned airtime to the singer’s superb line-up of musicians and vocalists, most notably Valerie Pinkston whose vocal pyrotechnics were a revelation at the Kings.
“You are really such an amazing audience at this beautiful palace,” Ross exclaimed, like a regal empress surveying her castle. “I feel like a queen. This is so beautiful. Turn the lights up so we can take a look.” The singer’s last number of the evening augmented the splendor of the Kings Theatre. A sea of arms filled the air during “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”, tracing the ornate gold trim along the theatre’s balconies as hands waved to and fro. Miss Ross then called her daughter Rhonda Ross onstage to sing a chorus of “Reach Out and Touch”. A talented artist and vocalist in her own right, Rhonda’s soulful, robust voice further amplified the celebratory spirit of the proceedings. Before taking her final bow for the night, Miss Ross also invited her son Evan Ross onstage along with his wife Ashlee Simpson Ross for a reprise of “I Will Survive”.
In a way, survival was the subtext of the evening. Upon opening in September 1929, Kings Theatre flourished for nearly half a century, then laid dormant for 35 years only to return with its 70-foot high ceilings fully intact. It’s primed for legends like Diana Ross to add new chapters to its illustrious legacy. Diana Ross, of course, is the definition of longevity, an artist whose appeal unites audiences of all backgrounds and musical persuasions, whose songs were not just number one hits but milestones that set the soundtrack for social movements across race, gender, and sexuality. Indeed, the singer’s dazzling 90-minute tour through 50 years of pop classics and personal anthems proved there’s still no mountain too high for Diana Ross.
Photo: Flying Perfect Media