Every Day is a New Day: Art, Biography, Criticism, and the Changing Fortunes of Diana Ross

Diana Ross: A Career Overview

by Daniel Garrett Volume 7, Issue 10 / October 2003 57 minutes (14234 words)

Diana Ross, a singer of songs of anticipation, fascination, and delight, is not only a distinguished singer and actress, she’s an American dream. Ross was named Female Entertainer of the Century by Billboard magazine, received a special Tony for her stage show “An Evening with Diana Ross,” received numerous American Music Awards, and was nominated more than ten times for a Grammy Award and given the Heroes Award by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. She has won awards from the NAACP, and a Soul Train Heritage Award and a Black Entertainment Television Walk of Fame Award. In France, Diana Ross was made a Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters. She received recognition from the United Nations (a Global Youth Forum Award). She was named by Guinness the bestselling female singer in history, but commercial success is not the final standard of Diana Ross’s career or life: her music albums—from her first solo record, Diana Ross (1970), to Surrender (1971), Touch Me in the Morning (1973), Baby It’s Me (1977), The Boss (1979), Diana (1980), Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1981), Swept Away (1984), Stolen Moments (1993), and Take Me Higher (1995)—and films Lady Sings the Blues (1972) and Out of Darkness (1994) are intelligent fun, meaningful entertainment: art; and she has lived a life of rare opportunity, even adventure, and style, a style rooted in femininity and imagination. Ross’s voice usually does not exude the impression of suffering, an impression that would negatively signify the past, and that is part of her modernism: free, she sings of the present and the future. Is it possible for anyone to have it all, and to keep it? Is it possible for popular music to outlive its moment and become timeless?

"I’m in the world, I’m in the world. I must be part of it, at last convinced to the right of it."

Diana Ross was born March 26, 1944 to idealistic, hard-working African-American parents in Detroit, Fred and Ernestine Ross; and she said in her memoirs, Secrets of a Sparrow (Villard, 1993), that she was brought up to believe that anything was possible and that hard work was a part of that; and that ambition was simply part of her life force.

“There was nothin’ I wouldn’t do. I was a good swimmer, a good runner, nothing bored me. I loved cleaning house. I loved to iron. Weird, right? Well, now I figure out that it was probably because ironing was like meditation. I could stand there all day and daydream. So I ironed my mother’s sheets. I ironed everything,” Ross told Esquire. (Esquire, November 1981, p. 113) Ross worked hard—attending class at Cass Technical School, studying fashion illustration, and singing background on the recordings of other Motown Records’ performers before scoring bestselling records as lead singer of the Supremes, many of them (“Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Reflections”) written by Brian and Eddie Holland with Lamont Dozier. (After diagramming the structure of “You Can’t Hurry Love,” Larry Starr and Christopher Waterman write in American Popular Music that “like all the great Motown hits, ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ submerges its many subtleties beneath an irresistible pop-friendly surface. American Popular Music, Oxford Univ. Press, 2003, p. 244) As other singers’ attempts to sing these songs demonstrate, Diana Ross’s voice—its silky, sulky quality, its verve—was the most appealing aspect of these recordings. Ross has said, “I think in a sense I provided a lot of the energy. Whenever the other two didn’t want to do recording sessions, I was always in the studio, even if I had to sing with other girls. When the others didn’t show up for interviews or television shows or concerts, I was the one who was there.” (Lear’s, March 1992, p. 108) The songs were popular across America and the world, beyond divisions of class, gender, and race. What may have been most distinct about Ross’s voice—something people don’t always know how to value—is that there was a coolness about it, a self-confident calm, that seemed very modern, and yet it was a voice easily able to convey enormous energy. The writer Susan Sontag said, “If art is understood as a form of discipline of the feelings and a programming of sensations, then the feeling (or sensation) given off by a Rauschenberg painting might be like that of a song by the Supremes.” (Sontag, “One Culture and the New Sensibility,” yr. 1965, Against Interpretation, Picador USA, 2001, page 303)

Ross began a solo career in 1970, while still with Motown Records, with such memorable songs as “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “I Wouldn’t Change the Man He Is,” “Can’t It Wait Until Tomorrow,” and “Dark Side of the World,” written and produced by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. A television special she did in 1971—“Diana!”—would feature her singing and performing in silent film sequences as Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, and Harpo Marx; and the Jackson 5, Bill Cosby, and Danny Thomas were her guests. (Ross had married Robert Ellis Silberstein in January of the same year.) Ross starred in the film Lady Sings the Blues (1972), playing Billie Holiday (1915-1959; birth name, Eleanora Fagan), who sang “Gloomy Sunday,” “Strange Fruit,” “I Cried for You,” “Loveless Love” and “Miss Brown to You,” and co-authored (with Arthur Herzog) “God Bless the Child” with its famous lines, “The strong gets more while the weak ones fade. Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade. Mama may have, papa may have, but God bless the child that’s got his own.” Michael Thomas, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, said that the film was “the first time that Diana Ross has been unleashed. Right on top of her act, so brittle and highly evolved, the way a great athlete is before the 10,000 meters or a great heavyweight is before the title fight, so tuned up and wired, that when it came to do the film, she made it up as she went along, said things she’d never said before, and everything she did was just right. She’d done a great deal of homework—pinned pictures of Billie Holiday up all over the walls and stared at them for months and picked out telling little details like the candy bar on the dressing room table and what kind of candy bar it was, what kind of nail polish, the flask of vodka. She talked to a lot of people and read some books and listened to Billie sing until the inflections came to her easily.” (“Diana Ross Goes from Riches to Rags,” Rolling Stone, Issue 127, February 1, 1973, page 31)

“Pop music provides immediate emotional gratifications that the subtler and deeper and more lasting pleasures of jazz can’t prevail against,” said film critic Pauline Kael in her review of Lady Sings the Blues. Speaking of Ross, Kael said, “What she had with the Supremes—which was freaky and as commercial as hell—was recognizably hers….She doesn’t have the punishing personality of Billie Holiday; she wants to give pure, crazy, hip pleasure.” This last remark echoes Sontag, though surprisingly Sontag was more perceptive about the formal aspects of Ross’s music. (Pauline Kael, “Pop versus Jazz,” Reeling, Little, Brown and Company, 1975, p. 35-40)

Pauline Kael also said about the film that it was “shocking to see a great black artist’s experience poured into the same Hollywood mold, and to see that it works—and works far better than it did on the white singers’ lives.” (Kael, Reeling, p. 36)

James Baldwin had a mixed response to the film. Baldwin, the author of one novel featuring an African-American woman singer, Another Country (1962), and another novel about a black actor, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968), as well as the essay collections Nobody Knows My Name (1961) and The Devil Finds Work (1976), wrote, “It is scarcely possible to think of a black American actor who has not been misused: not one has ever been seriously challenged to deliver the best that is in him,” before going on to say, “What the black actor has managed to give are moments—indelible moments, created, miraculously, beyond the confines of the script: hints of reality, smuggled like contraband into a maudlin tale, and with enough force, if unleashed, to shatter the tale to fragments,” before admitting, “For, indeed, the most exasperating aspect of Lady Sings the Blues, for me, is that the three principals—Miss Ross, Billy Dee Williams, and Richard Pryor—are, clearly, ready, willing, and able to stretch out and go a distance not permitted by the film.” Baldwin went on to say about Ross, “She picks up on Billie’s beat, and, for the rest, uses herself, with a moving humility and candor, to create a portrait of a woman overwhelmed by the circumstances of her life.” (James Baldwin, “The Devil Finds Work,” The Price of the Ticket, St. Martin’s/Marek, 1985, pgs. 620-630)

In the summer 2002 issue of The Journal of Popular Film and Television, scholar Gary Storhoff considers how Lady Sings the Blues works as a “crossover” text, a film text prepared for diverse audiences. “In its effort to provide for all possible viewer positions—from the Silent Majority conservative of the early 1970s, to the African American proud of the real-life Holiday achievements, to the viewer primarily interested in Diana Ross’s career—Lady Sings the Blues negotiates racial, gender, generational, and political problems with complexity and subtlety. Because of the great disparity of viewer needs, the stresses placed on the narrative structure are enormous.” Storhoff notes the film’s context—the civil rights and black power movements, national politics, the fact of drug use, the women’s movement—and how the film becomes a kind of morality play involving a woman blamed for much of her own trouble: “If only Billie had known her place—as loyal wife and obedient daughter, if only Billie had restrained her hubristic desire for fame and wealth in favor of home and family, if only Billie had understood the tacit boundaries for African American women that the Silent Majority takes for granted, then Billie would have been safe, innocent, and happy,” he writes. “Lady depicts experiences unique to African Americans, but it does so by immersing those experiences within a narrative structure that affirms white, middle class sensibilities and values,” he concluded. (Gary Storhoff, “Strange Fruit,” Journal of Popular Film and Television, Summer 2002, accessed via the internet at www.findarticles.com on April 17, 2003).

What would have happened if the film had been more true to the book Lady Sings the Blues, Billie Holiday’s biography as-told-to writer William Dufty, originally published by Doubleday in 1956? The book is hilarious and sad, instructive and cautionary, told in language salty and poignant, and full of facts that most Americans prefer not to know: poverty, racial injustice, absent fathers, unhappy family life, sexual abuse of girls, prostitution, serious drug use, prison, corrupt authorities, and bad love. Some of the worst of Holiday’s horror stories are in the details, as when she, a girl, suffers sexual assault from an older man: the most disturbing aspect was that a woman helped a man hold Holiday down. One can read the book and laugh at some of the silliness Holiday describes—such as Sarah Vaughan refusing to recognize Holiday upon Holiday’s release from incarceration—and be moved by the goodness of others, such as the welcome Lena Horne gave Holiday, when Holiday visited a Horne rehearsal and sat in the back of the hall, fearful of rejection: “And that pretty little thing took off from that stage like a beautiful little bird. She came running down the darkened aisles hollering for me. When she saw me, she rushed up, took me in her arms, hugged me, looking at me, smiling and weeping at the same time.” (Lady Sings the Blues, Penguin, 1992, p.147) One might even wonder about the text itself—Holiday or Dufty’s confusing Queens for Long Island (was that because she took the Long Island Railroad through Queens?), and wonder about the accuracy of the line about her influences Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong: “I always wanted Bessie’s big sound and Pop’s feeling.” (p. 39) It would seem that Holiday had more of Armstrong’s sound and Smith’s feeling, but there’s little accounting for wishes. One returns, though, to those terrifying facts and the wonder of art still being possible. “You’ve got to have something to eat and a little love in your life before you can hold still for any damn body’s sermon on how to behave,” said Holiday (p.168), who saw her own drug use as a sickness. The happiest moments in the book involve music-making, especially in London, which Holiday loved, and Europe, places she was well-treated. (Other books have been written about Holiday, and Robert O’Meally’s Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday, Arcade Books, 1991, Donald Clarke’s Wishing on the Moon, DaCapo Press, 2000, and Farah Jasmine Griffin’s If You Can’t Be Free, Be A Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, Free Press, 2002, are considered among the better books.) Could the facts that Holiday states—and those she suggests—have been told in film? It would have been a revolutionary act.

African-Americans, of course, are the inheritors of, participants in, and transformers of at least three cultural traditions, the African, the European, and the African-American. It has been reported that in the early 1970s Diana Ross and Motown president Berry Gordy used “Black” as a nickname for each other; possibly, this was to indicate that much of what they did would be for others not merely an individual act but a social and symbolic one. Neither Gordy nor Ross was interested in revolution; they were interested in participation in the culture—and, yet, participation can mean change and that is what revolution is.

Ross was nominated for a Best Actress Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for her performance, as was Cicely Tyson for Tyson’s work in Sounder in the same year, and many expected Ross to win, including the ultimate winner, Liza Minnelli (Cabaret). A few years later singer-actress Diahann Carroll would get an Academy Award nomination for her performance in the dramatic film Claudine (1974), a film about the struggles of a Harlem family. Carroll, an African-American woman justifiably known for her beauty and glamour, did not win. But though her role as Claudine may have fulfilled some of Carroll’s better hopes, it had also defied some of her worst expectations, expectations probably shared by other performers. A website devoted to Carroll’s career quotes from her book Diahann! regarding her experience on her first film, Carmen Jones (1954), starring Dorothy Dandridge—“But for all the movie-star fantasies I carried with me to California, it became clear as the weeks went by that none of us was likely to have much of a future here. We were the only black people on the lot. The producers, production staff, and crew were all quite polite and professional, but there was absolutely no camaraderie on or off the set, no sense of shared purpose. The unspoken assumption seemed to be that we were outsiders, in town for only a short while to do our ‘black’ feature film (there was a ‘black’ film every few years), and when it was over we would go back to wherever we came from and no one would ever see us again. I felt that one possible exception would be Dorothy Dandridge." (Diahann, accessed on September 10, 2003) Of course, Dandridge also suffered disappointments, though she received a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her work as Carmen, and was featured in Tamango (1956), an Italian film (for which various dates have been given—’57, ’58, ’59, ’60), and Island in the Sun (1957), Porgy and Bess (1959) and The Murder Men (1961). While Carroll has not had the film career she should have had, she has managed to do respectable work: the theatrical films Paris Blues (1961), The Five Heartbeats (1991), Eve’s Bayou (1997), and the television films I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1979), Sister, Sister (1982), Having Our Say (1999), and The Natalie Cole Story (2000). And, as everyone now knows, biracial Halle Berry (Losing Isaiah, Bulworth, Swordfish), an African-American who played Dorothy Dandridge in the television film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Monster’s Ball (2001) in the year 2002. Lady Sings the Blues, Sounder, and Claudine may have widened the sense of what was possible for African-American actresses and actors, such as Berry.

"I’m in the world, for some reason or another. Sometimes I get up and sometimes I don’t bother, but I’m here. I’m here, for—oh lord, who knows? My light gets dim, then it glows."

Ross continued to make music during the 1970s, but she also starred in two other films, Mahogany (1975) and The Wiz (1978). Ross won the French Cesar for her performance in Mahogany, considered the equivalent of the U.S.’s Academy Award (and for the American Academy Awards in 1976, Ross would perform the theme from Mahogany, “Do You Know Where You’re Going To,” live from Amsterdam). In Mahogany, Diana Ross plays a model-designer who works against discouragement and finds international fame, with the aid of a photographer (Sean, played by Anthony Perkins) while trying to have a relationship with a political activist who plans to run for office, played by Billy Dee Williams. Tony Richardson began as the director of Mahogany, and both Richardson (Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey, A Delicate Balance) and Ross claimed that they enjoyed working together (and neither seemed particularly pleased with Berry Gordy’s participation in this film) but Berry Gordy finished the film as director; and Ross said in her memoirs that the film she began making was not the film that was made. I understand that the original film as planned had a more intelligent script, one that Gordy wanted cut so that the film would appeal to more people. Although the film received some harsh criticism in the United States, I cannot dismiss it. The film offers attractive actors and locales (pleasure), with Ross and Williams still good together, although Ross’s speaking voice is more high than usual in this film, making me think of the isolation, tension, and vulnerability of great fame—she doesn’t sound like someone who has been having many ordinary conversations, missing are the usual everyday rhythms. More relevantly, the film deals with themes not many films handle and there are aspects and moments that are worth thinking about: Tracy/Ross’s character’s older white woman boss rejects Tracy/Ross’s ambitions and ideas—her potential value—and we watch here two things, an African-American in an uninteresting subordinate role and how much she wants more (in life, most people would see the role, not the desire for more); Tracy/Ross observes black youth and that inspires a colorful design for a dress (this is how the mundane, some aspect of the community—through genuine appreciation—enters art, an inspiration known to the artist, but usually not known to the community or general public); the photographing of a fashion advertisement in a downtrodden ghetto area, the ghetto made fabulous, with contradictions of fact, taste, and utility; Brian/Williams’ character’s discomfort with the fashion world and the styles and freedoms it makes possible, discomfort with, for instance, Sean/Perkins’ character’s ambiguous gender/sexual identity; Tracy/Ross’s trying to ask questions of a black man on a street in Italy, but he either doesn’t speak English or feels no obligation to talk to her (“You ain’t a brother,” she mutters—recognition of difference within “blackness”); and slim Tracy’s being attractive to people despite not fitting a voluptuous mold. These items are all in the foreground of the unfolding of the film, part of the plot, part of the subject of the film.

About the film, Jane Gaines wrote, “Mahogany has the same trouble understanding black femaleness that the wider culture has had historically; a black female is either all woman and tinted black, or mostly black and scarcely woman. These two expectations correspond with the two worlds and two struggles the film contrasts: the struggle over the sexual objectification of Tracy’s body in the face of commercial exploitation and the struggle of the black community in the face of class exploitation. But the film identifies this antagonism as the hostility between fashion and politics, embodied respectively by Tracy Chambers (Diana Ross) and Brian Walker (Billy Dee Williams); through them it organizes conflict and, eventually, reconciliation.” (Culture-bearing black woman, whose culture are you bearing? Was Mahogany—with its depiction of an ambitious, intelligent, griefless and guiltless modern young black woman—part of what inspired Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, also about a model whose cultural allegiance is questioned?) Gaines considers individuality, and sexuality as an elusive but perceptible and salable quality, and the power of the gaze—who is looking?—and some of her ideas inadvertently suggest why glamour and the behavior of a “lady” are important to someone like Ross: they make available an attractive and respectable presence in a world of prejudice, an idealization of the self and of social relations, though people also misread glamour and manners—as pure artifice. (Jane Gaines, “White Privilege and Looking Relations: Race and Gender in Feminist Film Theory,” Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism, edited by Diane Carson, Linda Dittmar, and Janice R. Welsch, Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1994, p. 181)

Diana Ross, photographed for the fashion bible Vogue more than once —and a style favorite of Vogue editor and Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute head Diana Vreeland, as fashion journalist Andre Leon Talley reminds readers in his memoir A.L.T.— did more than play a designer in Mahogany; she was the designer of the film’s wardrobe, from the slinky dresses she wore that brought to mind Bill Blass and Oleg Cassini, to the unusual Asian-inspired costumes that were reminiscent of the very popular early 1970s work of Kansai Yamamoto and Issey Miyake (Yamamota attracted thousands to his shows; and later Miyake would design an outfit for Ross’s 1983 Central Park concert). Some of the film’s costumes were a bit like the comic surrealism of Italian designer Franco Moschino. Most film critics were too fashion-ignorant to pick up the references to Asian design, and foolishly thought Ross had made a mistake. (The designer Marc Jacobs has said that he would love to design the clothes for a remake of Mahogany.) It’s not only the clothes in Mahogany that should be reconsidered but the entire film. While the film’s ending is probably its most emotionally and politically troubling aspect, with Tracy giving up her own independent ambitions to support Brian’s, the scenes that come before that highlight personal choices and conflicts, and social opportunities and barriers, that are very much part of the world today.

Each of Diana Ross’s films differs from the others in subject, theme, and setting, but whereas both Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany acknowledged a woman’s ambition as problematic for others, The Wiz made her enlightenment and liberation the central journey of the film, and it was a film Ross identified with. Ross asserted that Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz text did not specify the age of Dorothy. The young (black woman) teacher Ross played in The Wiz was afraid of experience and responsibility and her journey to both was, potentially, still, one that others could identify with, but the film met with resistance. Were its aesthetics—a large, broad film that dwarfed its own intimate message—the only reason; or was the different emphasis partly responsible for the resistance? How possible is it to read and appreciate a (film) text that affirms ideas, stories, and values the larger society does not affirm? Although artists are allowed various breakthroughs, does society eventually try to recuperate the loss of the status quo—in other words, pave over the rupture through which change or a different kind of success has come (is there an impulse to erase the triumph of a Diana Ross)?

“Touch Me in the Morning,” “Do You Know Where You’re Going To,” “The Boss,” and “I’m Coming Out” also followed Lady Sings the Blues. About “Touch Me in the Morning,” a song about a love affair’s end written by Ron Miller and Michael Masser, with parts for voices, strings, and horns, the British music scholar Patrick Dailly, also the winner of the Edward Hecht Prize and the Leo Grindon Prize for Composition, wrote:

Its musical language suggests implicitly that the singer of the song is beyond reproach. This remarkable achievement is brought about by the evolution of a musical vocabulary which is a potpourri of half-remembered bits of baroque style, and by alluding to other crucial mythic landmarks in European culture. The European musical baroque style has associations with nobility and moral superiority. It is a prestige musical language. The song miniaturizes aspects of baroque form. Although in its ‘properness’ it is more baroque than anything else, it naively misapprehends a courtly quality, obliquely suggesting that the singer (a lady) is waiting for the visitation of her lover…” (Patrick Dailly, “Diana Ross: ‘Touch Me in the Morning,’ Tamla Motown TMG,” accessed September 1, 2003)

The baroque music style—with strict and intricate forms, and elaborate ornamentation—was popular in Europe from about 1600 to 1750. Dailly describes parts of “Touch Me in the Morning” that correspond to classical terms such as recitativo (“Touch me in the morning, then just walk away…”) and aria (“Wasn’t it me who said that nothing good’s gonna last forever? And wasn’t it me who said…”), noting the lyrical, musical, and psychological developments in the song, and comparing the final section to the passion music of Bach (“Saint Matthew Passion”), with its three vocal lines—one of a chorus, and two with Ross singing counterpoint to herself. Dailly concludes, “The song is classic Motown Romance…”

The songs that Ross bridged 1970 and 1980 with included: “And If You See Him” and “Didn’t You Know You’d Have to Cry Sometime?” from Surrender, the lovely though unrealistic “I’m Still Waiting,” the rollicking and sexy “Don’t Knock My Love” with Marvin Gaye, and the inconsolably mournful “My Baby (My Baby My Own),” a song from Touch Me in the Morning, the simultaneously jazzy and countryish “Last Time I Saw Him,” “I Heard A Love Song (But You Never Made a Sound),” the beautiful “I Thought It Took A Little Time (But Today I Fell in Love)” with its cello introduction and self-questioning lyrics, the memorable ballad “After You,” which a friend who wasn’t a Ross admirer asked me to replay, and the funky—earthy, fragrant, jazzy (with great horn parts), intensely rhythmic, sensual—songs on Baby It’s Me (produced by Richard Perry), such as the title song and “You Got It,” “Your Love Is So Good For Me,” and “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh,” and also “Sparkle” with the philosophical lines, “Everything must live, everything must breathe—now you say you must leave,” and “I’m in the World,” the last two written and produced by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson for The Boss.

The Boss begins with “No One Gets the Prize,” about how a friendship between two women is undermined when they become involved with the same man. Ross both narrates and expresses—excitement, appreciation, perplexity, anger, sadness, and late understanding. Lost love and surviving it are the subject in “I Ain’t Been Licked,” with the line, “although my love is gone, somehow I’ll carry on,” with Ross’s tone simultaneously sensitive, tough, and proud. “Get behind and push, if you don’t want the lead,” sings Ross in “All for One,” and “if it’s love that we share, then there’s no debt to pay,” sounding warmly wise. Ross gives “The Boss” a focused wildness—there’s celebration and liberation in her singing “love taught me who was the boss,” love is the boss. “Once in the Morning” with the singer asking for her lover’s presence “at seven, when I rise” and “eleven, when I close my eyes,” is simply one of the sexiest songs ever—both carnal and loving: “I want you to be, be, be there!” Sweet and seductive is “It’s My House.” Maturity is an achievement but can seem dull as a compliment for a song, but that is what “Sparkle” is—in lyrics, in performance, in production; this song, about the end of a relationship between people who still seem to care for each other, cannot be improved. And “I’m in the World” contains an idea, an acceptance of self and life, that is important for an individual’s inner life, but one that can be hard to make interesting or even perceptible to others, and I think this song does that, and is a fitting conclusion to an album of songs that one experiences not simply as engaging music but as something—an energy, a way of thinking—that genuinely reflects a life.

Diana, with a small “d” and no last name on the cover, was the album in 1980 that found Ross with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, who produced the plainly honest and sensitive “Friend to Friend,” and “Now That You’re Gone,” which mixed things heartbroken, practical, and robotic, and the cheerleading “Have Fun (Again),” as well as “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out.”

"I’m in the world, and being what it is, I’ve learned to look, to look beyond the tears. "

“Diana Ross. Her voice is magic. Her name is glamour. Her face is legend. Diana Ross is the quintessential star. Her talent transcends time,” said Essence magazine in the introduction to a portfolio of photographs that appeared in the December 1980 issue of the publication, the Christmas issue. Ross was quoted as saying “I have no set philosophy. I am adapting constantly with each new day, each new experience.” (Essence, December 1980, pages 82-91)

I think that it was in 1981 that Diana Ross appeared in a benefit concert for the Joffrey Ballet, before President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy, at the time when their son Ron was involved with dance, and the Joffrey in turn appeared on her television special, “Diana,” along with Michael Jackson. This was also the year Motown released All the Great Hits, which was (revised and) re-released on Motown in 2000; and All the Great Hits is an elegant, satisfying presentation of some of Ross’s best loved songs: Ross’s duet with Lionel Richie, “Endless Love,” and “It’s My Turn,” “Do You Know Where You’re Going To,” “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” “Touch Me in the Morning,” “Good Morning Heartache,” “Last Time I Saw Him,” “Upside Down,” “I’m Coming Out,” “Tenderness,” “My Old Piano,” “The Boss,” “It’s My House,” “Love Hangover,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and “Remember Me.” I think this is a perfect collection.

Diana Ross, after signing a lucrative contract that bestowed creative freedom, recorded for the long prominent RCA label in the 1980s albums such as Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1981), Swept Away (1984), Eaten Alive (1985), and Red Hot Rhythm and Blues (1987), among others, distinguished by successful singles and songs written by Michael MacDonald, Daryl Hall, Bob Dylan, the Brothers Gibb, Luther Vandross, and Leonard Cohen. Ross has throughout her career sung songs by distinctive writers—including Rodgers and Hart, Jule Styne, Gershwin, the Beatles, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, and Bill Withers—and many times she introduced new songs to the American public.

Ross was on RCA the same time as Nona Hendryx, formerly of the group LaBelle (Nightbirds, Chameleon) with Patti Labelle and Sarah Dash; and David Bowie had been on the label in the 1970s. Bowie was quoted as saying he’d given the label a series of intelligent albums they didn’t seem to know what to do with; and someone else said that the only person RCA ever promoted was Elvis Presley. Hendryx gave the label several very smart, somewhat experimental albums, mixing rock, soul, and music of her own invention and that of her co-producers, usually the band Material: Nona (1983) and The Art of Defense (1984), and The Heat (1985) and Female Trouble (1987), which used various producers. Hendryx’s albums received the contributions of people such as Keith Richards, Laurie Anderson, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, Nile Rodgers, Bernard Edwards, Dennis Collins, Fonzi Thornton, Valerie Simpson, Mavis Staples, and Olu Dara. When I first heard Nona, with its intriguing, spiky songs full of secrets, songs that could be anthems for a new way of being in the world, such as “Transformation,” “Design for Living,” “Keep it Confidential,” and “Dummy Up”—I expected Hendryx to be a powerful force in popular music—certainly the lyrics and music inclined one to think of her as iconic. “Sinner and saints are lined on each side, promising me their treasures if I’d only decide. Which will it be, I see no reason to choose,” she sings in “Steady Action,” co-written with M. Allison, J. Allington, J. Maciel, and K. Fullen. Nona Hendryx’s lyrics also conveyed a wonderfully tough and honest but loving perspective and she wrote songs that had not been written before. Diana Ross has also co-written songs—including “Work That Body,” which turns an exercise routine into a rousing dance song, “So Close,” “Fool for Your Love,” “I Am Me,” which affirms individuality, “Girls,” “Shockwaves,” “Where Did We Go Wrong,” a stylistic tribute to Billie Holiday, and “Hope is an Open Window,” about community. Three of these songs—the 50s doo-wop “So Close,” the hard rock “Fool for Your Love,” and the reggae “I Am Me”—were on Silk Electric (1982), for which Andy Warhol’s portraits of Ross were used for the cover. (When Warhol’s diaries were published in 1989, they contained several brief, friendly references to Ross, extolling her beauty and niceness. An associate of Warhol’s later claimed that the artist especially appreciated Ross’s receiving commissioned work then taking out her checkbook and writing Warhol a check for the whole amount, more than $100,000, something the European aristocrats, American socialites, and various celebrities Warhol painted did not do—they often tried to renegotiate or nullify the previously agreed-upon fee.) Ross’s latter work on RCA was not as successful as the earlier work there, and a change in RCA management and inadequate marketing may have been partly responsible (Ross and Hendryx might have sung duet on “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,” the old Labelle song).

Some of Ross’s notable RCA 1980s work included the sultry “Sweet Surrender” and the comically sexy “Sweet Nothings” from Why Do Fools Fall In Love, and her channeling in “Muscles” of both Michael Jackson and the female lust that had been released by the new emphasis on the male torso in 1980s America, an emphasis that was not unlike the aesthetics of the ancient Greeks (who made an allowance for homosexuality analogous to the broadening liberalism of American society), and “Who,” and the irresistibly weepy “Love Lies,” and “Love Will Make It Right,” with its almost angular line readings (somewhat long, somewhat formal, with a kind of analytical attitude, over a jazzy rhythm), the insinuating and erotically grateful “You Do It,” the experimental (Felliniesque?) “Pieces of Ice,” and from Swept Away the superbly eloquent and impassioned tribute to Marvin Gaye, “Missing You,” “Nobody Makes Me Crazy Like You Do,” which Ross once called a “sleeper,” a song that slowly charms, and “Forever Young,” and then from Eaten Alive the Supremes-like “Chain Reaction,” and “Oh Teacher,” “Experience,” “Love on the Line,” and “Crime of Passion,” among the songs produced by the Brothers Gibb, and Mick Hucknall’s “Shine” and “There Goes My Baby” from Red Hot Rhythm and Blues.

Her best album from that time is probably Swept Away. Swept Away (1984) was, as many of her albums are, eclectic. The album featured “Missing You,” written by Lionel Richie for Ross, and the song’s structure allows Ross to move from calm contemplation to a tone of mixed moods and mixed memories (attempts to reach out that weren’t always accepted) to outspoken feeling to a questioning of fate, in a performance in which intense feeling is discernible but not at all self-indulgent or crudely expressed. Marvin Gaye (1939-1984), who inspired the song, had written and sung about spirituality, sexuality, and politics and his innovative and popular albums included What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On; and though he knew pleasures and material success he was not reconciled to life and the world—and it was disturbing when he was killed after a family argument by his own father, a man who had been a minister. Gaye and Ross had recorded an album together in 1973, work that was sometimes difficult as Ross was pregnant and Gaye wouldn’t stop smoking marijuana in the studio, but they liked and respected each other, as Marvin’s brother Frankie recalls in his book Marvin Gaye, My Brother; and Ross visited him in Belgium where he lived in exile and heard him in the studio working on “Sexual Healing” before he returned to the United States to live and die. “Missing You” is not only one of the most impressive, pleasing, and significant performances on Swept Away, but one of the best performances Ross has ever given. Other songs on Swept Away are the fun Caribbean “Touch by Touch,” “Rescue Me,” and the charmingly frustrated infatuated perspective of “It’s Your Move,” “Swept Away,” the plaintive “Telephone,” “Nobody Makes Me Crazy Like You Do,” and the duet with Julio Iglesias, “All of You,” which is like a one-song melodrama, which has its own kind of attraction, though it seems excessive to me, and the thin anthem “We are the Children of the World,” a kind of generational marching song, which nonetheless is an interesting idea, and Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” which Ross turns into a fervent prayer, full of care and painful knowing: “May your hands always be busy, may your feet always be swift, and may you have a strong foundation, when the winds change and shift. May your heart always be joyful, may your song always be sung, and may you stay forever young.” (I usually hear the line as “may your soul always be sung,” and that line, like most of the song’s lyrics, asks for the improbable: what is always in a single human life?)

Although Greatest Hits: The RCA Years, released in 1997, ten years after Ross left RCA, leaves out songs both popular and good, and has liner notes that are flawed in both fact and tone (misattribution of a songwriter credit for “I Am Me,” and a tone that is gossipy in some of its allusions, to name instances), it’s not a bad sampling of Ross’s RCA work: it contains “Chain Reaction,” and the art song “Summertime” by Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson, “Muscles,” and the sweetly, spiritually uplifting “It’s Never Too Late,” “Experience,” the real world scenario of dating-scene betrayal in “Love or Loneliness,” “Missing You,” the charming “Selfish One,” “Tell Me Again,” “Let’s Go Up,” the mythic-sounding “Mirror, Mirror” in which a mahogany Cinderella considers the Dorian Gray aspects of her existence, “In Your Arms,” “Being In Love with You (I Love),” and the seductive, dramatic, and danceable “Swept Away,” the gracefully gorgeous (and gorgeously graceful) “It’s Hard for Me to Say,” which Luther Vandross produced (he told The New York Times Magazine he thought Ross’s voice sounded magnificent), and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” “Cross My Heart,” and Ross’s desperately hurting solo version of “Endless Love.”

(Ross’s duet with Lionel Richie on “Endless Love,” recorded for the film Endless Love based on Scott Spencer’s book, was one of the last songs she recorded on Motown, and it sounded like a marriage vow. Her solo version was one of the first songs she recorded for RCA, and it sounds like an elegy for lost love—and, though it’s pure conjecture, I always imagined the unspoken dedication of Ross’s performance was for her longtime partner and intimate friend Berry Gordy and Motown Records. However, Ross told David Nathan in a Billboard magazine interview in 1993 that around the time she left Motown she was also dealing with the end of her marriage to music group manager Bob Silberstein and felt as if she had left two families. Ross also mentions that she and the Supremes auditioned for Motown in the early days with the songs “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” and “There Goes My Baby”—and the former is on Ross’s first RCA recording and the latter is on Ross’s last RCA recording, Red Hot Rhythm and Blues.)

Several of the songs on Greatest Hits: The RCA Years (“Selfish One” and “Cross My Heart”) are from Red Hot Rhythm and Blues, on which one can hear the jazz roots of rhythm and blues in some of the songs, and an album it took me about fifteen years to grow to like. I had found the television special of the same name, inspired by the album, more interesting—Ross’s television guests were Billy Dee Williams, Little Richard, Etta James, Bernadette Peters, and the rapper LL Cool J, Ladies Love Cool James. The special included the acting out of a dramatic scenario in which a black woman singer’s work is given to a white singer to sell to a wide or white audience, a reenactment of the racial segregation and the “cover” song industry of the 1950s. While I had liked several songs on the album—“Summertime” and “It’s Hard for Me to Say”—I had found the album rather bland, until I began to pay more attention to Ross’s singing: and that seemed immensely sensuous and joyful, really expressive: previously I wasn’t listening for happiness and so I had not heard it. (The album was released a year after Ross’s wedding to Arne Naess, a ship-owner and mountain climber. Some of the photographs from Ross’s wedding had appeared in the February 17, 1986 People magazine.)

"I’m in the world. Though odds don’t break even, I’ll take my chances…"

Diana Ross returned to Motown as an equity partner in the company’s ownership, and worked with producer Nile Rodgers on Workin’ Overtime (1989). Among its ten songs are “Take the Bitter with the Sweet,” “Bottom Line,” and a look at escapism in “Keep On (Dancin’),” an encouragement of social participation in “What Can One Person Do,” and the title song (by Nile Rodgers and Christopher Max) with the lines, “Boy, I found the way to raise the level of my self-esteem when I was just a girl. I learned how to say, I will be proud, I see a me that will always achieve. One idea can last forever—and here’s the only way that I can prove it, by workin’ overtime.” Ross had a “quiet” decade in the 1990s after returning to Motown Records—and her quiet decade included three studio albums (The Force Behind the Power, Take Me Higher, Every Day is A New Day), two live records (Stolen Moments, with jazz musicians Ben Sidran, Jon Faddis, Ron Carter, Roy Hargrove, and Billie Holiday’s pianist Bobby Tucker, and Christmas in Vienna, with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras), a career retrospective box set, a dance remix album, a book of memoirs, and two television films.

“When I sing a song, I try to take the frills off, because I like the melodic sound of the music, a note, an instrument. I like it when it’s just about the notes, not the dance around the notes,” said Diana Ross to Jill Nelson (USA Weekend, June 21-23, 1991, p. 5, in New York’s Daily News), before the release of The Force Behind the Power (1991). (Ain’t no sense in playing a hundred notes if one will do, said Louis Armstrong.) The Force Behind the Power had “A Change of Heart,” with a combination of reggae and rock rhythms, and “Battlefield,” another song in the Supremes mold, the kind of thing certain Ross producers love to do, and the kind of thing that proves once more who the essential Supreme was and always will be. Stevie Wonder’s “Blame It on the Sun,” along with some ballads, a dance song, “You’re Gonna Love It,” and a song of environmental interest, “Heavy Weather,” were also part of the album’s program.

Ben Sidran in his memoirs, A Life in the Music, spoke about the casual camaraderie Ross shared with the jazz musicians while preparing for “The Lady Sings…Jazz and Blues” concert that became Stolen Moments. (When jazz tenor saxophonist Benny Golson was asked in December 2000 by AllAboutJazz.com’s Paula Edelstein, “Whom have you most enjoyed working with throughout your career?” He answered, “There have been many but strangely enough, the first two that I think of are singers! One is Diana Ross who is a consummate professional and the other is Peggy Lee. Diana Ross is remarkable. She is the same woman today that I met 30 years ago.”)

“I really live a lot less fancy than people imagine. They somehow think that I live in a glass house, but they are forgetting that I am a mother. When you have children, you have dirty carpets, torn-up sofas, and empty walls. I even tape things up around the house, like important messages to myself. I would say that my home feels more like a cozy, loving, living space than anything else,” wrote Ross in her memoirs, Secrets of a Sparrow (p. 21), adding, “I am a private person living a public life.”

“Diana Ross remains the mystery wrapped in an enigma that she has always been. Is it possible that the spiritually glowing and uplifted person in Secrets of a Sparrow is the same Diana we’ve been told for years is a selfish, pathologically ruthless diva? Why not? I’ve always felt she’s taken a bum rap for her ambition and her devotion to career and image. Here’s what I know—Diana has raised three beautiful daughters, none of whom has ever been in the slightest trouble, and she is raising two adorable boys, conceived relatively late in life. This says something rather positive about Diana as a human being—certainly as a parent,” wrote Liz Smith in the Newsday column (“How Diana Sees Diana”) she devoted to Ross’s book, around the time of its publication in 1993. Smith has observed singers, actors, writers, and politicians for decades, Ross among them. In the book Ross writes about her childhood, family, career, and philosophy of self and life, but the book is not a summing up but a status report: she is still growing.

Starring as a schizophrenic medical student in Out of Darkness (1994), a television film, Ross received some of the strongest reviews of her career: TV Guide said, “Diana Ross gives a bravura but admirably restrained performance as a schizophrenic trying to regain her sanity, her self and her ‘wasted life’ with a new drug. It’s easy for such films to gush, but this one doesn’t because Ross has the courage to sometimes be unsympathetic, even scary.” (TV Guide, Jan-15-21, 1994, page 43) She does some serious emoting that deserves to be taken seriously, said Terry Kelleher in New York’s Newsday. The actor Craig Chester was contracted for a small part in the movie, and in his book about his career (Why The Long Face?) wrote about working with Ross—he noted that she was concerned the film not be exploitive of the mentally ill, and added that she was pleasant to work with, the last being the same thing her co-star Carl Lumbly said when asked by TV Guide. About the subject of the film, schizophrenia, Ross told Newsday’s Diane Werts (Newsday, January 14, 1994) and other journalists, “I had always thought it was multiple personalities. In researching the role, I found that it is quite a few different illnesses in one.” Ross received a Golden Globe nomination for her acting in Out of Darkness.

“One day I’m going to look up all the things I used to say that I wanted, because I think I’ve probably got them all,” said Ross to Sharon Davis in the magazine Attitude. (Attitude, Vol. 1, No. 5, 1994, p. 48)

Ross released Take Me Higher in 1995, with two great ballads, “Gone” and “I Thought That We Were Still in Love,” and various romantic and inspirational songs and a couple of dance songs; and it is a collection of elegance, intelligence, sensitivity, sensuality, taste, and social awareness, a mature work, and a fitting addition to her best work: it confirms Ross as a singular talent who has evolved her own sensibility and standards, not radical or transgressive, but singular. (I sometimes joke that Luther Vandross is the Henry James of black popular music and that he introduced a new consciousness and emotional tone; and if that is so, Ross may be the Edith Wharton.) “Inspirational songs” are one way Ross has found to convey what she has learned, and while the concept may make some snort in derision, it’s easier to nurture a life on hope and intelligence than wallowing in the mud of alienation, dread, and malice: volatile emotions can produce startling and exciting work, even necessary reflections, but they are of less practical use.

Diana Ross performed in Moscow’s Kremlin Palace in the summer of 1985. Her August 1995 show at Jones Beach in New York received approving comments from New York’s Daily News: “For over 90 minutes and through four costume changes, the Supreme-turned-superdiva mixed old-fashioned showbiz glitz with a breathless energy that most rockers in her age group would envy….Ross managed to give a delightful, even touching performance. For one thing, her unique soprano had retained all its fragile, feather-light loveliness; on ballads like ‘Missing You’ and ‘Theme from Mahogany,’ she caressed the lyrics with more warmth and intuition than most singers with voices twice her size could manage.” (Elyssa Gardner, Daily News, August 21, 1995, p. 27)

After Ross performed at Radio City Music Hall in October 1995, Elisabeth Vincentelli wrote in the October 16 edition of Newsday (under the headline “Diana Ross—She’s Still Supreme,” page B7), “A good number of the songs Diana Ross has performed over the past 32 years are deeply embedded in the American psyche,” while The New York Times’s Neil Strauss said, “The scope of her appeal was demonstrated during ‘Upside Down,’ when audience members of all different ages and races jumped onstage to dance with the self-possessed star.” (“Pop Review,” The New York Times, October 16, 1995)

"I’m here—and I won’t apologize. Maybe at the end, there’ll be a surprise—oh, yeah, ‘cause I’m in the world, good or bad, I’m in the world."

In late 1995 Ross, a board member of A Better Chance, which supports gifted youths, received the President’s Award of the New York Coalition of 100 Black Women, a group that provides mentoring and scholarships for young blacks and advocates on behalf of black women. (The group’s president was Robin Bell-Stevens.)

It seemed possible that Ross’s Take Me Higher would find its way onto a lot of year-end “best music” lists, along with recordings by Annie Lennox, P.J. Harvey, Ani Difranco, and diverse others, but what happened with Newsday may be a symptom of the popular music critical establishment: Newsday’s year-end list of noteworthy records consisted entirely of recordings by middle-age white men, a list compiled by—a middle-age white man. Several recent books deal with lingering gender and race bias in popular music criticism, including Pop Music and The Press, edited by Steve Jones (Temple Univ. Press, 2002) and Rock on the Edge: Transformations in Popular Music Culture, edited by Roger Beebe, Denise Fulbrook, and Ben Saunders (Duke Univ. Press, 2002), the kind of bias that affects how the “canon” of popular music is understood: who has cultural authority and who is allowed to embody and signify value?

Nonetheless, the same year as Take Me Higher’s release in 1995, CMJ New Music Report raved about a reissue of Supremes music, Diana Ross & The Supremes: Anthology, declaring, “Without a doubt, Diana Ross has one of the most memorable and recognizable voices in music history, and this body of music is some of the most treasured in the Motown vaults.” (Glen Sansone, CMJ New Music Report, Issue 449, October 30, 1995, www.cmj.com, accessed on November 7, 2002)

Diana Ross performed in 1996 at football’s Super Bowl XXX (30th anniversary) game, a performance The New York Times described as a “spectacular half time show.” (“On Pro Football,” by Timothy W. Smith, The New York Times, January 29, 1996)

Ross, who had traveled to Africa, Asia, Israel, and South America, and who had written in Secrets of a Sparrow (p. 131), “I have been all over Europe, and almost all of it feels good, whether it’s Germany, England, Italy, or, especially, France,” received a World Music Award for lifetime achievement in 1996.

“I’m pretty satisfied with who I am, and I think that shows,” said Ross to Jill Hamilton of Rolling Stone, as part of Ross’s comments about self-esteem, femininity, sexuality, and music for the magazine’s 30th anniversary issue devoted to women performers, the kind of issue that some observers think may be as much a segregation of women’s talents as a celebration. (Rolling Stone, November 13, 1997, p. 130) In the same two-page article (one page photo, one page text), Ross also told Hamilton, “I sing all the time. Music is part of my being. Like when I’m walking, I walk with a rhythm. I carry myself as if there’s music inside. I can be on an elevator and I might hum a song or sing something, and someone might get off the elevator and say, ‘Thanks for the concert.’ And I don’t even realize I’m humming.”

Diana Ross hosted the television special “Motown 40: The Music is Forever,” a look at the record company and its artists—Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and others—in February 1998. (Although Motown had gone through three or four presidents in about a decade, which probably paralyzed the company’s operational effectiveness, making it difficult to promote even artists like Ross, its legacy remained celebrated.) Later that year, a gracious Whitney Houston presented Diana Ross with the Songwriters Hall of Fame Hitmaker Award on June 10, 1998; and, reportedly, Houston performed a Diana Ross song medley during Houston’s summer 1998 European tour. Vanity Fair’s special report in its November 1998 issue on America’s most influential women, a list of two-hundred, featured Diana Ross on a page with Madonna, Patti Smith, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Whitney Houston, and Barbra Streisand. The note about Ross said that she was planning a musical with Brandy Norwood.

Over the years various film projects have been discussed for Diana Ross: she was apparently offered in the 1970s A Star is Born and The Bodyguard, with the first later made starring Streisand in 1976 and the second starring Whitney Houston in 1992, and there was speculation that Ross might play Stephanie St. Clair, a Harlem “numbers” queen, later played by Cicely Tyson in a film called Hoodlum (1997); and in the 1980s Ross, without success, wanted to make a film about Josephine Baker, someone she had impersonated, along with impersonations of Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith, utilizing Stan Winston’s great makeup, as part of her late 1970s television special “An Evening with Diana Ross” (adapted from her stage show, which was issued as a vinyl and tape recording), but it was Lynn Whitfield who starred as Baker in a television film (The Josephine Baker Story, 1991) to great acclaim; and in the 1990s there was talk that Ross would star in a remake of the French thriller Diva (1981) and might do a musical remake of All About Eve or a Paris-based film about the woman jazz trumpeter Valaida Snow (1903-1956), known to some as “Queen of the Trumpet,” who worked in New York, London and Europe, Russia, China and the Far East, and spent time in a Nazi prison. Ross did make Double Platinum, a television musical film in 1999 with singer and television comic actress Brandy Norwood, a film about a mother who abandons her daughter to have a music career (which Ross’s daughter Rhonda has said was just the opposite of her mother’s story). Time magazine’s Christopher John Farley wrote, “Platinum is a sweet, glamorous indulgence—like eating fancy chocolates before bedtime. Ross’s achingly good performance gives the movie an emotional core.” (Time, May 17, 1999, page 84) The songs that Ross performed in the film were from her album Every Day Is A New Day, about which music journalist David Nathan (Soulful Divas) said, “This fine album is a testament to Ross’s own ability to come back with music that is palatable for her hardcore fans and for new listeners who will become even more aware of her talent as a result of the movie with Brandy.” (David Nathan, May 4, 1999, accessed on January 28, 2002). USA Today (May 14, 1999) awarded the album two and a half stars out of four, and Q magazine, a British publication, awarded the album three stars out of five (Q, December 1999, p. 144).

However, many of the songs on Every Day were love-gone-wrong songs, a selection that became easy to understand in light of the surprising and profoundly unsettling break-up of Ross’s marriage to Arne Naess the same year, something that would cast a shadow over her life for several years to come.

"Through the mirror of my mind, time after time, I see reflections of you and me, reflections of the way life used to be, reflections of the love you took from me."

In an interview with a CNN entertainment news correspondent not long after her marriage separation was announced, Ross was asked about where she was in her life and she said, “I’m not sure. I’m really not sure. I think we go through peaks and valleys in our lifetime and I’m in one of those valley times, you know. But right now, I gotta take a deep breath, take one step at a time and figure out what I want to do.” (“Ain’t No Valley Low Enough,” Michael Okwu, CNN.com, May 14, 1999)

Ross had stated in her memoirs Secrets of a Sparrow, “As long as you have goals and ambition, your spirit is alive and your energy still flows” (p. 208), and in the year 2000 Ross began to participate again in various high profile events, such as a VH1 television tribute to her career, an event at which a wide range of celebrities, including Angela Bassett (Boesman and Lena, Strange Days, What’s Love Got to Do with It), Mariah Carey, Destiny’s Child, Donna Summer, and Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry), paid homage to Ross, and Ross performed with former Supremes Lynda Laurence and Scherrie Payne as prelude to a musical tour, “Return to Love.” Ross repeatedly stated to the press that the tour was not intended as a reunion tour but a celebration of the music she had made with the Supremes and alone. Newsday even published a full page list of the extensive changes the Supremes’ line-up has undergone throughout the group’s history in Newsday’s July 2, 2000 issue (“The quintessential girl group has seen more changes than a department store fitting room,” said the paper, something its accompanying illustrations on page D19 gave further proof to.) The press persisted in describing “Return to Love” as a reunion tour and created a controversy over Ross’s performing with Lynda Laurence and Scherrie Payne, rather than with Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, who had refused the millions they had been offered (although neither had a career comparable to Ross’s, nor were they—like Ross—financing the production, they wanted access to tour profits equal to Ross). In New York, the Madison Square Garden show was sold out, and in Detroit, there was an audience of 10,000 to see the show. Writing about one of the shows, this one at the Ice Palace for an audience of 5,000 in Tampa, Florida, the June 26, 2000 St. Petersburg Times’ Gina Vivinetto said:

Accompanied by a full-piece orchestra, backing band, three additional back up singers, 10 dancers and a video screen depicting famous images of the 1960s, Ross still managed to steal the show. How? With charisma and costumes, including one floor-length yellow feathered boa that made her look like Sesame Street’s Big Bird, only far more fabulous and sexy. Ross’s voice, too, still has plenty of oomph, despite her lamenting about singing the tunes in their original key.

Controversy continued to be encouraged by press reports, written by people who did not remember Florence Ballard’s large toneless voice or her one solo album that almost no one bought, people who had no idea what Mary Wilson or Cindy Birdsong’s voices sounded like (and who never bothered to review Wilson’s live performances or few studio recordings: a negligence that has allowed Wilson, a woman with little talent and no shame, to develop a substitute career complaining about how others have subverted her ambitions. Other than these complaints, the equivalent of character assassination, Wilson’s obscurity has been such that when she was in a vehicular accident that ended in her son’s death it not only raised no headlines, it raised no eyebrows). Lynda Laurence and Scherrie Payne, according to critics attending their performances, have good voices and are worth hearing. Scherrie Payne said to internet journalist Gary Graff, “I think so many people were under the impression it was a reunion tour, and it was never a reunion tour. It was Diana’s tour, and they were going to do a Supremes segment.” (Yahoo’s Wall of Sound News, internet accessed January 28, 2002) Payne added about Ross, “She’s just been absolutely wonderful. She’s extended herself and has been absolutely wonderful, kind, generous, caring, concerned, supportive.” Tour sales could not be sustained, and the tour was cut short.

"I’m all alone now, no love to shield me, trapped in a world that’s a distorted reality."

Diana Ross performed before President Clinton and his wife Hillary in August 2000 at a Democratic Party fundraiser. Her films Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany were shown at the Screening Room in Manhattan as part of a Billy Dee Williams salute in January 2001. Ross attended a Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute gala in April 2001 (a photograph of Ross in a gold dress and elaborate hat appeared in many publications). She presented a fashion industry award to her longtime designer Bob Mackie in June 2001. Diana Ross sang “God Bless America” on September 8, 2001 at the U.S. Open women’s tennis singles championship match featuring the Williams sisters Venus and Serena, and performed the song again on September 21, 2001 at the first Mets game at New York’s Shea Stadium after the September 11, 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. In November 2001, EMI released Love & Life: The Very Best of Diana Ross in England, an anthology that included work from her solo and Supremes years, her times at both Motown and RCA. A May 2002 Barbara Walters television special focusing on mothers featured Diana Ross and the three girls she reared with Bob Silberstein, now adults, and the two boys she had after her marriage to Arne Naess, just as several years before a May 1999 issue of Life magazine focusing on mothers included a photograph of Ross and her daughters. All of these activities are respectable, but little of it is sustained work—these are mostly special events rather than the kind of ongoing work from which artists and individuals usually draw sustenance; and not long after the televised special on motherhood, there was unexpected speculation in various publications about Ross’s happiness and health when she entered a private treatment facility for a brief stay before she was scheduled to begin a small European tour: was this stay due to depression, or a dependence on a chemical substance? (People, June 17, 2002) Ross performed well-received concert dates in Europe and performed for more than 50,000 people in London’s Hyde Park for Prince Charles’s Picnic in the Park to raise funds for his charity, Prince’s Trust, in June 2002. On October 26, 2002, she acted as honorary chair for the 9th annual Dream Halloween event in Santa Monica, California, benefiting Children Affected by AIDS.

"Yes, I’m here, I’m in the world. I’m here, I’m here, I’m in the world."

Diana Ross: Going Back, a portfolio of photographs of Ross taken by some of the most important photographers ever, was published by Rizzoli in November 2002. Publishers Weekly said the main lure of the book was page after page of stunning photographs from Herb Ritts, Harry Langdon, Richard Avedon, George Hurrell, Greg Gorman, Francesco Scavullo, Douglas Kirkland, and Marc Baptiste. I like many of the photographs, especially the pictures by Victor Skrebneski of Ross from the 1970s (some of them, apparently from Skrebneski’s “black turtleneck series” of famous artists, bring to mind Garbo; and I like those from the photo session for Baby It’s Me). I like those of Ross in the 1980s by both Peter Strongwater, whose photographs—especially one with Ross and a chair and what may be a long microphone, all against white space—have an arty, modern look, and Herb Ritts (Ritts’ are nearly glamorous to the point of “camp”). Michael Comte’s early 1990s photographs show Ross as both fierce and serene, and Ruven Afanador’s pictures of Ross in Alabama in the mid-1990s are fascinating. However, I think that Ross’s augmenting the photos with her comments was an important gesture, an affirmation of her mind and spirit, a movement beyond image: “Languaging my life is part of living true to myself, staying on course, being whole. Daily, moment to moment, I strive to use words I want associated with my life. Magic, love, beauty, truth, laughter, clarity, strength, joy, purpose.” (pgs. 26 and 27) “I don’t borrow trouble. I have fun.” (p. 55) “I hope I have given my children a sense of place, a sense of who they are in the world.” (p. 112) “I don’t like labels, but I care about knowing who I am. And who I’m not.” (p. 114)

"Happiness you took from me, and left me alone with old memories. Through the mirror of my mind, through these tears that I’m crying, reflects the hurt I can’t control, ‘cause although you’re gone, I keep holding on to the happy time when you were mine."

When Ross, who had been driving in Arizona one late December night in 2002, approached a police car to ask for directions, one of the policemen in the car thought she might be intoxicated, and when the policemen realized who she was one of them began filming the encounter. The encounter received a lot of press attention, some talk, and anticipation of the video being made public. Joan Smith of Salon wrote, “It used to be that having your name in the paper or seeing your picture flashed on TV news was punishment enough for being a VIP in trouble with the law. Now we have journalism as extreme humiliation.” (Salon.com, January 16, 2003) Soon the video was released. In the January 24, 2003 Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Journal, Eric Gibson wrote, “I never thought I’d feel sorry for a celebrity. But what’s happened to Diana Ross over the past few weeks has left me feeling pity instead of the usual Schadenfreude that comes in response to the travails of the pampered, self-important glitterati. She has been publicly humiliated by Tucson, Ariz.’s police department, its courts and the national media in a way that nobody deserves.” About the video, Gibson said, “Truth to tell, there’s not much to see—at least not if you’re looking for something sensational. For one thing, the production values are pretty primitive. The film is dark, harshly lit (flashlights, headlights and the camera’s light provide uneven, high-contrast illumination). And if you didn’t know that the figure making her way unsteadily from one side of the police car to the other, in an apparent effort to get warm, was Diana Ross, you’d never guess it from the tape.” He added, “Still, there’s a sense of violation that comes from watching it that one didn’t feel, say, when the Winona Ryder security-camera tapes were aired during her shoplifting trial. Miss Ross was a person who had clearly lost control of herself. Shining a spotlight on her under those circumstances is an act of mockery, nothing more. As Joan Smith put it sarcastically in Salon last week, the media’s determination to have access to the video ‘makes you proud to be a journalist.’ ” (WSJ.com, Opinion Journal , January 24, 2003)

We are all just one bad decision away from disaster, said Diana Ross’s daughter Rhonda, when receiving a Pioneer Award for the Supremes from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation on February 20, 2003. Diana Ross had been named an honoree at a January 29th We Are Family Foundation Benefit at The China Club in New York, but Ross had not attended that event either. The We Are Family foundation was begun after the World Trade Center attack to promote the idea of a common humanity, of a global family, with Nile Rodgers as one of the organizers. Ross had appeared in the September 22, 2001 musical video remake of the song “We Are Family,” with Nile Rodgers producing the music and Spike Lee directing the video of two-hundred performers, including Patti Labelle, Roberta Flack, Angelique Kidjo, the Pointer Sisters, Darius Rucker, Phoebe Snow, Angie Stone, Luther Vandross, Dionne Warwick, and the song’s original singers Sister Sledge, as well as actors such as Milla Jovovich and Rick Yune and the artist Francesco Clemente, who would create and donate an artwork to the foundation, a watercolor of hands reaching toward a bright light. Ross producers Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson were among the scheduled performers for the We Are Family benefit. The eccentric, friendly, and intense Patti Labelle (It’s Alright with Me, Winner in You, Gems) sang in tribute to Ross there, as she had in a 1995 televised “Soul Train” music special, proving herself once more a very generous performer. To say thanks to those gathered Ross called in to the party, which was attended by Time Warner chairman-CEO Richard Parsons, one of the most powerful men in the American communications industry and an African-American.

“When I fell and lost my crown, you still embraced me, and I’m here,” said Diana Ross to a welcoming audience: Diana Ross and Muhammad Ali were both recipients of lifetime achievement awards from the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters on March 27, 2003 in Washington D.C., as part of the group’s 19th annual dinner. Audra McDonald and James Todd Smith, otherwise known as LL Cool J, like Ali, were also in attendance, but, according to The Washington Post, “the emotional high point was the presentation to Ross.” Berry Gordy described the first time he saw her, “Every movement said, ‘I am a star.’ ” Ross received several standing ovations and the crowd celebrated her recent birthday by singing “Happy Birthday” to her. (Roxanne Roberts, “Black Broadcasters’ Gem of a Party,” The Washington Post, March 28, 2003, page C01)

It must have been interesting to have Ross and Muhammad Ali in the same room again. Ross, who had seen some of Ali’s fights, had appeared in the early 1990s on a television program devoted to Ali and had performed then with the Boys Choir of Harlem, with Whitney Houston and others also featured; and Ali had been Ross’s guest when she hosted Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” in 1979. Entertainment commentator Donald Bogle (author of the important book Toms, coons, mulattoes, mammies, and bucks : an interpretive history of Blacks in American films, 1973) once wrote that for some people there had been always something a bit unreal about Ali and Ross; and I imagine their confidence and consistent competence and lack of obvious vulnerability had something to do with that. (Perhaps Beyonce Knowles and Tiger Woods are perceived similarly now.) Muhammad Ali, formerly Cassius Clay and the self-proclaimed “greatest” boxer of all time, like Ross, knew success early, having been a six-time Kentucky Golden Gloves champion and a two-time National Golden Gloves champion before he was 18 and an Olympic Gold Medal winner soon after. He would live to have his fight strategies become famous—dancing or the Ali Shuffle, and the (punch-taking, opponent tiring) Rope-A-Dope, among them—and he would win the boxing heavyweight championship three times. Controversial not only for his wittily outspoken pride but for his moral and political stances—for becoming a Muslim, and refusing his Armed Services induction, saying he had no quarrel with the Vietcong, and that no Vietcong had ever called him nigger—he has been an independent figure who has sometimes inspired great rage; and ultimately respect and love. Ali’s development of Parkinson’s disease has given him an air of fragility he never had before, just as Ross’s recent trouble provided a different view of her. Are they more likable now? Who benefits when greatness or goodness is hurt? There are tragic aspects to such examples—not negative or damning or doomed but tragic, as tragedy requires not a victim or a villain but a hero, someone of character, someone strong. Billie Holiday and boxer Mike Tyson are both, in their different ways, pathetic, but Ali and Ross are not: a tragic figure does not cultivate weakness, but has a vulnerability he or she does not anticipate or understand, a vulnerability that goes against what the individual takes to be his or her nature and purpose. (In Time Inc.’s People/VH1 200 Greatest Pop Culture Icons, a book for collectors released in 2003, Ross would be quoted on page 27 as saying, “My children love me. My fans love me. If things aren’t perfect, I should be able to deal with that.”) Ali and Ross were recipients of life achievement awards from the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters as the group recognized their fundamental nature, purpose, and value.

The Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute gala has always been an attention-getter, and some consider it the society event of the year, a time when the wealthy, the cultured, the powerful, and members of the media converge. In 2003, Diana Ross, who had inspired the fall 2003 collection (shown March 2003 in Paris) of clothing designer Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent, was guest of honor and performer for the April 28 museum gala. The party had a “goddess” theme that was connected to the premiere exhibit that looked at the influence of the ancient Greek and Roman world on fashion. (The concept of gods and goddesses in the ancient world was not of perfect beings, as often these immortals had very human passions, including lust, jealously and rage, but they were beings with great gifts, great powers.) The gala’s participants included Nicole Kidman, Adrien Brody, Anna Wintour, Tom Ford, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Vera Wang, C.Z. Guest, Sean Combs, Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Campbell, and David Bowie and his wife Iman. Style.com, the online web site of Vogue and W magazines, covered the event and said, “On this night of a thousand gowns (from Aerin Lauder’s gold, jeweled one-of-a-kind Ralph Lauren halter to Anh Duong’s coral, coin-lined Gaultier couture), one dress perhaps stood out—the red-tiered, silk chiffon tour de force Tom Ford had created for guest of honor Diana Ross.” (Dirk Standen, “Heavens Above,” Style.com, April 29, 2003) The New York Times said, “There was no main table, but one had two Oscar winners. It was where Mr. Ford sat with Ms. Kidman, Mr. Brody, Diana Ross, Richard Buckley, and Eric Eisner and his wife, Lisa, who live in Los Angeles and are friendly with a lot of movie people.” (Cathy Horyn, “At Met Gala, Goddesses Just Want to Have Fun,” The New York Times, April 29, 2003, accessed via on May 1, 2003) Entertainment reporter Liz Smith wrote in her column, “Diana was the deluxe dinner entertainment at the Costume Institute gala, and was her glorious ‘60s/’70s self. She looked divine and belted out a retinue of songs, finishing up with everybody’s favorite comeback anthem, ‘I Will Survive’! And it does look as if she will.” (Newsday, accessed on the web May 1, 2003)

A classical people deserve a classical art, Lorraine Hansberry was quoted as saying years ago by Freedomways magazine. The term classical is usually thought to mean the most artistically developed in a culture’s history, the authoritative standard, of the first or highest rank, the excellent and the refined; and it is often used to describe ancient Greek and Roman culture, and European music of the 18th and 19th centuries, but it is also used to describe certain periods in Egyptian and Chinese history and that of other cultures as well. Are Americans a classical people? Are African-Americans? African-American history, which goes back to Africa, and is the history of Ethiopia and Egypt, Ghana, Mali, and Senegal, and other African countries, before and after the facts of exploitation, slavery, the forced transport of hundreds of thousands to western shores, and colonialism. The subsequent trials and tribulations historical, social, philosophical, and personal—brutality, lynching and murder, discrimination in jobs, housing, education, health care, and elections—created for most a common though not always dependable bond. African-Americans petitioned, filed lawsuits, led demonstrations with placards, marched on Washington, sat in at lunch counters that prohibited them service, challenged exclusionary voting, ran candidates for office, organized economic boycotts, and found various ways to speak truth to power—to protest and improve their treatment; and usually changes that improved African-American lives improved all American lives. However, African-Americans are not always sympathetic to the troubles of others—and sometimes resent the attention given women, Jews, gays, and immigrants. The unfulfilled dreams and regrets of African-Americans can be heard in songs (are songs the earliest art known to men?). The spirituals or “sorrow” songs were celebrated and explicated by the great W.E.B. DuBois, and later Ralph Ellison celebrated jazz music as uniquely American, dependent on both individuality and community. There was, and is, also blues, soul, funk—but songs are not the only legacy: African-Americans have created and evolved, out of the rigors of experience and the expressiveness of sensibility, spiritual beliefs and coded forms of English, particular styles of cuisine, dress, and manners. African-Americans are a people shaped by history—haunted by history, proud of history, and shamed by history; a people inspired by possibility, looking to self and society, looking to laws and money, looking to pleasure and spirituality, looking to tomorrow, for affirmation, redemption, and transformation.

A classical people deserve a classical art. Are Americans a classical people? Are African-Americans? Who are the classical artists of the land below Canada and above Mexico? Are they only to be found in opera houses and at philharmonic concerts? Zarin Mehta, the executive director of the New York Philharmonic was quoted in the July 27, 2003 issue of The New York Times Magazine as saying, “I happen to enjoy Ella Fitzgerald. That surprises some people. But I don’t consider Ella Fitzgerald pop. I don’t consider Frank Sinatra and Lena Horne pop. To me, they’re classical artists.” (The New York Times Magazine, July 27, 2003, page 20) While judgments regarding singers vary (music composer and fiction writer Paul Bowles once referred to Ella Fitzgerald’s expressive little voice, Ethel Waters said Billie Holiday sounded as if her shoes were too tight, and Pauline Kael wrote that Aretha Franklin made hysteria sound like a state of grace), conductor and composer Michael Tilson Thomas also has spoken about the connections between traditional European classical music and western popular music, noting that he could hear old European song forms in the Beatles and in aspects of contemporary songs, and specifying his own appreciation for the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro. Is it possible also to consider as classical artists—as authoritative, as excellent, as artists of the first rank—the painters Edward Bannister, Henry Tanner, and Eldzier Cortor, sculptor Augusta Savage, composers William Grant Still, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and Anthony Braxton, musicians Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, and David Murray, musicians Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield, singers Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman, singers Aretha Franklin and Cassandra Wilson, dancers Alvin Ailey, Arthur Mitchell, and Bill T. Jones, writers Ralph Ellison, Percival Everett, Toni Morrison, and John A. Williams, and filmmakers Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Wendell Harris, Charles Lane, and Kasi Lemmons? I imagine that one indication of whether we are a classical people is to what extent we keep in mind our classical artists: do we appreciate their work; and does it influence us? The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz has written and spoken about Cuban cigar factory workers who hired lectors to read Shakespeare, Cervantes, and other writers to them while they worked; and baritone opera singer Dmitri Hvorostovsky has spoken about performing for Russian factory workers during their lunch hour and seeing their tears after his performance—and these are two instances of genuine appreciation for art, but so is Ralph Ellison’s father telling his friends, I’m raising this boy to be a poet. Being civilized is not any more natural than being an artist: to be either is to be cultivated, to be transformed; and there are forces working against this cultivation, both outside of us and within us, though artists usually hunger for this cultivation more than others.

Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Lena Horne are some of Diana Ross’s antecedents; and so are Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Sam Cooke, and Etta James, artists whose works have been accessible, popular, and worthy of respect. Diana Ross has acknowledged many of these artists in her own musical, film, and television work.

Diana Ross is an artist in whose work there is light and logic, qualities which throw into relief darkness and chaos, so that when they do appear in her work or in contrast to her work their power is easier to measure. She is an artist whose work is so abundant it can be analyzed in terms of multiple forms—the jazz of Stolen Moments; the rhythm and blues of Diana Ross and the Supremes Join the Temptations and Baby It’s Me; the country/western songs of The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop and Ross’s solo performances of “Last Time I Saw Him,” “Behind Closed Doors,” “Sorry Doesn’t Always Make It Right,” and The Force Behind the Power’s “Waiting in the Wings”; and the rapid beat dance songs of “Love Hangover” and The Boss and 1980’s Diana; and the European classical musical influences that can be heard not only in “Touch Me in the Morning” but also “I Thought It Took a Little Time” and “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” and many others songs; and there are Ross songs that defy category—they are just (good) music. Ross’s work can be discussed in terms of themes: not only love, or self-assertion as in “I’m in the World,” “I’m Coming Out,” and “Carry On,” or even social issues (“Imagine,” “Sleepin’,” “Heavy Weather,” “Hope is an Open Window,”) but children (the songs from Touch Me in the Morning such as “We Need You,” and also later “Have Fun” and “Only Love Can Conquer All”), and spirituality (from “Reach Out and Touch” on her first solo album to Christmas in Vienna’s “Amazing Grace” to Voice of Love’s “In the Ones You Love” to Every Day Is A New Day’s “He Lives in You”), the undependability of friends (“Back in My Arms Again,” “Keep an Eye,” and “No One Gets the Prize”), the appreciation of material things (“It’s My House,” “My Old Piano,” “Summertime,” and “This House”), and even death (“Missing You” and “We’re Always Saying Goodbye”), among the themes. There is tremendous freedom expressed in such a gamut of work, much of which sounds as fresh—as enchanting, as fun, as sensitive, as thoughtful, as unique—as it did the day it was made. Is Ross also an artist whose work might be considered classical?

Or is she, as she is reported to have said during her performance at a jazz festival following the success of the film Lady Sings the Blues, simply a singer of popular music?

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue, Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art& Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 7, Issue 10 / October 2003 Essays black cinema, music