Replaying the Record Of a Motown Diva's Life

By Amy Alexander,
whose reviews appear monthly in Style
Tuesday, September 18, 2007


An Unauthorized Biography

by J. Randy Taraborrelli

Citadel. 539 pp. $26.95

While reading J. Randy Taraborrelli's latest biography of Diana Ross, I just had to see again the head-snapping talent and ambition of Miss Ross in her youth. I was one of millions of black Americans who watched, agog, as Ross and the Supremes performed on "The Ed Sullivan Show" during the 1960s. The emergence in the past two decades of a much less elegant form of black pop music has bestowed an especially misty poignancy on those old performances. They are available for viewing, in all their Day-Glo, camel-walking glory, on YouTube.

And thank goodness, too, since Taraborrelli's "Diana Ross" is primarily a paint-by-numbers celebrity dish-fest -- and not even a fresh dish-fest, at that: Much of what makes up "Diana Ross" is a rehash of Taraborrelli's best-selling "Call Her Miss Ross" (1989). That book, in turn, was an update of his "Diana" (1985). "I thought I really knew Diana Ross when I wrote my first two books about her," Taraborrelli explains. "I didn't. As it happened, it took many more years for her to fully reveal herself to me, and only after more painstaking research and contemplation."

The basic outlines of Ross's story are by now familiar: Her middle-class, educated parents, Fred and Ernestine, worked diligently to give their six children pride and clear horizons in the post-World War II, pre-civil-rights-era bustle of Detroit. Fred's decision to move the family into spanking new government-subsidized housing, the Brewster Projects, brought Ross into contact with other young would-be singers and songwriters who flourished in that community of strivers. (The popular image of the Brewster Projects as a "ghetto" was a Motown publicist's fiction.) From the age of 5, Taraborrelli writes, Diana Ross showed an astonishing degree of self-confidence, if not self-awareness, ambition and grit.

Such details are generously rendered and stitch together a tapestry of Ross's early life that is colorful, action-packed and prophetic. But the quantity of Taraborrelli's Ross output does not completely overshadow his lapses in quality: Despite his many years of contact with the star -- he first met her when he was 10 and has interviewed her numerous times -- Taraborrelli delivers "Diana Ross" in hammy, cliche-ridden language more akin to Walter Winchell than a serious biographer. He is fond of self-referential asides such as, "This author had the opportunity to see the Supremes at the [Copacabana nightclub in New York] several times" -- anachronistic language that stalls the action rather than smoothly moving it along.

Still, Taraborrelli's play-by-play accounts of the Supremes' early years -- and of Ross's earliest episodes of bad behavior -- are riveting. These are delivered straightforwardly, with Taraborrelli allowing other figures in Ross's life to comment on whether the instances of acting out represent the core of Ross's character. Along with the better-known diva moments (Ross's compulsive upstaging of fellow Supremes Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard; her early romantic designs on a young, handsome and married Smokey Robinson; her avid pursuit of Motown chief Berry Gordy, 15 years her senior) comes the occasional little-known anecdote worth savoring: "Miss Ross, I'm sorry, but you cannot bring that dog onto the flight," a hapless Western Airlines agent at the Burbank Airport told Ross one hot evening in 1966. "What dog? Why, this is a hatbox with a hat in it," Ross responded. "Well, then, I just heard your hat bark," the agent replied. "What are you saying?" demanded Ross. "Are you saying I'm lying ?" And faster than you can say "Nothing but Heartaches," Ross was in full Diva-with-a-capital-D flower. Joe Schaffner, a Motown road manager and Supremes handler in those early days, picks it up from there: "Before I knew what was happening, Diana took the hatbox and started hitting the agent all upside the head with it -- and the damn dog was still in the box!" Schaffner had to pay off the agent to keep the story quiet.

Of course, that kind of bad behavior became less easy to laugh off -- or buy off -- as the singer aged. The ups and downs of Ross's post-Supremes years are duly noted -- the run-in with the law at Heathrow Airport in London, the drunk-driving arrest, the botched Supremes reunion attempt. Together these sad episodes depict the descent of a pop star who burned exceptionally brightly for a good long time. That her low times are as dramatic as her high times is only fitting. Taraborrelli notes, "Behind the fa┬┐ade of celebrity, Diana Ross had been nothing if not fallible, a human being in search of love and acceptance in a complicated, cutthroat world and making all sorts of mistakes along the way, pretty much like the rest of us."

Hyperbole aside, Ross these days is enjoying a resurgence of sorts: She is to receive the Kennedy Center Honors in December. Recently, from the podium at the 2007 BET Awards (where she received a Lifetime Achievement Award), Ross, now 63, fluffed back her mass of wild curls and chided modern-day rap stars for their boorish, trashy behavior. "Keep it classy," she urged the young pop stars of today. She continued, "We do not have to use the F-word, we do not have to pump and grind, we do not have to do some of these things to have longevity in our career." The little speech drew big applause from the audience, and undoubtedly from millions of parents nationwide. It was a touching, somewhat surreal moment, particularly for those familiar with Ross's own history of acting out. I can't wait to catch it on YouTube.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company