Diva Reigns Supreme Well Beyond Motown

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007

Over the years, Diana the Singer has been eclipsed by Diana the Diva, swept away by all that drama, the oversize 'tude, the massive mane, the public palpitating of Lil' Kim's naughty bits. In the midst of the compare-and-contrast speculations surrounding the movie "Dreamgirls," it's easy to forget exactly what made Diana "Who's the Boss" Ross a star: Her big-eyed beauty, her charismatic stage presence -- and her voice, one of pop music's most instantly recognizable.

Those needing a primer on her talents -- and the thrall in which she holds her fans -- need only check out her Central Park concert, circa 1983: A summer storm drenched the increasingly restless crowd, the stage and Ross. She kept on singing, flinging her waterlogged hair, declaring, "The show will not stop." Until, that is, thunder and lightning stopped her. Ross remained onstage, shepherding nearly 400,000 concertgoers calmly out of the park, saying: "We'll come back and do it again tomorrow. . . . I don't want anybody to be hurt . . . I'm going to be here, I won't leave." And the next day, she made good on her promise.

You don't get to be a 12-time-Grammy-nominated chanteuse much loved by drag queens the world over without serving up such supersize moments, a reality of which Ross, one of this year's Kennedy Center honorees, is all too aware. "I'm an icon, or a diva, or a soul sister, or a queen," she told the London Guardian in 2005. "But I don't think you are born an icon."

Perhaps not. But one could argue that you are, indeed, born a diva. (Of this year's five honorees, she alone did not sit for an interview with The Post, despite requests over several months.)

It takes a certain singularity of purpose to propel yourself from Detroit's Brewster projects and into the stratosphere of pop superstardom. At a time of searing social unrest in the 1960s, Ross made being a black woman chic, desirable, hip.

From the very start, when she was a high-schooler singing doo-wop with her fellow Primettes Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Betty McGlown in the late '50s, Ross focused on her career's trajectory, haunting Motown's Detroit studios. In 1961, Motown signed them and the Primettes became the Supremes.

Motown then was a big factory, taking raw, untested talent and polishing it until it gleamed -- coaching its performers on how to dress, hold a fork, conduct an interview. Ross proved to be a willing student.

Florence Ballard, with her big, rich voice, was considered the real singer of the group. But in Ross, Motown founder Berry Gordy saw crossover dollars: softly sweet soprano, body made for the runway. With Ross at the helm, the Supremes, bewigged and belashed, became the epitome of girl-group cool. Between 1964 and 1967, the Supremes had 10 No. 1 hits, thanks to the songwriting skills of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Dozier Jr., including: "Baby Love," "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "You Can't Hurry Love."

"She made Motown Records," says J. Randy Taraborrelli, a longtime Ross biographer. "Berry Gordy said, 'Where Diana Ross goes, so goes Motown.' He understood that she was one of the primary reasons why Motown was able to cross over. Diana Ross took them there."

By 1967, the Supremes had become "Diana Ross and the Supremes." Ballard, struggling with personal problems, left the group; Cindy Birdsong took her place. In 1970, Ross left the Supremes -- but not before recording the group's last hit, "Someday We'll Be Together." (The group tried and failed to reunite in 2000.)

As a solo singer, recording hits like "Reach Out and Touch" and "Touch Me in the Morning," Ross became the most popular female artist of the rock era; she also captivated moviegoers as Billy Holiday in 1972's "Lady Sings the Blues." Some thought that Ross, with her glamazon looks and wispy voice, didn't have the gravitas to play the tormented Holiday. She ended up being nominated for an Oscar. (But she never did win a Grammy.)

Somewhere along the way, Ross and Berry became lovers in what became an open industry secret; they had a daughter together. (She later married and divorced industry publicist Robert Silberstein and then Norwegian businessman Arne Naess.) But Ross was no passive plaything molded by a Svengali-esque Berry Gordy a la Deena Jones in "Dreamgirls." In the '70s, Berry told Soul magazine, "Diana's very shrewd."

In public, he said, she deferred to him as the mentor, but, more often than not, he was the one doing the learning. Ross, he told the magazine, "was the world's worst when she doesn't like something."

She developed a reputation for being a taskmaster, difficult, demanding -- in short, a diva. In 1985, at the taping of the TV special "Motown Returns to the Apollo," Ross, who'd had a concert engagement earlier that night, was helicoptered in to tape the finale. She showed up hours late, commandeered the mike from Patti LaBelle and scolded the musical director, telling him, "You don't know what you're doing."

There has been fodder for tabloids: an arrest at Heathrow Airport for allegedly assaulting a female security guard in 1999 (the charge was dropped); a DUI arrest in 2002 (she pleaded no contest and served two days in jail).

In an era of People magazine confessionals about rehab redemption, Ross, 63, generally keeps quiet about her life. "My life is a soul story," she told the Chicago Tribune in 2004. "I've been exploited so many times. I watch the stories people tell about me. And some of it's true, and some of it's not true. But I just watch."

This year, she recorded a studio album, "I Love You," and embarked on a national tour, including a stint on "American Idol." She has no plans to retire, recently telling the Detroit Free Press: "When I walk into a market or a store, and all of a sudden my record is playing on the sound system . . . it's almost like there's this magical energy in the universe to let you know your voice is still there. . . . I'm still here."

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