As the lead singer of America's biggest group of the 60s, the Supremes, Diana Ross attained near iconic status. But it was the next two decades as a solo artist, while a critically uneven period, that solidified her place as one of the most popular singers of all time.
Ross debuted as a solo singer in 1970 with the hit "Reach Out And Touch Somebody's Hand" but didn't reach popular expectations until the follow-up single, a dramatic remake of the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell hit "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." It became the first of her many #1 smashes as a solo artist.
Motown head Berry Gordy had aspirations of transforming Motown into a force in cinema, and in 1972 he turned to Ross, with whom he had been romantically involved, to serve as the centerpiece of his initial major movie project, the Billie Holliday biopic Lady Sings the Blues. Though critics were ready to roast Ross for attempting to play the iconic Holliday, she was surprisingly strong both as an actress and singer in the movie, and the film and soundtrack were unadulterated hits. Ross did not attempt to mimic Holliday's singing style on the music, but instead made the songs her own, hitting a high point on her wonderful, poignant version of "Good Morning Heartache." Following the success of the movie, Ross recorded a full album of jazz standards called Blue, but it was shelved by Motown for over thirty years (finally receiving its well deserved release in 2006).
The next three years saw a downward turn in the quality (but not the popularity) of Ross's output, as she covered more pop-oriented, less engaging material, including the treacly "Touch Me in the Morning," "Theme From Mahogany" (from her second movie starring role) and "Last Time I Saw Him." Her lone memorable work through 1975 was an enjoyable album of duets with Marvin Gaye, which included the great single "My Mistake."
The latter 70s saw Ross moving to more dance-oriented music, and the combination of hot beats and her cool, distant delivery was perfect for the disco era. She scored big with "Love Hangover" and Ashford and Simpson's "The Boss," but hit her peak in 1979 working with Chic leader Nile Rogers on Diana, perhaps her finest solo album and the source of two of her greatest singles, the #1 "Upside Down" and the now-classic "I'm Coming Out." The across-the-board success of Diana more than made up for previous year's odd casting as Ross as Dorothy (taking the role perfected on Broadway by Stephanie Mills) in the ill-fated movie version of The Wiz.
Ross finished her relationship with Motown in 1981 with two saccharine ballads, "It's My Turn" and the duet "Endless Love" with Lionel Richie. The latter, while critically suspect, was an absolute smash and paved the way for the beginning of Richie's departure from the Commodores for a solo career.
Flush with a second wave of success, Ross was signed to a huge recording contract with RCA, and unfortunately began a period of creative waste. Over the course of the next half decade Ross released a series of forgettable pop songs such as "Muscles," "All of You' (with Julio Inglesias) and a sanitary cover of Frankie Lyman's "Why Do Fools Fall In Love." The poor quality of her material caught up with her by the mid 80s, and the Marvin Gaye tribute song "Missing You" became her swan song on the major US charts. In the next half decade Ross was unsuccessful in her attempt to revive her career, despite working with such notable artists as the Bee Gees and Luther Vandross.
With her career at its lowest point in nearly three decades, Ross returned to Motown in 1989. She recorded for the label regularly over the next several years but never again had a US hit (though she continued to have moderate success in Europe). She ventured into other musical areas during the 90s, recording new jack, jazz and classical albums, to only modest sales.
An attempt to lead a Supremes reunion tour in 2000 turned into a public relations disaster for Ross, as her substitution of Scherrie Payne and Lynda Laurence for classic Supremes member Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong doomed the reunion tour and ultimately resulted in its cancellation after a few low-selling dates. She remained relatively quiet over the next half decade, occasionally recording and performing live, but no longer playing a relevant role in popular music.
Diana Ross could have retired after her stint with the Supremes and still had a permanent position as soul music royalty. But her stunning physical beauty, her sense of style and her star magnetism made it inevitable that she would ultimately have a solo career. And while that career was of inconsistent quality and with an unfortunate tendency toward safe, pop songs rather than more challenging music, Ross nonetheless enhanced her legendary reputation with wonderful moments here and there and to this day remains a larger than life superstar and one of the most important singers of her generation.
by Chris Rizik
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