As the 1960s closed, Diana Ross prepared to begin a new chapter, that of a solo artist. Motown chief Berry Gordy was directing her career and had already selected Jean Terrell to replace Ross in the Supremes.
In 1970, Diana Ross, was the first solo album released by Ross after leaving the Supremes. The decade of the 1970s was arguably Ross’ most successful period; I would say even more career-defining than even the Supremes years.
During the decade, Ross enjoyed a successful string of records, her own television special and many other appearances, highly anticipated concert tours, plus branching out into feature films. Ross worked hard at building her solo identity, and building her family life. By the beginning of the 1980s, Ross would have three children, an ex-husband, a long-term ex-lover, and a string of boyfriends, but she would be a very different woman.
Ross was a Motown artist. She recorded for Motown, was managed by Motown, sang what Motown picked for her, performed where Motown arranged for her to sing, and had a multiple-year romantic relationship with Gordy.
In the year she became a solo artist, Ross discovered she was pregnant after being with Gordy, but she went ahead and married another man, who adopted the child. Ross’ career, and life, is forever intertwined with Berry Gordy. It is important to understand her relationship with Motown and Gordy to understand the woman.
Diana Ross is certainly considered a diva and during the 1970s played it for all the term implies. She was a force to be reckoned, driven to succeed, break barriers and racial stereotypes, and establish her own brand. That was not really a term applied to individuals then, but Ross, like Barbra Streisand (who she was often compared), was in a unique position with her talent, popularity and image.
Ross was paired with writer/producers Nick Ashford and Valarie Simpson (Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, 5th Dimension) for her debut solo album. The album photo, taken by the legendary Harry Langdon, showed a very different side of Ross than the more familiar glitzy and glamorous image.
The first single was “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”, followed by the chart-topping “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, previously recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
Later in 1970, Ross dropped another album, Everything is Everything, this time produced by Deke Richards and Hal Davis, two Motown writer/producers who had worked with the Jackson 5. The producers selected several Lennon/McCartney and Bacharach/David songs, along with Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Berry Gordy penned songs. These were less soul and more pop oriented songs, an effort to cross her over to mainstream pop.
Ross starred in her own television special, Diana! (1971) and released the soundtrack. The Jackson 5 were featured, along with Danny Thomas and Bill Cosby.
The ratings for the program were solid and the album sold respectfully for a television soundtrack.
Surrender (1971) Written and produced by Ashford and Simpson, made a respectful showing on the charts. “Remember Me”, “Surrender” and a cover of the Four Tops’ “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” were all top 40 single, but the album failed to have a massive hit.
Lady Sings the Blues Soundtrack (1972) topped the Billboard chart and became her most successful album. The two-disc set includes Ross performances as Billie Holiday, incidental music and some short dialogue scenes. “Good Morning Heartache” was a top 40 charting single.
Lady Sings the Blues film (1972) was Ross’ first starring film role. It earned her good reviews and an Academy Award nomination. The film received mixed reviews, positive for Ross’ performance, but criticized as a flawed and flat biopic, entertaining but not historically accurate. While Ross did not really sound like Holiday, she did share some of the same experiences and challenges, rising from poverty and being a woman of color in trying to break through barriers. The film was produced by Gordy, who financed it with his own money, after a falling out with Paramount, the film’s distributor.
Touch Me in the Morning (1973) The title track became Ross’ first solo number one hit. Most of the album is made up of covers. According to biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, Ross never embraced the song struggled when a new vocal was needed to shorten the song for release as a single.
Diana & Marvin (1973) A difficult album to deliver, in part because Ross was pregnant again, but according to Taraborrelli, Gaye routinely smoked grass during his vocal work and his habit bothered Ross’ breathing, rather important when one is singing. Ross and Haye reportedly recorded most of their vocals separately. “My Mistake” was a top 20 single.
Last Time I Saw Him (1973) “Last Time I Saw Him” was a top 20 hit. The album featured diverse styles, offering something for everyone. The album itself did not wow record buyers, it was a grab bag of styles, momentarily pleasing, but not lasting.
Live at Caesar’s Palace (1974) A mixture of Supremes and solo material. This was an attempt to capture a performance, rather than a set of songs performed live. It disappeared after a short stay on the charts.
Mahogany film (1975) Produced by Berry Gordy and Motown. Starring Ross, Billy Dee Williams and Tony Perkins. Whatever chemistry existed between Ross and Williams in their first picture together, was a struggle to replicate again. Ross was said to not want to be teamed with Williams again, but he was under contract to Motown.
Panned by critics as an overblown soap opera, audiences enjoyed it. Tony Richardson (Tom Jones, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) was hired to direct, but clashed with Berry Gordy and was fired from the film. Gordy is the credited director.
Mahogany Soundtrack (1975) “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” was a chart topping hit, it was originally recorded by a Thelma Houston, but retooled for Ross. The movie was not a musical, so the rest of the album are soundtrack instruments.
Diana Ross (1976) A top five album. “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” was included on the album even though it had already been released as a single. “Love Hangover” was Ross’ first dance track, with a pumping bass groove. The song topped the charts. Ashford and Simpson provided “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Maybe.”
After years of growing apart, Ross and husband Bob Silverstein divorced. Ross continued to have a push-pull relationship with Gordy, who attempted to dictate career decisions to Ross, but he was starting to lose his influence with her.
An Evening With Diana Ross (1977) Another attempt at a live album, and it succeeded where the first album did not. A mixture of pop, standards, show tunes and songs she has recorded, this two-disc set showcases her strengths.
Baby It’s You (1977) This album was produced by the famous Richard Perry (Ringo, Harry Nilsson, Carly Simon) who did pop wonders for Barbra Streisand. This is more of a pop, MOR album of tasteful, sophisticated songs. It did not sell as well as the previous album, but it showed Ross as a champion of modern pop.
“Gettin’ Ready for Love”, “You Got It” and “Your Love Is So Good for Me” were fine, but not classics.
Ross (1978) had both new studio tracks and holdovers from past sessions. The album did nothing for Ross’ career. Nothing to really see here.
The Wiz Soundtrack (1978) It wasn’t exactly the original soundtrack as there some differences between the film and the soundtrack, but no matter. The Wiz as a film was a big budget failure. Who remembers the film? With all the talent involved, Sidney Lumet, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Richard Pryor, it was a major disappointment. The album did much better, selling enough to be certified Gold, and did yield “Ease On down the Road” by Ross that almost cracked the top 40.
Ross was determined to play Dorothy, even though the character was much younger. Originally The Wiz was supposed to be a small budget film, but Universal was excited to have Motown as a partner and offered Ross $1M as Dorothy. So much for economy. Even though Motown was involved, Gordy chose to play no active role, and when it tanked, erased it from his memory. The film’s failure, with the exception of a couple of TV films, ended Ross’ once promising acting career, although other projects would to talked about. One such project was The Bodyguard, a film later made starring Whitney Houston.
The Boss (1979) was again written and produced by Ashford and Simpson. The title track and “It’s My House” were the best and did respectably on the charts. Overall, very good album, but not a classic. Ashford and Simpson were good for Ross, successfully bridging the pop and R&B worlds.
In real life, Ross was very much “the boss” as she began to move away from the heavy hand of Motown. She formed her own company and set up her own business offices. She also was spending more of her time in NYC, far away from L.A. and Motown. Motown had very little to do with either The Boss or the upcoming diana albums. She was exerting her independence.
I am including diana (1980) even it started the new decade. I really like this album, so I’m including it on the list. Produced by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers (Chic, Sister Sledge, Power Station), it has their distinctive sound and funky vibe. It is written that Ross and Motown were unhappy with the Edwards/Rodgers album mix, and they (Ross and Motown) remixed it to lessen the disco elements. The album was recorded when there was a disco backlash and Ross was concerned it would include her. Ross called it a Chic record with her vocals. Edwards and Rodgers were very unhappy with the remix and distanced themselves from the album. Whatever the concerns, this is still Ross’ most successful album.
“Upside Down”, was a number one hit and nominated for a Grammy. “My Old Piano” and “I’m Coming Out” were top ten hits.
Ross also recorded the title song from the film, It’s My Turn, which was another top ten charting single.
In 1981, Ross left Motown for a $20M contract with RCA. She had just recorded the theme song from “Endless Love” with Lionel Ritchie that proved to be a big hit. Ross left behind two decades of work with Motown, and a complicated professional and personal relationship with Berry Gordy, who for many years, called the shots in her life.
This is just a snapshot of Diana Ross’ career, and for me, the portrait at an incredible performer and Motown’s biggest star.