There is a very select group of people that are real musical royalty. If Elvis was the king of rock ‘n’ roll, Diana Ross is the queen of Motown.
When you think of the impossibly perfect pop songs of Motown, you can’t help but think of Diana Ross. With a long string of hits including Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and Stop! In The Name of Love, her voice is inseparable from the collective memory of music fans everywhere.
Rising to prominence in the ’60s, Ross showed the world the strength and potential of a young woman of colour, shaping her contemporary world and the future of music in doing so. As she has achieved so much during her long career, let’s dive into what made Diana Ross so important to Motown, and her role in sculpting music as we know it.
Climbing higher than telephone poles
Diana Ross was born on the 26th of March, 1944 in Detroit Michigan, and from an early age, demonstrated her determination and desire to go the distance. “We lived in a big apartment building with lots of units,” she says in her memoir, Secrets of a Sparrow. “I remember telephone poles that I wanted to climb as I got older. I wanted to show how tough I was.”
It was in 1959, that her career in the music industry truly began when she and two of her friends, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard to form the pop-soul trio, The Primettes. The group was signed to Motown Records in 1961, now under the title of The Supremes, with the addition of a fourth member, Barbara Martin, who left the group not long after in 1962. While the group did not find instant stardom, it was in 1964, when the band leapt out of the gates with five consecutive No. 1 hits. America had officially fallen for The Supremes.
When Ballard left the group (replaced by Cindy Birdsong) in 1967, Diana Ross had begun to stand out as the biggest asset of the trio. The group was renamed Diana Ross and the Supremes and in 1969, Motown Records announced that Diana would be soon embarking on a solo career.
Reaching the top of the mountain
The dawn of the 70s saw Ross go it alone, and it wasn’t long before she started making waves again. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough featured on her self titled debut album and quickly reached No. 1 on the US charts. The next decade saw her continue to triumph, with more chart-topping hits with Love Hangover in 1976, Upside Down in 1980, and a collaborative effort with Lionel Ritchie to create Endless Love in 1981.
Ross began to diversify, dipping into acting during the early/mid-70s. Ross starred as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Mahogany (1975) which she also wrote the theme song Do You Know Where You’re Going To for, and finally in The Wiz (1978).
The 1980s quickly saw a decline in Ross’ success. After leaving Motown records in 1980, her style began to change to accommodate the popularity of disco during the late ’70s and early ’80s. While she didn’t again scale the vertiginous heights of her earlier career, her unparalleled legacy had been cemented. She and The Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, and in 2012 Ross was awarded a Grammy for lifetime achievement.
Still going strong
Now signed once again with Motown Records, Diana Ross continues to tour and perform, with her planned ‘Top of the World’ tour originally taking her to the UK this year, now been delayed until at least 2022. But even at 77, Ross shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon, continuing to do what she has done over the last 60 years; perform and interact passionately with crowds and fans on an intimately personal level. “It does not matter to me if I’m in a stadium with thousands of people or in a much smaller venue. My interaction is with the audience on a one-to-one basis,” she said.
Ross has recently teased that she is currently recording new material, stating on social media “I miss performing so much, I am glad I am recording new music and songs in my home studio, this makes me happy, coming soon!” alongside a photo of her on stage. She then followed up with another post stating that she had 14 tracks ready for the new project.
Demonstrating her determination and ability to defy social boundaries, Ross was able to win over the American public during a time of major racial and civil unrest. Her music was able to transcend entrenched cultural differences, and her actions spoke loudly against the attitudes of the time.
As an artist who lives and breathes music — and an effortlessly powerful performer — she defines Motown. 60 years into her glittering career, there’s no stopping Diana Ross, even in the name of love.