March 26, 1944 – Diane Ernestine Earle Ross
“It takes a long time to get to be a diva. I mean, you gotta work at it.”
That’s Miss Ross To You.
At the American Music Awards four months ago, Diana Ross was honored with their Lifetime Achievement Award. She deserves all the awards we can bring her way after 60 years in the biz. That night, Ross performed several of her iconic hits, ending with Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, during which she brought all of her grandchildren onstage. Ross was then joined onstage by all of her children, their spouses, first ex-husband Robert Ellis, Smokey Robinson, who brought Ross to Motown, plus Motown founder, Berry Gordy.
You kids know that Ross rose to fame as the lead singer of group The Supremes. During the 1960s, they were Motown’s most successful act, and the best charting girl group in history. Ross’ success with The Supremes opened the door for future African-American R&B and Soul acts to find mainstream success. The Supremes released a record-setting 12 Number One singles on the US Billboard Hot 100, including: Where Did Our Love Go, Baby Love, Come See About Me, Stop! In The Name Of Love, You Can’t Hurry Love, You Keep Me Hangin’ On, Love Child, and Someday We’ll Be Together.
The LGBTQ community has always loved Ross, and we considered her to be an Ultimate Gay Icon. She embraced the LGBTQ community from the start.
Ross became the patron saint of gays when she recorded I’m Coming Out, which became an instant gay anthem.
A year earlier, on July 12, 1979, it was the night Disco died. Rock music fans filled Comiskey Park in Chicago to destroy and burn thousands of Disco records in a Disco Sucks Demolition. The genre became uncool, and artists found themselves avoiding it. Yet, Ross pushed against the trend and released a Disco heavy self-titled album which included the infectious Upside Down and her boldest career single, I’m Coming Out.
It was written and produced by Chic members Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers and released in Summer 1980, the second single off Ross’ tenth solo album Diana (1980).
After attending a drag revue at the NYC club GG Barnum Room featuring bunches of Diana Rosses, songwriter/producer Rodgers wanted to embrace the fall of Disco with a flamboyantly, rebellious anthem. The jam was influenced by the Disco Demolition Night, where he noticed that no African-American or LGBTQ people were in attendance, saying the infamous event was racist and homophobic towards the true fans of the genre. I’m Coming Out reached Number Five on the Billboard Hot 100 and became a very important song for those truly needing to come out of the closet. Notorious B.I.G.‘s 1997 Number One hit, Mo Money Mo Problems features Ross’s vocals sampled from I’m Coming Out. The song is still used in coming out montages on television. It is usually the first song performed at Ross’ concerts since 1980.
There was a time when the city of Detroit was the center of industry, and the city had a thriving music scene. The city’s diverse culture has had an international influence, particularly the music, giving rise to the genres of Motown and Techno, and playing a significant role in the development of Jazz, Hip-Hop, Rock, and Punk music.
The Motown Sound is a style of Soul music with a distinct pop influence. Motown isn’t just a sound, it is the name record company founded by Berry Gordy Jr. in 1959. The name is a blend of ”motor” and ”town”, also become a nickname for Detroit. Motown played a vital role in the racial integration of popular music as an African-American-owned record label that achieved significant crossover success. During the 1960s, Motown achieved spectacular success for a small record company: 79 records in the Top Ten of the Billboard Hot 100 record chart between 1960 and 1969. For decades, Motown was the highest-earning African-American business.
Ross grew up in the now-demolished Brewster Projects of Detroit, a public housing neighborhood that also gave us Mary Wilson, Lily Tomlin, and RuPaul.
When she was 15-years-old, Ross became a member of The Primettes, a sister group of a male vocal group called The Primes. The other members included Florence Ballard, Wilson, and Betty McGlown. After winning a local talent show, the group were invited to audition for Motown. Gordy was knocked out, but, learning of their ages, he advised the girls to come back after graduating from high school.
The group started hanging out at Motown’s headquarters, offering to provide extra help for Motown’s recordings, including hand claps and background vocals. Ross was the group’s hair stylist, make-up artist, and costume designer. In late 1960, The Primettes were allowed to record their own songs at the studio, many written by Smokey Robinson, who was vice president of Motown. Gordy also wrote songs for the trio, including Buttered Popcorn, featuring Ballard on lead vocals.
In January 1961, Gordy agreed to sign the group on the condition they change their name. Ballard chose “Supremes”, because it was the only name on the list that didn’t end with “ette”. Gordy signed the group under their new name in 1962. In late 1963, the group had their first hit with When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes, which went to Number 23 on the Pop charts. At the end of the year, Gordy assigned Ross as the group’s lead singer, even though Ballard had always been the lead.
The group had their first Number One hit with Where Did Our Love Go, and between August 1964 and May 1967, Ross, Wilson, and Ballard had 12 Number One hit singles.
In 1965, Ross became romantically involved with Gordy, a stormy relationship that lasted several years. Ross became pregnant. Two months into her pregnancy, Ross married music executive Robert Ellis Silberstein. Her daughter, Rhonda Suzanne Silberstein was raised by Silberstein as his own daughter, even though he knew her true paternity. Ross told Rhonda that Gordy was her biological father when she was 13-years-old.
If Ross had not lived those tumultuous first years of her career, we never have had the 1981 Broadway musical Dreamgirls; Beyoncé would not have been nominated for a Golden Globe Award, and Jennifer Hudson would not have won an Academy Award for the film version in 2006. The Dreamgirls character Deena Jones was inspired by Ross, who claims she has never seen the stage or film versions.
Ross and Motown brought African-American music front and center in American culture in the 1960s, played on predominantly white radio stations. Ross began negotiations to leave Motown at the end of 1980. She had spent over 20 years with the label. She had made millions of dollars for the label. RCA Records offered Ross a $20 million, seven-year contract, which gave her complete production control of her albums. Ross asked Gordy if he could match RCA’s offer. Gordy refused, and Ross signed with RCA in 1981. At the time, Ross’s recording deal was music history’s most lucrative.
Ross decided to try acting. Her first film was Lady Sings The Blues, (1972) very loosely based on the life of Billie Holiday. Ross won critical acclaim for her performance in the film and she won Golden Globe Award and Academy Award nominations. I was certain she would win the Oscar, but she lost to another Gay Icon for her work in Cabaret. Queens are still debating that upset.
Ross followed with the irresistible camp fest Mahogany (1975), directed by Gordy and produced by Motown Productions. Gordy took over the direction after bisexual British filmmaker Tony Richardson was canned. The soundtrack includes Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To), which became a Number One hit. Mahogany is as gay as The Wizard Of Oz, Showgirls, or Thor.
She then played Dorothy in the film version of the musical The Wiz (1978), but I can’t even go there.
Ross is an inspiration for RuPaul’s career. RuPaul has referenced her in his music and she also appeared on RuPaul’s Vh1 talk show and performed I Will Survive with her on a stage in the middle of Santa Monica Boulevard. in West Hollywood. How gay is that?
Throughout her career, Ross would make the hair and costumes bigger and glitzier to match her diva attitude and stage presence. She is so big, she has two stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.
I didn’t just listen to The Supremes from their very start in 1964, I danced and sang all the individual Wilson, Ballard and Ross parts in my bedroom with a candle stick microphone. That would pinpoint me at 10-years-old acting decidedly gay.
Gay Icon, Music Icon,Fashion Icon, Ross holds an exalted place in Diva, Drag Queen and Gay History.
My favorite Ross moment was when she performed for a half-million fans in Central Park in 1983 despite sweltering heat and a downpour so dense she could barely open her eyes. Ross told her fans:
”It took me a lifetime to get here, and I’m not going anywhere!”
The iconic event can be seen in the concert film Diana Ross: Live In Central Park.