Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Pop! It's Diana-mite

Who is Diana Ross?

After 50 years in the spotlight, we should be able to neatly summarize who she is, and where she fits into the pantheon of divas. And yet, her mystique and persona are so hard to pin down; she can't be easily categorized. Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul; Donna Summer was the Queen of Disco; Dinah Washington was the Queen of the Blues; Tammy Wynette was the Queen of Country. But what is Diana Ross, who, arguably, became a greater superstar than any of these queenly ladies? Queen of Motown? Certainly, but that seems even more limiting than the single-minded monikers bestowed upon the other crowned heads of music royalty. "Queen of Pop," at first, sounds too generic (and, besides, Madonna fans would be up in arms); and, yet, it ultimately seems to fit: because Diana Ross has been criticized and lauded as being the epitome of pop. She was "too pop" for "real" soul music, critics charged; "too pop" to authentically portray Billie Holiday. A seemingly synthetic, sequined creation, all lashes, fingernails, hair and ambition; and yet, she embodied "a soft, silky pop queen...her notes slim and elegant...a perfect summa-cum-laude Supreme,"as journalist Richard Goldstein breathlessly reported in 1967.

"Fred and Ginger Medley" from The Hollywood Palace with Sammy Davis Jr. (originally aired October 18, 1969)

"Leading Lady Medley" from G.I.T. On Broadway (originally aired November 12, 1969)

"Corner of the Sky" from Pippin; World tour, 1973-74

From the very beginning, Diana Ross was a glamorous outsider. ("I didn't know what to do with a wig when I first put it on," Martha Reeves would later wryly recall. "Diana Ross, she knew right away.") Diana radiated the geisha girl allure of "a sultry glamour queen," proclaimed Ebony; a very different kind of appeal from that of her contemporaries, who were either sweet or funky or earthy or downright raunchy.

Ronnie Bennett and the Ronettes extended their eyeliner, ratted their beehives, hiked up their skirts, and seemed to let every man in the first three rows know that the party could be continued backstage, in the back seat, in the back alley. The Bluebelles looked like demure, shy schoolgirls, in their Peter Pan collars and sailor suits; then Patti LaBelle would let out a wail like a bat out of hell, and every wig would fly into the balcony of The Apollo. The Ikettes dripped bacon grease and hot wax all over the stage as they shook, strutted and shimmied, while Tina growled and sneered and jerked off the microphone stand. Dionne coolly stared into nothingness, over your eyes and head, as porcelain and pristine and aloof as the Bacharach-David mini-masterpieces she was spinning into the ether; Gladys, despite her remarkable voice, seemed the warm, comforting den mother, someone who would invite you in for Sunday supper with the folks; and Aretha was the testifying church mistress, demanding, and getting, R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

And Diana? Diana seemed to come from another planet. Early in their careers, she and the Supremes were often compared, not to the women mentioned above, but to the Andrews Sisters or the McGuire Sisters: wholesomely glamorous, safe, as appealing to the white suburbanites tuning in to The Ed Sullivan Show or The Hollywood Palace as they were to the kids plunking down a dollar for the "Love is Like an Itching in My Heart" 45.

In her earliest televised performances as a Supreme, Diana demands your attention, in contrast to Dionne's icy detachment, but with an ultra-coquettish femininity that would be unthinkable for Aretha, Gladys or Patti, and a flutteringly seductive quality completely foreign to the baser instincts of Ronnie and Tina. Instead, Diana pops her eyes like Lena Horne in her 1940's MGM movies, and mews and purrs like Eartha Kitt, and her lineage to the glamour of old Hollywood, to the polite elegance of swanky nightclubs, rather than the grimy record racket or the sweaty Chitlin Circuit, suddenly becomes crystal clear.

"Mother Dear" from The Dean Martin Show (taped August 1965, originally aired March 24, 1966)

"C'est Si Bon" by Eartha Kitt, European TV, circa 1969/70

"Reflections" and "The Lady is a Tramp" from The Hollywood Palace (originally aired September 26, 1967)

"The Lady is a Tramp" by Lena Horne, from Words and Music (1948, MGM)

The question, posed as early as 1966, steadily became, "But is it soul?" Diana Ross probably never had time to worry with semantics, and, besides, she likely had absolutely no intention of "keeping it real," because the fantasy world of beautiful gowns, bright lights and the adoration of a huge audience -- the pop audience -- was undoubtedly much more appealing. "All I ever wanted," she insisted, without an apparent trace of ingenuousness, "was to sing and wear pretty clothes." And if no one could quite agree what she was singing, that didn't seem to matter much, either. "There is truly no popular singer in America who can touch her stylistic range," declared critic and historian Robert Palmer in 1977, "or her ability to put across a song's emotional charge without wallowing in melancholy or bombast."

Less is more: Aretha, Dionne and Patti tackle the Diana Ross songbook

Of course, Diana Ross has been perplexing her critics from the very beginning. She has been hailed for "her mastery of [the] quasi-operatic approach" to ballad singing; praised for her "near-weightless delicacy and tenderness"; and railed against for her "plastic simulations."She confounded the 1960's black stereotype of beauty by embracing her rail-thin physique at a time when the opposite was the norm, seeming to hold the bony British model Twiggy in esteem as her role model, rather than the curvaceous African American ideal. She confounded the stereotype of what a black singer was "supposed" to sound like, eschewing melismata and gospel-style runs for a more subtle, simple approach. She confounded sentimental fans by leaving -- seemingly dry-eyed and determined -- the group which had turned her into a household name. And she confounded her mentor, Berry Gordy, Jr., of Motown Records, by leaving the independent company she had called home for twenty years, for a $20 million offer (then the largest contract ever awarded to a recording artist) to jump ship, join a larger label, and call all the shots herself.

One rock critic dubbed Diana Ross "the Queen of Plastic Pop," and undoubtedly meant it as a derogatory title; but we think she should reclaim it, refashion it, as "the Queen of Elastic Pop," because no one has so effortlessly changed personas from song to song, with such flexibility and apparent ease, while still remaining "Diana Ross." The girl who sang "Baby Love" is different from the girl who sang "Love Child"; the woman who sang "Touch Me in the Morning" is different from the woman who sang "I'm Coming Out." The connective tissue is, of course, Diana Ross herself, and that indescribable, indefinable something that she brings to her songs. Like Madonna, she is an icon with more than one iconic pose; the wide-eyed, slightly naive skinny Supreme in the middle is as much "classic Diana" as is the broadly smiling, sequined mannequin surrounded by 70's Vegas tinsel, or the glittering, diamond-hard 80's power goddess staring down the elements in Central Park.

Ross by Warhol, 1982
So, really, who is Diana Ross? She's been a part of our collective consciousness, the pop culture landscape, the jukebox of our memories for so long. She is dramatic, theatrical, but not a tragedienne like Piaf; nor nearly as emotionally naked as Garland or Minnelli. She can be imperious and imperial, yet not as dangerous as Bassey, or distant as Streisand. She cannot truly be hailed as part of the soul sorority that embraces Aretha and Etta. She is not a singer/songwriter, per se (although, she has written a few of her album cuts); unlike Carole King or Joni Mitchell, she must fashion herself to her songs, not the other way around. What she is, perhaps, is a ballad singer in the oldest and strictest sense of the term -- a musical storyteller, putting poetry to rhythm. Her supple, slippery voice is the ideal instrument to convey multiple tales of love, loss, longing, lust. It is the perfectly flexible -- elastic -- vehicle for a songwriter and producer to channel whatever stories he or she wishes to tell, and Diana Ross will tell it well. Her countless hit records are memorable because of that voice, even if it can't be defined, described or duplicated.

March 26, 1944


  1. Replies
    1. Much appreciated, as I appreciate all of your comments, always!

  2. You're kinder than I am, but there's no denying that when she's good, she's very, very good. What happened to that marvelous woman who sang "Corner of the Sky"?

    1. I think she's still there, somewhere, Muscato...but I've always maintained that the weight of that kind of celebrity automatically alters how one can mount a performance. Someone like Bette Midler can do an extravaganza of different sorts every year, because her major hits (I'm talking real, Top 10, #1 hits) can be taken care of in about 20 minutes' time, and satisfy that portion of the audience. Whereas Diana has so much to cull from, it inevitably -- these days -- becomes more of a generic "greatest hits" program because she has to satisfy the seniors from Boca Raton, not just the rabid queens like me. In 1974, she could get away with a medley of Supremes hits, and she only had three solo hits to really fall back on; the rest could be fabulous special material like "Corner of the Sky." I recently saw both Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin in concert, both of whom I respect and admire. Dionne did almost nothing but her 1960's Bacharach hits, because she knew that's what the majority of the audience wanted to hear, and only "I'll Never Love This Way Again" and "That's What Friends are For" from her later catalog. Fine, but I personally would have liked to have heard more from her later years -- bona fide hits like "Heartbreaker" and "No Night, So Long" and such. Aretha was on stage for about 50 minutes, tops, raced through "Respect" as if she couldn't wait to finish it, and then it was all over. You see, it's easy to want these performers to maintain a certain "artistry," but once you hit a certain level, you're tempering it with pleasing SO many people, not just your "fans," as well as the inevitable feeling of "Jesus Christ, do I have to sing Reach Out and Touch/Walk on By/Chain of Fools one more fucking time?!" I'm not saying they should coast, but I understand where they're coming from...

    2. A very astute observation. I'm not sure how I missed this the first time around.

  3. Very apt comments. So many of these artists reach a certain time in their career when they just coast for a while - I have seen Eartha Kitt and Dionne (a few years ago) just coasting through their material. Dionne by the way was on the news here in the UK this morning, as she has filed for bankruptcy. HOW could Miss Dionne be bankrupt? She is always touring and filling her coffers ... Petula Clark was the best of these ladies I saw recently and at 80 still has that voice powerful as ever (unlike her contemporary Miss Andrews) - Pet's new album is good too with a stunning new slowed down version of "Downtown", its not a happy song at all but full of aching sadness.
    But back to Miss Ross .... I love the voice and the image and the hits, but too much of it is like eating too much candy. And then all those stories about her .... but I imagine in the end they don't matter, its what on stage that counts. She seems though to be in seclusion a lot, is she still bothered and driven?
    Streisand by the way is back here (in UK) in June, two shows with her son Jason and half sister Roslyn Kind .... I wonder what kind of show this will be? At least I saw Barbra in FUNNY GIRL on the stage in 1966 when I was 20 and from the front row. It was the first time I ever saw a tiny microphone taped to a performer.
    It would be nice to see Diana back bigger and better than ever. I always remember the tv show of the Clinton inaugeration - Miss Ross was centre stage in something scarlet dominating the show and then she grandly beckoned for Aretha who was further back to come and join her ....

  4. Diana Ross is The Queen of Pop/Soul, pure and simple. She is the very best of the best genres of American music. She has Aretha's sass, Eartha's & Nancy Wilson's kittenish sensuality, Josephine Baker's flair, the best phrasing this side of Ella Fitzgerald, etc., etc., etc.
    While Miss Ross' voice and style & cannot be categorized by those looking to diminish her talents, hers is very easy to describe. Diana Ross is, basically, a soul singer with a pop/jazz delivery-period. Listen to ANY of her songs, and you'll hear the gospel licks & inflections, used most effectively at the beginnings and ends of phrases.
    There's a reason why she & Miss Franklin record & perform each others' music so often:they're two sides of the same gospel coin, Franklin more raw, Ross more refined. When Ross recorded soul classics, they became massive pop and r&b chart hits. When she recorded Miss Franklin's "I Love You(Call Me), Miss Ross' version was nominated, along with Miss Franklin's, for a Grammy Award, though, neither artist won.
    When Miss Ross recorded the "LSTB" soundtrack, she was surrounded by many of Miss Holiday's former sidemen, many of whom, it is said, applauded her work after takes because she was so good. It should, however, be noted that the released version of the soundtrack is not the original. According to Suzanne DePasse, on the original version of the soundtrack, Miss Ross "sounded more like Billie than Billie", which caused Mr. Gordy to panic, fearing that Miss Ross would be too closely associated with jazz(It was that good.), especially if the film flopped, so, he had Miss Ross record a second, more pop-friendly version of the album. This version was released, and the rest is jazz/pop music history.
    Those who tend to dismiss Ross in the face of Franklin & Holiday do so mostly out of a necessity to ALWAYS see black women as tragic figures, "mammy" figures, and any woman who dares to break that mold, be it Ross, Carroll, Baker, Valaida Snow, Kitt, Falana, Uggams, Summer, Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, etc., are treated with contempt & "suspicion" in the US, while in the world's cultural capitals, they are lauded as the best representatives of the arts.
    All of that said, here's, as I see it, the biggest problem:
    Ross, too, refuses to see herself as a soul singer.
    When she FINALLY stops seeing her talents "through someone else's eyes", she'll become an unstoppable musical force, even at this stage of the game.

  5. A great and thoughtful post. Of course!

    I'm so glad I got to see Miss Ross perform live. Now all I have to see is YOU live and my life will be complete!