by Larry Watson
Diana Ross is the closest America will ever get to royalty. She is a sturdy Black woman who was raised by God fearing parents. Her grandfather was a Baptist Minister in the deep South. People confuse the Diana Ross “personae” which she meticulously created with the authentic Black woman who as a single mother who raised five healthy children to adulthood.
She realized early on her journey that the immortal Aretha Franklin was the voice of the century and had covered the waterfront when it came to pure blues, R&B and legitimate jazz expression. So, Diana set out on this superhighway of music and created the genre of the pop diva vocalist. She paved that road and no other singer alive can claim the success she has earned. The Supremes under her vocal leadership, (she sang lead on all of their hits) broke records not matched by anyone. Not matched because they broke these records during the height of legal segregation in America.
Diana Ross and the Supremes successfully challenged the white-centered definition of beauty and replaced it with three Black women. This forced the country to take a second look at Diahann Carol, Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Leslie Uggums, Nancy Wilson and… I could go on. At her side was a Black man Berry Gordy who stewarded her through a maze of institutional racism. Though he made some mistakes along the way, the country had never seen a Black man rise to this level of power in the music industry and acknowledge a Black woman as his muse.
She is beautiful and savvy enough to never embarrass Black folks. She can dance and no one has ever been able to duplicate her sound. At 77 she still has a beautiful soprano range and can if pushed, sing most of her songs in the original key.
In 1968, Ross and the Supremes recorded the album “Funny Girl” and in 1970 the song “Time and Love” for her solo debut LP, “Diana Ross”. For the discerning ear, she settled the controversy by covering Streisand’s material and going on the conquer the jazz critics with her stellar performance in “Lady Sings the Blues”. She should have won the Academy Award in 1973, but had to sit, humiliated while the Hollywood racist machine at operation gave the award to the daughter of one of their own, Liza Minnelli for “Cabaret”.
She is a proud child of the Civil Rights Movement having earned the respect and praise of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Sammy Davis Jr, Luther Vandross, Nelson Mandela, Bill Cosby (before he was dethroned) Muhammed Ali, Quincy Jones, Richard Pryor, Oprah Winfrey, and the list goes on. Most significant, Michael Jackson credits her as one of the principal influencers in the development of his career. And rumor has it that she and Aretha Franklin were pen pals and always maintained a relationship.
Ms. Ross’s new CD project “Thank You” is right in line with the great music she has been putting out during her long international career. There is no living female singer or dead one for that matter, who has the international respect and stage prowess that Diana Ross single handedly created.
Many may lie and dismiss her, but she is the original cloth when it comes to pop music female icons. And all of the “princesses” that followed owe a debt of gratitude to her sacrifices to open doors that had been shut to Black women for most of America’s existence. Many have come along and sounded like others who have attempted to drive in Diana Ross’ Lane, but no one has yet succeeded. She has been more than a sequined gown and long flowing kinky hair weave/wig.
Her new album, Thank You, is a healthy and inspiring response to the decline of democracy and the deep-seated hate this country holds onto, in the process killing the hopes and dreams of an entire generation.
I listened to the CD several times and each time I heard another element of Dubois’ “Double consciousness” theory. It is a pop record but there is a deeper meaning in her words for those progressive and “woke” enough to understand what we are up against. But as a Mother and a Grandmother in the spirit of Blackness and the legacy of Black Mothers, she tells us to hold on “things are gonna get better”. She sings lullabies to Black, brown, and poor children that may rarely hear the words, “I love you”.
While America engages in domestic violence, insurrection and voter suppression, Ross in a simple manner tells us to just dance. That is exactly what Duke Ellington and others did with Jazz to undermine Jim Crow. Little Richard and Chuck Berry played dance music and dance clubs and White folks demanded that the barrier come down so all folks could mingle together as one humanity. This is what Motown music, known as the “Sound of Young America”, did to dismantle segregation.
Ross and her Motown family were the one out there in those mean streets singing ” You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Stop In The Name of Love”. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas song “Dancing In The Street” was banned because some White folks, after the death of Martin Luther King, thought it was a call for Black people, to go out and burn America down. After the laws eased and made it alright for same sex couples to dance together in clubs, we ushered in a new era called Disco music. It was the first time in America where Black, White, Straight. Gay, old and young danced in the same club on the same dance floor. And what happened? White, racist, insecure men conceived the “Disco Sucks” era and attempted to destroy that dance movement.
Hip Hop has done the same thing. Long before it was popular, Diana Ross along with Nile Rodgers did a second CD in 1989 called “Workin’ Overtime”. The critics creamed her for trying to reach out to a new audience of young people. The CD still stands as an incredible musical statement long before Black women felt the need to drag their “private parts ” across the stages of America and naively believe this “mammy ho-like act” to be “cutting edge and progressive”.
This new project by Diana Ross has many jewels but the most important element of the album is her Black sons and daughters put it together for their Mother. Rhonda Ross has written a couple of the songs and they are powerful statements. Her sons gave her the support she needed to complete this project.
I do not want to see Diana Ross on the road with a rigorous touring schedule. I want her to do spot dates that are important. I want her to love and help make an indelible impact on her grandchildren.
I want “60 Minutes” and many other shows to honor her accomplishments. I want her to become an Ambassador of Love for the world. We need someone like her to do what the late Audrey Hepburn did in the later years of her life for the children of the world.
Over the last thirty years I have coached and taught many rising vocalists and worked with great ones. In all those years I have encountered many sound-alikes, but almost none who could legitimately cover a Diana Ross tune. We are saturated with a generation of “over singing” anemic musicians. There is still a great deal musicians can learn from the Motown Era.
While Diana Ross is still vibrant and musical, we need to record for perpetuity her insights and work ethic in the hopes of creating a new music industry because the current one is on a respirator and the one Diana Ross helped create is deceased.
Lawrence “Larry” Watson is an activist, singer and educator. In his 27th year of teaching at Berklee College of Music he is the Principal Ensemble Professor of Motown, Stage Performance Technique, private vocal instruction and the History, Culture and Music of African Americans.
Mr. Watson is a survivor of Bedford Stuyvesant Brooklyn, product of the public school system of NYC, graduate of the State University of New York at Oswego and a graduate of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University.
His latest song “I Sleep Alone At Night”, a tribute to Larry Lavan and House music is available everywhere, now.