Going Solo, Diana Ross Still Reigned Supreme

After the wild success of The Supremes, Diana Ross went on to solo superstardom.

Diana Ross

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As a young lady, she studied for a career in fashion. In time, she would set the fashions. In her teens, Diane Ross joined The Primettes, a girl group that would later transform into The Supremes. Her performing name adjusted to Diana, Ross and her groupmates would conquer the charts for most of the 1960s; indeed, they had the last #1 hit of the decade. With the 1970s, Ross turned toward a solo career, and the hits just kept coming. 50 years ago today, her self-titled debut hit stores, reminding the world that whether she’s alone or in a group, there’s only one Diana Ross.

Ross joined The Primettes; the girl-group was a spin-off of The Primes (two of whom, Paul Williams and Eddie Kendrick, would co-found The Temptations). Ross’s groupmates included Florence Ballard, and Mary Wilson. Ross’s childhood friend Smokey Robinson would eventually get them an audition with Motown Records; the three, along with Barbara Martin, were signed to the label in January of 1961. Motown head Berry Gordy wanted them to change their name, and Ballard chose The Supremes from a list (mainly because it didn’t end it “ette”). Between the signing and their commercial breakthrough, Martin left, and Ross, Wilson, and Ballard remained a trio. Their first Top 40 hit came in 1963 with “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes.” Gordy appointed Ross as the lead singer after the song’s success.

“Where Did Our Love Go” by The Supremes. (Uploaded to YouTube by ForbiddenGermany4)

In 1964, The Supremes hit #1 with “Where Did Our Love Go,” kicking off an amazingly successful run. Their next four singles (“Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Back in My Arms Again”) went #1. They went back to #1 seven more times in the 1960s. Midway through their run, Gordy renamed the band Diana Ross & The Supremes, a move designed to pull in bigger performance fees (as the label could charge more for a name out front plus a backing group).

Ross’s exit for a solo career was plotted by Gordy for more than a year. Even on the group’s own TV specials, Ross had solo spotlights; she also sang on other programs alone. The notion was that if they spun Ross off as a successful individual act, they could still maintain The Supremes as a viable entity in their own right. In many ways, the first solo album for Ross was seen as a trial balloon to see how well she was received on her own.

Diana Ross performing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” from 1971. (Uploaded to YouTube by Diana Ross Fan Club)

The solo debut was a combination of Motown classics and new material. Several of the songs from both categories were written by the singer-songwriter team of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson , who also produced the record with Johnny Bristol. The lead single, the Ashford & Simpson penned “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” was released ahead of the album in the spring and landed in the Top 20. After its June 19 release, the album itself cracked the charts in July. A few days later, Ross released the second single from the record, her version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough;” the Ashford & Simpson tune had been a Top 20 duet for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in 1967. Ross’s version went to #1 on both the pop and R&B charts and earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance while selling over 1 million copies.

Diana Ross performing “Do You Know Where You’re Going To.” (Uploaded to YouTube by Retro Channel Anglo)

In the years that followed, Ross built an incredibly successful career that combined music and acting. She expanded her sound beyond the confines to pop and R&B, incorporating standard, Broadway covers, disco, rock, and more into her repertoire, delving into different sounds and influences on her records, live albums, and TV specials. She mined hits from films in which she appeared, including Lady Sings the Blues, Mahogany, and The Wiz. Ross is the only female artist in history to have #1 songs as a solo artist, a trio member (The Supremes), one half of a duet (1981’s “Endless Love” with Lionel Richie), and part of an ensemble (USA for Africa’s ”We Are the World” ). She also has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one with The Supremes and one solo. She’s a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with The Supremes and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 .

As recently as 2019, Ross was still scoring hits on the Dance chart with new versions and remixes of older material. It’s a testament to Ross’s talent, and Gordy’s willingness to take a chance, that she’s been able remain musically vital and relevant whether in front of a group, or taking the stage all by herself.

Featured image: Tinseltown / Shutterstock.com

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Comments

  1. (continued) I forgot to mention (in paragraph four) that earlier in 1973, Tony Orlando & Dawn came out with their ‘Ragtime Follies’ album which although was new music, really seemed like it WAS from the ’20s! This could have inspired Ms. Ross with her late ’73 album. I’m not sure, but it doesn’t matter.

    How many people can say they had a ’20s-themed junior prom at Busch Gardens when the (original) ‘Great Gatsby’ film was current, and we dressed the part or no admittance. A fun night of getting to pretend we were the ’20s rich elite for a few hours. Just two years later the amusement park was demolished for brewery expansion.

  2. Fantastic feature on another particular favorite favorite, Diana Ross! I honestly didn’t know her group’s origin went as far back as 1961, that Smokey Robinson got them their audition with Berry Gordy, that he wanted the group’s name changed from the Primettes, and that it was Florence Ballard that picked ‘Supremes’. The stage was definitely set for them to be the ‘Beatles’ of Motown!

    I love the hit singles you mention here. but have to mention two lesser known but awesome songs they did in 1966. ‘Reflections of the Way Life Used to Be’ opens with some really cool, cutting-edge sound effects in addition to being great anyway, with the effects being used later in the song as well. Then there was ‘The Happening’ that could ONLY be from the Soaring ’60s!

    The time of the Supremes/Diana Ross and the Supremes paralled the Beatles in its beginning and end time as a group. I didn’t know that/how Berry Gordy transitioned Diana into her solo career. She’s always demonstrated the ability to change with the times but stay true to her sound, not unlike Tom Jones! One of my personal faves was ‘Touch Me in the Morning’ from ’73; just gorgeous.

    In late ’73 she was spot-on with her album ‘Last Time I Saw Him’ and the (largely forgotten) title song which was a clever fusion of the ’20s and the ’70s with a definite Dixieland jazz sound. Earlier that year Bette Midler did a completely faithful remake of The Andrews Sister’s ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’. Other hit songs from ’73 included a few from ‘The Sting’ that took place in the ’30s, as did ‘Paper Moon’. The ’70s wanted to be any other decade than the ’70s, and as a result some great entertainment came out during Watergate. Early ’74, ‘The Great Gatsby’. But after that the decade returned to its main obsession of course: the ’50s!

    Thanks for including ‘Do You Know Where You’re Going to?’ It is arguably one of THE most beautiful songs ever recorded, as only she could sing it, with a serene, heavenly ‘next life’ quality of perfection. Seeing her in concert at the Hollywood Bowl some years back was amazing. She’s as mesmerizing and magical as you would imagine!

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