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.
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.
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.
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.
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superThe Motown sound was radio gold, and it turned out to work well in movies too. Berry Gordy Jr.’s record label turned out soul, R&B, and funk hits that have been used to set the tone in a host of movie scenes over the years. When a Motown song plays in your favorite movie, it’s hard not to sing and dance along. Here are 15 of the most memorable Motown movie moments.
1. “Good Morning Heartache” by Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues
Diana Ross sings Billie Holiday’s famous song in Motown’s biopic of the legendary jazz singer. She was nominated for an Oscar, and the soundtrack repopularized Holiday’s music as it hit number one on the Billboard chart.
2. “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” by G.C. Cameron in Cooley High
G.C. Cameron’s version of the soul song didn’t make much of a splash upon release in 1975, but its use in the funeral scene of Cooley High made it a cultural touchstone. Many others sang “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” over the years as a goodbye song, and Boyz II Men made a radio hit out of it in 1991.
3. “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder in The Thing
It’s the perfect song to turn up (even when a recent gunshot victim is yelling to turn the music down), and it’s the perfect song for a foreboding scene hinting at a strange presence on an Antarctic research camp.
4. “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” by The Temptations in The Big Chill
Although its soundtrack is chock full of Motown hits, The Big Chill’s best musical moment comes as the group of friends finds solace in dancing to an old song during a difficult time. The song was included in American Film Institute’s “100 Years … 100 Songs” program in 2004.
5. “I Just Called to Say I Love You” by Stevie Wonder in The Woman in Red
Stevie Wonder’s 1984 megahit was the best-selling Motown song ever in the U.K. Gene Wilder’s film “The Woman in Red” included other original Wonder songs, like “Love Light in Flight” and some duets with Dionne Warwick.
6. “The Tracks of My Tears” by The Miracles in Platoon
After serving in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, Oliver Stone wrote a script called Break that he struggled for decades to get made into a movie. When he was finally successful, the film Platoon was roundly praised for its realistic portrayal of the Vietnam War, both in terms of horrific combat and scenes like this one that show companionship wrought from the conflict.
7. “Nowhere to Run” by Martha and the Vandellas in Good Morning, Vietnam
Robin Williams’ kooky performance as an Army radio deejay during the Vietnam War earned him his first Oscar nomination. The movie’s soundtrack is a spirited list of ’60s pop music, and it includes Martha and the Vandellas’ hit “Nowhere to Run.”
8. “Do You Love Me” by The Contours in Dirty Dancing
Baby Houseman gets her first taste of dirty dancing, watermelon in hand, at a secret staff party in the Catskills. The Contours were an early Motown success, and Dirty Dancing renewed their popularity in 1987.
9. “Ball of Confusion” by The Temptations in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit
Whoopi Goldberg trains a choir of nuns to perform Motown hits in Sister Act. In the sequel, they’re seasoned soul sisters with a heavenly Temptations routine that more than does the song justice. Kathy Najimy and Mary Wickes are comedy gold.
10. “Baby Love” by Diana Ross and the Supremes in Jackie Brown
Quentin Tarantino’s love of funk and soul music is on display in this 1997 tribute to blaxploitation films. Hattie Winston serenades an aloof Robert De Niro with a classic Supremes song in full royal blue sparkling garb in a short but memorable scene.
11. “Machine Gun” by The Commodores in Boogie Nights
The Commodores’s dynamite clavinet instrumental was used widely as a theme in the 1970s and 80s (as well as Beastie Boys’s “Hey Ladies”). Porn star Dirk Diggler shows off his disco moves in his new platform shoes to the song in Paul Thomas Anderson’s chaotic Boogie Nights.
12. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in Stepmom
The 1999 drama about a family being ripped apart and mended back together uses one of Motown’s best duets. As a woman who has just received a cancer diagnosis along with news that her ex-husband will remarry soon, Jackie reconnects with her children by lip syncing Marvin Gaye’s and Tammi Terrell’s hit.
13. “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye in High Fidelity
In his breakout film role, Jack Black sings Marvin Gaye’s sensual masterpiece “Let’s Get It On.” The song has been used in countless commercials and movies to set a sexy tone, but never was it sung quite like it was by the Tenacious D frontman.
14. “Super Freak” by Rick James in Little Miss Sunshine
Unbeknownst to the rest of their family, junior beauty pageant hopeful Olive and her grandfather prepare a dance routine to Rick James’s risqué funk hit about a “very kinky girl” that you “don’t take home to mother.”
15. “I Want You Back” by Jackson 5 in Guardians of the Galaxy
The old school soundtracks of the popular Marvel franchise feature several Motown hits, but the most iconic among them is perhaps “I Want You Back,” playing to a dancing Baby Groot in his adorable resurrection scene.
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