The legendary American singer Diana Ross celebrated her 75th birthday in March. The Motown icon – named as the most successful female music artist of all time by the Guinness Book of World Records – is also celebrating 60 years in the music industry this year.
Releasing a total of 70 hit singles, both with her girl group The Supremes and as a solo singer, in 2012 she received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She went on to receive the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.
Ross started out in the music industry at the age of 15 and became the lead singer of arguably the most famous girl group of all time, The Supremes. She has also starred in movies and had a brief foray into writing during her long career.
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Born in Detroit in March 1944, Ross aspired to become a fashion designer while at school. She studied clothing design, pattern making, millinery, tailoring, modelling and cosmetology at Cass Technical High School.
Singing just for fun, she joined a local girl group called The Primettes at 15. The band, including Florence Ballard, Betty McGlown and Mary Wilson, won a talent show in Ontario in 1960. They then had an audition for Motown Records, partly organised by Ross’s neighbour, soul star Smokey Robinson.
Motown founder Berry Gordy said he was “stopped in his tracks” by Ross’s voice, but when he found out the girls’ ages, he advised them to return after they had graduated. They continued going to Motown’s headquarters regularly, often providing backing vocals on other artists’ recordings.
Eventually, in January 1962, their perseverance paid off, as Gordy signed them to the label. They changed their name to The Supremes and had their first number one hit with Where Did Our Love Go in 1964.
The group then broke musical records by having a succession of four number one singles in the United States, including Baby Love and Come See About Me in 1964, followed by Stop in the Name of Love and Back in My Arms Again in 1965. They were the first American group ever to have five number one hit singles in succession.
In total, they had 12 chart-topping singles and held the record for being the US vocal group with the most Billboard number one singles in history.
Ross decided to go solo after more than a decade as part of the girl group. She made her final appearance with The Supremes on 14th January 1970. Her debut as a solo artist began in May 1970, when she landed her first number one with Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.
A monumental success, her solo career led to a succession of number one singles including her famous dance floor filler, Love Hangover, in 1976, which was an up-tempo disco number.
Behind Closed Doors
Ross was no stranger to changing her style and recording songs from other genres. In 1973, her recording, Behind Closed Doors, had originally been written by Kenny O’Dell as a country song for Charlie Rich for his album of the same name.
The song was ranked number nine in 2003 in CMT’s 100 Greatest Songs in Country Music. Yet O’Dell admitted he hadn’t put a great deal of thought into the lyrics, describing the song as “just a title I had written down”, combined with a “little guitar riff” that he’d had in his mind for a couple of years.
After O’Dell expanded on the title, assisted by Rich’s producer, Billy Sherrill, the song was released, but was banned by some radio stations, because they claimed the lyrics were too racy. Originally, it was written from a man’s point of view. The censors were particularly upset by the lines, “She makes me glad that I’m a man – oh, no-one knows what goes on behind closed doors.”
Despite the radio ban, it was one of Rich’s biggest ever hits and spawned a number of cover versions by other artists, including Ross’s version.
When Ross released Behind Closed Doors, the lyrics had been reworked so they could be sung from a woman’s point of view. They still carried the same message, but while Rich sang about being glad he was taking his lady home, Ross sang it as the lady in question.
As if to counter the accusations that the song was a little raunchy, Ross sang the line, “I’m always a lady, just like a lady should be,” while the song had lost its country lilt. Instead, the Motown superstar added her own unique vocal style, turning it into a rich soul sound instead.
Country stars Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn also released cover versions of the song from the female point of view. However, it was mainly a male-dominated song and cover versions were also released by the likes of Tom Jones, Percy Sledge and Bobby Womack.
Acting and writing
Ross’s chart success continued with a long succession of hits. Among the most famous were Upside Down and I’m Coming Out (both chart-toppers in 1980), while she was honoured in 1982 with her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
She also starred in a number of movies between 1972 and 1999, including Lady Sings the Blues, which was loosely based on the life story of jazz and blues singer Billie Holiday, in October 1972.
In 1977, she starred in The Wiz, an African-American interpretation of The Wizard of Oz, based on the Broadway show. Universal Pictures financed the film and Ross starred as Dorothy, with Michael Jackson playing the Scarecrow. At the time of filming, it was the most expensive musical ever made. Ross and Jackson had a dance hit with their recording of Ease on Down the Road from The Wiz.
Her final acting appearance to date was in the TV musical drama, Double Platinum, in 1999. She played Olivia King, a wife and mother who pursues her dream of being a singing superstar.
Ross also wrote her autobiography, Secrets of a Sparrow, which was released in November 1993. It tells the intimate story of her life, including how her mother would sing to her as a child.
The iconic singer has continued to perform into the 21st century, including her massive In the Name of Love Tour, which began in 2013 and continued until 2016, with just a few breaks from performing along the way.
In February 2018, she began a residency at The Wynn Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, while in August, she had another number one hit on the US Billboard Dance Chart with a remixed version of I’m Coming Out/Upside Down.
Although Ross is now 75 years old, this hasn’t stopped the star from being one of the most talented and glamorous divas on the soul scene.
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