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Category:    Home > Essays > Music > Biography > History > The Music Legacy Of Diana Ross.

The Music Legacy Of Diana Ross.



We have noticed that several key music stars and artists have been lost in the shuffle of everything from bad music to a record industry in flux, so we will take key artists and not only notice them, but talk about them and explain why we think they are significant.  This will include ten songs to back up why.  Our first subject is Diana Ross.


Ross was one of the founders and members of a four-member “girl group” who called themselves The Primettes, a name that was a take-off of an all-male group at the newly formed Motown Records called The Primes, who would eventually rename themselves The Temptations.  They were actually a band as early as 1959, but under the older name and still in High School.  It took cutting eleven songs and a name change before the group became a trio named The Supremes in 1961, but they were formed and cut their first record at Motown 50 years ago this year.


Though Ross was not the original lead singer, as her voice was not considered as richly soulful or “black” as other members like Florence Ballard, they signed with Motown, Ross was tried out as lead singer and the result would include 12 #1 Pop hits on the U.S. Pop Chart alone.  They would become the biggest “girl group” of all time (even to this day, after challenges by the likes of TLC, SWV, The Go-Gos and Destiny’s Child) far exceeding that music cycle.  The band would go on to record hits until 1976, long after Ross left with an early concert in 1970.


As a solo singer, she also had many hits, outlasting the hit streaks of Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin (both who made huge comebacks) becoming the premiere African American female vocalist, even with the arrival of the groundbreaking Roberta Flack and in general from rising successes elsewhere like Barbra Streisand, Olivia Newton-John, Cher, Carole King, Helen Reddy, Kiki Dee, Linda Ronstadt, Minnie Ripperton, Dolly Parton, Carly Simon, Tammy Wynette, Shirley Bassey and newfound success for Gladys Knight & The Pips.  She was also one of the most imitated performers in the business until the late 1970s, when Disco and Donna Summer arrived, but Ross was ahead of the game there too with one of the genre’s first big hits: Love Hangover.


When Disco was winding down, Ross found a further resurgence and in a change that shocked the industry, she left Motown (where she could have likely stayed forever and continued to get top rate treatment) and signed with rival RCA Records for what was an industry record of a contract: $20 Million for five albums.  Until the label signed Kenny Rogers a few years later for even more money, the deal was the envy of the industry and led top more hits until Michael Jackson’s success eclipsed hers.


Even after her last Top 40 Pop hit Missing You, her tribute to Marvin Gaye written by Lionel Richie (in what might be the best composition he ever penned), she still had big hits overseas and on other charts.  Her records continue to sell worldwide to this day and she continues to be one of the best selling female vocalists ever even after the huge successes of Madonna, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.


Many have written her music work off as fluff and more about feel-good songs than anything of substance, while personal attacks on her outside of the studio have relegated her to Gay Icon status like any other outspoken woman in the business who is considered too subversive for her (and supposedly our own good), yet every new female wanna be singer (especially as Soul forms have become a more permanent part of the Pop scene) cannot try to be anything like that success without trying (knowingly or not) to be like Ross.  The Guinness Book Of World Records even lists her as the most successful female music star of all time.


But the proof is in the recordings.  Ross was so successful for so many years, that every single writer, singer and producer in the industry wanted to work with her and some of the biggest names of all time did, including in her RCA years where the label went all out to back some albums with serious talent that would be often unthinkable today (due to costs, rights, industry changes, etc.) so here are the ten songs that most endure and most define the Ross Legacy…


1)     Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (long version only) – Ross took the brilliant Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell classic and turned it into an epic tour de force in 1970 that showed she had arrived on her own and was ready for anything.  Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who wrote the song, produced this remake.


2)     The Boss – Ashford and Simpson returned to deliver the title song to her 1979 album which was Motown’s ambitious attempt to give her a big Disco-era hit, but did not become the megahit that was hoped for, but the song is one of her all-time classics and set up the “feel-good” Ross that powered her huge commercial success that was on the horizon.  Coy lyrics, great singing and Ross personified makes this one of the greatest records she ever cut.  The album also offers underrated songs like No One Gets The Prize and I Ain’t Been Licked.


3)     Love Child – Though The Supremes had outlasted the “girl group” movement to become its biggest success, this 1968 hit was highly controversial in its time and led to censorship battles as Ross sang about illegitimate birth in frank terms unheard of before.  The most realistic and daring song they ever cut remarkably became their biggest hit song of all and is as relevant to day as ever.  Yes, they cut other great records, but nothing like this before or after.


4)     Love Hangover – As noted, Ross cut this huge #1 crossover hit in 1976 and the result was one of the first big female vocal hits of what became the Disco Era.  Like many of the Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder hits that followed, the song started as a soft, slow, standard composition, than broke out into something much more.


5)     Muscles – Ross absolutely freaked out the public at large very unexpectedly by cutting this 1982 hit about a woman who loved built men.  Though campy now, it was shocking to hear a more mature woman sing openly and sexually (the AIDS crisis was only just on the rise) this way and even more shocking it was written and produced by Michael Jackson.  No female vocalist has dared to remake it since.


6)     My Mistake (Was To Love You) – Ross did duets occasionally including the megahit Endless Love with Lionel Richie top the (as Bette Midler put it) “endless movie Endless Love”, but even more than the album of Supremes/Temptations duets, her 1973 duet album with Marvin Gaye (Diana & Marvin) was the richest, darkest and most ironic of them all with My Mistake being the biggest hit that proved Ross could hold her own with Gaye as much as any vocalist at the label and she would be his last duet partner there or anywhere.


7)     Remember Me – This 1970 song by Ashford and Simpson was not only a hit for her across the board and the follow-up to Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, but established the sound, style and feel of all Ross hits until Love Hangover and is one of the most imitated songs of that period.


8)     Swept Away – The title song from her last commercially big album in 1984 (which also offered Missing You, a Forever Young remake and All Of You duet with Julio Iglesias) was written and produced by Daryl Hall and remains one of her strongest songs, a huge #1 Dance Chart hit for her and showed the best possible direction for her to follow, but her fan base was so diverse that her varied efforts on the same album eventually backfired.


9)     Telephone – Of all the Ross solo songs not becoming a Pop hit that turned into a key Soul hit, this enduring 1984 track by the late, great Bernard Edwards of Chic (also from the Swept Away album) was only promoted to R&B radio stations when you had songs that we considered “too black” for mainstream radio.  Decades later, we see how ahead of its time it was.  Edwards and Nile Rodgers co-produced what remains her biggest-selling album ever, the 1980 Diana album with hits like Upside Down, I’m Coming Out and My Old Piano.  However, we now know the label took the album away form them and remixed it to sound more Pop and Rock.  You can read about both versions at this link:




10)  Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To?) – The 1976 film may have become a camp classic (reviewed elsewhere on this site) with its share of controversies too numerous to go into here, but this classic song was as great as any movie theme song at the time and showed a new side of Ross with a maturity and sophistication that kept her up to date and at the top.  It also led to the title song form the motion picture It’s My Turn with Michael Douglas and one of the greatest movie theme clichés since the 1980s, the self-congratulatory feel-good movie theme that has been done to death so many times, most people writing them have no idea where they started.



She would also have hits overseas (like I’m Still Waiting, a #1 U.K. hit that missed the Top 40 here) and on other charts (the Barry Gibb produced Chain Reaction missed the Top 40 twice in the U.S., but was #1 on many worldwide charts) as well cut records with a near cult status (Dirty Looks) and later tired more remakes that did not quite fit.  But if all else fails to impress you, think of her 1983 Central Park Concert, one of the greatest triumphs of her career.  Few artists ever could have taken that on, faced what she had to face and triumph over its unreal circumstances.


This is why Ross is a legend beyond diva status that resists political marginalization, an American treasure, innovator and giant performer in the music industry.  That is why her first half-century is worth celebrating and remembering because she too was a key part of the counterculture that made the arts possible to this day no matter what anyone else thinks.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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