The Summer and Fall of Diana Ross

The Motown performer talks about her solo career, 'The Wiz' and her constant drive to stay busy

Singer Diana Ross poses for a Motown publicity still circa 1977 Credit: Victor Skrebneski/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Tuesday, The 21st Day of June, 1977, and here are the entries in Diana Ross' book, written in pretty, fast penmanship:

Tennis at 9
10:30 — Hair
1 — telephone interview. Pick up cassette.
2 — nails and toes
4 — Recording "All Nite Lover"

But at four (she is right on time at Richard Perry's Studio 55 in Los Angeles) it becomes clear that the schedule is incomplete. After doing the vocal track, over prerecorded instrumentals, for "All Night Lover," she must go uptown to Motown's studios, where she is recording another album with another producer, Hal Davis, maker of "Love Hangover." Her company apparently wants enough on the shelves to tide over her time spent filming The Wiz, the black Wizard of Oz in which she will star as Dorothy. Which is what that 1 p.m. interview was about. The hair, nails and toes were for the shooting of a magazine cover. And all the rush of work is because she's squeezing in a concert at Forest Hills, New York, between the recording and The Wiz.

Behind the control board, Diana looks hardly frazzled. Her hair is let down, medium length, with some at the top tied back in a small bun. She wears a simple, violet, belt-tied top, clean, unfaded jeans and cloth sandals. She flips through her book — which is wrapped in matching purple foil — and parcels out her time, whittling down a list of 14 possible songs and deciding on which days, through the week and into the weekend, she will record them.

She would like to do one song each day with Perry, then one each evening at Motown. "It's usually hard for me to do two songs in one night," she notes. She asks to hear the instrumental track for "All Night Lover" while she talks with her producer. Perry says he thinks the word "dream" seems to come up too often in the verse. "I don't mind it," says Ross. "The repetition is good with me." They go over a lyric that reads: "Renew me, move me," and Perry suggests rewording it to "Renew me, do me," as Ross had sung in a run-through. Ross sings it again, then laughs at the naughtiness. "I like 'do me,' " she says. "That wasn't bad at all!"

She disappears into the big room, which is darkened so that all one sees from behind the board are two large, horizontal panes of glass, reflecting multiple images of the people at the controls. Over the intercom Diana asks for some brandy, gets a small snifter of T. Hines & Co. cognac, and begins to sing, tentatively, over a relaxed backing track that is strung with bells. It is immediately clear that Ross is going back to the sound of the Supremes. But Diana was an unsophisticated 20-year-old when "Where Did Our Love Go" and all the others were hits. Now 33, with the Supremes long behind her, she is replacing the innocence of "Baby Love" with come-ons like: "Every time you hold me, you just about control me/For so long, so strong/I'm getting weaker… ."

She spends more than an hour on the tune, breaking only once for a few puffs of a More cigarette. "This is the old, old sound," she says. "The Motown sound." After finishing the track, she sits patiently while Perry plays demos of songs he wants her to consider. She is mostly noncommital, and rejects one song because "it kind of reminds me of yesterday, of the Rolling Stones kind of song. I could hear Mick……" She listens to her version of Stevie Wonder's "Too Shy to Say," to which Perry has just added strings the night before. "That was a good one," she says, "very nice," and picks up her canvas tote bag. We repair to Perry's office for an update on the summer and fall of Diana Ross.

The Perry album, she says, fitting herself into a green art deco armchair, is "a love album. We wanted to make a record people could make love to — keep putting the arm on back to the thing, and make love to it.

"You see, I've done so much in the last 15 years. I started off doing tunes like this, then I went into another area, then got all the way up to Billie Holiday songs, jazz and all that. We went into pop — 'You're Nobody 'til Somebody Loves You' — those kind of things. So we're kinda almost back to simplicity in songs."

The Motown album, on the other hand, is for dancing. She is recording it simultaneously "because I'm leaving for The Wiz, and that's not the reason, really. I wanted to follow up 'Love Hangover' with a disco type of album." She isn't sure — and in fact doesn't care — which Motown will release first. "Whichever they need," she says. "Whatever the market looks like it's ripe for." She is pleased at the prospect of having enough product around to free her to pay full attention to The Wiz.

"I'm not having babies right now, which usually took up most of my time the last five years," she says, laughing easily. (Ross is the mother of three girls, aged two to six.) But the last five years have also included two films, Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany; her own television specials; tours of Europe and the Far East; and one-woman shows on Broadway and in Vegas. The Broadway show, in June 1976, was an elaborately staged theatrical concert, a two-act, 90-minute production that involved eight costume changes and served as a tribute to Ross' career. Almost the entire second act, which began with a Supremes medley, was devoted to detailing her rise from housing-project waif from Detroit to superstar. The show closed with a lengthy version of "Reach Out and Touch" (her first single as a solo, in 1970), during which Ross ended up in the middle of the fourth row of the orchestra seats, smothered by the vocal affections of her fans.

She was looking forward to her July 23rd date in Forest Hills as a challenge to "create intimacy" in a large setting. She seemed not to mind at all that the booking — a recent surprise to her — was scheduled on the eve of The Wiz. "When they gave it to me, I said, 'Gee, well, it's not a bad idea. In fact it's a terrific idea, and I'll be moving to New York [from her home in Beverly Hills] and it might be absolutely fun.' That's perfect and right. Otherwise it wouldn't have come up at this time."

Diana Ross has a way of talking as if she's already been to the Land of Oz. Asked how she got involved in The Wiz, she says: "The actual truth is that there was a lot of magic involved. And you can't explain magic, do you know what I mean? I had seen the play and heard that Motown was going to be involved [in producing the film version]. When I called and asked them, they told me it was already set, and I said, 'Fine, I just wanted to put it out that I was interested if anybody cared.' And during that time I was given by Berry Gordy all the reasons he felt that I shouldn't do it, and they've got another film planned that he was doing, and I said, 'Fine.' The next day he called me and asked if I was serious about wanting to do it. Something had happened, the guy that was going to direct it was not in anymore, nothing had been set, and they called within a week or so and said I was going to be doing it. And that's the magic of it.

"I think a lot of people feel that if it's a project Motown's involved in, then for sure they're gonna try and get me involved, and it wasn't that at all. In fact, they were —" (Ross, the Motown and Gordy loyalist, corrects herself) "— oh, 'they'! — Motown and Berry had just never ever thought about it. Then I started doing a lot of reading and found out that the man who wrote the story [L. Frank Baum] had never ever described who Dorothy should be, her age, or anything about her. If you were to read the book and not have the pictures to go along with it, you would never ever know that it was supposed to be a young girl. It was just a girl. And I read a book that explained why he never described Dorothy: because everybody, all women, all men, have a Dorothy, a youthful something inside them that's searching for who they are. So to me, when she meets the Scarecrow and he's looking to have some brains, everything she's talking about is herself — she's looking for her own brains and her own heart … and a lot of us, even today, we're looking for that one person that's gonna give us all the answers: the Wizard" — she corrects herself — "the Wiz."

Diana never read children's books as a child. "My parents had six children and my mother didn't have time to read to us. The excitement of making pictures by reading, I didn't get that. I'm doing that with my children. I read fairy tales to them at night, and in my taking time to find out all about The Wiz, it made me interested in other fairy tales." That in turn led to her wanting to do a children's album, as "a love gift … for my children. There's a few things about who I am that I would like them to know … but it's really a gift of story, about a little girl who wants to be grown up, 'cause we all never accept what we are and want to be somebody else." Out of somewhere, she adds: "I'm the kind of girl that's a constant dreamer. I keep coming up with ideas.

"And I do know there's a part of my teenage years that I missed, because everybody was in school, and after I graduated from school I didn't go to college; I went out on the road and started working, and there's a whole area, that fun area of your life, that I haven't experienced yet. I think I'll get a chance to go through that during the filming of The Wiz."

The Wiz also stars Richard Pryor as the Wiz, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow and Lena Horne as the Good Witch, with Sidney Lumet directing. Filming begins in October, with rehearsals beginning in early August.

Diana has to get moving, over to Motown. I ask about her separation from rock manager Bob Ellis. "We're divorced," she says, matter-of-factly. "But still friends. I saw him today. It's very difficult in a marriage to have a career, and we agreed we needed time to part, and people get married again if they have to — I mean, if they want to. But we had one difficult year." She stops and laughs. "We had five good years of marriage and then one difficult year, and that's the way it had to be."

But she has no complaints about the clamor of her life. "I really like it this way," she says. "I'm not the kind of person who can just go somewhere and lay in the sun. I just sent my children away for the summer and I'm absolutely lost without having my minutes filled up. I'm used to something always going on. I pack up a day so I can get a lot of things accomplished. In my life, I really want to live every moment of it. I want to burn it up."