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Diana Ross Goes From Riches to Rags

‘You have to, like, glide…’

Diana Ross, Lady Sings The BluesDiana Ross, Lady Sings The Blues

Diana Ross singing in a scene from the film 'Lady Sings The Blues', 1972.

Paramount Pictures/Getty

Diana Ross is going out of her mind. She just threw a glass of champagne in somebody’s face, and now it’s the bathroom scene in Lady Sings the Blues, and she’s running amuck with a razor. Billy Dee Williams won’t give her back her works and she’s raving for a fix – snarling like a rabid bitch, teeth and nails and then she gets a cut-throat razor and goes for the throat and she means it. When they got through somebody asked Billy Dee if he thought Diana Ross could act.

Here was this little slinky, not long out of the Supremes; and it’s common knowledge the Supremes were a consummate corporate invention, with Diana Ross in her ravishing wigs and dazzling shimmer and gloss, working the most amazing pair of livid red lips in America over a faceful of blinding white teeth, animating and insinuating her 103 pounds of lean sheen – she’s exquisite, polished till she shines. But the girl never acted in her life except for a couple of dumb skits on Johnny Carson, and here she is with the audacity to impersonate the most beloved jazz martyr of all time. There were a lot of people outraged. Diana got a lot of spiteful letters, a lot of them from righteous old black jazz veterans.

And tight up against her, here’s Billy Dee Williams, coming off a big break in Brian’s Song on TV, a hot new black leading man with ten or twelve years in the theater under his belt – a seasoned actor – so he had his doubts about her, too. And then early on in the shooting they come to the bathroom scene and Diana Ross throws this fit and Billy Dee had to fight for his life. I don’t know, says Billy Dee, I don’t know if she can play Billie Holiday – she is Billie Holiday. And Williams has got scars to prove it.

Berry Gordy was there. It’s his picture, he put in close to four million dollars of Motown money, and Diana Ross is his most treasured possession, so he stayed close to the production. And when Billy Dee said that, Berry dug it right away. You’ve seen the ads by now, just the slim bejewelled wrist clutching an old RKO mike, a handcuff dangling like a manacle, and in classy bold type on top it says: DIANA ROSS IS BILLIE HOLIDAY.

Ralph Gleason goes along with that, and John Hammond, and a lot of those other respected old hepcats who should know, because they were there. They saw Billie Holiday come painfully apart, stitch by stitch, and along the way, because she couldn’t help it, she sang jazz better than anybody had ever heard before. She broke all the rules – changed the whole idea of the singer in the band to where she was no longer just another sideman stuck back behind the clarinet player and taking 16 bars of swift vocal. She became the star of the show. Everybody from Ella Fitzgerald on down has been trying to catch up with her ever since.

Billie Holiday sang with the best bands there were, Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman and Count Basie, all of them, and she was the first to sing as zingingly as they played. She brought a high radiance and sophistication into those steamy little Harlem cellars and took it all downtown to the plushest nitespots and finally into the sacred hush of Carnegie Hall. She hid nothing. All her devotees knew she was banged out on stuff up there, they knew where she went when she left the bandstand in between numbers and came back with a faraway gleam in her eyes and made every song she sang into a stylized personal confession of hurt pride and carnal knowledge. For those that knew and adored her, she remains the immaculate and tragic aristocrat of jazz, the saddest story of them all.

So, naturally, a lot of the hardcore Billie Holiday devotees thought the movie was pretty soapy stuff. It’s true it’s way overwrought and a lot of it is plain lies and melodrama, and in a well-meant but poorly thought-out effort to simplify Billie Holiday and tie up all her loose ends into a satisfactory continuity and coherence of the heart that her life denied her, Berry Gordy and Paramount and Sidney Furie, the director, have plundered and expurgated Billie Holiday for their own good purposes. And they’ve lucked out; they couldn’t help it. They’ve got a smash box-office rags-to-riches movie on their hands, and most of the credit has to go to the little girl from the Supremes who comes up with the most extravagant and compassionate virtuoso star turn of the year.

Every whisky breath she takes, each flutter of those heavy lids, all the unstudied nuance of her performance, each shrug of those exquisite shoulders, every ululation of the clavicles – it comes from a clairvoyant affinity for the period, the music, and most of all for the woman Billie Holiday might have been. Diana Ross’ achievement is not so much in bringing Billie Holiday back from the dead for a couple of hours in the dark; she has sought and found a Billie Holiday who never lived – beyond all the blues.

“I believe that if we had stuck straight to what we had in the book, we would’ve had a documentary about a lady that was just one tragedy after another. I read between the lines and I tried to find that other side of Billie Holiday that wasn’t in the book, that’s not on the back of album covers. I tried to find the person that Billie Holiday was at home, that very few people knew about.”

So Lady Sings the Blues isn’t all woe and dignified suffering, and Billie Holiday emerges as a lot more of a woman than the sacrificial burnt-out case of her autobiography. Sometimes she’s happy. Diana Ross has done her that favor. There was no honest poppa like Billy Dee Williams to bail Billie Holiday out every time she hit the pits – there were a lot of men who got away, burnt off by the pace, and a lot of them were mean to her. “Love is like a faucet,” one of her own songs goes, “It turns off and on/Sometimes when you think it’s on/It’s turned off and gone” – they’re all like that.

But Berry Gordy believes in making people happy. Not just because he’s moved zillions of Motown 45s that way, but because he’s a happy man, and he truly believes as an article of faith that what the world needs now is love – it’s his philosophy. That’s why he got Michel Legrand to write a heartstruck love theme for the picture.

“Because love is love. It’s universal. Love is love. Human beings are human beings. And Billie Holiday was a human being. A beautiful and lovely person who had a tragic life, but she felt like other people. In the darkest part of the ghetto, a person who falls in love with somebody else gets a certain feeling. And to me, and to Diana, Michel Legrand was capable of getting that feeling. It didn’t matter what color Billie Holiday was – everybody’s the same. They fall in love, you know. And when you fall in love you hear the same kind of bells she hears. It’s bells.

“So this picture is honest, but it’s not necessarily true. It’s true to Billie Holiday herself. We tried to make it just basically around Billie Holiday the person, and Louis McKay the person, and even his character was built up of three or four different guys to make an entertaining thing, you know. Otherwise we would have had a four-hour picture, and it would have been bits and pieces.

“I really wanted to bring her out as a person, as a human being, and show there were two sides. There were not all downs. Because while she was high and tragic and she got caught up in the whirlwind of dope, she was also a happy person, a funny person, and a loving person. I remember seeing Billie Holiday happy. Black people have happiness and joy even in tragedy. All people do! Blacks, Jews, any ethnic person. Even a junkie shooting up dope. And Diana can relate to that.”

She never shot up dope, that’s not what he means; she never got raped by a two-ton Zulu as a child. Diana escaped all the agonies and calamities that haunted Billie Holiday and destroyed her in the end. Diana had protection. Even down in the projects, way deep in the ghetto in Detroit where it freezes in the winter and fries in the summer, the family was intact and her father worked hard and she says she never knew it was the ghetto at all. She didn’t see too much pocket money but she could always manage to scare up a little extra change for maybe a pair of butterfly lashes, and all the kids played hide and seek in the halls and hung out on the stoops and got together underneath the street lights to sing the hits – Diana says it was paradise.

Her little brother Chico’s outside playing tennis; he gets a lot of swerve in the air on his service. He lives here in the house in the flatlands of Beverly Hills, her mother just went back to the Detroit house and next month her sister’s coming out to live, bringing the baby. Diana’s having another couple of bedrooms built on, for a total of five. It’s not a big house, not around here in the garden suburbs of paradise where they favor everything at least colossal, and it’s not lavishly upholstered. Just a modest five-bedroom fortress in poured concrete with no visible windows out front, and not such a big pool out back. Inside it’s white and soft fluorescent, the liqueurs twinkle blue and green and yellow in the mirror behind the bar, the rubber trees and flowering palms make an arbor for the pool table.

Diana’s sprawled on the rug saying how the way she approached Billie Holiday was pretty straightforward; she just imagined she was pretty much like her – maybe if she hadn’t had so many bad breaks, Billie might have led a charmed life too, if she’d had a little more help, somebody around like Berry Gordy Jr.

She doesn’t feel too glamorous today. She’s put on a little weight, and pops a button gliding onto the grand piano, but she still looks like she’d be lucky to hit a hundred pounds dripping wet. She’s talking about how she doesn’t quite know who she is right now – and above her is a huge poster, THE SUPREMES AT LINCOLN CENTER, 1965, and opposite a tapestry of Warhol’s Polaroid portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Every pose Diana strikes is an exquisitely suggestive erotic indiscretion – and nobody taught her to work her mouth like that. She’s spread-eagled on her back across the piano that she’s had resurfaced with antique mirrors just like one she saw in an old musical on TV.

“I’m lost,” she says, “I don’t know where I’m at.” She’s been reading a book called Man’s Search for Meaning. Luckily she doesn’t have to beat her brains out trying to figure it all out.

“You’ve got to have direction. I’m very lucky to have Berry. Because he decides what’s best for me to do. I give him total responsibility for those decisions. It makes it hard on him, I know, but he takes the time to really make sure he doesn’t make a wrong decision for me. He’s had this kind of a relationship with every other group, but I’m the only person that’s really let him have total control.

“It’s easier for me. I’ve trusted him so far in my career and he hasn’t made any mistakes and I’m not going to get ready now to tell him what to do. When I get to the point where I feel I have to tell him what to do, I’ll be ready to quit.

“We have the kind of relationship where we argue and fight constantly – I mean it’s not the type of thing where I have no say-so, that’s not it exactly. We fight and argue and the right one wins. And then he does what needs doing. We have marvelous teamwork. I told Berry once and I still believe it, that we’re a chain of two. Two links. He’s the thinker and I’m the doer. If he can think of it, I’ll do it. I’ll work my ass off to do it.”

Berry Gordy feels good. He’s done it again. It’s not much more than ten years now he came in off the street and started Motown from scratch and turned out to have a knack for it. BG, as it says on his shirts in a little diamond monogram down around the sixth rib, is the boss. He’s a dapper little guy in Hollywood leisurewear and a beard that makes him look like a black intellectual, and the head-first low-to-the-ground busy moves of an infighter and a bodypuncher who’s not past getting in a fast elbow now and then.

BG is lathered up about the picture, sitting on this stuffed leather occasional furniture at Diana’s house, preaching his philosophy. Diana herself has a cold, so she’s more or less fallen out for a minute, sprawled on her tummy across a nearby pouf, all exquisite sharp angles, not at all the way she was taught to sit back in Motown grooming school, but, as she says, that was when the Supremes were mere babes and they needed it, and besides, she’s forgotten a lot.

BG can’t hardly stop long enough to catch his breath. What he’s basically trying to get across is he believes in encouraging people to reach their maximum potential, the way he strives to do – that’s the simple Motown gospel – to reach the reachable star. And as for a lot of condescending talk about Diana Ross going way out of her league – he believes in upward mobility, he gave Diana Ross that opportunity of a lifetime because, as he says, “My thing is, people should have the opportunity to do any fucking thing they want.”

He knows potential when he sees it; it’s part of the knack. And he knows too, by the way, that for all the breakthroughs he’s made in the music business by seemingly single-handedly captaining a self-perpetuating and self-sufficient Motown monolith, a lot of people got ahead of themselves behind him and fell on their faces.

“Everything is rated on the past, see. And somebody has to break through. That’s what happened in the music business, and Hollywood is sort of like the music business was years ago. You’ve got to break through. But if the wrong person gambles and don’t break through, then of course it sets a lot of people back. You’ve got to have the ingredients. Just because I did it doesn’t mean the next man can do it.”

There has always been a Kremlin-like atmosphere about Motown. Detroit’s no place for a record company, they do everything on an assembly line there, but that’s where Berry Gordy grew up and that’s the way Motown always seemed to operate – like a factory. And behind those walls, in the winking half-light, a team of invisible experts made some of the best juke music ever, and artists by the litter. One terrific act after another, all of them schooled and groomed and lacquered and brilliantined and just generally whupped into scintillating shape and all in uniform. And now they’re breeding them younger than ever. The sixth kid in the Jackson 5 is only nine years old and already he’s looking like a winner. I saw him at the NAACP Black Image Awards at the Hollywood Palladium in his fitted tux, and come the sad day Michael Jackson hits puberty and that strident soprano loses it cutting edge, little Randy looks ready to step into the lineup.

And just like the Hollywood majors used to do, the towering dynasties and sultanates that once ran Hollywood, Motown keeps a firm, godfatherly hand on the talent. They don’t lock anybody up exactly, but there’s been some sinister talk and a lot of ominous intrigue, and it’s all because the Motown synthetic requires a totalitarian kind of approach. When you’re starting from scratch with three skinny high-school kids out of the projects and BG spies potential there and decides to encourage it, then there’s a lot of hard work to be done before they get to the Copa – a lot of dancesteps and routines and lessons from the deportment expert on just how a lady mounts a grand piano – “You have to, like, glide,” Diana recalls. At Motown, they have mastered the old Hollywood alchemy: They transform bright youngsters into opulent rhythmic phenomena, glittering like – stars. Of course, BG says it’s not really like that at all, he’s heard enough of that kind of thing.

“There are winners and there are losers, and there are heavyweights, middleweights, and lightweights. Diana has always been a heavyweight. She has been called the plastic queen of soul. But that’s a fallacy.”

It is true that Diana, along with Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, first got up the nerve to march into Motown and show their stuff when they were still in high school, and BG, unimpressed, packed them off and told them to come back after graduation. They did, they kept coming back, they used to clap in the background on a couple of sessions, they got $2 for that. At least, they should’ve got $2, but it never arrived, so they got worked up about it and went to see BG to ask him for their money. That’s when he spotted their potential.

“To a certain extent the Supremes were invented. To a certain extent. . . .”

The girls had been singing a little bit here and there, and on the block they met Smokey Robinson, and it was he that first introduced them to Berry. The Primettes they were called, because back then about 1963 there was a brief period when brother and sister groups were very popular, and Motown had a new act called the Primes at the time. The Primes changed their name to the Temptations, and the Primettes were left a little in the lurch, so they became the Supremes. More or less on the spur of the moment, in 1964, the girls had “Where Did Our Love Go” and it was a smash.

“We did have a little school. For choreography. And we had a lady who taught the girls how to talk and act and sit nicely. . . .”

You can picture it, some stern old dowager in an enormous hat and too many bracelets putting these foxy little starlets through their paces – Diana is walking around the room with a book on her head. She slips both legs demurely to one side as she sits for that kind of question-mark symmetry of posture. “How many times must I tell you, when a lady mounts a grand piano, she does not climb, Miss Ross. She glides!”

Whatever it was, the Motown charm school took the kinks out, and the Supremes came out just right, three little kittens with a lot of droll feline moves and long sharp nails, svelte, slinky and a little bit naughty, singing stuff like Are you just a breathtaking first night soul-shaking one night love-making next day heart-breaking guy . . .

They started out in a company road show called the MotorTown Revue, that used to play big theaters all over the country. This was the first big Motown show of strength, and all the acts were peaking at once. BG used to wake up in the middle of the night and there’d be a couple of quartets singing underneath his bedroom window. Everywhere he’d go they’d come out from behind the cigarette machine or somewhere and start dancing and snapping their fingers and begging for a break. Motown was hot, the action was fast and wired and the stakes were high – the hierarchy was likely to switch overnight. So that, to begin with, there’d be the bongos and Little Stevie Wonder would come on and open it, and then it would go on nonstop with the Marvelettes and the Contours, who had “Do You Love Me,” and Mary Wells and the Temptations and all the others and it would wind up with Smokey and the Miracles. He’d do that showstopper where he’d get down on one knee, and then right flat on the floor, singing, “A little bit softer now . . . a little bit softer now,” right down to where he was hardly whispering–and then he’d start to crank it up, “A little bit louder now . . . a little bit louder now,” until he was back up jumping and pumping full steam and the roof would fall in.

Smokey always closed the show, but behind him, the running order was always up to who had the biggest hits, so there was a lot of good healthy pushing and shoving in the ranks. The Contours started out right up there behind Smokey, but then they started to slip and the Temptations jumped a couple of places and Little Stevie started moving up and the Supremes only had the one record at the time so they started opening the show. Which has its advantages, because right from the start Diana was very quick to catch on and she learned fast. She’d sit there and watch what all the other acts did, some particular two-step reverse kick-and-swivel grandstand maneuver the Temptations might have, the way Stevie Wonder kind of half swallowed a key rhyme, any little winning trick at all–then she’d get up there in front and steal their thunder. Pretty soon she was getting down in her silver fishnets and going “A little bit softer now . . . a little bit louder now . . .”

“She stole everybody’s act,” says Berry. “When they came on, they looked ridiculous. They had to change their act every day. They all hated her.”

They came to BG and complained bitterly, and he straightened her out. But by then the Supremes had five hits in a row, and they were moving up in the Revue, right behind Smokey. They never did close the show, though.

Those first records were bobbydazzlers and sweet confections, things like “Baby Love” and “Where Did Our Love Go” and “Stop in the Name of Love,” most of them the work of Holland-Dozier-Holland, who later defected from Motown in a flurry of conspiracy and recrimination and nobody talks about them much anymore.

“Naturally, when you’ve got producers who are very creative, they bring out something of themselves in the person they’re producing, if the person is very good. On some songs, on ‘Baby Love’ and this and that, Diana sang like she was told to.”

She did what she was told and she walked like she was taught and she answered questions by recitation and she wore what they bought her and she didn’t go out with boys out of town and never went out alone and in every way she obeyed – they all did, and none as obediently as she. But even in the first few years of the Supremes, she just naturally knew what was best for her. She had absolute faith from the very first in the founding Motown principle: BG knows best. In the years Diana was with the Supremes, they had eleven Number One hits, a dozen gold records, half a dozen gold albums and a few platinum ones as well.

When she first quit the Supremes, she got lonely – she used to go and watch them a lot. She’d always been the one in the middle and she had long ago stepped out front of the other two – there was that sudden switch she pulled one night on a television special called TCB with the Supremes and the Temptations, where they just flashed a series of shots of Diana enraged and unbound, her Afro humming with untold combustible voltage, each pose more sultry and menacing than the last, every one a snapshot of terrifying and almost deadly Mau Mau beauty–and then she was revealed in a single soft spot, in a shimmer of pristine silver, singing “Someday/there’ll be a place for us.” But there was comfort in the Supremes, and some people thought she was taking a chance shedding her cover. She came out with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

That record, off her first solo album with the sinfully ironic picture on the front of Diana in the last throes of starvation and terminal Biafran rickets–they said it would ruin her image, but BG said no, maybe not, let’s put it on Sunset Boulevard a hundred feet high. That record, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” is one of the ten best singles ever made. Diana Ross, when she talks on a record in that petulant dirty whisper, could sell me anything. Diana’s solo records, under the direction of her new handlers Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, are some of the most gloriously melodramatic virtuoso pop since Phil Spector did the Righteous Brothers. Now and then she takes a turn for the worse – she’s a little too flutey and flighty to do much good with heartfelt rhythm and blues and she ends up crying tough when she takes on Aretha Franklin.

She’s not so easy to push around any more either. One time in Las Vegas she saw Sinatra’s show, and a few bars into “My Way” something was a little off, so Frank just said “OK! Hold it!” and he gave the band a little venom and then he started again from the top. If Diana doesn’t like the way her show is going, she’s likely to flare up the same way one of these nights. BG says she can get real bitchy about it.

Diana’s 28 now, married to a PR man called Bob Silberstein, the mother of two kids, one 15 months and another, Tracee Joy, born a few weeks ago. It’s been a couple of years now since she outgrew the Supremes and became Diana Ross full-time. And now she’s a movie star as well, and there are precious few of those left, and none who are as well-bred for the role as Diana.

She is living proof that stars who really shine are not born, they’re professionally made. After all, down in the ghetto in Detroit with six kids in the family and holes in the walls where the rain came in and roaches everywhere and Dad working two jobs at the garage – a pretty little fox like Diana could’ve been a hooker, like Billie Holiday.

“I could’ve been, that’s true. The girls that I did see that were prostitutes were beautiful ladies. They looked good. We kind of knew what they were doing but not really. They were nice people. It was a profession, you know. It would’ve been easy for me. Because it’s difficult to figure out ways to get out of what the white man calls the ghetto. Either black people end up being the best in sports, or else it’s show business. You know, we all got rhythm. Or some of the girls make their money to drive around in Cadillacs and have beautiful clothes by being prostitutes, selling their bodies. I knew a lot of pimps. It’s a possibility if I had’ve got strung out over one of these guys it could’ve been me. If I had fallen in love. . . .”

Berry Gordy and Diana were raised in the same part of darkest Detroit; they both remember the Shakers running the block – they were the local cut-and-rape street gang, and their chicks were called the Shakerettes. Billie Holiday was across town, at the Flame Showbar, and Berry used to go there all the time.

“Now everybody’s saying Diana Ross is Billie Holiday. But I could never be what the Lady was. After having known her . . .” But she never knew her, never saw her, just played her in a movie. Just did what she naturally would do if she were strung out and Billy Dee wouldn’t give her her stuff–tried to kill him. Diana’s performance in Lady Sings the Blues, getting back to it, is so devastating because it is the first time that Diana Ross has been unleashed. Right on top of her act, so brittle and highly evolved, the way a great athlete is before the 10,000 meters or a great heavyweight is before a title fight, so tuned up and wired, that when it came to do the film, she made it up as she went along, said things she’d never said before, and everything she did was just right. She’d done a great deal of homework – pinned pictures of Billie Holiday up all over the walls and stared at them for months and picked out telling little details like the candy bar on the dressing room table and what kind of candy bar it was, what kind of nail polish, the flask of vodka. She talked to a lot of people and read some books and listened to Billie sing until the inflections came to her easily. She had a lock on Billie Holiday, and she was ready to stretch out and let fly, and all that breeding and all the sheer cavalier confidence that comes from a long and unbroken line of colossal success, it all paid off.

The only thing is, she can’t get rid of this cold, it bothered her when she taped the Dinah Shore show the day before – and she can’t quite shake off this queasy feeling that it’s not her anymore. She hasn’t quite caught up with herself yet, but she doesn’t want to get up there in those ten thousand dollar gowns anymore, she’s a little tired of all the autographs and sunglasses. She’s not about to do Vegas in blue jeans, but she’s inclined to wonder about who she’s become, and whose – she’s been shimmying for more than ten years straight, she’s been zippered into more satin and silk and rhinestones and marcasites and feathers and furs than the best-dressed whore in the whole wide world and –

BG just smiles at her and says that’s a lot of crap.


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