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Diana Ross: Young Supreme Hit Maker, Then And Now

Icons | March 26, 2021

Posed studio portrait of Diana Ross circa 1970. (Photo by RB/Redferns)

Diana Ross, born and bred in Detroit, came to fame as the lead singer of Motown’s number one group, The Supremes. Ross and The Supremes still hold the title for the top-selling female group of all time with 12 number hit singles including "Where Did Our Love Go," "Baby Love," "Come See About Me," and "Love Child." Continuing on after leaving The Supremes, Ross’s one-of-a-kind voice brought to life major hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “I’m Coming Out,” and “Upside Down.” In an era and industry dominated by men, Ross made an indelible mark, becoming Billboard magazine’s "Female Entertainer of the Century” in 1967.

Something In The Water

Certainly, there was no mountain high enough for Ross. (Lasvegasweekly)

Diana Ross, actually born Diane Ross, grew up in the Brewster-Douglass Projects, a place that was low on money but not on talent. In the same low-income housing facility, Smokey Robinson, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and Betty McGlown all developed their famous sounds. Diana Ross’s sister, Barbara also became the first African-American woman named dean of a medical school.

Robinson even talked legendary Motown producer Berry Gordy into auditioning Ross and her girl group, then known as The Primettes, while they were still in high school. Gordy admitted in his autobiography that Ross’s voice "stopped me in my tracks" but didn’t sign the future Supremes until Ross was 16. 

Not An Instant Success

Even The Supremes didn't like their new name initially.(thejfblog)

Before Motown signed Ross and the then Primettes, they worked as backup singers. Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Marv Johnson, and the Marvelettes all used Ross and her childhood friends as backups. While the precocious girls hustled to make it in music, Ross served as the group's make-up artist, seamstress, hair stylist, and costume designer.

Eventually, Motown did sign the Primettes but only if they changed their name. At first, none of the women liked “The Supremes,” including Ross. They were concerned they’d be mistaken as a male group. Even after the rebranding, they struggled to find traction while rotating lead singer duties. It wasn’t until Motown permanently put Ross front and center that the group really took off. 

Starting as a secretary Diana Ross rose to Motown’s number one star. (dazed)

The Supremes' first hit came in 1963 with "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes," which peaked at 23 on Billboard’s hot 100 pop chart. They followed that up with "Where Did Our Love Go" which went all the way to number one. Those two songs paved the way for an incredible run of success from the summer of 1964 to May of ‘67. During that time The Supremes racked up 10 number one hit singles -- only the Beatles scored more chart-topping hits in the ‘60s.

Supreme Jealousy

The queen of Motown, Diana Ross. (Harperbazaar)

In ‘67 Gordy renamed The Supremes to Diana Ross & the Supremes. That allowed him to charge venues more for a solo star plus a backup group, a move instituted with a number of Motown groups like Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Unfortunately, the move created a tremendous amount of tension within the group. The acrimony between the ladies was so fierce that when the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Ross refused to attend because she did not want to share a stage with Mary Wilson. 

Solo Success

Diana Ross, perhaps the greatest to ever grace Motown. (TooYoung)

By 1969, Gordy decided it was past time for Ross to emerge as a solo star. Her first presumed solo record, "Someday We'll Be Together," was actually released as a Supremes single, notching yet another number one hit for the group. On her own, she continued to succeed at a seemingly endless rate. Her 1970 hit "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" became an anthem to many and has featured in countless movies. That year she also starred in her first solo television special which featured the Jackson 5, a group she was erroneously given credit for finding.

Crazy But True

Diana Ross admitted to feeling pressure from executives to stay skinny in her autobiography. (wendywilliams)

Over the course of her successful life and career, Ross created so much incredible music she was celebrated by the Guinness Book of Records. She sold more than 100 million albums and collected 70 hit singles along the way. She also became the only female artist ever to earn number one singles as a solo artist, as the other half of a duet, as a member of a trio, and as an ensemble member.

And her list of extraordinary achievements continues: She utilized Mr. T as a real bodyguard, received an Oscar nomination for her performance as Billie Holliday in Lady Sings the Blues, signed the largest record deal ever at the time -- $140 million -- for a female artist, and dated Kiss bassist Gene Simmons for three years. As if those feats and stories weren’t crazy enough, she’s recorded three number one hits in her 70s, her daughter Tracee Ellis Ross became a TV star, and her son married Ashlee Simpson. Clearly, Diana Ross and her entire family were fated for success.  

Tags: 1970s Music | Diana Ross | Motown | Music In The 1960s | Singers | The Supremes

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!