Berry Gordy is a powerful man. Not only did he found Motown Records, building a musical empire that allowed blacks to crossover into what had pretty much been a white-controlled music industry, but almost as amazing, he was able to convince a young Diana Ross that her crap doesn’t stink, and she has not deviated from that belief one iota over the past 45 or so years. In an industry of big egos, the one belonging to Miss Ross (remember, she must be addressed as such or you will be thrown out â€” and don’t you dare look her in the eyes!) is likely the biggest, and she has wielded it to not only obtain her huge success, but to build herself into a prick so immense that it would make porn stars gasp. Here are but a few examples of Miss Ross in action:
â€¢ While neither the best singer nor most attractive member of the Supremes, Ross did have one important thing up her sleeve, namely, Mr. Gordy’s penis. After unsuccessfully pursuing Smokey Robinson, Ross set her sights on (the married and 15 years older) Gordy. As the mistress of Motown’s founder, she was able to gain full power over the group, becoming its lead singer, getting its name changed to Diana Ross & the Supremes, and upstaging the other members, eventually leaving and employing the full power of the Motown promotional machine behind her solo career, while the Supremes were left to sputter out slowly over the course of the ’70s. Ross, meanwhile, ended up bearing Gordy’s child in 1971, but did not publicly acknowledge who the real father was for 22 years, until she released and was promoting her autobiography (which actually didn’t mention who the father was, either).
â€¢ Not only did she upstage the other Supremes throughout their career, she upstaged former Supreme Florence Ballard at Ballard’s own funeral. She went up to the front of the church during the service, grabbed the mike, and announced that she and Mary Wilson were going to lead a silent prayer. Wilson at the time was in a back pew and had no idea what was going on.
â€¢ In 1983, she agreed to do a one-off Supremes reunion with Wilson and Cindy Birdsong (Ballard’s replacement in the group) for the Motown 25 TV special. But Ross said she would only do one song instead of the requested four, and refused to practice for it. She also wanted the other two women behind her throughout the song, and when Wilson, who wasn’t informed of Ross’ demand, tried to step forward during the performance, Ross shoved her (this part was cut out of the final broadcast).
â€¢ In 2000, she announced that there would finally be a Supremes reunion tour with Wilson and Birdsong, but the other two women refused to take part in it when they received the Ross-approved financial breakdown: $20 million in full tour appearance fees with $15 million going to Ross, $4 million to Wilson, and $1 million to Birdsong. Ross proceeded to then get two other former Supremes to join her (women who had joined the group in the mid-’70s long after Ross had left), and then explained at a press conference that it was a viable reunion because the Supremes were an “ever-changing unit.” Needless to say, fans were unhappy, and the tour was canceled halfway through its proposed itinerary due to low ticket sales.
On top of that, there are a litany of other tales: the explosions in airports and on airplanes, including trying to sneak her dog on a flight hidden in a hatbox, then beating a stewardess with the box while her dog was still in it when the attendant told her she couldn’t bring the box on board because it was barking; constantly firing staff members, including one time firing the entire eight-person staff who served her apartment after an unflattering story about her private behavior appeared in the papers â€” then sending out a swath of letters trying to blacklist all the staff members from working again; giving her building’s manager, staff, etc. a Christmas bonus consisting of an autographed copy of her latest album (cost to Miss Ross: zilch). I could go on, but my teeth are being worn down in fits of rage. Suffice it to say, Miss Ross is a grade-A asshole.
Also, suffice it to say, she has put out her share of good music over the course of time; though, honestly, never a really strong album, either with the Supremes, or as a solo artist. She has always been a tremendous singles artist, but a combination of weaker material, “problematic” arrangements (see Jon Cummings’ Worst #1 Songs of the 70s for proof of this), and Ross’ somewhat limited and nasally voice has kept her from assembling a solid disc from front to back. There is one exception, though: the Good Album for this Bad Person; and that’s 1980’s Diana.
Written and produced by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, and performed by their band, Chic, Diana was a consistent, catchy album. Gone were the maudlin ballads and safe pop workouts. Instead the tight, eight-song, 34-minute album contained tracks combining funk, post-disco dance jams, and even a bit of proto-new-wave arrangements. Two of the most upbeat songs became top 10 smashes: “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out.” All in all, it was a solid piece of work, and in my opinion, Ross’s LP highpoint.
Miss Ross couldn’t leave well enough alone. As such, there is a better version of this album than the one the public is familiar with. You see, after hiring Chic to write and produce an album for her, Ross dismissed the mix that Edwards and Rodgers turned in as sounding too much like “A Chic album featuring Diana Ross,” and personally oversaw the remixing of the album, making it more “mainstream”: songs were sped up, instrumental sections were shortened, the rhythm section was buried lower in the mix, and Ross’s vocals were redone to sound sweeter. In effect, Ross realized she didn’t want a Chic album, but a regular Diana Ross album with Chic-lite arrangements. The fact the album still holds up in its final form just shows the strength of the material and those who actually created it.
Not surprisingly, Edwards and Rodgers went ballistic, after having turned in what they were asked to do, then having their sound weakened. They demanded that their names be taken off as producers, not wanting to be labeled as responsible for the final product. In the end, Miss Ross won that battle, too, though you’ll be damned if you can find any footage of Ross performing any of the songs with Chic.
It wasn’t until 2003, with the “Deluxe” release of Diana, that people were able to hear the original Chic mix of the album, with its deeper grooves and original Ross vocals, which are more laid back and rawer, and fit the songs better than her re-recordings fit the remix. Compare, for instance, the well-known version of “I’m Coming Out” to the original Chic mix. For an even more dramatic change, compare the final version of “Friend to Friend” to the original Chic mix, with the full rhythm section intact, and Rodgers’ very progressive guitar solo up front. It goes to show (at least I think it does) that a Bad Person can hurt a Good Album, as ego gets in the way of a superior product, making tough into smooth, ballsy into safe, and possibly even art into merely product.