Ross, Diana Earle

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ROSS, Diana Earle

(b. 26 March 1944 in Detroit, Michigan), lead singer of the Supremes, who symbolized the success of the Motown sound on pop and rhythm and blues (R&B) record charts as the most popular female vocal group of the 1960s.

Born to Fred and Ernestine Earle Ross in Detroit, Ross grew up on the city's east side with her five siblings. Her father was active in the labor movement through his factory job at the American Brass Company and as a leader of United Auto Workers Local 174. Her mother, a domestic worker for families in the Grosse Pointe suburbs, had recurring bouts with tuberculosis that occasionally sent her away from the family to recover. The Ross children often joined their mother and extended family in Bessemer, Alabama. One such trip in the early 1950s gave Ross her first experience with Jim Crow racial segregation when the children were forced to change seats and move to the back of the bus at Cincinnati, the demarcation between North and South.

Ross studied fashion design and cosmetology at Detroit's premier public high school, Cass Technical, and graduated in 1962. By that time she was already pursuing a professional career as a singer. Acquainted with a number of musicians from her neighborhood on Belmont Street, including William "Smokey" Robinson, Ross began to sing informally with new friends she made after her family moved into the Brewster-Douglass housing project in 1958. With Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Betty McGlowan, Ross formed the Primettes in the spring of 1959 as a girl group to accompany the Primes, later known as the Temptations. McGlowan left the group after a few months and was replaced by Barbara Martin. As a foursome, the Primettes auditioned for Robinson at Motown Records in 1959, but were disappointed when the company's founder and owner Berry Gordy, Jr., advised them to finish high school before pursuing a career in music.

Undeterred, the group achieved its first success as the winners of the Emancipation Celebration talent show in Windsor, Ontario, on 1 August 1960. In January of the following year the women signed a contract with Motown under a new group name, the Supremes. Martin left the group shortly thereafter, and Ross, Ballard, and Wilson carried on as a trio. Between March 1961 and October 1963 the group released a series of singles that failed to make any significant impact outside Detroit. "When the Love-light Starts Shining Through His Eyes," which hit number twenty-three on the pop charts in early 1964, finally relieved the group of its nickname around Motown, "The No-Hit Supremes." Invited to join the Motortown Revue on a concert tour in the summer of 1964, the group's experience in the South revived Ross's childhood memories of Jim Crow. The tour received threats by the Ku Klux Klan that turned violent when its bus was fired on after a concert in Montgomery, Alabama.

By the time the Motortown Revue was over, the Supremes had the number-one single in the country with "Where Did Our Love Go?" This was followed by four consecutive chart toppers through 1965: "Baby Love," the group's biggest hit, with four weeks at number one; "Come See About Me"; "Stop! In the Name of Love"; and "Back in My Arms Again." With driving drumbeats and bass lines, and arrangements that put Ross's distinctive vocals up front, the Supremes' chart-dominating singles represented the pinnacle of the Motown sound. The mix of R&B and pop elements was designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience, an approach demonstrated by the slogan that appeared on Motown's record labels, "The Sound of Young America." Although some critics attacked Motown for pandering to mainstream tastes, it became the most successful business owned by African Americans in the United States, and to many it symbolized the gains of the civil rights movement during the 1960s.

Decked out in evening gowns and the latest hairstyles, the Supremes became a staple of television variety shows and youth-oriented music programs. The group made eighteen appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show alone between December 1964 and December 1969. After their initial run of five chart-topping singles, they returned to the top of the charts with "I Hear a Symphony" in 1965; "You Can't Hurry Love" and "You Keep Me Hangin' On" in 1966; and "Love Is Here and Now You're Gone" and "The Happening" in 1967. After a name change to "Diana Ross and the Supremes," and the departure of Florence Ballard in mid-1967, Ross and Wilson performed with Cindy Bird-song. Most of the group's hits stayed safely within youthful, romantic territory, but the Supremes ventured into social commentary on illegitimacy with the 1968 number-one single "Love Child." The group returned to romantic balladry for its last number-one hit, "Someday We'll Be Together," released in October 1969. The most successful Motown act and female vocal group of the decade, the Supremes reached the top of the pop charts twelve times between 1964 and 1969.

Ross's career with the Supremes was notable not only for the string of number-one hits, but for her iconic presence as a role model for African Americans during a decade of social change. Indeed, by the end of the 1960s Ross was the most famous African-American woman in the performing arts. Looking back at her achievements with the Supremes in the 1960s, Ross was proud of her contribution to the gains made by the civil rights movement during the decade. As she wrote in her 1993 memoir Secrets of a Sparrow, "We were already crossing color lines and breaking racial barriers.… Since both blacks and whites were listening to, loving, and enjoying the music, we were actively changing the world by doing what we loved best—singing."

After a farewell concert in Las Vegas, Nevada, on 14 January 1970, Ross pursued a successful solo singing career that achieved six additional number-one pop hits. Ross also debuted as a dramatic actress with her Academy Award-nominated role as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues in 1972. Ross married businessman Robert Silberstein in January 1971. They had two daughters (one daughter, born during their marriage, was fathered by Berry Gordy), and divorced in 1976. On 23 October 1985 Ross married for the second time, to Norwegian shipping magnate Arne Naess, Jr., and they had two sons. Ross and Naess divorced in February 2000. Ross remains one of the most popular concert performers in Europe and the United States. The Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

Ross's autobiography is Secrets of a Sparrow: Memoirs (1993). Biographies of Ross include J. Randy Taraborrelli, Call Her Miss Ross: The Unauthorized Biography of Diana Ross (1989). Histories of Motown Records include Nelson George, Where Did Our Love Go?: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound (1985); Suzanne E. Smith, Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (1999); and Kingsley Abbott, ed., Calling Out Around the World: A Motown Reader (2001). Mary Wilson published a memoir, Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme (1986). A list of the Supremes' chart singles appears in Joel Whitburn, ed., The Billboard Book of Top Forty Hits, 6th ed. (1996).

Timothy Borden