Diana Ross has enjoyed the kind of career that an interviewer such as Oprah Winfrey feels comfortable explaining to a mass audience — you know, Diana has stayed glamorous because real glamour comes from inside. And that's a shame, since Ross means something as a pure singer and a gloriously impure product of the Motown factory system of rhythm-and-blues. At this point, Ross is perhaps as unknowable to music fans as Michael Jackson or the recently departed Whitney Houston. And that makes Ross a perfect pop icon: the soul singer as pure cipher.
Over the years, Ross has come a long way from the state in which rock writer Nik Cohn found her in 1969. As Cohn described the group Ross headed in the '60s and early '70s, "They sing the right notes, smile the right smiles and move like synchronized robots." That's fair enough, and Cohn went on to praise Ross' singing and The Supremes' ability to make hits — they were perhaps the ultimate Motown group.
I like The Supremes' hits — who doesn't? The 1964 single "Baby Love" has endured Frank Zappa's infamous parody of the song with his group of synchronized robots, The Mothers of Invention, and there's little '60s pop that is more calculatingly brilliant than 1969's "Someday We'll Be Together." And certainly, Ross added a lot to the records, both as a sly, sexy vocalist and as the image of the modern, urban African-American woman who remains cool and in control, just as Oprah likes it.
Still, you'll forgive me if I detect little true personality in those Supremes records. As monuments to the Motown production style, they're true works of art and very good songs. It's just that Ross herself is in no way a competitor to, say, Aretha Franklin or Mavis Staples as a soul singer.
Later on, Ross and her mentor, Motown executive Berry Gordy, attempted to update the image of the troubled jazz singer Billie Holiday in the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues. You guessed it: Ross played Holiday. It's not a bad movie, but it mostly proves how far Ross was from being the kind of inner-directed, fiercely individualistic vocalist Holiday always was, even before there was an Oprah around to ask questions about the perils of feminine glamour.
If you suspect I'm having a little fun at Oprah's expense, you're right. But I wouldn't dream of making light of Diana Ross' achievement, even if I do have my doubts about that inner-glamour business. Motown specialized in making soulful, sophisticated records that always seemed a touch dumber than they actually were, and Ross' work with The Supremes definitely had its progressive side — they were records made by African-Americans who identified with both jazz in its purest form and with Wonder Bread. After all, they're both good for you.
Ross' post-Supremes career has had its moments, despite the overall blandness of what is some pretty Wonder Bread-like music. Producers Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson headed up Ross' self-titled 1970 Motown album, but it replaced the verve of the great Supremes singles with a mannered, cooled-out approximation of soul music that is unnerving to contemplate. And then there's Everything Is Everything, another 1970 effort that featured some Beatles tunes and a Bacharach and David song The Carpenters had already done better.
Lady Sings the Blues actually stands as one of Ross' better records, as does the 1971 full-length Surrender, which found Ashford and Simpson doing their best to provide Ross with a sort of avant-Broadway setting for her vocals. By 1977's Baby It's Me, Ross had exhausted her previous supper-club-soul formula, with producer Richard Perry unable to turn the former Supreme into a great musical interpreter for her time.
As befits a singer who has always depended upon savvy production for maximum effect, Ross' 1980 collaboration with the great disco band Chic remains her masterpiece. On Diana, guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards provided the perfect minimalist backdrop for Ross, who almost approached the level of Chic's regular vocalist Alfa Anderson throughout the record. After that, Ross released a hits record and the strange 1989 full-length Workin' Overtime — another collaboration with Rodgers, and an oddly corporate piece of work.
You know the rest — by this point, Ross is a respected elder whose most recent tours have been greatest-hits extravaganzas with the regal and, yes, eternally glamorous Miss Ross in control. I have to wonder, though, at a world in which Alfa Anderson or the equally wonderful post-soul vocalist Cory Daye aren't as well known as Ross or Whitney Houston. As always, the difference is the sort of meaningful idiosyncrasy that marks Anderson's work with Chic or Daye's with Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band and Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Daye's 1979 Cory and Me is a minor masterpiece of the disco era, for example.
I simply don't hear that kind of attention to musical detail in Ross' work, nor did I ever discern much of it in the recordings of the late Houston. Whitney Houston was an excellent singer with blank taste in material — I could live the rest of my life without ever hearing her version of "I Will Always Love You" again, and I even think it's a good song. At least Ross benefited from the Motown apparatus that toiled behind her, and had the good sense to work with Rodgers and Edwards. All the rest is glamour, and sometimes glamour really just means a kind of glare that keeps you from seeing beneath the surface, where the really interesting things lie.