The Force Behind The Power: Jazz, Joy, and Social Vision in the Work of Diana Ross

By Daniel Garrett

Diana Ross, Stolen Moments
Motown, 1993, 2002

Diana Ross, Forever: Musical Memoirs
Motown, 1993

“I don’t think people know about my faith. It has a lot to do with who I am, how I raise my family, how I live. I was brought up in a religious family. I don’t preach to people; if you have to talk about god all the time, I don’t know if you’ve got it. I’m always in prayer. I didn’t have to be born again. Everything I do is part of my ministry.” Diana Ross, “Pop Life,” The New York Times, November 17, 1993.

“If there’s some attack being made on me about being a strong woman, it’s about the image of women—not about being Diana Ross—just women who take responsibility for their lives and don’t allow themselves to be pushed around.” Diana Ross, Attitude, Vol. 1, No. 5, 1994


Jazz has been described variously as improvisational music, as the marriage of African rhythms and European instruments, as the child of ragtime and blues, as swing, as bebop, as the music of the past, as the music of the moment, as the creation of men such as Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, as African-American classical music, as art music, as dance music, as sick, as dead, as reborn. It is one of those things about which it’s said, “I know it when I hear it.”

On December 4, 1992 at the Ritz Theatre in New York Diana Ross performed and recorded an evening of live jazz standards with musicians that included trumpeter Roy Hargrove, bassist Ron Carter, trombonist Urbie Greene, saxophonist Ralph Moore, drummer Grady Tate, pianist Bobby Tucker, and trumpeter Jon Faddis, among others. Faddis and Gil Askey acted as musical directors. The recording of that event, The Lady Sings Jazz and Blues: Stolen Moments, produced by Ben Sidran, was first released in 1993, and it was recently remastered and re-released to coincide with Ross’s birthday in March 2002. Ross’s first solo album, along with an album of her singing Rodgers and Hart songs as part of the Supremes, were re-released with bonus tracks around the same time. When Stolen Moments was first released I thought it a good recording—with a charming, intelligent, sensuous, occasionally moving performance from Ross, and full of wonderful arrangements passionately played—but I faulted Ross for not bringing enough wisdom to her singing.

I thought that her versions of “Them There Eyes,” “What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” and “Our Love is Here to Stay” were songs to fall in love with and fall in love to. In “You’ve Changed,” she registers a slowly growing realism, though it lacks the strikingly unpleasant shock Billie Holiday inflected it with. “Strange Fruit,” is sung mostly a cappella, an impressive moment. However, I thought that although Ross, like Ella Fitzgerald, invested her songs with an immediacy and energy which make lyrics seem transparently alive, I could not lose the sense that she failed to invest her lyrics with wisdom.

I was right and wrong about Ross and Stolen Moments —and wrong because I was preoccupied with my own intellectual concerns and possibly wrong because I was influenced by certain prejudices then in the air.

Diana Ross has recorded and released more than sixty albums of music; she has sung songs of love, and she has sung songs with a social perspective, songs that give voice to a social hope or problem. Her first single as a solo artist was “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” which had as a lyric, “Would I be talking to stone if I asked you to share a problem that’s not your own? We can change things, if we start giving.”

Ross herself was quoted in Essence magazine as saying “Over the years I have discovered that my career is about giving. Loving and giving make things grow and grow beautifully. It’s my pleasure to give pleasure.” (Essence, December 1980) It is a career that began when she was one of several young women singing as part of the group The Supremes for Motown Records. Motown was many things, creative and capitalist, a place in which the people there were sometimes friends and lovers as they worked to create a contemporary music that they hoped would be popular, allowing them to fulfill dreams of achieving a public identity as performers, glamour, and success. In some ways it had the kind of atmosphere that is idealized in many art movements, schools, and businesses. “Motown was an idea-oriented company. Berry Gordy used to have these morning meetings, and they were like brainstorming sessions,” said Ross. (Billboard, October 23, 1993) The Supremes have long been considered the most successful women’s singing group of all time, and Ross was the center of it; and her voice had its charm and its limitations and it was the most distinctive. Ross was also known then as the hardest of workers, something others—from Berry Gordy to Quincy Jones to Aretha Franklin—have commented on with respect over the years. “I think in a sense I provided a lot of the energy. Whenever the other two didn’t want to do recording sessions, I was in the studio, even if I had to sing with other girls,” said Ross. (Lear’s, March 1992)

Songwriter Ron Miller would say, “Diane would work twenty hours a day with me to come up with something that would be a hit.” (Diana, J. Randy Taraborrelli with Reginald Wilson and Darryl Minger, Doubleday, 1985, page 53) Lamont Dozier with Brian Holland and Eddie Holland wrote many of the songs performed by the Supremes. Dozier has said, “Diana would create and make songs come alive. Unlike a lot of Motown artists, she was very sensitive to a lyric. She’d go off in a corner by herself and mull over a song and then come back with a total understanding of what we wanted to say. And then she’d deliver it, usually in one take. She lived the songs, made them hers, and after she finished with a song, it was hers.” (Diana, Taraborrelli, Wilson, and Minger, page 73)

During the 1960s, Ross recorded songs such as Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” (We Remember Sam Cooke, 1964), about hardship and hope for change, “Love Child” (Love Child, 1968), about a girl who doesn’t want to become pregnant and continue a family pattern of births outside of marriage, “Does Your Mama Know About Me” (Love Child, 1968), about a young woman involved in an interracial relationship, “A Place in the Sun” (Diana Ross and the Supremes Join the Temptation, 1968), about a day when society will welcome all, and “I’m Livin’ In Shame” (Let the Sunshine In, 1969), about class shame and a woman who hides her past from her husband. “Love Child” and “I’m Livin’ In Shame” were written by Pamela Sawyer, Frank Wilson, and R. Dean Taylor with others, and “Does Your Mama Know About Me” was written by Tom Baird and T. Chong. To these songs, Ross brought empathy, imagination, a sense of truth, and theatrical instincts; and she sounds entirely caught in the situations she sings of. As well, the Supremes recorded a public service announcement, “Things are Changing,” produced by Phil Spector for the Equal Employment Opportunity Campaign in 1966 to encourage people to seek their goals, and the Supremes endorsed Hubert Humphrey for president in 1968. They also performed at benefits for charities, something Ross continues to do, but image was more often the topic of media coverage: at one press conference Ross was asked if the hair on her head was her own and she answered, “Yes, it is—I bought it.”

Ross left the group in 1970 and released her first solo album, with many others to follow. For Touch Me In the Morning (1973), she recorded John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a song that asks the listener to imagine a world without nations and without religion; and she also recorded Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Brown Baby” in medley with Marvin Gaye’s “Save the Children.” Ross told journalist David Nathan about those recordings, “I was having babies and I wanted to do some songs for my children.” (Billboard, October 23, 1993) In “Brown Baby” she sings, “I want you to live by the justice code. I want you to walk down that freedom road brown baby.”

Ross has said, “I think racism is all about pecking order, putting someone down so you can feel bigger and better about yourself.” (Lear’s, March 1992) Through songs such as “Brown Baby” (and, arguably, on Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” on 1984’s Swept Away) she imagines full citizenship and full lives for her children, and implicitly for the children of others. “Being a woman, being black, I’ve known what it is like to grow up being different. What’s important is to focus on self-worth and to believe in yourself,” Ross would say years later. (Attitude, Vol. 1, No. 5, 1994)

Motown produced Lady Sings the Blues in 1972 with Ross starring as Billie Holiday. Motown-owner Berry Gordy said, “This picture is honest, but it’s not necessarily true…I wanted to bring Billie Holiday 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 all caught up in the whirlwind of dope, she was also a happy person, a funny person, and a loving person. I remember Billie Holiday happy.” (Rolling Stone, February 1, 1973) Film critic Pauline Kael agreed saying, “Factually, it’s a fraud, but emotionally it delivers.” Kael said of Ross: “Diana Ross, a tall, skinny goblin of a girl, intensely likable, always in motion, seemed an irrational choice for the sultry, still Holiday, yet she’s like a beautiful bonfire: there’s nothing to question—you just react with everything you’ve got.” (Kael, The New Yorker, November 4, 1972) Kael, however, wrote that she was afraid the pop treatment of Holiday’s jazz work might obscure Holiday’s legacy, and urged film viewers to go back to Holiday’s work. The film did stimulate renewed interest in Holiday’s music, with out-of-print albums being reissued and other singers performing tributes to Holiday. Ross would perform a few songs from the film over the years in concert and on television specials.

It’s interesting that in the early 1970s after doing the film Lady Sings the Blues (1972), for which she recorded “Strange Fruit,” about the lynching of black people in the American south, Ross would admit to Rolling Stone (February 1, 1973) that she felt a bit lost, mentioning that she was reading Man’s Search for Meaning. Having submerged herself in another woman’s life, Billie Holiday’s, for the film, and having been married and having become a mother, along with continuing fame, made her look again at her life and try to ascertain whether she was moving in the right direction.

“Last Time I Saw Him,” about a woman whose lover leaves town in search of better opportunities, became a popular song for Ross in 1973, but she also recorded and released as a single soon after, in 1974, “Sleepin’,” a song written by Ron Miller and Terry Etlinger about a woman involved with a man addicted to drugs, a man who put “too much joy’ in his veins, a man who “never learned a fix don’t fix a thing.” Ross’s narration of “Sleepin’” moves through various states—by turns she is conversational, tender, fierce, or expressive of childlike self-delusion—and closes with a grieving tenderness.

Diana Ross starred in Mahogany in 1975 as a designer/model discovered and made famous by a disturbed photographer. Some of the most interesting aspects of the film regard how her character’s ambitions are not encouraged by those closest to her: the service she can provide others is seen as more important than what she might do for herself, the kind of sacrifice women were traditionally expected to make and which the feminist movement critiqued. (Vincent Canby in the October 10, 1975 New York Times called Ross “Motown’s biggest single natural resource, the incomparable Diana Ross, whose years as a singing Supreme must, I suspect, have something to do with the ease with which she has turned into such a dynamic film performer.” He described Ross as having “a furious gutsiness and a ribald humor that, when they surface, make Mahogany a lot more entertaining than the material has any right to be.”)

Self-sacrifice. During An Evening with Diana Ross (1977), Ross mentions admiring Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lorraine Hansberry and others. In Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, the daughter Beneatha wants to become a doctor, and when the family comes into money her brother wants it used to invest in a liquor store rather than for her studies, and in an argument Beneatha says, “What do you want from me, brother—that I quit school or just drop dead, which!?” Later when talking with her mother, Beneatha says, “Mother you don’t understand. It’s all a matter of ideas, and god is just one idea I don’t accept. It’s not important. I am not going out and commit crimes or be immoral because I don’t believe in god.” Her mother slaps her and tells her to repeat, “In my mother’s house there is still god,” and Beneatha does. (Hansberry, Raisin in the Sun, Signet/Penguin, 1994, pages 27 and 77) Conservative ideas and practices can preserve what is valuable in a person and in a culture, but they can also be used to resist growth, destroy new possibilities, and repress people, especially women.

(Ross once joked in concert that when someone asked whatever happened to the girl from Detroit’s Brewster Projects, the girl she had been once, she answered, “Who?” No doubt the person asking did not know or recall that when Ross did live there she spent time studying fashion illustration, going to modeling classes, and rehearsing her singing—and that a job she got in a local department store integrated that store, one of many Ross firsts.)

During the 1970s Ross participated in the consciousness-raising Erhard Seminars Training, and would even visit Swami Muktananda in India. One of the ideas she came in contact with is that there is divinity in each person.

By the end of the decade Ross would begin singing songs of unmistakable self-affirmation. On the album, The Boss (1979), which included songs written and produced by the husband and wife team Ashford and Simpson after consultation with Ross, there are several such songs: “I Ain’t Been Licked,” in which she sings, “Hold down the gangway, so they’ll see that it’s me. I know they wonder about my recovery. Yes I lost a love that promised happiness. What my heart wouldn’t accept put me to the test. They keep a holdin’ me down, but I rise. Yes it can be done. They keep a holdin’ me down, but I rise.” She closes the album with “I’m in the World,” singing, “My light gets dim then it glows” and “I’m here and I won’t apologize.” And “All for One” affirms a communal view: “all for one, and one for all, let’s try, let’s try.”

On the album produced by Chic (Bernard Edwards, Nile Rodgers), 1980’s diana, she sings “I’m Coming Out,” with the lines, “I’m spreadin’ love, there is no need to fear,” a song of self-affirmation that has been taken as an anthem by same-sex lovers. (Years later Ross would say, “I don’t judge people by their sexual orientation or the color of their skin, so I find it really hard to identify someone by saying that they’re a gay person or a black person or a Jewish person. And I think I’ve raised my children to know that there are good people and bad people.” The Advocate, May 11, 1999)

Ross’s voice on “I’m Coming Out” is thoroughly relaxed and yet full of energy and joy, sweet and sensuous and confident, with her diction as always clear and intelligent, and it’s not hard to believe that this is how it sounds to be free.

There are singers who regularly yell and scream and some people think that is the sound of freedom. Ordinarily I wouldn’t think of someone yelling and screaming as being free—I’d think of him/her as being disturbed, understandably or not. I identify freedom with choice, pleasure, thought. A writer I like once said that African Americans spend a great deal of time in pain and rage, and if this is so, the appeal of artists who express such feelings in public might be said to perform a service. However, an artist who sings of joy is singing of the possibility of healing and health, of the fact of health, and this too is a service, though it may be resented by those who’ve become addicted to pain and rage. (Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will, Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote.)

Diana Ross would also record “It’s My Turn” in 1980, singing “If living for myself is what I’m guilty of, go on and sentence me, I’ll still be free” and “I’ve given up the truth to those I’ve tried to please but now it’s my turn” and “if I should get lost at least I’ll own today.” Her voice is both fragile and determined.

Ross left Motown and signed with RCA, and in 1982 recorded for the Silk Electric album a reggae song she helped to write with Janie Bradford and Freddie Gorman, “I Am Me,” with the lines “Should I fail and come to my ruin or if I succeed, it’ll be, be my doin’.” Such songs coincided with both the Reagan era, which was associated with narcissism and greed, and also with the increasing prominence of black feminism as represented by All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, edited by Hill, Scott, and Smith (Feminist Press, 1982), When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America by Paula Giddings (Morrow, 1984), and Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins (Routledge, 1991).

In Central Park, Diana Ross gave a free concert in 1983 attended by more than five-hundred-thousand people, and she donated money to renovate one of the park’s playgrounds. The attendance was not only a sign of her popularity; it was a sign of power, what an activist I knew called unused power. Such a display of power may have alarmed some people.

Ross released the album Swept Away in 1984 and not long after participated in the recording of the song “We Are the World” with singers and musicians such as Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and Dionne Warwick, a song released to raise money to aid starving Ethiopians. It would raise millions of dollars.

(Ross had been famous for a long time without being thoroughly known; she had mystique. Former Supreme Mary Wilson’s memoirs full of resentment of Ross, and an unsympathetic and crudely written book by J. Randy Taraborrelli, Call Her Miss Ross, both published during the 1980s, would repeat old rumors and damage the general public’s sense of Ross’s personality. Where there had been mystique, Wilson and Taraborrelli put in place the image of a b-itch goddess. After complaints about singer-actress Barbra Streisand expressing her opinions on her film sets were publicized in the 1970s, complaints about her exercise of power, Barbra Streisand had been quoted as saying that America seems to have the need to create a b-itch goddess. The philosopher Plato has Socrates say in Apology that fighting old rumors is like fighting shadows.)

Ross returned to Motown with 1989’s Workin’ Overtime album. The title song has the lines, “When I was just a girl, I found a way to raise the level of my self-esteem. I learned how to say I will be proud. I see a me that will always achieve…One idea can last forever and here’s the only way that I can prove it, by workin’ overtime.” Also on the album is “What Can One Person Do,” which says, “What can one person do? More than a little bit, more than a little bit” and “Everybody’s gotta move what they can move.”

Not long before Ross released 1991’s The Force Behind the Power album, she was interviewed by African-American woman journalist Jill Nelson for The Daily News (USA Weekend, June 21-23, 1991). In the interview, Ross said, “Someone once said that I ‘invented myself,’ and that rubbed me the wrong way. That seems so contrived, unreal, phony. I don’t think who I am is phony at all. You don’t create your life that way. You just live your life and keep being true to yourself. I feel like I’m just evolving, becoming.” She admitted to being “a perfectionist. I am a detail person, an idea person.” Nelson notes that Ross’s ambitions and self-assertion would be applauded in someone of a different social profile: “It would be merely ironic, if it weren’t also sexist and racist, that if Ross were the white, male head of a Fortune 500 company these characteristics would be applauded. Instead because she’s a woman—and a sexy, uppity, black one at that—they are disdained.”

Individuals are sometimes feared or disliked for their individuality, especially when they are not part of a social group that traditionally gets privileges in a society; and distinguished individuals are not only admired but feared and disliked both by the majority and minority population in a society. Ross’s success has sometimes been used to explain the failure of others, as if they are inextricably linked, like cause and effect. (The fact that others lacked her particular talents and drive is often overlooked. For instance, none of former Supremes Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard’s solo recordings have been even slightly successful; and no music critic has yet argued for their importance as singers.) In Toni Morrison’s Sula, a country girl who has gone to the city and returned, Sula, is independent and her independence seen as evil. Morrison writes, “Their conviction of Sula’s evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another. They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in general band together against the devil in their midst.” (Sula, Plume/Penguin, 1982, pages 117-118) A woman is turned into a scapegoat and thus people are at least temporarily unified, a unity of resentment, even hatred. Obviously, a unity based on individuality, pleasure, and respect is better—wiser and probably more lasting.

What were Sula’s faults? That she was aging well. That she was sexually free. That she put her grandmother in a home rather than have the woman, who intentionally burned her own son alive, live with her. What was the worst thing Sula did? That wasn’t a fact, but a rumor. “But it was the men who gave her the final label, who fingerprinted her for all time. They were the ones who said she was guilty of the unforgivable thing—the thing for which there was no understanding, no excuse, no compassion…They said that Sula slept with white men. It may not have been true, but it certainly could have been. She was obviously capable of it. In any case, all minds were closed to her when that word was passed around.” (Sula, page 112) Well, Ross has been married twice thus far, and both times to men of European descent (one Norwegian, one an American Jew), white men; and it’s possible that some of the suspicion about her rests not only with her ambition, or the light spirit she brings to many songs, but with this fact. Some African Americans, and even other Americans, might see such an association as racial treason. (In her book The Black Unicorn, the poet Audre Lorde wrote in “Between Ourselves,” a poem, “When you impale me/upon your lances of narrow blackness/before you hear my heart speak/mourn your own borrowed blood/your own borrowed visions./Do not mistake my flesh for the enemy.” The Black Unicorn, W.W. Norton, 1978, page 113)

When Force Behind the Power was released, it contained the title song written by Stevie Wonder, with lines “Down in every heart, there are two forces—one is for the wrong, one’s for the right” and “What’s that force behind the power that wakes you each day? chases evil away? puts a smile on your face? It is love. It’s love, god’s love.” She also performs on the album “Heavy Weather,” a song about the negative human impact on the environment: “How come Decembers are hotter than June? And how come the flowers don’t know when to bloom?” But the album’s best performance may be of Wonder’s “Blame It On the Sun,” a rumination on the end of a relationship in which the devastated narrator accepts responsibility for the loss. Ross sounds utterly sad.

“I believe in being happy. I try to keep my eye on the bigger picture. I don’t want to create pain in my life so I can feel like I’m wiser. I don’t want to have tremendous life disorders to figure out how to live. I hope to learn from reading and experience,” Ross said in 1992, months after Force Behind the Power’s release. (Lear’s, March 1992)

Ross rerecorded “Strange Fruit” on the live album Stolen Moments (1993), when she revisited the music from the film Lady Sings the Blues. JazzTimes’s reviewer Chuck Berg wrote aboutStolen Moments: “Ross emerges from the Motown cocoon a mature, convincing chanteuse…Ross is not Holiday, of course. But it’s clear that she loves Billie’s indomitable sprit and has been transformed by it, a powerful combination in a powerful performer—Diana Ross.” (JazzTimes, September 1993).

Ross published her memoirs, the book Secrets of a Sparrow (Villard), in 1993, and released a four-disc musical career retrospective, Forever Diana: Musical Memoirs. The book is by no means a great work, but it is a beautiful photo album and it does offer her first person view of her life and work, and thus should be, after her music and performance work, the first reference for anyone interested in understanding her. It is a text in which she admits to feeling profoundly alone despite the richness of her life.

In the television film “Out of Darkness” in 1994, Ross played a medical student who becomes a schizophrenic with at least a brief period of apparent homelessness.

Ross’s Take Me Higher (1995) album contains several songs that are basically about reaching a higher consciousness and actualizing one’s self, such as “Let Somebody Know” and “Voice of the Heart,” and “Only Love Can Conquer All” directly deals with racial divisions that persist. As the album contains ballads and uptempo songs, songs about mind, love and sex, and politics, it is an album that contains a comprehensive picture of Ross and her work.

Ross joined the board of A Better Chance, which provides programs for gifted inner-city students.

The April 1996, 7th annual Rainforest Benefit at Carnegie Hall featured Ross performing her own songs and also Supremes songs for which Elton John, Sting, Don Henley, and James Taylor sang backup with the men wearing elbow length gloves in the Supremes style.

“I try to choose songs that really are basically coming from my heart. I think that through the songs that I select people know what’s going on in my life,” said Ross in an interview with Judy Wieder. (The Advocate, May 11, 1999) In that interview Ross talked about the difficulties a woman sometimes encountered, saying “A sexy woman who’s paying her own way or is in charge of her own life—you have to kind of deal with it. I guess that’s one of the reasons that people start saying that you are harsh.” After Wieder asks Ross if that’s said about her, Ross says, “Yes, that’s what happens when you learn to say no. Sorry, no, no, no—without a whole bunch of wishy washy things about why no.”

The album that would follow Take Me Higher, Every Day Is A New Day (1999), is focused on troubling romantic relationships (Ross’s second marriage soon ended), but contains “Hope is An Open Window,” written by Christopher Ward and Tim Tickner with Ross and produced by Darryl Simmons. Ross sings, “We might be strangers—we can be friends. You and I, we both need to let somebody in” and “hope is an open window and love’s an open door.” There is a quote from the poetry of Sonia Sanchez that repeats the phrase “give me courage.” (In early 2002 in an interview with the United Kingdom magazine, Mojo, Ross would talk about being very fond of a PBS poetry program and having the intention to read soon Robert Lowell, T.S. Eliot and other modern poets.)

Ross also recorded for Every Day “He Lives in You,” written by Mancina, Rifkin, and Morake, a song of spirituality with African words at the beginning and some African choruses, with the lyric “He lives in you, he lives in me, he watches over everything we see. Into the water, into the truth, in your reflection, he lives in you.” “He” is, presumably, a divine presence. Ross herself had gone to Africa years before. “I went to Africa and flew with Arne and my kids into the bush outside Nairobi, Kenya. I went into one of the little mud huts, and with my eyes burning from the smoke of the cooking fires. In sign language, I was telling the mother and all her kids that I was a mama, too, and here were my kids.” ( Lear’s, March 1992) Ross has also traveled to Asia and South America, as well as Europe. She is cosmopolitan, and has been photographed at glamorous events and with world leaders such as Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton. President Nixon had been a fan, and stopped his limo to tell her so when he saw her walking along a beach. Ross has sung for and dined with royalty. She’s been celebrated by the Japanese and the French, and was awarded France’s Commander in the Order of Arts and Letter, in addition to winning various American awards. She has also been photographed in her casual moments playing tennis, swimming, and skiing. Her life, with work, love affairs, marriage, and children, travel, sports, and other interesting leisure activities, seems to have been (and to be) in many ways a very full one. This may be one of the roots of the joy one hears in most of her work, the best of which is probably, apart from her Supremes work, her first solo album, and Surrender, Touch Me in the Morning, Baby It’s Me, The Boss, diana, Why Do Fools Fall In Love, Swept Away, The Force Behind the Power, Stolen Moments, Take Me Higher, and Every Day is A New Day, as well as the retrospective collections A Motown Anthology and Her Greatest Hits: The RCA Years.

After hosting the 31st annual NAACP awards in February 2000, Ross was celebrated in a VH1 Television special in May 2000, featuring tributes by Angela Bassett, Mariah Carey, Donna Summer, Destiny’s Child, Hilary Swank, and others. (Ross is reported to have joked that her career has gone on for forty years but she herself is only 38.) Ross embarked on a summer concert tour featuring two former Supremes (Lynda Laurence and Scherrie Payne), for which tickets were priced in the hundreds of dollars, dollars people in large cities might be able to afford but people in smaller cities and towns are unlikely to easily part with. Before the sold-out Madison Square Garden show in New York, an article in The New York Times described Ross as having a pure pop voice, but unfortunately repeated rumors about her temperament. Newsday praised Ross’s Garden performance while lamenting the ticket prices. (The tour was cancelled before its scheduled end due to uneven ticket sales. It didn’t help that there was a paucity of radio support for her latest music and scarcity of appropriate record company promotion for same, things artists of a certain age from David Bowie to Dolly Parton have complained about.)

After the September 11, 2001 assault on the World Trade Center, Ross would perform “God Bless America” at the first Mets game following the attack (A New York Times sports writer described her presence as regal). Also Ross participated in a group recording of “We Are Family,” with Roberta Flack, Patti LaBelle, and Luther Vandross, organized by Nile Rodgers, who was inspired by the international conflict to raise awareness and appreciation of human diversity and funds for related educational efforts.

There were reports in May 2002 that Ross had entered a retreat to deal with unspecified “personal issues” before beginning a world music tour planned to start in late June in Germany. The fact the Ross may have been experiencing a period of vulnerability shouldn’t be impressive. What’s impressive is that in a long life she has seemed to have so few moments of public vulnerability—actually, it is private vulnerability that has been made (partially) public. (Sometimes gossip and biography seem to seek the undoing of the transformation and transcendence that is usually the purpose of art and entertainment: is that the ultimate course of the obsession with enchantment or the hatred of enchantment?)

Is it too much to suggest that Ross may now be a wounded healer?

With the recent re-release this year of Ross’s Stolen Moments, one is reacquainted with some of her best qualities as a performer though Ross’s singing on this album is in several instances different from the long, unbroken lines she usually performs. Here, she savors individual words and short phrases, allowing the sound of her voice, sweet and mellow, the idea, and the feeling, to hang in the air, to gain full appreciation. In “Them There Eyes” Ross has a bouncy rhythm, a bright appeal, with words spoken as if they were small diamonds being quickly added to a necklace, each complete in itself and part of something more. Justin Robinson’s almost conversational saxophone playing is a highlight of “Mean to Me.” ” Our love is here to stay, not for a year, but for ever and a day…Together we’re going a long, long way,” sings Ross, with rhythmic verve and joy. I find it hard to imagine any established jazz singer doing better with “Our Love Is Here to Stay.”

It is true that, as I thought when I first heard Stolen Moments almost a decade ago, Ross does not have the complex brilliance of Cassandra Wilson, Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughan, and Abbey Lincoln.

Ross has never been interested in exposing technique: she has used her voice to serve the songs and has made what she does seem so easy it’s sometimes taken for granted. But listen to album after album of her music and you realize that while she does not always or even often astonish, she has not once been less than the song required. To deliver a wide range of songs with intelligence and sensitivity—as convincing human statements, and coherent, usually entertaining musical statements—is not something that should be taken for granted.

Ross has the sweetness to make love songs such as “The Man I Love” dreamy. The line “I go to bed with a prayer that you’ll make love to me” reminds one that there was a time when the phrase “make love” referred to talk, to a kind of talk that inspired love in the listener, but even with its current meaning (sex), Ross makes the lyric seem delicate and dreamy. A quiet humility is brought by Ross to “You’ve Changed,” making this song of fading love poignant. That song and “Don’t Explain” convey the cruel side of romance.

In “Strange Fruit,” she is not bitter but one hears the history in this song, and like all history it can be a warning.

When Ross sings “My Man” at the concert’s end, with the words, “He’s not much for looks, and no hero out of books, but I love him,” and sings lyrics about her lover’s infidelity and brutality, it seems at once a personal meditation and a sad confession, with glimmers of desire and resignation; and somehow she doesn’t sound pathetic or undignified—another demonstration of character and talent. (Ross’s contemporary song catalog—with songs such as “Touch Me in the Morning,” “I Thought It Took A Little Time but Today I Fell in Love” “I’m Coming Out, ” “Missing You,” and “Until We Meet Again”—is, in sentimental terms, superior to the masochism prevalent in some of the earlier standards. She is one of the singers who in the last forty years has produced new standards.)

Stolen Moment’s best song remains “Little Girl Blue,” for Ross’s flawless reading of the song: “…Now the young world has grown old. Gone are the tinsel and gold. Sit there and count your fingers. What can you do? Old girl you’re through. All you can count on are your fingers, unlucky little girl blue. Sit there and count the raindrops falling on you. It’s time you knew all you can count on are the raindrops that fall on little girl blue…Why won’t somebody send a tender blue boy to cheer little girl blue?

My reconsideration of Ross and Stolen Moments has been not only aesthetic and intellectual. In a time of personal trouble, I found she was one of the few singers I could listen to, and that the joy in her work gave me comfort. Pleasure is usually circumstantial and momentary, but joy is usually rooted in something deeper—a sense of self, great belief, a tested system of thought, love, and even trusted and proven community. Is there anything wiser than joy?

 

About the author: Daniel Garrett is a writer of journalism, fiction, poetry, and drama; and he has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett has also written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. He has followed Diana Ross’s career for years, and wrote a review of her Motown Anthology for IdentityTheory, and a piece on her films and career for Offscreen; and this piece—on jazz and social vision—previously appeared, in year 2002, on the web pages of WaxPoetics.com and AllAboutJazz.com, but is no longer available on either. Diana Ross’s latest album is I Love You (2006).

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