The legendary singer Diana Ross and her ‘supreme’ journey to icon status

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If there’s a name synonymous with the world of Motown and pop culture from that era, it’s Diana Ross. Her journey from the heart of Detroit to global stardom reads like a script from a blockbuster movie — filled with hit songs, groundbreaking performances and a style that’s entirely her own.

LIFE Dec 8, 1972 Diana Ross cover

Diana Ross, who was born on March 26, 1944, first stepped into the limelight as part of The Supremes, a group that would become one of the best-selling girl groups of all time. With Ross at the helm, they delivered an array of hits that many of us are still singing along with today.

But Ross wasn’t destined to be part of a group forever. Her solo career took off in the 1970s, showcasing her versatile talents across pop, R&B, and disco. Hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “I’m Coming Out” became anthems of their era, solidifying Ross as a music legend.

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Beyond her music, Ross made her mark as an actress, with standout performances in films like Lady Sings the Blues, earning her critical acclaim and a Golden Globe award. Her influence stretches beyond entertainment, touching on fashion and even social issues, making her a true icon of the 20th century.

Now, we’re taking a trip down memory lane with a curated collection of vintage articles and photos that shine a spotlight on Diana Ross’s remarkable career. From her early days with The Supremes to her unstoppable rise as a solo artist, join us as we celebrate the enduring legacy of a true music and style icon.

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When Diana Ross went solo after The Supremes, she skyrocketed on her own

Diana does well as solo singer (1971)

By Gene Handsaker in the Fort Lauderdale News (Florida) April 16, 1971

Success means pressure to remain a success. But Diana Ross doesn’t mind.

“If it’s hard right now, that’s all right,” she said. “Pressure made the diamond… “I think there are winners and losers. You can let yourself lose because you don’t put up enough fight. You make what you want out of life. It’s up to you.”

Diana has been chasing success since she was a ‘wiry skinny little kid’ in Detroit. The pressure has been extra high in recent months since she broke away as lead singer of the immensely popular singing group, the Supremes, to seek stardom as a single.

The Supremes - Vintage Motown music from the 60s

How is she faring? She has her own television special on ABC, Sunday, and she’ll soon star in her first movie, “Lady Sings The Blues,” a biography of the late singer Billie Holiday. And as a solo performer, she has broken attendance records in recent months at top night clubs.

The special, “Diana!” showcases the dynamic Diana Ross in her first special — music and comedy — with Danny Thomas, the Jackson Five, and special guest star Bill Cosby.

Top vocalist

Billboard magazine named her the top female vocalist for 1970 in record sales, as did England’s New Musical Express. She recently signed a three-year agreement for appearances at Lavish Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

Billboard Apr 26, 1969 Diana Ross and the Supremes - Motown

How does the willowy black beauty feel about so fast a start? Cautious.

“In show business,” she said, shy and smiling in an interview, ”you never know what your future will be like. I’ve never counted my gold records — I’m afraid I’ll stop getting them.”

A Motown Records official said Diana has collected two dozen gold albums and singles, each signifying a million copies sold, since she started singing with the Supremes after leaving high school 11 years ago.

Diana has been fighting her way up since a tomboy childhood of tree-climbing, baseball and playground scraps she won or lost.

The Supremes 1964 - Diana Ross

Choir member

She was the second eldest of six children reared in a housing project in a poor neighborhood of Detroit. She sang in the Baptist church choir, and won the foot races at the company picnics of the brass firm where her father still works.

Diana sang along with records, performed at family parties and the Brewster Community Center and harmonized with two girl friends after school. With a young male group called the Primes they became the Primettes, singing concert dates around Detroit.

She worked as a cafeteria bus girl in a department store, and designed and made stage clothes for the trio. Motown Records, meanwhile, was starting in Detroit.

“I auditioned for them at a young age, about 14, and they turned me away, told me to go back to school” Miss Ross remembered. “I was very determined, as I feel most young people should be, and are today, and I kept going back and auditioning.

The Supremes on the cover of Ebony June 1965

Background work

“Finally they let me do a little background work until they noticed me and realized that I was a wiry little skinny kid that was going to do something, and I started recording with the Supremes.”

The Supremes, as the Primettes had become, recorded a few little-noticed singles, then hit the top of the charts with “Where Did Our Love Go?” Subsequent hits, with Diana singing the lead, included “Baby Love,” “Stop in the Name of Love” and Come See About Me.”

The Supremes - Sound of Motown TV special (1965)

Under the guidance of Berry Gordy Jr., Motown president, the girls were elegantly coiffured and costumed and taught stage presence. A chaperone, initially Diana’s mother, accompanied them on concert tours.

In 1967, Florence Ballard quit the trio, was replaced by Cindy Birdsong and the billing became “Diana Ross and the Supremes.” When Diana decided later to go out as a single, her replacement, Jean Terrell, joined Circy and Diana’s girlhood chum, Mary Wilson.

Diana Ross, as seen in 1970
Diana Ross, as seen in 1970

There were, Miss Ross says, no ill feelings at her departure. “We talked it out well in advance. The Supremes are working hard, doing very well with records. I miss the girls very much.”

For her night club tour — Miami, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, Reno, New York, Los Angeles — the girl who once sewed her costumes had a $60,000 wardrobe, replete with feathers and sequins. Like the TV special, the Billie Holiday film will be a Motown project.

Met hostility

“An interesting life, a very sad life,” Diana said of the biography. “Something I feel I can identify with. I came from a poor neighborhood. The only way you could get out of the ghetto was through entertainment, sports or scathing illegal.”

Diana Ross and The Supremes - Cream of the Crop (1969)
Diana Ross and The Supremes – Cream of the Crop (1969)

On the way up, Miss Ross has met hostility: cries of “[n–]!” in a Southern pizza parlor… four shots fired into the front of the Supremes’ bus in their early days.

Last January she was married to a white man, Robert Ellis Silberstein, 25, vice president of a public relations firm. They had met two years earlier on a public tennis court. At the wedding in Las Vegas she gave her age as 26.

There’s also talk of an eventual Broadway show for Diana. “Broadway would really be exhausting,” she said, “but also an education. And I haven’t lost my zest for learning.”


Diana Ross - The Boss album

Diana Ross’s TV special with The Jackson 5, Bill Cosby & Danny Thomas (1971)

In her first special, “Diana!” on ABC, Sunday, April 18th [1971], Diana Ross displays not only her exciting singing talent, but a flair for comedy and impersonation.

And in her choice of guest stars — Danny Thomas, Bill Cosby and the Jackson Five — she demonstrates sound judgment as well. These seven gentlemen have something in common besides their gifts as entertainers — they are Diana’s close friends.

“I think that if the people on stage like each other, and are enjoying what they’re doing, that feeling will be communicated to the audience,” Diana said.

Diana Ross's TV special with The Jackson 5, Bill Cosby & Danny Thomas (1971)

The show could have been put together in Diana’s living room. Danny Thomas is a neighbor and frequent dropper-inner. The five Jackson brothers are frequent guests, having found that Diana shares their passion for touch football. Bill Cosby is a friend of long standing.

The show has been carefully crafted to give full expression to the talents of Diana and her guests. Danny Thomas, the master storyteller, confidently bets that he can teach defeatist Diana the art in one easy lesson. Cosby, in a song and dance with Diana, plays a 13-year-old (explaining his beard by saying he wants to look 15).

Diana Ross in 1973
Diana Ross in 1973

The Jackson Five reprise some of the hits that have made them, in little more than a year, one of the top recording groups. Included are “I’ll Be There.” “Mama’s Pearl,” and “The Love You Save,” each with a record sale of over 2,000,000.

MORE: The Jackson Five: A look at how Michael Jackson & his brothers got their start

The Jackson 5

Among Diana Ross’ hits to be heard on the show are “Close to You,” “Reach Out and Touch,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

And there are surprises. Michael, the phenomenal 9-year-old lead singer of the Jackson Five, slings a topcoat over his shoulder and comes on with Sinatra cool to sing “It Was a Very Good Year,” with special lyrics in keeping with his tender age and precocity:

“When I was two years old… I was four years old…”

In an amusing scene with Diana, the unflappable youngster demonstrates, for the benefit of harassed males everywhere, a faultless technique for bringing a cloying romance to a timely end. Diana has derived enormous personal satisfaction from the meteoric success of the Jackson Five.

She is credited with discovering them, but she says, “I don’t like that word. Let’s just say I helped open the door.”

20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection
  • Shrink-wrapped
  • Audio CD – Audiobook
  • English (Publication Language)

It was while Diana was in Gary, Indiana for a concert that Mayor Richard Hatcher asked her to see the young group perform.

Diana came, she saw, and was conquered. She brought them to the attention of Berry Gordy, Jr., president of Motown Productions, and she herself served as producer of their first record, “I Want You Back,” which zoomed to No. 1 on the charts and sold more than 3,000,000 copies.

Ross as a mimic

Diana’s first solo special is her first opportunity to display on stage her talent for mimicry, previously exercised by the impish lady only among friends. A highlight of the show is her impressions of Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx and W. C. Fields — each in a typical predicament. Choreographer Jaime Rogers, who staged the elaborate routine in three sets, says he was astounded by her quick mastery of the characterizations.

Diana Ross Danny Thomas Tv special 1971

Early years of hard work

Diana’s strong empathy with the Jackson Five and other young talent she has helped was no doubt formed by her own early years of obscure struggle.

In her early teens, when she formed a singing group called the Primettes (later to become the Supremes), the girls’ pay was mostly in experience. Diana designed and made stage clothes for the group, and worked in a Detroit department store to earn money for bus fare to rehearsals and engagements.

When the Supremes did begin recording for Motown in 1964, success came quickly, with a long string of hit records. In concerts and TV variety shows, glittering in spectacular sequined gowns and delivering the strong Motown beat, “Diana Ross and the Supremes” established one of the unforgettable images of the 1960s.

The Supremes - Vintage Motown Records

Pressure mounted steadily for the charismatic Diana to go on her own. In early 1970, she made the inevitable decision. Since then, her success in nightclubs, concerts and records has confirmed the most optimistic predictions.

Diana Ross: Live in Central Park
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Diana Ross (Actor)
  • Steve Binder (Director) - n/a (Writer) - Diana Ross (Producer)

Diana is gratified that the Supremes, with Mary Terrell as the new lead singer, maintain their position as the No. 1 female singing group. She keeps in close touch with the girls by phone, but laments that “We’re so seldom in the same city together.”

Diana has had many motion picture offers, but has held off until she was sure she was ready and could find a property she could believe in.

The time, and the property, has arrived. She has been deeply involved in the concept and planning of “Lady Sing the Blues,” broadly based on the life of the late, great Billie Holiday. She will star in the film being produced by Motown Productions in association with Jay Weston and Sidney Furie.

Photo of Diana Ross in 2011 by Michael Bush |
Photo of Diana Ross in 2011 by Michael Bush |

Watch the Diana! TV special now (video from 1971)

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