In her first special, “Diana!” on ABC, Sunday, April 18th , 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.
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).
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 is gratified that the Supremes, with Mary Terrell 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.