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A Love Supreme: Happy 80th Birthday, Diana Ross!

With 60 years in show business, the icon who paved the way for so many artists is still “The Boss.”

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photo collage of diana ross surrounded by blooming flowers
Jennifer White-Johnson
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Do you have a favorite Diana Ross song? What memories does it evoke when you hear it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Icon is a title that is too often bestowed upon the “it girl” du jour. But it's an accurate and fitting description of the one and only Diana Ross, who celebrates her 80th trip around the sun on March 26.

When asked the secret to her longevity – 60 years and counting – in the entertainment industry, Ross told the Los Angeles Times, “The love and joy of performing. The harmony of life. The love of family.”

With her billowy mane of hair, big brown eyes, svelte shape and glamorous style, Ross is the definition of a diva. The talented and determined Detroit native has inspired generations of Black women through her music and her movies, as well as younger superstars like Beyoncé, whom Ross surprised with a happy 42nd birthday serenade during Bey’s Renaissance tour stop in Los Angeles.

"Thank you so much, you are so amazing,” Beyoncé told Ross on the stage. “There would be no me without you and thank you so much for all of your sacrifice and your beauty and your grace. Thank you for opening doors for me.”

A signature sound

When I was six or seven years old, I remember lip syncing Ross’s mid-tempo ballad “Touch Me in the Morning” with my older cousin Janine. As our grandmother and mothers gleefully watched, we enthusiastically pantomimed the song, with bath towels covering our hair to mimic Ross’s flowing locks.

Of course, we had not yet experienced the longing and heartbreak that she sang about, but we loved the melodramatic flair with which she delivered lyrics like, “Hey, wasn’t it yesterday we used to laugh at the wind behind us? Didn’t we run away and hope that time wouldn’t try to find us?”

Although Ross doesn’t possess the vocal bravado of contemporaries like Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight, her breathy and soaring soprano is a signature sound that has signed, sealed and delivered 18 number one songs and 70 top ten hits in the U.S. since 1964.

Cementing her living legend status, Ross is the recipient of two Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Recording Academy (in 2012 as a solo artist and in 2023 as a member of The Supremes) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2016); has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (one with The Supremes); and in 1993 the Guinness Book of Records crowned her “the most successful female performer of all time.”

Motown’s dream girl

Born Diane Ernestine Earle Ross in Detroit, Michigan, Ross grew up in the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects with friends and group mates Mary Wilson, Barbara Martin and Florence Ballard.

Neighborhood friend Smokey Robinson introduced the teen angels, who at the time were a quartet called The Primettes, to Motown founder Berry Gordy. The visionary record mogul signed the group to Motown in 1961, renamed them The Supremes, and when Martin left the group in 1962 they became a trio.

It took a while for the Supremes to hit their stride, but thanks to the prolific songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, they landed their first number one hit in 1964 with the infectious “Where Did Our Love Go.”

The sophisticated ladies became a symbol of pride for young, Black America, and were known for their poise, polished doo-wop harmonies and sartorial elegance. During their reign as America’s favorite girl group, the Supremes recorded 12 total number one hits including: “Baby Love” (1964); “Stop! In the Name of Love” (1965); “You Can’t Hurry Love” (1966); and “Love is Here and Now You’re Gone” (1967).

Gordy christened Ross as the lead singer, and in 1967 the group’s name changed to Diana Ross and the Supremes. That same year, Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong. And in 1970, Ross left the Supremes and embarked on her next chapter as a film star and solo artist.

From Hitsville to Hollywood

Proving that she was more than just a pretty face, in 1973 Ross received an Academy Award nod for Best Actress and won a Golden Globe Award for her riveting portrayal of tortured jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues.

Next she flexed her acting chops as an aspiring fashion designer in 1975’s Mahogany, starring opposite smooth operator Billy Dee Williams, and as Dorothy in 1978’s The Wiz, an Afro-futuristic musical version of The Wizard of Oz co-starring her lifelong friend Michael Jackson as Scarecrow and Lena Horne as Glinda the Good Witch.

Diana comes out on top

Ross’s first solo hit was her 1970 cover of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” written by then up-and-coming and coupled songwriters Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson.

But when she reimagined herself as a disco queen, Ross burned up the dancefloor as well as the charts. This shift can be heard on the smoldering 1976 single “Love Hangover” and 1979’s melodic “The Boss.” However, the apex of her post-Supremes stardom came with the 1980 release of her tenth and bestselling solo studio album, Diana, which spawned the international dance hits “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out,” written and produced by Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers. The latter track, unbeknownst to Ross, would become both an anthem for female empowerment and the LGBTQ community.

“I said, ‘Diana, this song is gonna be your coming-out song. We think of you as our Black queen,'” Rodgers said in an interview with the New York Post.

Another peak came in 1981, when “Endless Love,” Ross’s love ballad with Lionel Richie eclipsed the success of the controversial Brooke Shields film of the same name and remained atop Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for nine weeks. Penned by Richie, to this day the duet is one of the most successful songs in Motown history.

“No wind, no rain…Can stop me, babe.”

More than forty years later, we’re still in awe of how Ross soothed a drenched and restless crowd of hundreds of thousands of fans during her epic free concert on July 21, 1983 in New York City’s Central Park, by singing “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).”

“It’s alright. We’re gonna get wet. That’s okay. I’m here,” she said, looking flawless in an orange-sequined catsuit with a matching cape blowing in the wind. Eventually the downpour forced the show to end early, but Ross picked up where she left off the next day flaunting an equally stunning fuchsia jumpsuit.

Family matters

Throughout her illustrious career, Ross has sold more than 100 million records, but perhaps her biggest accomplishment is being a mother of five.

"My mom was extremely present," daughter Tracee Ellis Ross told InStyle magazine. "Waking us up for school, sitting for dinner with us and giving us a genuine, anchored, real family life and home life. The most important thing to my mother was not fame, it was her children.”

Ellis Ross, 51, an actress best known for her roles on Girlfriends and Black-ish and Chudney Ross, 48, are Diana’s daughters with first husband Robert Ellis Silberstein. Rhonda Ross Kendrick, 52, is her daughter with Berry Gordy (she was raised by Silberstein), and Ross Arne Naess, 36, and Evan Ross, 35, are her sons with second husband Arne Naess Jr. (she and Arne divorced in 2000 and he died in a mountain climbing accident in 2004).

"The Diana Ross that the world knows — this global, international icon who paved the way and changed what glamour looked like and who Black women were in the world, particularly in that capacity — her Diana Ross-ness doesn't hold a candle to her mom-ness," Ellis Ross shared on Naomi Campbell's YouTube series No Filter with Naomi.

Do you have a favorite Diana Ross song? What memories does it evoke when you hear it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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