By John Schauer
Diana Ross is so iconic a performer, I still remember the first time I saw her on television.
I was in high school at the time, and as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I was a classical music geek who was slow in coming to appreciate the popular music of the time. The breakthrough song that turned me around was Petula Clark’s recording of “Downtown.” For some reason, that song grabbed me, and I started listening to the top-10 countdown every day on a local radio station. “Downtown” quickly climbed the charts, but seemed to be stuck at the number-two position. The song that kept it from reach the top spot was “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by The Righteous Brothers, admittedly a phenomenal song, but I was impatient for “Downtown” to overtake it.
“Downtown” did eventually reach the pinnacle, and as I listened to it every day, a new song assumed the number-two position and ultimately displaced Clark’s as the best-selling single: “Stop in the Name of Love,” by The Supremes. It was at that time I first saw Diana Ross, when The Supremes performed that song on a weekly variety television show called The Hollywood Palace. (It’s a shame that the television variety show has basically gone extinct, since they provided a forum for an incredible range of American cultural expressions.)
The performance was electrifying. There were these three remarkably beautiful black women in tight, floor-length silver sequined gowns with opera-length white gloves and impossibly high hairdos made up of what were called French curls piled elaborately atop their heads. At the time, Diana Ross was not yet billed above the group’s name, as she would later be, but there was still no question in anyone’s mind of what the main attraction was. As reed-thin as supermodel Twiggy, Ross exuded an electricity even flashier than those incredible gowns; it was the kind of performance that gets discussed the next day at school, and their perfectly synchronized arm gesture at the word “Stop” became a visual icon that survives to this day.
By this time, I was hooked on the daily top-10 countdown, and in the months and years that followed, The Supremes delivered an astonishing sequence of hit songs. Somewhere along the line, The Supremes became Diana Ross and The Supremes, and she became an intrinsic element in the soundtrack of my life, even after she embarked upon a solo career. “Remember Me” from her third solo album, Surrender, became the anthem of my first romantic break-up, and later, during the years I was haunting the dance clubs, she transitioned seamlessly from Motown to disco with her mega-hit “Love Hangover.” Of course I rushed out to see her Academy Award–nominated performance in Lady Sings the Blues, and I still remember the startling image of her performing in New York’s Central Park on a televised special: a violent rainstorm broke out during the performance, but Ross wasn’t fazed by that one bit, and she kept singing, her long tresses billowing horizontally behind her in the strong wind. Nothing, it seemed, not even the forces of nature, would stop this remarkable performer. The fact that she is still performing and will be making her Ravinia debut on July 27 is ample proof. As the lady herself sang, “Ain’t no mountain high enough, nothing will keep me from you.”
Purchase tickets for Diana Ross's Ravinia debut on July 27 at Ravinia.org