January 9, 2009 at 1:00 am

April 13, 2007

From the archive: At 63, Motown diva makes supreme return

Legendary artist Diana Ross visits her hometown Monday with a concert at The Palace of Auburn Hills. (Getty Images)

The voice is unmistakable over the phone; somehow both breathy and clear, with the drawn-out vowels of a southeastern Michigan girlhood. But her proper enunciation sounds like what she is: "Diana Ross," actress, Connecticut mother of five and international superstar.

Ross is the music icon responsible for 18 No. 1 hits who started out as the skinny, sensitive hometown girl born into the hardworking family at 5736 St. Antoine, No. 23, second in line of five children.

The January release of her album "I Love You," her March appearance on "American Idol" and current tour, which stops at The Palace of Auburn Hills on Monday, is the most we've seen of the singer in years, but "I haven't really gone away," Ross protested Thursday.

It's hard to fathom, but even a star like Ross with dozens of platinum records has had to start all over again to impress a radically different music industry.

"It was a big struggle to get a release here in America," Ross says. "I continued to record, but I was finding it so difficult to connect with the heads of the record companies. The interest was mostly, as it should be, with the younger artists and a different musical genre. But I know there is an audience out there for melody and good music. It's almost like you have to pitch who you are, after all those years."

"I Love You" features Ross covering a selection of her favorite love songs, "only affirmations of love, no heartbreak," she says. "I wanted to do songs of celebration of love, weddings, holidays, things that could be played during that time."

What is pure gold for a former Supreme out on the road is her intense fan base. There are Diana Ross fan sites in every nook and cranny of the Web, and these intense fans buy tickets and CDs.

"A lot of this message of love is to the fan base that has stayed with me over the years," says Ross of her album.

"I don't know if you've ever gone to any of these fan sites, but it's amazing how much they know about what goes on in my life. I'll go, 'How do you know that?'"

It may seem shocking to fans that a star like Ross has to work hard to get a CD released, especially those seeing and reading about her 25-date tour -- which ends May 19 in the Netherlands -- where she's drawing some of the best reviews of her career, dazzling critics with an overwhelming show of diva glamour setting off a more mature, burnished voice.

Dreams of stardom

Much of the credit for the polish of Ross' performance can go to Motown, where a raft of experts -- dancer Cholly Atkins, modeling/etiquette teacher Maxine Powell, musicians like Teddy Harris and Maurice King -- would put the young performers through their paces until they had a stage act down pat.

Ross was bursting with dreams of stardom that fellow Detroiter Berry Gordy Jr. had the knowledge and drive to help her achieve, first with the Supremes in the early '60s, and later as a solo artist via his record company, Motown.

When Gordy spun Ross off from the Supremes into her own career in 1969, and into the movies with "Lady Sings the Blues" (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award), the girl from the projects who bused tables in Hudson's cafeteria had moved into the upper stratosphere of the entertainment world, with a fleet of professionals honing her look and sound.

At least 50 percent of the movie "Dreamgirls" is based upon Ross' clothing, makeup and style, with some of Beyonce Knowles' outfits as "Deena" a direct cop of Ross' looks from the '70s.

"I don't know that it's any real style," Ross says, modestly, of her look. "All of that comes from inside, how you care about yourself. But I do like glamour, I don't like mediocrity or sloppiness. I like cleanliness and all of that, healthy living, bright eyes, how you carry yourself."

Ross still hasn't seen "Dreamgirls," and admits her feelings are mixed.

"If in any way my life and what our music has done, and what we stood for has made a difference, has made it possible for movies like 'Dreamgirls' to be made, I am just really proud of that fact," Ross says. "I have not seen it because I know it is not our story, and I know that they have taken images and likenesses of our story and used that. So I'm confused as to how I should react, because I'm complimented on one hand, but it's not something that's true. People are going to think there's some truth there, when there's not."

Good genes, Motown training

One thing is for sure: Knowles, who played "Deena," the Dreamgirl most associated with Ross, won't mind if she looks as good at 63 as the former Supreme. That Ross, who last performed in Detroit at the Opera House in 2004, can ride a tour bus almost every night, not lose her voice and still look bandbox fresh in unretouched newspaper photos is a testament not only to good genes, but also Motown discipline and training.

That she has done this after some difficult times -- a star-crossed attempt at a Supremes reunion in 2000, a DUI arrest in 2002 and the death of ex-husband Arne Naess in a hiking accident in 2004 -- is all the more remarkable.

Told of Bob Seger's routine, at 62, of drinking water and not talking after shows, Ross says: "I agree with that. I went to a throat doctor before I left to do the tour, because I know we do four nights in a row, in different places every night. He said the best thing you can do is shut up!"

"Diana is a star," says Gail Mitchell, Billboard's senior editor of R&B and hip-hop. "A lot of people talk about career longevity; of the era she comes from, she's one of the ones who can record and perform and fill up houses. I don't know how many contemporary artists we're going to be able to say that about."

Detroit singer Anita Baker was one of many who grew up watching Ross on the stage of the Fox Theatre every Christmas during the Motown Revues, and every Sunday night on the "Ed Sullivan Show."

"Oh my God, oh my God," Baker exclaimed this week, at the mention of Ross' name. "When she was at the Opera House, I was right there. She looked amazing. It doesn't matter if it's a small stage, or a large stage, she fills it."

Ross' career revival was also helped by the success of the album released by Motown last year, "Blue."

The album had been recorded the year she appeared in the Billie Holiday biopic "Lady Sings the Blues," but was shelved for 30 years.

"I was in Los Angeles, and I ran into (Starbucks Entertainment CEO) Ken Lombard, and he said 'We've been trying to find you!'" Ross exclaims.

"Evidently they went to Universal, and said we want to release this, this and this (Ross album) ... I called (former music director) Gil Askey all the way in Australia and said 'Hey, we've got music and money dropping out of the sky, and we didn't even have to do anything!' This was material that I had recorded, and they had just shelved it."

Mother, sister, daughter

Ross' career comeback comes as most of her five children (Rhonda, Tracee, Chudney, Evan and Ross) have show business careers of their own; Rhonda (her daughter by Gordy) is a singer; Tracee an actress (on TV's "Girlfriends"), Chudney, a model, and Evan, an actor.

"They're following their passion, that's very important," Ross says. "They're good children (there is an audible knock). I'm touching wood. You raise your children to a certain point, then you have to step back and let them have their lives."

Daughter Tracee has said that her mother kept her daughters on their toes, cupping a hand under their mouths and making them spit out gum if she caught them chewing it.

Ross laughs. "I don't think I was strict. I gave a lot of space for them to find out who they were, but they knew what the boundaries were and what the rules were."

The tug of home is intense for Ross when she performs in Detroit. The former Supreme returns to Detroit often to visit her father, Fred, (mother Ernestine died in 1984), two sisters and brother who still live in the area. She thinks of her mother when she returns and wants to visit the cemetery where her mother rests.

"I think of my mom always; she's made such an impact on all of our lives, all the children," Ross says. "There are so many unspoken things. You can't write it down, what it is that made her the parent that she is."

Powell, who groomed the Motown stars in etiquette and deportment, will be sitting in one of the first rows at The Palace on Monday, checking the posture of one of her best students.

Her sister Rita, whom Ross calls "my Mother Theresa, the most incredibly caring person," will bring 30-50 guests to Ross' show. Sister Barbara, a doctor, was the first African-American woman to head up a U.S. medical school (Ohio University).

"It's a family town," Ross says, and she looks forward to seeing relatives. But as much as she'll enjoy being home, the road beckons.

"I won't be able to have a green room backstage and see people like before," Ross says with a sigh. "This is an old-fashioned bus tour, we get right on the bus afterward and drive to Chicago."

On love, the theme of her new CD "I Love You":

I wanted to select only songs with affirmations of love, no heartbreak...I wanted to do songs of celebration of love, weddings, holidays, things that could be played during that time. When I first started to look for material I happened to be moving a lot of my personal belongings to another house. I was going through my old photo albums, and saw pictures of my kids. I watched how fast they had grown up. Where did the time go? When my kids were little, I used to play Harry Nilsson's "The Land of Point" album. I keep all my old LPs, and I went through them to find "The Land of Point," and started playing it, and I found this song "Remember."

On her next recording project : It's out of my control. Nowadays with what's going on with the industry, it's up to the record companies, you can't really decide what the audience wants, what the record companies will be willing to release. You make the music...it's like people who write books. You create the product, then you have to sell the product. So it's a process. You go on with your life or you travel or you tour or you go to Europe or you have more children, nah nah nah ...whatever.

On her style:

If I'm going into a business meeting I carry myself in a business manner. So my look is like that. For stage it's another thing, for travel it's another thing. Getting in and out of the bus I'm wearing my sweatsuits, and going to the market it's another thing.