Iconic singer/songwriter Diana Ross was recently confirmed to play Glastonbury 2022’s ‘legend’ slot on Sunday afternoon, sending her fans into meltdown.
Ross was initially booked to play at the 2020 edition of the festival, but the pandemic led to virtually all festivals that summer being cancelled. Glastonbury 2021 the following year was also called off, much to the dismay of the 200,000 eager ticket holders, resulting in the longest period without the festival since the 1970s.
Providing nothing goes wrong between now and next summer, the former frontwoman of the Supremes will be 78 years old when she takes the Pyramid stage, making her one of the oldest to perform there.
Ross released ‘Thank You’ this month, her first album in 15 years, and is also booked to play arena concerts at several UK venues that month. But her set at Glastonbury has a distinct swansong feeling to it and could be one of the most memorable moments in a glittering career that has spanned over half a century.
Ross started from humble beginnings in a housing project in Detroit, sharing one bed with two sisters and three brothers. Nonetheless, she speaks highly of her childhood and told Woman’s Day in 1990, “We always had a good life. It wasn’t like we had gobs of money, but we always had what we needed somehow.”
Ross’ professional music career began in 1959 when she and some neighbourhood friends formed the pop-soul vocal group the Primettes, renamed the Supremes after signing a record deal with Motown Records in 1960.
The group consisted of Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard, who was replaced in 1967 by Cindy Birdsong. The Supremes went on to produce 12 number-one hits throughout the 60s with classics such as ‘Baby Love’, ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’, and ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’.
In 1967 the group was renamed Diana Ross and the Supremes. With the frontwoman’s illustrious solo career becoming more and more inevitable, she made her final appearance with the Supremes at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas in January 1970.
Just a few months after leaving the Supremes, Ross released her eponymous solo debut album to critical acclaim. It featured signature songs like ‘Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’ and ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, which later became her first number-one solo single.
Two more albums, ‘Everything Is Everything’ and ‘Surrender’ followed shortly afterwards, and under Motown executive Berry Gordy’s careful supervision, Ross evolved from a promising songwriter to a rock and pop superstar by appearing in elaborate performances and television specials. Her second number one hit in the US came in 1973 in the form of the emotional ballad ‘Touch Me in the Morning’, followed by a duet album with fellow Motown artist Marvin Gaye, also in 1973.
Ross also launched her big-screen career in the early 70s and earned an Academy Award nomination in 1971 for her performance in Billie Holiday’s ‘Lady Sings the Blues’. She also starred in ‘Mahogany’ in 1975 which featured costumes designed by Ross herself.
In 1971 Ross married Robert Silberstein, a pop-music manager, and had three daughters – Rhonda, Tracee, and Chudney. For the rest of the 70s, Ross was riding a wave of chart-topping success, eventually crowned by her album ‘Diana’ in 1980 – her most successful album to date.
Life after Motown
After over 20 years with the label, Ross received US$250,000 a severance package from Motown in 1980. RCA Records offered Ross a $20 million, seven-year contract, which at the time was music history’s most lucrative record deal.
The singer’s unbridled success continued after the deal, with her first RCA album ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’ selling over a million copies and featuring the hit ‘Mirror Mirror’. Throughout the 1980s, Ross set up several corporations and became very wealthy, displaying shrewd business acumen alongside her raw talent as an artist. She was also honoured with a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1982.
Her commercial success stagnated for a while after she re-joined Motown in 1989. In 1991 though, ‘The Force Behind the Power’ featuring Stevie Wonder was well received by critics and helped revive her musical career.
The singer performed at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993 and was also dubbed the most successful female singer in the world by Guinness World Records that same year, due to both her chart-topping and record-selling success.
Supremes tour & later career
A reunion tour with the Supremes was announced in 2000 but was marred by controversy over payment disputes and low ticket sales. Original Supremes member Mary Wilson said she was offered three million dollars compared to Ross’ twenty million, and so decided to decline taking part. Cindy Birdsong, who replaced Florence Ballard, also declined after reportedly receiving an even lower offer.
Scherrie Payne and Lynda Laurence took part instead, but the tour flopped after less than half the tickets were sold at most venues. The early 2000s got worse for the superstar, who was convicted for driving under the influence of alcohol and became the subject of cruel jokes on late-night American talk shows.
Her troubles were compounded in 2006 after Ross released her first studio album in seven years, “I Love You”, which was met with widespread indifference, with Pitchfork calling it “an hour’s worth of plasticky, gift-card soul.”
Fast-forward 15 years and Ross has retained an almost regal reputation in 2021 pop culture. Her most recent album ‘Thank You’, released earlier this month, has a nostalgic swansong element to it and prompts a warm look back at some of the classic sounds she championed.
Her impact on music and the entertainment industry as a whole can be rivalled by few, and younger generations regard her extremely highly, holding the utmost respect for a career of such variety and significance. Her set at Glastonbury next year will hopefully be a collection of her classic hits that have spanned decades, providing the baying crowds with a glimpse at a golden era of ground-breaking musical history.