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Commentary: Where's the love for the supreme Diana Ross?

The singer blazed a trail through music and pop culture that influenced artists of many genres and non-artists alike. Her Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award this weekend is small thanks.

February 08, 2012|By Ernest Hardy, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The Supremes: Diana Ross, left, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson in 1966.
The Supremes: Diana Ross, left, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson in 1966. (Motown Archives )

Diana Ross has never won a Grammy.

Though nominated 12 times for her work with the Supremes and for her solo efforts, the singer behind pop classis such as "Baby Love" and "Upside Down" has never taken home the award.

This Saturday, she will be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Recording Academy along with Gil Scott-Heron, the Allman Brothers, Glen Campbell, George Jones, Antonio Carlos Jobim and the Memphis Horns, at an invitation-only ceremony the night before the Grammy telecast. Given her stature and the unmatched breadth of her work, it seems a wan consolation prize.

Berry Gordy: An earlier version of this online article made reference to a supposed romance between Diana Ross and Berry Gordy. The word "supposed" should not have been used.

But the Grammys aren't the only place where 67-year-old Ross, a primary architect of modern pop culture over her five-decade career, has been undervalued.

It's long been fashionable to lampoon her in the media and in critical circles, to dismiss her voice and her trailblazing accomplishments — to cast her in the one-note role of incorrigible diva.

The books "Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme" by Mary Wilson and "Call Her Miss Ross" by J. Randy Taraborrelli often paint her as a dragon lady, detailing her thorny relationships with the Supremes, romance with Motown founder Berry Gordy, and haughty offstage behavior while shortchanging her accomplishments and work ethic.

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The unfavorable perceptions have seen Ross dismissed in ways that other legendary artists who've been passed over for a Grammy (the Who, the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Queen) have not.

The late Marvin Gaye, Ross' Motown contemporary and label mate, was vocal about his jealousy over attention she received from the label, but he also gave her due props.

"Diana's about business," Gaye told biographer David Ritz in "Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye." "She'll out rehearse you, out dress you, and outperform you, so you best stay out of her way. I appreciate Diana's trip and her talent. She's worked hard for everything she's achieved."

R&B singer Ledisi, nominated for three Grammys this year for her album "Pieces of Me," is often compared to Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Ella Fitzgerald, but says that Ross is one of her biggest influences.

"She made little girls dare to dream once they experienced her songs or films," says the singer. "And of course, I was one of them — a shy, skinny, awkward, big-eyed, brown girl watching 'Lady Sings the Blues' for the first time at a friend's house on a plastic-covered sofa. I remember thinking, 'Wow, look at that white suit with that hat, and those red lips.' Her version of 'Our Love Is Here to Stay' made me fall in love with jazz and Billie Holiday. I wanted to be like her."

Yet the artistry and work ethic that impressed Gaye and inspired Ledisi are qualities that have received short shrift over the years. One reason may be that, despite all the ground Ross broke, she never fit neatly into existing expectations — artistically or in terms of race.

The genre-hopping in which she and fellow Supremes Wilson and Florence Ballard engaged in during the '60s saw them supplement their Motown hits with show tunes, pop standards, covers of the Beatles and Sam Cooke, and even a country and western album.

That gave way to Ross recording solo material by Ashford & Simpson while fluidly covering Laura Nyro, Stevie Wonder, John Lennon and Marvin Gaye, among others, and acing Broadway show tunes from the likes of "Pippin" and "A Chorus Line."

She added jazz and disco to her repertoire, mastering both, receiving an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in the 1972 film "Lady Sings the Blues" and a Grammy nomination for the disco classic "Love Hangover."

Professor Daphne A. Brooks, who teaches English and African American Studies at Princeton, and is working on a book titled "Subterranean Blues: Black Women and Sound Subcultures — from Minstrelsy through the New Millennium," says that Ross' failure to conform to expectations cost her.

"Black cultural critics [and] white rock critics are trafficking in all sorts of presumptions about black authenticity politics when they dismiss the work of Ms. Ross and the Supremes," says Brooks. "In other words, are we limiting our definitions of black culture when we fail to recognize the interracial and multicultural influences that have historically shaped black popular music culture — dating all the way back to the post-bellum Fisk Jubilee Singers? The music of Ms. Ross and the Supremes challenges us to think expansively about the dimensions of black popular music."

Gaye said bluntly in "Divided Soul," "If she had been white like Barbra Streisand, it would have been one hundred times easier for her. Even with Berry's help, she hasn't reached Streisand's position, though she deserves it."

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