Talking With Diana Ross...
By David Nathan
In person, London, September 1973
PRE-CONCEIVED notions are always hard to forget and when one has been continually conditioned to a particular notion, time makes it that much harder to break it down. For years, back to her Supremes' days, Diana Ross has laboured under the unenviable tag of being 'difficult' to work with and 'un-cooperative' with the press – an accusation frequently leveled at most top performers at one time or another.
Along with this alleged 'difficult' attitude has been the impression of temperament and precociousness and before the legion of Diana's fans get their pens ready, let me correct the myth. Not to say that, in the past there may have been no ground to such accusations, but my own limited experience of talking with Miss Ross (restricted to the time since she's left the Supremes) is that she has lost (if it ever really did exist or was it simply a publicity ploy) any of that 'aloofness' that it was alleged made her a journalist's nightmare.
Admittedly actually getting to her remains (and becomes increasingly) a tough task and even the most hardened journalists are held in awe in the presence of Miss Ross. Maybe it's the way those big eyes seem to literally cut you up or the way she just laughs off some of the insane questions that some of my colleagues insist on asking (like "are you leaving Motown ever?" – to which Diana replied that such a possibility simply did not exist, after all where else would a record company treat you as part of the family, rather than as merely an artist under contract?).
Getting any time with her is tough (not, one suspects, through any fault of hers) but sharing it with five or six others makes it a little tougher. In spite of it all, Diana has that 'star' quality that makes everything she says of interest. Our chat kicked off with talk of her forthcoming album with Marvin Gaye. She explained how it has been recorded over a period of time and that it was something they'd both wanted to do for some considerable time, but that opportunity had really only just come up.
"There are a few tunes on it that have been done before, but it isn't all that easy finding girl/boy songs! We just dug up some songs that had got kinda forgotten!" The album, incidentally, is set for imminent American release and British issue should follow not too far behind.
Moving on then to her last album (“Touch Me In The Morning”), Diana explained that one of the reasons why there were many different arrangers, producers and writers was that she wanted to give some of the new and up-and-coming talent at Motown a chance to see what they could do. "The only way for them to test whether what they're doing is right is to use it on an established act. There is more chance of them having success if one of their songs goes on one of my albums and they can see their potential in that way, too. I have to admit that it can be tough on me sometimes but I'm happy to be used as a vehicle through which they can learn. Berry Gordy supervises a lot of the sessions where we use new producers to show them where they might be going wrong and some great things have been happening".
On the subject of her own self-produced sessions, Diana explained how she's always wanted to get into all the other aspects of music, outside of simply singing. "I've learned to work the board (the controls) and I'm beginning to find out what producing is all about. We took two songs that had been done before to kick off with to see what would happen but I've produced three originals which may be on the next album. As far as writing goes – well, I just don't think I'm good enough! But my brother, Arthur, has written a song for me called, 'To The Baby, For The Baby'.
I commented on how the theme of babies seemed to have taken up a good proportion of the album, what with 'Brown Baby', 'My Baby', 'Save The Children' and all. "Well, I was pregnant at the time we did a lot of these sessions and I guess at one stage we considered doing a 'babies' album but in the end, it just didn't work out that way".
Two inevitable subjects came up: Lady Sings The Blues being the first. Fortunately, we didn't dwell too much on that and you can read most of Diana's comments on it in a previous interview. However, in passing we mentioned that maybe Diana might like to write her own story, spanning some twelve years as a performer. Surely after that time, there must be several things to talk about and experiences she's had which would be really interesting to write about. She replied that she didn't think she could write well enough and that, anyway, she really needed a writer to accompany her on all her tours and so on to help remember all the things that happen. Mentally, I wished I'd volunteered for the task...so that if you're reading this, Diana, and the offer still stands...!
We then went on to The Supremes: one wonders if Diana ever gets exasperated about talking about them. It's true they represent a very important proportion of her history but isn't it about time everyone realized that Diana Ross is a solo attraction and has been for some time now? She didn't seem to resent the inevitable questions about the girls but she was quick to indicate that whilst she was concerned about the lack of hits the group has had over the last year, she was equally concerned about her own lack of hits! I asked her to elucidate.
"Well, I wasn't too happy about the way some of the records weren't as big as we'd hoped – things like 'Surrender'. Of course, you don't expect everything to be a smash but I wasn't satisfied with the Everything is Everything album. For instance there are only one or two songs on it that I really like. And when I do an album, I like it to be good all they way through, I don't want no throw-outs!" she laughed.
Asked about the effect of the departure of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson [from Motown], Diana commented that she had thoroughly enjoyed their relationship and they had worked together as a close team: "Obviously not everything they wrote was successful. The point came where Valerie began to embark on a solo career as a singer herself and she had conflicts about which material to keep for herself and which to give me, which is quite understandable, Anyway, our parting was completely amiable and now, of course, I've not the chance to work with all these new guys".
Diana couldn't speak highly enough of Nick and Val and after all, the team were responsible for her initial solo success with 'Reach Out And Touch' and 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough'. But Diana's enthusiasm for encouraging talent is by no means restricted to the behind-the-scenes folk. She's currently very excited about The Devastating Affair, the back-up group who accompany her on this (unbelievably) her first British solo tour. “I didn't actually discover them,” she explains, “but I've tried my best to inspire and encourage them, I'm sure they could be really big, you know."
Another talent that Diana could not speak highly enough of, was none other than Thelma Houston. "It's really only a question of the right song for Thelma and I know she's got to made it. We've spent quite a lot of time together since she joined Motown and I'm sure it won't be long now, before she's really big star".
Talking of other ladies broke down yet another myth when Diana revealed that, in complete contrast to the popular misconception that most top female star's veritably loath each other, she spends time with her 'competitors' whenever possible.
"I see Aretha, Roberta, you know, In fact, I was talking with Roberta only the other day about hairdos, fashions and her forthcoming film on Bessie Smith. Sure, I look on all girls as competition...you know, it's good for you, it gives you something to fight for! But then, every time a new record comes out by anyone, it's in direct competition to mine, isn't it!"
And much of what Diana said revealed that she is no way the 'spoilt' star everyone thinks she is. On the contrary, my impression of her is of a very warm lady who has very positive and definite attitudes towards her career and more important, her husband and family. There is little doubt that they are never far from her mind – and she'll talk about them at the first opportunity. And that kind of feeling gives you the merest hint that maybe Diana Ross is more of a homebody than anyone could ever have suspected.
Probably, she's quite happy to take off all those glittering gowns and settle down to being simply a mum and wife. And being that combination can't be farther off the image we've been given of her – and I'm glad, for one, to have destroyed the myth for myself. Yes, Diana Ross is very human and a pretty groovy lady to talk to!
CHECK OUT THESE CLIPS FROM DIANA’S 1973 ROYAL ALBERT HALL CONCERT...