Perspectives: In The Name of Ross
By Odu Adamu
They say the first time you have a conversation with someone try to stick to easy topics; don’t go places that may create some disruption. Well, I guess all that goes out the water since my introduction here is delving into Diva Land. Nobody loves their Divas more than gay men. Friendships and relationships can end over Diva disagreements. We have been known to use all of our vacation, sick and personal time to follow a Diva on tour. If the tour is extended but we’ve run out of allowable time, then somebody is looking in the want ads! Here’s the thing, this isn’t about “favorites’; this conversation is about connection. And of all of the Divas, I am most connected to The Boss. MISS ROSS.
I know, a Black gay man living for Diana Ross. “How original.” I get it, and I stand by it. But this isn’t just an homage to makeup, mane, and Mackie. My connection with Ross is much deeper. It goes back to childhood. How the wideness of her smile, the wisp of her demeanor- the elegance of her very essence- saved my life. So, I am going to ask you to take off your cynical hats and listen to my tale with open ears. The best way for me to share this is by sharing how three specific Ross records impacted my life. And let’s be clear, this is not a conversation about “favorites”. My list of Ross go-tos is long and strong, and I am sure y’all would be ready for the Boss Battle! This is about the tunes that affirmed me and continue to inspire my life.
#3 “The Boss”
I could do a whole thing on this entire album, but I did say I am focusing on singles. This is the last recorded collaboration between the Holy Music Trinity—Ross, Nick Ashford, and Valerie Simpson—and they go out with a BIG BANG! Ironically, this album wasn’t a commercial juggernaut. It did okay (laying the groundwork for next project, Diana), but its legacy is untouchable and that’s hugely due to the title track.
I was 11 years old when “The Boss” was released in 1979. I was a disco kid, and this track gave me the fever! I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to hit the clubs. At that time, the legal age to party in Philly was 21 and I honestly believed that the world would be the same when my time came. The wonder of youth. Well, we all know the many changes that occurred during the decade to come; from the “Death of Disco” to the deficiency syndrome that caused the death of so many, but, at that time, none of it was foreseen. The world was still a party, and “The Boss” was one of the anthems! For many, the song represented strength; it was a proclamation of self-ownership and independence. Ironically, the lyrics are completely opposite to this. It’s a tale of thinking you run the show but realizing someone else is directing the dance. And you love it!
“Who is giving the orders? Who is running the show?”
The answer is not Diana Ross! But I guess between loud speakers, the right drugs, and the fact “Boss” rhymes with “Ross”, everyone just went with the mythology. Even though I understood what the song was really saying, I preferred to ride along with the other interpretation. At least I had the excuse of youth. The misinterpretation is why I connected so deeply with the song.
I was a very shy child and considered myself one of the ugliest ducklings. I desired a glamorous life, and I believed it would come- I just didn’t know my way to it. That’s part of what Ross represented for me; she was the destination- but also the road map and ‘The Boss’ represented the finish line. This was going to be the song I sang once I had it all. I was going to be pretty, desired, done, and the toast of the town. I was going to be atop a Big Apple float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade shouting it out to the world. Again, I didn’t realize the answer to “Who was the Boss’ was not Ross, but it didn’t matter. The answer was going to be “ODU!” Like the loving mother I imagined her to be, Diana Ross was going to guide me there, step by step. The funny thing is, the older I got the more I appreciated the true meaning of the song. Even right now, as I write this, I think about someone coming into my life to whom I would surrender all my “independentness”. I’m waiting for love to “show me one thing.” And I think I’ll be waiting for a minute, so let’s just go to my second pick.
Staying with the same album and putting the needle back to the track that precedes “The Boss”, “All for One.” I have to admit, this wasn’t a song I gravitated to as a child; I really didn’t get it. But when I watched Diana Ross Live at Central Park as an adult, I GOT IT! And I realized she got it before we even knew it.
So, remember that deficiency syndrome I mentioned earlier? In May 1981, the New York Native published the first article about AIDS, and that July, AIDS made its first appearance in the pages of the New York Times, but by and large, this disease remained unknown and under reported. I first learned of the disease in 1982 when I did a current events presentation on an article about babies being born at a Newark hospital who were dying very soon after birth, and the mothers seemed to have a condition that was akin to the newly identified GRID (gay-related immune deficiency). It was puzzling because GRID was considered a “gay white man thing” and these women were straight, Black…and women. Soon after, it became clear what the condition was and how it’s transmitted. GRID would come to be referred to as AIDS.
In March 1983, the New York Native published Larry Kramer’s “1,112 and Counting”, his wake-up call to gays, and calling out of the systems charged with our safety. The title references the number of known AIDS diagnoses at that time. That number seemed small at the time, and most people had not seen what AIDS looked like—nor did they ever believe they would. But Larry knew this was just the beginning. And I think Ross did as well.
On July 21, 1983, Ross hit the stage in Central Park for one of the most important concerts in music history. Despite all advice from all sides about cancelling the concert due to signs of inclement weather on the horizon, Ross insisted that this show must go on. And if the Boss wants the show to go on, guess what the show does? Exactly! Let’s be clear, Ross is the definition of “consummate professional” so, of course, she would do anything to keep from canceling (or even postponing) a show, but there seemed to be something more at play. When she could not finish the full concert, she committed to coming back the next night (on her own dime) and making it happen. The weather the next evening was perfect, and Ross delivered a tour de force, action packed, Michael Peters choreographed, beaded, sequined, and feathered extravaganza for your nerves. Everything felt good and up and right, but then we got to the closing number, “All for One.” This song was always an emotional part of her show, but on that night, it went really deep. There’s a moment when she seems emotionally overwhelmed and her voice cracks. It’s extremely sharp, but she is in the moment and keeps going. In the concert film, this performance is blended with scenes of the sun setting on the audience. And that’s when I learned what she knew.
“All for one and one for all…”
You see this sea of beautiful Black and Brown men. Poets, actors, teachers, bankers, photographers, hustlers, whatever, and you know most of them were men who loved and desired other men.
“You live, you give, you have a ball…”
Up to that point, gay life was a ball. But the party was abruptly ending and many didn’t know they were nearing their last dance. As we exited, she wiped her tears saying, “If you need me, call me. I’ll be back…” But I think she knew many of these men, her children, would not be here when she returned. This is why she had to do this show. It’s beautiful and bittersweet. Tracee Ellis Ross has shared that her mom said the entire time during the first evening’s storm she was having a conversation with the Universe on how to proceed. I think this entire concert experience was an ongoing dialogue with the Universe, and she realized she was going to be the last moment for so many, so she had to make it count. We all started to see AIDS. We all became intimately involved with it in some way. The concert aired on Showtime as For One and For All, underscoring why we needed to love and care as a community. We finally learned what she knew.
I was diagnosed HIV positive almost thirty years ago and every time I watch this performance I weep. I am one of her children who is still here…here to carry on the dreams, aspirations, talent, and beauty of those who were there that evening that were not around for the next Ross Experience. Some of these men I personally knew, and they all talked about this night with joy. I well up every time I watch this performance.
When I started writing this article, I didn’t consciously realize I selected three Ashford and Simpson compositions but hey…it is what it is. I worked backwards for some reason, and now we are at the song that started it all.
If a recording was a cloud, it would be Diana Ross’ rendition of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Soft and billowy, it can pick you up and carry you across the sky. No matter how light it is, or how heavy whatever you’re experiencing is, it can support all the weight easily and effortlessly. That’s what this song did for me.
At the age of six, an incident occurred with my mom that left me physically scarred and emotionally broken. As a child I couldn’t process it, but from that moment on I felt unsafe…especially with my mother. I needed to mentally separate myself from her. At that time, I told myself, I didn’t have a mother. It was fairly easy because we she had already told me I couldn’t call her mom, mother, or any of those terms of endearment. We didn’t live in the same house, so my well-being wasn’t her responsibility. While I was blessed with incredible grandparents, aunts, and uncles…in my head I didn’t have a mom. In turn, I was a grandson, nephew, cousin, half sibling, even great grandson…but I was no one’s child. My parents were divorced and while my dad was actually very present, without a mother you’re no one’s child. That’s a void that can’t remain unfilled. I needed a mom…and that’s when Diana Ross took over.
I was always mesmerized by Ross. The eyes, the smile, the hair, the gowns, the “emotification”…the Very Being! It wasn’t much of a stretch for me to live in this fantasy of her being my mom. My biological mother loves glamour, and she lived like a star. People flock to her, and she is Queen of the Court. It’s like watching Ross in concert! In fact, at the time she wore her hair snatched back into a chignon…like Ross. I think my mother in some ways pictured herself in Diana’s heels. This made it easy for me to look at images of Ross and engage them like she was my mom and imagine her engaging me as if I were her son. She taught me a lot, and the most important lesson…to smile. Not just how to smile (even though I do credit her for my beautiful beam), but the need to smile in the face of all situations. She understood my life. She knew what it was like to be in relationship with someone who parceled out love based on achievement but was never satisfied because they had their own unresolved issues. The only difference was, her’s was romantic and mine was familial. Regardless, we both knew the show must go on!
Around this same time, I started being molested by a family member and I didn’t know where to go with it. I felt unsafe with my mother, so I would have never told her because of fear of more retribution. I confided in one person, Ross. Ross helped me understand that things would get better once I grew up. I compared images of her from her youth and they showed me that I would blossom, and everything would be okay. Of course, it wasn’t that easy. I spent most of my life feeling unworthy, unattractive, unloved, and unlovable. It was in my 30s when I first started to understand some of this, and in my 40s when I truly accepted the pain and trauma I lived in. What, pray tell, does any of this have to do with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”?
While it’s clearly a romantic love song, for me it expresses the love I always wanted to receive from my mom. The softness of Diana’s delivery made me feel that the love I desired was available. Her whisper wrapped around my body and provided the tenderness and security I needed. I could always call on Ross and she would be there, and I would always be perfect in her eyes. The way people responded to her performing made the possibility of this Divine Love believable.
As great as Ross is, it takes a village. We’ve already mentioned Uncle Nick and Aunt Val, who stuck to their guns when Berry Gordy wanted to rearrange the song. The orchestration is utterly captivating, courtesy of Paul Riser. As soon as the song starts, you know you are in for a moment. The strings invite you on a journey that is guided by the purest state of consciousness…love. The lyrics marry the length and pace of the song. And then there are the voices. In addition to Diana, there are the high notes that are truly transcendent. That’s Joshie Jo Armstead, who is truly an Auntie. All these elements come together to affirm some powerful truths: love has no boundaries; exists at its own pace; and is always available. LOVE IS ETERNAL! I’m not talking romance; I’m coming from the space of love as a state of being. As I started to heal from my childhood experiences, this song became one of my most powerful affirmations. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” does all it was intended to do, which is why I consider it “perfection”.
It wasn’t until I was in my 50s that I made a conscious decision to heal my relationship with my mother. My life had “fallen apart”, and I chose to surrender the hate in order to rebuild. I can speak about this candidly now because of doing the work. When you see us together you would never believe the backstory. I turned 55 in May and I’m so glad I did that work. I am grateful for having a loving relationship with my mom. And yes, now I call her mom…but as close as we are, those early years will always belong to Mommy Di. I still hear her whispering in my ear as she tucks me in at night…
“I know you must follow the sun
Wherever it leads
If you should fall short of your desires
Remember life holds for you one guarantee
You’ll always have me…”
With no support from Gordy, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” caught the attention of DJs and fans and became her first number one hit as a solo artist. This also speaks to why the song is so powerful. It’s a testament to knowing that when it is destined to be there is no earthly force greater than Divine Power and Divine Power is UNSTOPPABLE! How many songs are so iconic that they open and close a show? Ms. Ross…YOU DID THAT!
Odu Adamu, SoulMusic.Com Editorial Contributor