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Diana Ross Brings Motown Back Home
A Diana Ross return to Motown is always greeted as a special occasion, the return of a genuine hometown hero. So is it good for her, too?
“Do you think it’s not?” says the 63-year-old singer with a laugh. “Of course coming home is a very special thing for me. It’s Detroit. It’s home. It’s where I was born.
“The audience is my home audience, and I think they’re very proud of me. I feel like they’re happy I’m there or happy that I came home. It’s a good thing.”
There is, of course, plenty to be proud of — for Ross, whose father, Fred, and other family members still live in the Detroit area, and for her fans.
Coming out of Detroit’s Brewster-Douglas housing project with her singing group the Primettes — more famously re-christened as the Supremes — Ross became the vanguard of the Motown empire’s roster and arguably the biggest star to come out of the company. Or the city, for that matter.
She’s notched 18 No. 1 singles with the Supremes and on her own, a body of enduring pop classics that includes “Baby Love,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Touch Me in the Morning,” “Do You Know Where You’re Going To,” “Upside Down” and “Endless Love” — and those are just a few. She’s been nominated for a pair of Academy Awards for her work in “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Mahogany.” She was the most successful female singer of the 20th Century according to the Guinness Book of World Records and was Billboard magazine’s Female Entertainer of the 20th Century.
The success has bred some contempt, of course. The twice-married mother of five, who for a time dated Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., has often been portrayed as a diva of strong temperament who wielded her favored nation status at the label. Fellow Supreme Mary Wilson painted Ross in an unfavorable light in her two memoirs and was particularly critical when Ross mounted a 2000 Supremes reunion tour without her.
Then there’s “Dreamgirls,” in which the purported Ross character, Deena Jones, appears as a low-key villain. It’s not a topic Ross entertains, though she told David Letterman last fall that “I’ve heard a lot about it. I’m going to see it with my lawyers.”
Singer Donny Osmond recalls watching Ross rehearse in Las Vegas and notes that “there’s a reason why they call her The Boss. Man, she ruled with an iron fist. You just didn’t get in her way. In a way I admired it, ’cause she commanded the stage. She knew what she wanted.
“And when you analyze her life, she really had to step out and say, ‘This is what I want and this is what I’m gonna get.’ And she got it.”
Ross says she applied that perfectionist acumen to her latest tour, which is promoting her latest album, “I Love You,” which features covers of songs by the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Berlin, the Spiral Starecase, Jackie Wilson (the Gordy-written “To Be Loved”), the Drifters and more. But fans needn’t worry about the songs they know and love being obscured by the new material.
“I like to do a little bit from every era of my career,” says Ross, who performs Monday at The Palace. “It’s been a long career, so I do a little bit from almost every No. 1 record I can think of. I do a little bit of ‘Lady Sings the Blues.’ I put some jazz in there.
“I try to do a little bit of everything but at the same time try to introduce the new project that’s out there.”
She also tries to keep the set list somewhat fluid, moving songs in and out of the show to “make it fresh” for she and her seven-piece band.
“It’s all about getting prepared,” Ross explains. “You get all the songs ready and prepared so they’re there and available to switch up and change as I feel like it. If I feel like doing something different or if the audience asks for something at that moment and we have it and it’s an easy switch, we do it.”
The goal, she says, is to create a spirit for the evening and not simply a repertoire.
“ ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ is not about a mountain; it’s really about the feeling underneath the words, that energy and that vitality, that’s what the song is about,” says Ross, who’s also adopted Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” which she recorded in 1995, as a personal anthem. “Music is very self-revealing, really. You’re not just singing words and music. It’s a person who’s walking on the stage.
“And it’s a give-and-take between me and the audience, too; they bring something to the show as well. They become a part of it when they walk in the door. There’s something about me looking in their eyes and seeing the audience that’s real important.”
Although she’s referred to herself as an “aging diva” at recent shows and is certainly AARP eligible, Ross has no plans to end that relationship any time soon.
She’s “always thinking” about new projects and has ideas about how she’d like to follow “I Love You,” though she adds that “I don’t know what (the next album) shall be, really. But I’m always thinking about something.”
In other words, the lady plans to sing the blues — and everything else — for quite awhile longer.
“I feel very young,” Ross says. “I don’t think about aging when it comes to singing.
“I just know what I’ve enjoyed since I was a little girl — just entertaining and singing and how it makes me feel. I’m still here.”
ROSS SAYS "IDOL" WAS A WONDERFUL EXPERIENCE
Besides touring, Diana Ross has worked the TV circuit heavily over the past few months, including appearances on late-night talk shows and with Martha Stewart, as well as a turn on "The Actor's Studio."
But her March 13 turn on "American Idol" particularly benefited from the hype around the top-rated show.
"It was very exciting," recalls Ross, who performed on the show and spent some time mentoring the contestants -- including Flint's LaKisha Jones.
"I liked the young people very much. I think they're all talented, and I told them they had already won just being able to be in that last 12 and what was important was to be successful -- not just successful on that show but being successful in life.
"I told them that if they were eliminated that day or the next day that they could go on and be successful. They didn't have to be recording artists; they could be successful as parents or successful as teachers...in another endeavor as long as they understood the process of being able to stay focused and continue to go for what their dreams are.
"It was really a wonderful process for me."
Diana Ross performs at 8 p.m. Monday (April 16th) at the Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $75, $55 and $35. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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