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20 People Who Changed Black Music: Motown First Lady Diana Ross, the Quintessential Diva

For musicians, songwriters and fans across the country, Diana Ross - with her high-pitched voice and hair-out-to-there - is still America's quintessential diva.

"I'm comfortable with money," Ross once said, "and it's comfortable with me."

From her memorable 1983 Central Park concert where she performed in driving rain, to the wild mane that made her famous, Ross is in a league of her own, a true mega-star in a field of celebrity entertainers.

Her flamboyant style, diva persona and straight talk is legendary.

"Just because I have my standards," she said, "they think I'm a bitch."

Perhaps.

Once, the story goes, Ross was performing in Atlantic City, an errand boy who had gotten her a pizza, excitedly said, "Diana, it's such an honor to serve you," and she responded, "Please, call me Miss Ross!"

Talk in the 1960s focused on her relationship with Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Ross' mentor and the man who guided her incredible career.

Trading the humble Brewster Housing Projects for penthouse suites, draping herself with silk and jewels and replacing bus seats with limos, Ross was a public figure in Detroit's 1960s but she tried to maintain her privacy.

"I know that my fans want to know who I'm sleeping with," she once said, "but it's really none of their business."

She was once arrested and taken off her Concorde flight for assaulting a female security officer at London Heathrow airport.

In the '70s, according to media reports, Natalie Cole visited Ross backstage and started playing her piano, getting applause from her crew, prompting Ross to tell her assistant, "Get that woman off my piano!"

The "D" in Diana could just as easily stand for "drama."

While filming the 1975 film "Mahogany" in Rome, according to news stories, director Berry Gordy kept pushing a pregnant Ross for take after take, but she had enough, the story goes, and slapped Berry so hard his glasses flew across the room, stormed into her trailer with assistants in tow, and jumped on the next flight to Los Angeles. A body double had to complete her scenes. But through all the antics, Ross has enjoyed a phenomenal music career spanning more than 40 years. She has proven to be one of the most popular and multi-talented female singers of all time.

"Diana Ross was ahead of her time with respect to having a vision of becoming an independent artist who capitalized on her brand," Keith Murphy, host of Urban Journal on XM Satellite radio, 169 The Power, told BlackAmericaWeb.com.

"Diana Ross took heat for stepping out from The Supremes and going solo, but she set the bar for other African-American women and their careers in music and she influenced many artists along the way," Murphy said. "She was also accepted by white America and was one of the first crossover artists who enjoyed crossover success."

Murphy said Ross was also able to market her acting talents in Hollywood and proved her acting abilities in movies like the critically-lauded 1972 hit, "Lady Sings The Blues," in which Ross was widely praised for her leading turn as the tragic singer Billie Holiday, a role that landed her an Academy Award nomination.

"She had no acting experience, just God-given talent," Murphy said. "She is a true diva."

Born Diane Ernestine Earle Ross in 1944 in Detroit, Michigan, the second of six children born to Fred and Ernestine ROss, the musical performer spans a genre of music from disco to R&B. After being raised in housing projects for most of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Diana started singing in the gospel choir of a Baptist church.

She began her professional career as the lead singer for the seminal all-girl group, The Supremes, when she was introduced to Motown executives by Smokey Robinson during an audition at Motown in the 1960s.

From 1965 to 1969, The Supremes had a string of number-one records that helped secure the Motown sound on its pedestal in black music history, mainly thanks to Ross' engaging presence and vocal talent. In late 1969, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy announced that Ross would be leaving the group for a solo career.

Venturing the music scene solo, Ross became the first female artist to gain six number-one hit singles.

"There has never been a musician such as Diana who has been able to capture the ears of many," Tony Pink, a fan of the Ross for many years, told BlackAmericaWeb.com. "She was able to entertain many people of all ages."

Ross was a millionaire while still in her teens, but in 1981, she became "a walking corporation," according to Essence icon Susan L. Taylor, "controlling her own management, film and music production, and music publishing." She was also, in Taylor's words, "an international megastar."

In the early decade of her career, Ross became the most successful female musical artist. Her accomplishments and awards include the Tony Award for the best musical special "An Evening with Diana Ross," a Golden Globe in 1972 for her role in "Lady Sings the Blues" and seven American Music Awards.

By the late 1970s, the critically famed artist was named female entertainer of the century by the Billboard Magazine, fueled by hits such as 1973's "Touch Me in the Morning," "You Are Everything" (with Marvin Gaye) in 1974; 1975's pensive "Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To)" and the disco smash, "Love Hangover" in 1976.

The 1980's brought a succession of chart-topping LPs from Ross like "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," "diana" and "Swept Away," bouyed by popular singles that include the hits "Upside Down," "I'm Coming Out," "It's My Turn," "Endless Love" (with Lionel Richie) and "Missing You."

Later, in 1993, she was feted as the most successful female music artist of the 20th century by the Guinness Book of World Records, with a total of 70 charted hits in the United Kingdom.

Ross has received many prestigious awards, including The Soul Train Legend Award and the French Commander des Lettres medal, and she was honored with an entire day of celebration at the international MIDEM music festival in the South of France. As the honoree, she became the only woman to receive such an honor in the 25-year history of the event.

The proud mother of five was again honored in France last year when she received the Medaille de Vermeil de la Ville de Paris (City of Paris Medal), the city's highest award, given to those who have played a positive role in favor of the Parisian community.

William Ruhlmann, a writer with All Music Guide, said "Diana Ross is a leader, gifted, talented; the spirit, power and history of American soul music condensed into one voice."

With all the awards gained, Ross contributes her time to many organizations. She became the spokesperson for National Children's Day. She is also on the board of A Better Chance, the only national program that recruits and places academically talented inner-city children in the nation's best preparatory schools.

In her efforts to help communities across the country and throughout the world, she has raised millions of dollars for the numerous charities to which she has lent her name. Her efforts have earned her much deserved recognition as a woman of strength, integrity and above-all, concern.

In 2004, McNally Smith College of Music honored her by the establishment of a full four year scholarship in her name. The Diana Ross Performance Scholarship is awarded each year to an outstanding student who is pursuing a Bachelor of Music degree.

South African President Nelson Mandela invited her to sing at the opening of his country's Sundome, which is the country's largest purpose-built indoor arena. After their first meeting, Mandela said Ross was "someone who always seems to be running, never walking. She is an inspiration to us all."

From her early years as a Supreme, Ross has become a legend throughout the world. In her memoir, "Secrets of a Sparrow," Ross talks about being a performer and the blessings she has received, "It's been fun - the complexity of being a black female performer, having my own business and being strong and decisive."

Today, after more than four decades, Ross has continued to produce an endless stream of chart singles and sell-out tours.

"It is that love of life, that never-ending wonder, the appreciation of goals and achievements and sheer human spirit which defines the artist that is Diana Ross," Ruhlmann said, "and continues to make her one of the most identifiable, unique, beloved and influential singers of successive pop generations."

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