Diana Ross strode onstage to the song “I’m Coming Out.” This is it. This is the song that branded her album Diana. It’s her declaration of freedom from Motown’s disempowering business dealings — dealings that left her without ownership of her work. For the debutante, now is her time just as it was when this song first came out. She dresses the part.
Ross’ performance was a tour of her career, with each period of her life accompanied by a different gown. All five of Ross’ marvelous dresses dripped glitter and sequins. Her costuming alone was well worth the pricey ticket. But, as Edd Hurt says, “Don’t let the glamorous sheen of Diana Ross’ career prevent you from looking a bit deeper.”
For Ross, glamour and aesthetics are equally as important as her music. She defines and is defined by glamour. In a larger sense, she’s a poor girl from the ghetto who has risen to affluence and renown. Like Aretha Franklin, who performed at The Ryman last year, she embodies black female empowerment.
Ross began in a floor-length, slouchy red gown as the lead singer of the Motown trio The Supremes, performing “Stop in the Name of Love.” The eight-piece backup band sewed numbers seamlessly together as the sound shifted from Latin funk to smooth jazz to disco. From her entrance onto the stage, there was not a moment in the 90-minute set during which the entire audience was seated. She had them, and she had them on their feet.
After the first collection of opening songs, Ross disappeared backstage and re-emerged in another jaw-dropping gown. This soft gold number appeared to be the same she wore at the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize Concert (above). She sang “Take Me Higher” from her 1995 album, and “Ease on Down the Road.” The latter was re-released in 1978, originally a track from the Broadway musical The Wiz, which was produced by Quincy Jones and later acquired by Motown. The song was recorded as a duet between Ross and Michael Jackson.
The next costume change found Ross in a breathtaking white feathered opera coat that flowed over a skin-tight bedazzled black gown. The lights went down, and the color-morphic, lush velvet backdrop shined through starry skies. Now she is Billie Holiday, the character she played in the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues. For this role, she was nominated for an Oscar.
The audience melted in her hands as she teased them by flashing the coat open. She shrugged off the coat, dragged it across the floor, and tossed it aside as she moved into “Why Do Fools Fall Iin Love?” Ross covered this song in 1981, when it charted as No. 7 on Billboard's Pop Singles chart.
Ross glided back onstage, donning a high-collared orange creamsicle dress after a nearly unnoticed absence. She crooned the theme written for the 1975 Motown film Mahogany, “Do You Know Where You're Going To.”
The backup singers belted the hook for “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” from her 1970 debut Diana Ross. Ross emerged in disco glamour, draped in a bold gold cloth that shined rainbows under the floodlights. The crowd jumped to their feet. “You know this song?” she taunts as she launches into “I Will Survive.”
Ross signaled the end by blowing kisses and Thank-Yous to the audience, then disappeared stage-left. The applause crescendo'd, and Ross returned for a second go at part of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The curtain closed, the din subsided, and reality returned.
As an Academy Award-nominated actress and the recipient of a 2012 Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award, Diana Ross straddles the realm between film and music. She knows, at the very least, how to put on a good show.