It may be an inexplicable mystery to some, perhaps, but the facts just don’t lie – Diana Ross is indisputably one of the most written-about female singers of all time. True, she’s patently no Aretha Franklin and can’t claim to be one of the most technically-gifted vocalists of all time, but she possesses her own unique and immediately identifiable sound and there’s an aura about her that her legion of devotees around the globe seem to find irresistible. Maybe it’s the glamour, or the mystique…or even the records she cut as a member of the legendary Supremes in the ’60s or as a solo artist from the ’70s onwards. Her allure can’t really be quantified but also, it can’t be denied and her storied journey from the projects to the penthouse has inspired countless books and biographies over the years – some worthy, some less so – and now UK author, Ian Phillips, has just unleashed his second book on the now 71-year-old diva. Back in 2010, Phillips wrote ‘Diana – Queen Of Motown’ and today, five years later, he returns to the subject of Ms. Ross with a new tome, ‘Diana Ross – Reflections,’ where he casts a critical and insightful eye over the singer’s oeuvre. For both Ross aficionados and Motown fans it’s a must-read, page-turner of a book that comes with forewords from ex-Motown staffers, Janie Bradford and Al Abrams. More importantly, it eschews tabloid sensationalism – which has so often characterised books on Ross’s life and career – and, refreshingly, focuses intently on the music more than anything else.
In an exclusive interview with SJF’s Charles Waring, Ian Phillips talks in detail about his new book and discusses his long-time fascination with Diana Ross…
There have been many books written about Diana Ross before – what makes your book unique and what was the motivation behind you writing it?
There certainly have been a lot of books written about Diana Ross, but seldom has a book centred and focused on her actual body of work. Diana Ross has such a wide-ranging, lengthy back catalogue that seems to often be overlooked and that is what I wanted to focus on, as well as her work in films, on stage, and her many career achievements that made her one of the biggest musical artists in history. So many other books tend to focus on prying into her private life, inevitably leading to a lot of speculation and negativity in the media. I just wanted to re-address the balance, and write about why she is a living legend, as it wasn’t being a so-called diva, the big hair, the glamorous gowns that made her famous; it was her talent and artistry, and sadly this seems to be overlooked in favour of the controversy that has surrounded her.
This is your second book on Diana Ross – why did you feel the need to revisit Diana Ross as a subject again?
Quite honestly, I felt the first book I wrote on Diana didn’t have much depth and was a little unbalanced in terms of being objective. I felt much of the text was too gushing and there wasn’t nearly enough information as there could have been. On top of that, I had a lot of problems with my first publisher. There were a number of errors in the book, even after I’d proof read it. The UK and US Discography I’d put together, somehow got muddled up, leaving landmark songs like ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’ very noticeable by their omission. There was even a spelling error on the back of the book, which of course everybody noticed. All these things, plus the constant uphill battle I had with the publisher, made me decide to withdraw the book – thankfully as they had breached the contract I’d signed I was able to get a reversion contract, returning all rights of the book back to me. Yes, it was an utter nightmare, but I decided that I was going to put the book right before I went to my next publisher. And that’s what I did. I wanted to expand on the information behind the legendary classics to include stories in the making and recording of the songs, which would help balance my own personal thoughts on them to hopefully make it more interesting and entertaining to the less fanatical fan. I wanted it to be a book for collectors.
Why has Diana been the focus of so many books? What’s the key to the public’s fascination with her?
I think the fact that Diana Ross is essentially a very private person makes her more endearing to the public. These days, many celebrities often “kiss and tell” and enjoy splashing their personal stories in the media, whereas Diana has always retained her dignity, and even in light of the negative press that often surrounds her, she never enters into the public debate, which I think makes her all the more intriguing. You hear stories about her alleged behaviour behind the scenes, but none of the public actually sees any of this alleged bad behaviour. So there’s a bit of mystery surrounding her. I think the fascination with her as a performer is (and I’m not saying this as a biased fan) is that she’s very unique: She has a magnetic stage presence and can be singing to an audience of thousands yet is able to create an intimate feeling which makes you feel as though she is singing just to you. It’s just one of those things; some people were born to entertain and Diana Ross is most definitely one of those people. She’s a natural and there really is no one like her.
What new insights did writing the book give you regarding Diana and her music?
A: Looking over her back catalogue, she really has a diverse body of work, ranging from Motown, pop, jazz, blues, country & western, classical, hip hop, reggae etc. I’ve often wondered why some of her work has been overlooked but I think that may possible be as she hasn’t really written many songs herself like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. In researching the book I counted that there were over 20 releases by The Supremes within a period of five years and there were so many other tracks and albums they’d recorded which wound up in the can for several years. I don’t think those girls ever stopped to take a breath, they were just constantly go, go, go. I think the theme throughout her whole body of work is love. There have been a few side-steps here and there, but love is always usually the main theme. When she attempted to create a new sound that differed from what her public expected and wanted from her, is where she’s stumbled commercially. But she was just taking chances and trying to stay vital to the public and wanted to keep surprising. I think her albums became more cohesive as her career progressed – especially in the ’90s, as albums like ‘The Force Behind The Power’, ‘Take Me Higher,’ and ‘Every Day Is A New Day’ were very cohesive pieces of work. In the 60s, however, a lot of the albums were just thrown together with no real content as such, but much of this changed after she went solo.
What did you learn about Diana that you didn’t know before you wrote the book?
This may sound a trivial answer, but I didn’t know that there are so many other recordings of The Supremes that are still locked away somewhere and have yet to surface. I mean we’re talking hundreds of tracks. I didn’t realise before the book exactly how much of a cultural impact she had had as a black performer, taking black music into the mainstream. I didn’t know The Supremes were one of the first girl groups to be on the front cover of a national magazine – it was a tremendous breakthrough for black artists. I knew The Supremes were huge before, but I didn’t know just how deep and groundbreaking their impact was. These were fascinating things to learn and I feel are things that we should all be talking about instead of all the backstage gossip that many tend to focus on. Also, as I went along, I found out that there seems to be a divide where Diana Ross is concerned: People either love or hate her; no in between. I’ve heard lots of stories about her and for every bad story, there is always someone else who will leap to her defence. Some may describe her as being difficult, while others who have worked with her can’t sing her praises enough.
What’s the response been to the book so far?
Overwhelming. And I’d hate for that to sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet as I’m really not, but the response has been so lovely and touching (I just hope I’m not tempting fate here lol). I’m glad that people have seen it for what it is: A book on her wide discography, and her revolutionary cultural impact.
What’s your view on Diana’s own biography, ‘Secrets Of A Sparrow’? Do you think it left too many questions about her life and music unanswered?
It’s a difficult one. Many expected and wanted it to be a response to the less flattering biographies written about her. I think there are parts where she’s quite revealing, but she said herself that she didn’t want to write something that was in defence of what’s been written about her. Could she have been more revealing? Yes, definitely, but it was her own choice to focus more on the positive aspects of her career rather than focus on the negative. Of course this left many disappointed.
What do you think is Diana Ross’s greatest musical achievement – and why?
A difficult one as she’s had many highs; her work with the likes of Ashford & Simpson, Holland-Dozier-Holland and Michael Masser is sublime. However, I think I’d have to say the Lady Sing The Blues Soundtrack. That was such a pivotal point in her career doing the movie and critics were just waiting for her to fall flat on her face and fail. But she didn’t. And good on her, as she proved all her detractors wrong in doing that film. The soundtrack captures some of her most stirring, emotional and soulful work. While she clearly wasn’t trying to sound like Billie Holiday, she brilliantly evoked the phrasing and enunciation in Billie’s style, and this was musically miles apart from anything she’d done to that point. I mean compare ‘Baby Love’ to ‘My Man’ – she’d really gone a long, long way and she triumphed against adversity. So I think, yes, the ‘Lady Sings The Blues’ soundtrack.
How and when did your admiration for Diana Ross begin?
Many find this hard to believe but it was when I was three years old. It was the early 1980s and my mum had several Motown LPs and singles (it seemed everyone we knew did) and many of those were by Diana Ross. And for some reason, ‘Stop! In The Name Of Love’ jumped out at me; I loved that sweet, almost child-like voice. As time went on I ended up collecting all her records, buying any magazine she was in, recording on video tape any time she was on TV etc. This was much to my family’s chagrin who probably regretted ever letting me hear ‘Stop! In The Name Of Love’ in the first place.
Some soul music fans don’t perceive Diana as a bona fide soul artist but rather see her as a pop performer – what’s your take on this?
I think she is definitely a pop performer. Diana herself has said she doesn’t like to be restricted to one genre of music and looking at her back catalogue, it’s musically all over the place, BUT with some soulful interludes. I think people’s perceptions of her not being a true soul artist is that she doesn’t have the big, commanding, church voice you’d usually associate with soul music, such as Aretha Franklin. She has a small sound that she uses with great skill. Soul comes from feelings deep inside and I think she evokes a soulful air in many of her songs. I think most of her music has tended to land somewhere between pop and soul. When called for, though, she can be soulful and evidence of this is on the ‘Lady Sings The Blues’ soundtrack and any of her solo work with the great Ashford & Simpson.
As well as having thousands of fans and devotees around the world, Diana Ross has also had to suffer a lot of flak from the press over the years…why do you think that is?
I think the rumours and stories that have been written by others have all contributed to the flak she receives. Some stories, I’ve been told, were written just because they sound good. Some people want to believe everything they read. As I’ve never met her I can’t say what is or isn’t true, but some would say her “diva-like” demands also add to the negativity surrounding her. People have good and bad days and sometimes little stories are fabricated on by gossipers, spread around, and suddenly everybody thinks it’s the gospel truth. For all the unflattering stories I’ve read about her so-called fits of temper and demands, it’s as I said earlier, there’s always somebody who will come forward and defend her and insist she’s not the person being portrayed in the media. In some of the interviews I conducted for the book, the likes of Pam Sawyer, Scherrie Payne and Lynda Laurence described her as warm and gracious, very professional and fun to be with. Sadly, though, it seems the old saying “mud sticks” is true in this case. There have been so many stories questioning whether Diana Ross should have been the lead singer of The Supremes and that she only became the lead singer, and got to where she is today, because of her affair with Berry Gordy. Not true. Nobody can give you that talent or manufacture it. It has to be there in the first place, to be developed and nurtured. Of course it helped that Berry Gordy gave her his full backing and support but all the opportunities he gave her, she stepped up to the challenge and she delivered.
How did Janie Bradford and Al Abrams come on board to write their forewords to your book?
Ahh, the joys of social media: I knew of Janie Bradford and knew she was the one who came up with the name Supremes when Diana, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson signed to Motown, and so I got in touch with her. We became great friends after that and she was a tremendous support throughout. I often would call upon her for clarification on stories of The Supremes I wasn’t sure about. And was thrilled when she said yes to writing the foreword. I enjoyed her stories of Diana Ross before she was famous that are in the book. For Al Abrams, I bought his book ‘Hype And Soul: Behind The Scenes At Motown’ and he, too, I was able to find on Facebook. We got chatting, and he would recall some fascinating stories of his time with The Supremes, including getting them on the front cover of a national magazine – which was a first for black artists. I was able to use these stories in the book and I also wanted him to write the foreword, too. I feel very lucky to have had Janie and Al on board.
What’s your favourite Diana Ross album of all time – and why?
This is a hard one. But at a push I think I’d have to go for ‘Surrender’ (UK title: ‘I’m Still Waiting’). This is definitely her most soulful album and Ashford & Simpson were her best producers in my opinion. They were able to capture the full extent of her vocals and really bring out her top range. Diana’s hasn’t been known for vocal gymnastics, but she certainly executes plenty on the ‘Surrender’ album. She really cut loose and sings with a kind of abandon that she never had before (she does this on all of her work with Ashford & Simpson). It’s a cohesive project and I really love that real black sound of Detroit. Songs like ‘Surrender’, ‘And If You See Him’, ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ and ‘Did You Read The Morning Paper?’ all require her to really stretch vocally, which she does and she’s at her soulful best. Great, great album.
Do you feel that you’ve covered Diana Ross’s career and music now for good or do you think that you’ll continue to write about her again in the future?
Now I’ve had this book published, I feel I’ve said all I wanted to say and all that I wanted to achieve with the book in the first place. I’m sure there are many parts of Diana’s career I may have missed but I feel my job is done. Never say never, of course. I hope there will be more albums from Diana in the future and one day I maybe will update it. I shall always be a fan, but time for pastures new in terms of writing.
What’s in the pipeline for you as a writer after this book?
A: Well, I wanted to do something completely different for my next book. I do hope to do more Motown-related projects in the future, but my next book is going to be looking at skinhead culture. It will be looking at its origins in Jamaica, the many ska/reggae artists that helped shape and have an impact on the skinhead scene, plus stories from real-life skinheads and the general misconception that all skinheads are racist, which is simply not true. It was a group calling themselves skinheads in the ’80s associated with the national front that gave skinheads on the whole a bad name. It’s proving very interesting so far and shall be released around December time.
‘Diana Ross – Reflections’ is out now via New Haven Publishing