Ledisi, Questlove, Mark Bradford pay tribute to Diana Ross
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Diana Ross has never won a Grammy, though this Saturday she’ll be presented with a lifetime achievement award by the Recording Academy celebrating her five-decade career.
Artists influenced by Ross and her music spoke to us about the magnitude of her effect on popular culture, and how her work -- and work ethic -- has inspired them individually. They include drummer/co-founder of the hip-hop group the Roots, Questlove, contemporary R&B, Grammy-nominated singer Ledisi and visual artist Mark Bradford.
Critics often put you in the circle of Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. In what ways would you say Diana Ross is an influence? What of her singing or performing style makes an impression on you – not just as a fan, but also as a fellow artist?
I love the way Ms. Ross commands a certain presence without asking for it. She can just stand there, look stunning and sing. Her voice is pure and her phrases would end with that little girl smile. She knows how to play on every emotion through a song and at the same time embrace her audience. She does all that while being seductive in a subtle way. I still have not seen anyone else do that. She speaks volumes with simplicity, always giving just enough to leave you wanting more. That’s power.
Do you have a favorite Ross song or performance?
Watching her mesmerize 350,000 people at Central Park in New York City [during her iconic 1983 ‘For One and For All’ free concert in Central Park] is my favorite performance. She made the rain her accessory and backdrop! Who does that? That was pure genius. You had fashion, songs, she was on a stage by herself in the rain with no dancers, no visual effects and they wanted her to get off the stage for safety reasons. She refused and stayed for her fans. That’s a star!
What would you say is her legacy?
Ms. Ross is, of course, the ultimate supreme diva, but she extends far beyond that in my opinion. She so clearly loves doing what she does -- singing, acting, performing on stage -- while at the same time being a trailblazer, fusing all of her talents into one amazing vessel. And she did it during a time that not many black people, especially black women, were doing it.
Like a fairy godmother, she made little girls dare to dream once they experienced her songs or films -- little girls like Ms. Oprah Winfrey. And of course, I was one of them -- a shy, skinny, awkward, big-eyed, brown girl watching ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ for the first time at a friend’s house on a plastic-covered sofa.
I remember thinking, “Wow, look at that white suit with that hat, and those red lips.” Her version of ‘Our Love is Here to Stay’ made me fall in love with jazz and Billie Holiday!
Through her artistry, she crossed color lines, embracing all people, inspiring others to love and dream. That’s what makes her the icon she is today. Without her body of work, many of us wouldn’t be here. Her influence is everywhere today.
You’re on record as being a big fan of Diana Ross’ classic 1979 HBO concert special. Can you explain what it is about that performance that has stuck with you for more than 30 years?
Beyonce and I were just talking about our mutual admiration for that particular show because of the way Beyonce made her entrance for her  Triple Threat Tour with Missy [Elliot] and Alicia Keys. She came through the audience for that. She talks about having to watch old video tapes of the greats so she could see what she could take from them. I said to her, ‘Watching you get carried on the shoulders of those guys reminded me so much…’ and she finished my sentence with, ‘the Diana Ross concert where she went through the screen.’ [He laughs.]
You don’t know how much that intro haunts me. I know there’s been an elevated level of making grand entrances, especially the way that Michael Jackson elevated it in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And with technology today, there are even more grandiose entrances. But something about seeing her come down an endless flight of stairs and then come through the screen, and then leave the same way with five people carrying her, had a very extreme, eerie effect on me. That image is stuck in my head. Maybe it was just being 8 years old. You tend to become a massive sponge when you’re in those formative years and you remember things. They affect you deeply.
It’s different from me watching it now in my early 40s and thinking, “Oh, that’s nice.” But to see it then, I would just rewind it over and over. I was amazed at how they coordinated it all. Beyonce herself said that was one of her favorite bits of Diana Ross footage to kind of emulate and follow.
Diana Ross definitely holds a special place in my childhood years. Actually, today is my birthday.
Thank you. Someone just gave me a copy of my favorite album as a kid. One of my gifts today was [the 1977 album] ‘An Evening with Diana Ross.’ Whenever I see [Diana Ross’ daughter] Tracee, I always tell her, ‘I thought you and your sisters were my friends because of that album.’
Why’d you think that?
On that album, Ms. Ross tells stories of her three daughters and does the whole ‘Me and My Arrow’ story thing, and I felt like I knew them. My mom always used to play that record for me. It was like my lullaby. There was a turntable next to my bed when I was a kid, and at my bedtime -- which was 8 p.m. -- my parents would put two or three records on that would kinda take me to sleep. Side 2 [of ‘Evening’], where she does the Broadway stuff, Harry Nilsson’s ‘Me and My Arrow,’ and tells stories -- that was my favorite moment. I loved the whole thing, though. It was a major, major, major staple -- that and the Marlo Thomas ‘Free to be You and Me’ stuff she did.
You know, some people are just so larger than life that you don’t even count them as a major figure. They’re so ubiquitous that you take them for granted, like air. I would list [‘Evening’] on any of my Top 10 lists. But, like, when Pitchfork asks me, ‘What are your Top 10 albums of your childhood?’ I don’t know if I would list that. However, evidence would definitely show that it ranks in the Top 5 of albums I listened to the most in my childhood.
It’s interesting that you mentioned the Broadway and Harry Nilsson stuff as being some of your favorite Ross moments because that’s the stuff that a lot of detractors cite when they question her blackness or soulfulness.
Well, I can relate to that because often times the thing that you hear in my own career with the Roots is that we often get accused of overthinking the music; we get the charge that there are hints of pretentiousness. I’m such an obsessive nerd that if I get panned, I’ll obsessively research everything that critic has written just to see what their tastes are. So then I started to see and go, ‘Oh, I get it.’
You’ve produced the likes of Al Green and Betty Wright in recent years. Would you ever want to produce Diana Ross?
Whew! Man, I would so love that opportunity. A lot of the artists I’ve worked with on the last eight albums I’ve produced -- with the exception of John Legend -- were over the age of 60, mostly because my heart is with that material that I grew up with in the ‘60s and ‘70s. If the opportunity ever presented itself, I would love that.
When I met her, I was spinning at Tracee’s 35th birthday party and I put ‘Tenderness’ [a track from ‘Diana’] on and, oh my God, it was the most frightening feeling in the world. Like, she was standing right behind me. And this was right when [deejay software] serrato first started and it was such a wonderment to her that she literally just said, ‘Do you mind if I stand here and watch you do this?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not intimidated or overwhelmed at all by the fact that Diana Ross is standing here watching me deejay.’ [He laughs.] But she stood there for 20 minutes, quietly, just watching me sift through about 14,000 MP3s and play. I think she thought it was the most amazing thing. And I was like, ‘Wow, it’s weird that you think that’s amazing. I think you getting carried off through a screen on the shoulders of men is pretty amazing.’
Can you put Diana Ross in a historical context?
Start at the beginning, with the Supremes -- three black girls from Detroit come of age against civil rights struggles, in the shadow of Jim Crow, and [Diana Ross] just decides, ‘I’m going for it.’ When you put it in context, what she did and when she did it, it’s extraordinary. She’s of a generation that really experienced blatant scalding bigotry. But she had a will to power. She was a trailblazer who wrote chapter after chapter, who put herself at the center of the conversation and demanded a seat at the table. She didn’t want black power. She wanted power. She hijacked and owned the western narrative. Don’t downplay how significant that is.
You can hear the ambition in her voice; there’s a questing quality to it. You hear it searching. But where so many pop voices now convey nothing but careerist ambition, she actually had a really lovely, distinctive voice – she could and can sing.
She didn’t have the Etta James voice or the Aretha Franklin voice. Her voice was new. And, you’re right, it was filled with ambition. There’s this thing with women -- especially women of color -- when they have ambition, it’s [perceived as] a character flaw. But Diana Ross would throw it in your face. She didn’t apologize for it.
We applaud ambition but on very narrow terms -- for a woman, for an African American, and especially for an African American woman -- and she ignored all those limited and limiting terms in order to set her own. I think she had an incredible sense of timing, of kind of knowing where things were moving and how she could be a part of it. She simply wasn’t boxed in. And I don’t mean that in the ‘transcending race’ kind of nonsense. She’s very much a black woman. But she did show tunes, ruled Vegas, took on an icon in Billie Holiday, did disco. … She just always had this thing of keep it moving, keep it moving. I think when she was growing up in the projects, she said to herself, ‘Keep it moving, girl.’ And to this very day she does that. If you can tap into that spirit, then I think you can really get her.
I know and love her music, but I always liked her as a force -- the way that she kind of positioned herself in the world. I don’t use the term or concept of her ‘transcending race’ because that’s just problematic on a lot of levels, but she was able to unhinge blackness from a static place. Very few of us are able to do that.
How would you say that the way she positioned herself and moved in the world resonates with you in your profession?
If you look at the history of painting, there are certain areas where there are many who look like me, and there are other areas where there are few [who look like me]. And if you start talking about abstract painting in this country, there are just so few black male abstract painters of note. Why is that? Why are we doing the more figurative work? It’s in part because the art world demands the autobiographical from us. I looked at that and said, ‘Oh, I wanna play in that pond over there.’ And they said, no, no, no, no -- you play in this pond. Now, I could have said to myself, ‘Well, I’m black and I need to stay in my place,’ or ‘I’m black and I need to tell the real story -- whatever contrived definition of real is expected,’ or ‘I’m black and I have to make sure my work is autobiographical and figurative enough that people think they’re getting some sort of authentic black thing.’
But I said no.
I’m going where I want, and I’m doing what I want ‘cause I’m going to be black, regardless. I think that’s how she influenced me. It doesn’t matter that there are maybe six black abstract painters that even get historicized at all. It doesn’t matter that probably none of them have had survey shows or retrospectives. It doesn’t matter that none are in the history books. I can be. I can do this.
And with Ross, it wasn’t just that she went where she wasn’t expected or wasn’t supposed to, but that she owned those spaces once she set her sights on them.
Yes! She owned it … but the thing is, also, when she is in a concert venue and is able to hold it in the palm of her hand -- and she absolutely does -- that power comes from everything she’s accrued from the [housing] projects until that moment she’s onstage. It’s a cumulative effect of all those energies. That’s power. All that life she has led makes her able to hold the crowd the way she does. When she walks through the crowd, asking them to sing along, to join hands, the crowd is respectful of her and of each other. Very few entertainers are able to do that. She didn’t need a whole lot of bodyguards. Her presence and her power is enough to galvanize. I think people should look at that, at that type of energy and what she was able to do with it.
What people fail to realize, I think, is that every entertainer, every writer, every artist or cultural figure does not break down barriers. Very few really do that. There are only certain people at certain times who do that, and then there are the people that follow. You can’t go to all the people who came after her, you gotta go to her ‘cause she was the one kicking the door down. You gotta go to her, you gotta go to Lena Horne. I see them as being from the same rare cloth. These are the people who were on the frontline. Diana Ross was on the frontline. Not Beyonce -- that’s the back of the line. In painting, I feel like I’m very much in the frontline. There are certain experiences that I have in my career that only I can have. There ain’t nobody who’s been here before, so you gotta figure it out for yourself.
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-- Ernest Hardy
Images: Diana Ross in her 1971 special ‘Diana!’ (Motown); file photo of Ross (Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts); The Supremes, with Ross, left, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong (Motown).