A Diva Gets Her Due

Feb 13, 2012
Originally published on February 13, 2012 4:49 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One of the Facebook comments we received about Whitney Houston yesterday was from Ashli White, who called her my generation's Diana Ross. Ross herself got her due at the Grammys yesterday when she was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. It was her first Grammy win, even though she has scored a dozen nominations across decades for songs like "Upside Down," "Touch Me in the Morning" and the Supremes' hit, "Baby Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY LOVE")

THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Ooh, ooh, baby love, my baby love, I need you, oh, how I need you.

MARTIN: Ross first came to fame as one of The Supremes, originally called The Primettes when they first got together in Detroit in 1959. Their combination of high fashion and sweet vocals became the blueprint for successful girl groups for decades.

Ross left the group to pursue a solo career in 1970. Fans around the world fell in love with her music and her style. But she didn't always inspire warm feelings. The 1991 book "Call Her Miss Ross" painted an unflattering portrait. And later, former Supreme Mary Wilson spoke out bitterly about her view that Ross unfairly claimed undue credit for the group's success.

But others insisted that Diana Ross won the spotlight because she was willing to fight for it. Her frequent recording partner Marvin Gaye was quoted this way in the biography "Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye," quote, "she'll out rehearse you, out-dress you and outperform you, so you'd best stay out of her way," unquote. And, in fact, here are Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross together in the song "You are Everything."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU ARE EVERYTHING")

DIANA ROSS: (Singing) As he turned the corner, I called out your name. I felt so ashamed when it wasn't you, wasn't you.

MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) You are everything, and everything is you. Woo-oh...

ROSS: (Singing) You are everything.

MARTIN: Ross found success far beyond the recording studio. She became an icon of black beauty at a time when African-American women often could not see themselves on fashion runways or magazine covers. She made the leap to the big screen in films like "Mahogany," and in her Oscar-nominated performance as Billie Holiday in "Lady Sings the Blues."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LADY SINGS THE BLUES")

ROSS: (Singing) She feels so sad, wants the world to know.

MARTIN: In point of fact, the Grammys are a little late to the party when it comes to honoring Ross. She has her own star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. She won a Tony for her one-woman show, "An Evening with Diana Ross," and was recognized as a living treasure of American arts at The Kennedy Center Honors. And beyond the prizes as statues, every time the ladies of American R&B strut across the stage in a fabulous gown to belt out a hit song, they're walking in her footsteps.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LADY SINGS THE BLUES")

ROSS: (Singing) Lady sings the blues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.