The Review/Feature/

Magnificent Obsession: Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, and the Rise and Fall of Motown Productions

How the music mogul's mad love for his superstar singer led him to crash and burn in Hollywood

Berry Gordy (left) and Diana Ross (right) during a recording session with the Supremes (photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns)

Dec 21, 2017

Diana Ross stars in Lady Sings the Blues, screening on Thursday, December 21 as part of the TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Black Star.

“‘Cause I’m a winner! I’m a winner, baby! These people love me! And you can’t stand it!” —Tracy Chambers (Diana Ross) in Mahogany

When former Detroit auto worker Berry Gordy started Motown Records in the late 1950s, he applied the principles he learned on the assembly line to create a musical powerhouse that would develop a successful product — sophisticated pop music blended with R&B, performed by Black musicians — and then churn out endless variations on that product to a mass audience. “The Sound Of Young America” was Motown’s enduring motto, and the label produced over 100 top-ten hits through the 1960s, desegregating the pop music charts forever and making massive crossover stars out of Marvin Gaye, Little Stevie Wonder, the Miracles, and the aptly named Supremes, a girl group that would prove to be Gordy’s most successful creation.

The Supremes’ lead singer Diana Ross was Gordy’s overwhelming obsession both professionally and romantically. After spending years carefully building her up as a superstar, he then spent much of the 1970s attempting to expand Motown into a film and television production company, with the goal of getting Ross what she wanted (or more precisely, what he wanted for her): an Oscar as Best Actress. However, Gordy’s all-encompassing infatuation and ambition created a real-life melodrama that cost him his relationship with Ross and ultimately diminished his empire, which at one time was the most successful Black-owned business in the US.

Gordy first signed the Supremes (initially a quartet called the Primettes) in 1959, when they were fronted by gritty soul singer Florence Ballard. As he developed the group through Motown’s in-house “charm school” — which aimed to make Motown’s acts more palatable to (white) cultural standards of decorum and glamour — Gordy identified the star potential of charismatic support singer Diane Ross and set about enlarging her role, changing her stage name to Diana to better reflect what he saw as her regal aura. He then handed the now-trio (after the departure of founding member Barbara Martin) over to his finest songwriting/producing team, Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, and by 1963 a torrent of international #1 hit singles began to pour forth from the group.

The Supremes perform "Baby Love" on Top of the Pops, 1964

At the end of a successful Motown tour of the UK in December 1965, Gordy and Ross suddenly decamped to Paris, beginning their five-year love affair. By this point it was becoming clear to Motown’s inner circle that Gordy was lavishing all his focus and attention on Ross at the expense of the rest of the Supremes and all of the label’s other acts. Nevertheless, Ross’ star quality was undeniable: note how she veritably pops off the screen in this 1967 appearance on The Andy Williams Show (as the Supremes perform their complex and bizarre single “Love is Here and Now You’re Gone”), while her bandmates function as mere backup singers.

In the next few months, a despondent Florence Ballard, now reduced to oohing and ahhing in the background, could no longer conceal her mounting depression and alcoholism. After Gordy officially changed the name of the group to “Diana Ross and the Supremes” in June 1967, Ballard showed up drunk to an engagement in Vegas and Gordy fired her, immediately replacing her with Cindy Birdsong, a session singer he had been secretly grooming to take over from Ballard (Birdsong even bore a vague physical resemblance to the former frontwoman).

Diana Ross and the Supremes on Spanish television, 1967

Mere weeks later, the Detroit riots swept through the Motor City, the flashpoint located mere blocks from Motown’s “Hitsville U.S.A.” headquarters. Gordy, who by now was living in Los Angeles much of the time anyway, took this as his cue to relocate Motown’s operations to the West Coast and start moving into the film and television fields. Another setback erupted in early 1968 when Holland-Dozier-Holland abruptly left the label over a royalties dispute; Gordy countersued the trio for breach of contract, beginning years of litigation. Gordy quickly assembled a patchwork team of in-house writers to replicate the H-D-H sound and keep the production line humming — a changing of the guard that led to the elevation of Norman Whitfield, whose work with the Temptations took Motown into a new era.

The seismic cultural changes rocking America started to manifest themselves in the work coming out of Motown, with the Supremes once again leading the way. They traded in the chiffon gowns for street clothes and afros to go on The Ed Sullivan Show to premiere their controversial 1968 monster hit “Love Child,” which featured Ross singing a melodramatic tale that some felt was inappropriate for network television.

This new musical direction was so cinematic that “Love Child” even got a “sequel,” the underrated 1969 top-ten hit “I’m Livin’ in Shame” (co-written by Gordy), which doubles down on the melodrama with tragic lyrics inspired by the plot of Douglas Sirk’s immortal tearjerker Imitation of Life.

Diana Ross formally left the Supremes in January 1970, and Gordy’s project to establish her as an all-round entertainer in the vein of Barbra Streisand went into overdrive. First came the release of her auspicious debut solo LP, and then an announcement in December that Motown Productions Inc. would lay out $15 million “for various projects in different facets in the entertainment industry,” beginning with Ross’ first solo TV special for ABC and plans for “the development of a theatrical motion picture script for Diana Ross.”

With the Ross-Motown juggernaut in high gear, it was a shock to many when, at the beginning of 1971, the emerging superstar suddenly ended her romantic relationship with Gordy and married Robert Silberstein, an L.A. music manager. “We both knew that the conflict between our personal relationship as lovers and the roles we played professionally was taking its toll,” Gordy recalled in his 1994 autobiography To Be Loved. “I was her mentor, her manager, her boss. She was my protégé, my artist, my star. We both recognized my role had become too defined, too demanding and too unyielding to exist in a loving marriage.... We ended our personal relationship sadly and by mutual agreement so we could focus completely on the professional one.” But of course, it was not nearly as straightforward as that. Months after her marriage, Ross gave birth to a daughter, Rhonda; years later, it would be revealed that Gordy was in fact the child’s biological father.

Poster for Diana Ross' first ABC TV special, 1971

Premiering in April 1971, Ross’ ABC variety special Diana! was a sizable success; the singer performed her smash hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and received admiring reviews for her surprisingly adept physical comedy skills, displayed in a skit in which she impersonated Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx and W.C. Fields.

The news that Ross’ big-screen debut would be as legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday in Motown Productions’ first feature-film venture Lady Sings the Blues was met with some derision, due to the singer’s lack of acting experience and the heavy-duty dramatic nature of the part. But the film’s director, Toronto’s own Sidney J. Furie, had seen Ross’ ABC special and was convinced that if his star could do comedy, she could do drama as well.

Billie Holiday

Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues

Despite Furie’s outspoken support of his star, Gordy (who, naturally, was the film’s producer) kept the director on a short leash throughout the shoot, constantly second-guessing his choices and commissioning daily script rewrites. The film went so over budget that Gordy had to pay back the $2 million Paramount Pictures had put up for their initial investment, although the studio retained contractual distribution rights to the film.

But all was forgiven when the finished film premiered in fall 1972 and became a critical and commercial hit. Ross had clearly done a great deal of research for her role, and the melodramatic storyline gave her ample room to show off her unexpected emotional range; most impressively, Ross did not attempt an imitation of Holliday’s unique vocal style, instead working to evoke the singer’s languorous, emotional tones. The universal praise for Ross’ performance propelled the film (and its soundtrack) to great success. Gordy had delivered his first Hollywood hit.

Ross was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, and for the first (and so far, only) time in Oscar history, two African American women competed in this category, as Cicely Tyson also received a nomination for her performance in Sounder. Gordy undertook an aggressive marketing campaign for Ross in the trades, running a total of ten daily full-page ads, each one a black-and-white photo of Ross as Holiday with no context, culminating in a final, full-colour photo of Ross with the caption “Diana Ross, an extraordinary actress.” This overzealous campaigning is commonplace today, but in 1973 it was viewed as unseemly by some in the industry — which perhaps helps explain the surprise upset on Oscar night, when Liza Minnelli beat out Ross for the Best Actress statue for her performance as Sally Bowles in Cabaret.

Nevertheless, it seemed that Ross was on her way to a major acting career, but Gordy frittered away this momentum by paying her an annual $1 million retainer to stay available for Motown’s next film project. Looking for someone to run Motown’s film and television division, Gordy was directed to Rob Cohen, who — decades before he became a powerful producer and director by inaugurating the blockbuster Fast and the Furious and XXX franchises — was a 23-year-old go-getter who was already the vice-president of 20th Century Fox’s TV movies unit. Cohen was hired on at Motown after a fruitful first meeting with Gordy, and promptly sold his new boss on the concept for Ross’ next Hollywood vehicle: a Douglas Sirk-style “woman’s picture” about a girl from the Chicago projects who must choose between the man she loves and a career as a superstar model and fashion designer. And to prove that Ross’ success in Lady Sings the Blues was no fluke, it was decided that she would not sing a single note. Ross was skeptical of the concept, but Gordy won her over by inviting the fashion-conscious star to design all the costumes for the film, which was eventually titled Mahogany.

Diana Ross in Mahogany

Ross’ Lady Sings the Blues co-star Billy Dee Williams was once again cast as her leading man, and Anthony Perkins was brought in to play the powerful fashion photographer who comes between them. Oscar-winning Tom Jones director Tony Richardson was hired to helm the film, but, as with Sidney Furie on Lady, Gordy soon began to mistrust Richardson’s evident rapport with Ross. (In a telling anecdote related by J. Randy Taborrelli in the tell-all book Call Her Miss Ross, it is alleged that when Richardson met Gordy to discuss directing Mahogany, he said he was looking forward to directing her as a personality — to which Gordy replied “Diana’s not a personality: she’s a product.”) The on-set disputes between director and producer were generally mediated by production assistants, until one night, while filming a scene where Ross is stalked by a would-be rapist, Richardson switched out Gordy’s preferred actor behind his back; Gordy found out and fired Richardson on the spot, and promptly informed Paramount that he would be taking over as the film’s director.

Berry Gordy and Diana Ross on the set of Mahogany

Ross was stunned by this turn of events, and more than a little apprehensive about the completely inexperienced Gordy stepping in as her new director. While Gordy had controlled nearly every aspect of her career, he had never before so directly supervised her on a project, and when the production travelled to Rome, things quickly unravelled between them on a professional level. Where Richardson had made Ross feel like an Oscar-nominated actress on the set, Gordy proceeded to micromanage her performance in the same way that he had overseen all other aspects of her career. Two days before the completion of principal photography, Ross — fed up with her directionless director demanding yet another take — walloped Gordy in the face in front of the crew, walked off the set, and flew back to the States; Gordy had to finish his star’s scenes with body doubles.

Ross had every reason to be anxious about the end result. There is, as they say, a lot to unpack in Mahogany — not least the way it offers a kind of funhouse-mirror reflection of its director’s decade-plus obsession with his star. In the film, Ross plays Tracy Chambers, who struggles to make it to the top on “her terms” all while under the thumb of a series of powerful men who create all her opportunities, most notably the world-famous bisexual fashion photog Sean McAvoy (Perkins), who even endows Tracy with her new modelling name. (“I give all my creations the names of inanimate objects,” he creepily declares. “There’s only one word that describes rich, dark, beautiful and rare. I’m going to call you Mahogany.”) When Tracy’s love interest, political activist Brian Walker (Williams), travels to Rome to try and win Tracy back after a falling-out, the possessive McAvoy goes off the rails and confronts Walker in a magnificently homoerotic fight scene.

This moment is somehow out-camped by a subsequent scene where McAvoy, now completely unhinged, tries to destroy himself and his creation in a delirious high-speed car crash — a sequence which features one of the most unintentionally hilarious scene transitions in cinematic history.

At the end, Mahogany/Tracy survives the crash, and another older, wealthy benefactor bankrolls her fashion line, which premieres to great acclaim. Tracy seems to have it all, but, in the film’s utterly chauvinistic finale, she suddenly walks away from her selfish dreams of independence to serve as the loyal wife of her man Walker, declaring, in the cringe-inducing finale, “Success is nothing without the man you love to share it with.” If Mahogany was intended as a testament of Gordy’s devotion to Diana Ross, this punishing moral reveals a great deal of hostility towards her success.

Mahogany opened in October 1975, and though it was a moderate box-office success, it received vicious reviews from critics. While Roger Ebert branded the film as “an unholy alliance between daytime soap opera and Jacqueline Susann”, the review that devastated Gordy the most came from TIME Magazine, which indicted him for “squandering one of America’s most natural resources: Diana Ross.” Gordy, wounded by the criticism, would never direct another film.

Ross did score a major #1 hit on the Billboard charts with “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To),” which garnered the film’s only Oscar nomination — a contentious choice as it was technically not a song written for the film, having been recorded and released as a single by Thelma Houston two years prior. The Academy initially rejected the song as “qualitatively ineligible,” but a strong-arm appeal by Gordy resulted in the decision being overturned. Ross, who was then on a European concert tour, performed the song for the Oscar ceremony live via satellite from Amsterdam, filming her weird segment at 4:30am and singing in a horse-drawn carriage.

Diana Ross in The Wiz

Ross’ final film with Gordy and Motown Productions was 1978’s The Wiz, based on the hit Broadway musical that offered an all-African American take on The Wizard of Oz. While Gordy wanted the star of the stage version, Stephanie Mills, to play Dorothy, the film’s studio Universal wanted big names in the cast, resulting in the casting of the 33-year-old Ross in the lead (with Dorothy now reconceived as a schoolteacher). Despite the starry cast — including Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow and Ross’ Lady Sings the Blues co-star Richard Pryor as the Wiz himself — the $24 million film was a commercial failure, losing millions for Universal and Motown Productions and ending Ross’ big-screen career.

Following this series of high-profile flops, Motown limped into the 1980s, its influence on popular culture now severely diminished. Ross herself left the label for RCA in 1981, and Motown began to focus less on original material than on strip-mining its back catalogue for its powerful nostalgic cachet with baby boomers: the company sold millions of copies of the Big Chill soundtrack, and scored a massive ratings hit with the Motown 25 TV special. Motown Productions only released one more feature film: the kung-fu musical cheesefest marketed as Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, which developed a cult following over the years.

Though Lady Sings the Blues was their most prestigious film together, Gordy’s most enduring cinematic gift to Ross was to provide her with an unintentional vehicle for what would become one of her most enduring legacies: as a gay icon. Mahogany cemented her status as the ultimate diva, giving her a second life as a disco queen and launching the careers of thousands of drag performers including Mahogany superfan RuPaul, whose 1992 crossover house music hit “Supermodel (You Better Work)” is clearly indebted to Mahogany’s immortal fashion montage.