MOJO Time Machine: Diana Ross’ Month of Disaster And Triumph

On 7 March, 1976 Diana Ross’ Mahogany was panned by critics, she missed out on an Oscar, but success wasn’t far away…

MOJO TIME MACHINE

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7 March, 1976

There’s were definitely two Elton Johns to be seen on March 7, 1976, when Madam Tussaud’s added a wax effigy of Pinner’s favourite son to its collection – the first rock figure to be added since 1964, when The Beatles appeared there in wax form.

But it seemed there were far more sightings of Diana Ross, who was out to impress the world regarding the virtues of her new, self-titled solo album, which boasted two chartbusting cuts in Theme From Mahogany - the title song to her latest film - plus the Hal Davis-produced Love Hangover, an attempt to reach out and touch a new, disco-inclined, generation. She was also was due to embark on a UK tour that commenced at Birmingham Hippodrome on March 14 and conclude in Manchester on March 27.

Those who couldn’t get enough of the Motown Diva were catered for at London’s Plaza cinema, where Mahogany was playing to good audiences but thumbs down reviews. Then too, she was due to appear before the Hollywood crowd at the Oscar ceremony on March 29. The fact that Diana was still in Europe proved no obstacle; at 4.30 am, a fur-clad Ross clambered into a horse-drawn carriage and made her way through Amsterdam, lip-synching Theme From Mahogany, a Best Song nominee, her performance being despatched by satellite to Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where it lost out to Keith Carradine’s I’m Easy.

“It received the worst reviews in the history of the movies.”

Berry Gordy

There was to be no Ross nomination for Best Actress. Her role as rags to riches model Tracey Chambers didn’t even come close. But if she could possibly have picked up something in the Costume Design category – she designed all of her 25 costumes herself - Mahogany was a loser in most departments. Even original director, Tony Richardson got fired, Berry Gordy assuming command because “He (Richardson) didn’t quite capture the feeling of blackness – the black point of view”. Not that Berry didn’t pull out all the stops production-wise. The original $2.5 million budget was extended to $3.75 million. He worked like a demon to complete Mahogany, though he realised he was on a loser critically and thought about pulling the film. However, Mahogany grossed nearly $7 million in its first week. Even so, it took a critical beating. Berry later recalled, “It received the worst reviews in the history of the movies”

Writer Vivien Goldman, who met Ross at a London hotel champagne breakfast during her UK tour recalls, “fortified with black coffee, we all obeyed the publicist’s exhortation to stand up and clap when That Lady walked into the room. Everyone was sitting round at little tables and Diana moved from table to table spending a few moments at each, revealing all and nothing at the same time. She’s beautiful, not only with what the good lord gave her but the kind of grooming that spells M-O-N-E-Y  and lessons well learnt at the fabled Motown Charm School.”

At another table, Miss Ross chatted to a journalist who enquired about her changing attitude in music, moving away from the traditional Motown sounds to something a lot more like Broadway. Diana paused briefly and replied: “I’m getting older, I’m 31 and I’ve changed. I like the sound of my voice now and I like to sing different material. I sing soul still – but really I just want to entertain.” Challenged on the subject of Florence Ballard, the ex-Supreme who had died in near poverty just a few weeks earlier, Ross maintained, “You can’t help certain people.” Not that she didn’t care. She set up a trust fund for Flo’s three daughters, one that ran into six figures.

The UK shows went well. Impressive from a production point of view, they boasted a 38-piece orchestra, five back-up singers and five mime artists, and worked amid sets fashioned by Broadway designed Tom John. As the singer wended her way through Broadway standards, a modicum of hits and tributes to such as Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, the audiences reacted in befitting manner. Some soul fans railed - “Ms Ross has turned her back on black music,” declared Black Music magazine. “Diana now flirts with the vacuous world of the show-biz born and theatrical schmaltz”, but their readers clearly disagreed. In a poll held that month, they voted Diana Ross second only to Millie Jackson as the best soul singer around. And before the year came to a close Billboard magazine duly named Diana Ernestine Earle Ross as Female Entertainer of the Century.

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