She brings her international tour to the Filene Center at Wolf Trap on Sunday.
With elegance, beauty and grace, Miss Ross has dazzled generations of music lovers throughout a career that spans seven decades, from her beginnings with The Supremes in 1959 to the present. But she undoubtedly occupies a special place in the hearts of female fans of a certain age — baby boomers born in the early 1960s.
There is no denying that my young friends and I revered Miss Ross, especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when we were wholly confused by the civil unrest and social changes in the U.S.
What really puzzled many of us was the disconnect between the news and the depiction of American life on television. Would our adult lives mirror the upscale, middle-class suburbia portrayed in “The Dick Van Dyke Show?” Or would we struggle to secure life’s necessities, as did those in cities shown on the evening news?
When Miss Ross and the Supremes (Cindy Birdsong and Mary Wilson) sang “Love Child,” “I’m Living in Shame,” and other Motown hits, it seemed not only possible but probable that one could escape a gritty urban existence and emulate the lives of Rob and Laura Petrie.
True, musical escapes could pose their own moral dilemmas (such as out-of-wedlock birth and abandonment in the aforementioned songs), but we were too young to understand anything but fairytale endings with a touch of some indiscernible sadness. The hope in the songs — again, we were too young to understand the underlying sorrow — helped quell some of our fears.
What we did understand was that Miss Ross, Miss Birdsong and Miss Wilson were transformed from teens in rough-and-tumble Detroit into the embodiment of princesses with luxuriously coiffed hair, stately evening attire, and a regal sophistication that complemented their angelic vocals.
Critics often fault the group for robotic movements, Barbie-doll outfits and watered-down “soul” sounds. Young girls, though, thought of them as majestic role models, radicals in their own rights who didn’t need to conform to the counterculture that sparked wild dancing in micro miniskirts (Tina Turner), rocking out at Woodstock (Jimi Hendrix) and gritty soul anthems (Curtis Mayfield).
Of course, we were too young to understand many things, including that Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. and his staff, notably Maxine Powell, molded Miss Ross, the Supremes, and other artists. And, certainly, we never dreamed the trio had their own set of moral and ethical dilemmas and conflicts. To us, they were the last role models of gracious living.
“She taught them walking, talking, sitting, standing, you name it,” Mr. Gordy said of Powell in Jet magazine. “If it had to do with properness, she taught it. She was tough, but when she got through with you, you were poised and professional … and thankful.”
As adults, of course, we’d be right to question Mr. Gordy’s words. But Powell, who died in 2013 at age 98, said Miss Ross expressed her gratitude especially, during a 1975 concert in New York City.
“She brought me onstage, hugged and kissed me and told her Broadway audience: ‘This is the person who taught me everything I know,’” Powell told Jet. “[She told me] ‘Miss Powell, every time I’m onstage, you are out there with me.’”
Through the years, Miss Ross has weathered scandals, personal embarrassment and career bumps with a grace seemingly absent from many younger performers. It is too easy to blame the insatiable 24-hour news cycle for the crude public images of many younger performers.
Miss Ross is still at the epicenter of celebrity — thanks to her own brilliant career and associations that include Michael Jackson naming her backup guardian to this three children — but has never “told all” on reality or talk shows or lost her regal bearing.