You never forget your first music love. And for me, it was an endless one. That’s the kind of forever feels I’ve had for Miss Ross — Diana, of course — ever since I can remember. She had me from the moment I got my little hands on my dad’s 8-track tape of her eponymous 1976 album, as her meticulously beat face stared out at me before she sang “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To),” “Love Hangover” and the rest to me. And while I have had other diva love affairs over the years — from Janet to Beyoncé — she’s the O.G. I’ll never get over.
So the fact that this living legend who I have lived for all of my life has released Thank You — her first studio album since 2006’s covers collection I Love You and her first LP of original material since 1999’s Every Day Is a New Day — is good reason for me, for us, to be the grateful ones. The Boss is back.
Although, thankfully, Ross hasn’t been gone for all that time — in fact, she made her Essence Festival debut in 2017, and it was just two years ago that she was celebrating her 75th birthday on her Diamond Diana tour — she deserves all of the flowers for coming back, at 77, with new music. And the same old magic.
It’s the kind of magic that has made Ross a genuine game-changer in music history. Let’s check the receipts: Before many of us were even born, she had already had a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame career as the supreme Supreme, notching 12 No. 1 singles with the greatest girl group of all time. But Ross — just as much as Marvin Gaye, just as much as Stevie Wonder — turned Berry Gordy’s ’60s vision of Hitsville upside down when she became a solo superstar in the ’70s. Her solo debut, 1970’s Diana Ross — yes, you could have multiple self-titled albums back in the day — featured the Ashford & Simpson classics “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which found Ross, with the ongoing Vietnam War and the Black struggle back home, trying to get us all to come together and believe in the power of positivity.
After being inspired to record Thank You at home while on lockdown during the pandemic — even co-writing nine of 13 tunes, when she had barely lifted a pen throughout most of her career — Ross is all about good vibes only on tracks such as the blissed-out workout “If the World Just Danced,” the smoothly soothing “All Is Well” and the hater-defying “I Still Believe,” an “I Will Survive”-esque disco throwback that might just be the best new song she has done since, say, 1985’s “Chain Reaction.”
Thank You also demonstrates how Ross has been woefully underrated as a singer and as an artist. Seriously, how is it possible that she has never won a single Grammy in 12 nominations? (Although the Recording Academy did try to make up for that travesty giving her the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.) As a singer, Ross never possessed the gospel power of Aretha, Patti, Gladys and Chaka, but with a subtle, silky soulfulness that could cross over the color lines, she proved that Black women could sing pop as well as R&B.
And of course Miss Ross set the template for Beyoncé to go from girl-group front woman to solo superstar when she struck out on her own from the Supremes just as Bey would do three decades later from Destiny’s Child. Of course, B would go on to star as the Diana-like Deena in the film version of Dreamgirls after Ross had already shown the way to go from music to movies with 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues, 1975’s Mahogany and 1978’s The Wiz.
I can remember going to the movies to see The Wiz with my family when I was a little kid, feeling like we were going to a Hollywood premiere. Then there was my first concert, seeing Ross come out in a flurry of feathers and sequins to “I’m Coming Out.” And years later, there was the time that I actually got to meet my idol at the Clive Davis pre-Grammy gala in Los Angeles. I saw her there holding court at a table with her family and couldn’t resist the urge to confess my lifelong love. Radiating that queen energy, she graciously let me have my moment to reach out and touch her.
Welcome back, Miss Ross. My world — our world — would be empty without you.