Editor’s note: This week we’re celebrating the birthdays of phenomenal performers who not only share late-March birthdays but who also have voices that have defined their generations. On Monday we honored the Queen of Funk, Chaka Khan. On Wednesday it was the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Today it’s the boss, Diana Ross; and on Friday, the irrepressible Mariah Carey. Read our essay on the divas here.
Our diva celebration wouldn’t possibly be complete without a mention of the woman who has defined the word for more than 50 years: Diana Ross. From the glitz and glamour of the stage to the bright lights of the big screen, she has established herself as one of the most enduring figures in pop culture.
Ross started her career as a sweet-voiced member of the Supremes and quickly blossomed into a global icon. Her music, films and fashion have inspired generations of entertainers who were enthralled by her groundbreaking work.
Today marks Ross’ 71st birthday, so we’re highlighting five standout moments from her 56-year career.
1. The Supremes Make Their Debut on The Ed Sullivan Show
Ross started her journey as a founding member of the Supremes—originally known as the Primettes—in 1959. However, the group initially struggled to score hits on the Billboard charts, even with the backing of Berry Gordy and Motown Records.
That all changed in 1964 when “Where Did Our Love Go” reached the summit of the Billboard Hot 100 and put the Supremes in high demand. In fact, the group even got the chance to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show that year to sing another No. 1 song, “Come See About Me.”
The Supremes were featured on Ed Sullivan a total of 17 times—a rarity for black acts in the 1960s—and, according to The Telegraph, helped give African-American performers a voice on broadcast television.
2. Ross Introduces the Jackson 5
It is difficult to imagine a time in which people had never heard of Michael Jackson, but before 1969, the King of Pop was still an unknown performer from Gary, Ind. Thanks to Ross and the brilliant mind of Gordy, however, Jackson would soon be a household name.
The Jackson 5 released their debut single, “I Want You Back,” on Oct. 7, 1969, and got the chance to perform on television after being introduced by Ross on The Hollywood Palace variety show. The clever association of Ross’ star power with the budding popularity of the group did not end there.
The title of the first Jackson 5 album was Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5. The move to use Ross’ name was designed to boost the group’s profile and make audiences more receptive to a new act.
3. Ross Triumphs While Singing in the Rain
It was on the humid, cloudy evening of July 21, 1983, that Ross cemented her place as one of the greatest entertainers of our time. Indeed, with more than 450,000 eager patrons packed into New York City’s Central Park, she proved that not even a thunderstorm could stop her from putting on a great show.
“It took me a lifetime to get here, and I’m not going anywhere,” Ross stated to the crowd as she shimmied across the slippery platform and sang her many hits. The Daily News reported that she almost fell off the stage, which eventually resulted in the show being halted.
Thankfully, Ross returned to perform again the next day for a smaller crowd of 350,000 people. What a night to remember.
4. Ross Does the Infamous Motown Mic Toss
It is not often that a superstar of Ross’ caliber gets upstaged, but anything is possible when Patti LaBelle is onstage. In 1985 the Motown Returns to the Apollo special aired to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the famous Harlem theater.
Several top acts appeared on the show alongside Ross for a group performance of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.” What followed was the infamous mic toss from Ross to LaBelle that further fueled rumors of a feud between the two women.
LaBelle later explained her history with Ross on Oprah’s Next Chapter, confirming that they avoided each other for years until Oprah’s Legends Ball in 2005.
5. Ross Makes Super Bowl History
Long before Madonna, Beyoncé or Katy Perry performed during the Super Bowl halftime show, it was Ross who opened the door. The special in 1996, Take Me Higher: A Celebration of 30 Years of the Super Bowl, gave her the distinction of being the first female solo artist to headline the event.
In usual Ross style, the halftime show included wardrobe changes, fireworks and a wind machine. Still, the best part was at the end, when she exited the stadium like a true diva: in a helicopter.
Trent Jones is an editorial fellow at The Root. He also produces a daily video commentary called #Trents2Cents. Follow him on Twitter.