VIENNA, Va. — Though she’s never officially been crowned the Queen of Motown, Diana Ross proved herself worthy Tuesday, July 25 at the Wolf Trap Filene Center in suburban D.C. And a sold-out throng of nearly 4,000 of her longtime supporters would certainly agree.
What could simply be described as a “Happy Music” presentation, commenced with her 1980 hit “I’m Coming Out.” The crowd immediately rose, while the five-piece band and three-unit backing vocalists supplied their leading lady with sweet notes which evoked the sweet sounds of young America, stemming from more than 50 years ago.
At 73, Diana looked stunning, her elegance kindled thoughts of Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, and “Lady Day” Billie Holiday. A series of wardrobe changes included colorful sequins, feathers and furs, providing an aura of Las Vegas in a major way and confirming her diva status.
Those in attendance will certainly not forget this performance, especially the younger folks.
Colleen Smith of Herndon and her sister Jobeth Hillworth brought along Colleen’s daughter, 12-year-old Stephanie. While her mom couldn’t sit still, the youngster said she was equally appreciative to witness the living icon.
Tammera Lynne of Front Royal, Va., was also excited after the show. Though born a generation after Diana’s Motown heyday, Lynne said she was groomed by her musical family to appreciate Ross’s legacy.
“The Boss’s” setlist offered a cover of the 1969 hit “More Today Than Yesterday” by Spiral Staircase, followed by The Supremes’ “My World Is Empty Without You (Babe).” And after “Baby Love,” she put the crowd into a complete frenzy with “Stop, In the Name of Love,” drawing the largest reaction during the entire festive night.
Like most of those Supremes hits, the melodies and were light, happy and provided lyrics that were easy to remember. Credit Motown writers Holland-Dozier-Holland for lots of these classics.
With a setlist featuring at least 20 brief songs, Diana played an exciting mix that nearly showcased her entire musical catalogue, from old Motown, to funky ’70s, to “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” from 1981. In this Frankie Lymon cover, she highlighted her still-excellent vocals, which are very pure and clear. Unlike many of her peers, Ross was never known to be a smoker or big-time partier or illegal drug user, hanging out at places like Studio 54, the infamous NYC disco zone. Her vocals still ring clear as a bell, reminiscent of the late Ella Fitzgerald during her latter performance years.
Conversely, as a mother of five children of varying ages, Diana obviously spent her free time away from the stage doing her maternal-related duties. Speaking of her children, her opening act was oldest daughter, Rhonda Ross Hendrick, 45, whose father is Motown founder Berry Gordy. Notably, Diana sang “Love Child,” a song that’s often been connected to the relationship between Gordy and Ross, and ultimately Rhonda.
Other highlights during the pleasantly balmy evening was “Ease On Down The Road” from “The Wiz” film, “Come See About Me” and “Can’t Hurry Love.” Fortunately, Diana realizes that her Supremes years are still revered by her fans, and she brought down the proverbial house with those classics. However, “Upside Down,” “Love Hangover” and “Touch Me in the Morning,” were all crowd-pleasers too.
Her band was locked with the foundational beats of legendary drummer Gerry Brown, a Philadelphia native widely known in jazz circles who formerly played with Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie, in addition to his jazz-fusion records with bassist John Lee.
In a competitive, youth-influenced industry, it was also refreshing that Ross hired several “seasoned” musicians who were primarily of African-American descent. It’s obvious her Detroit influences are still embedded, considering her roots are of the civil rights era when black musicians were often denied higher-paying gigs compared to many of their counterparts.
After nearly two hours, the show ended with lights fading to dark, while the audience begged for an encore. About 10 minutes later, Diana and Rhonda took the stage again and sang an anticlimactic, melancholy version of a tune called “The Best Years of My Life.”
“Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand” would have been a more appropriate encore selection. But who’s being critical? We all walked away smiling and satisfied!