Many baby boomers identify Diana Ross as the svelte young woman from Detroit who, as lead singer of the Supremes, recorded 12 No. 1 songs in the 1960s.
Of course, the Supremes’ record label, Motown, was a hit-making machine. Motown released future classics by Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Marvelettes and Martha the Vandellas. But no American group, at Motown or any other label, topped the supreme success and Diana Ross and the Supremes.
Ross, who’ll be 69 next month, didn’t opt to open her hour-long Friday night show at the River Center Theatre with any of the Supremes songs that filled American radio in the 1960s. Instead, she made her entrance just past 9 p.m. with her solo hit, “I’m Coming Out.” A joyful slice of pop music from 1980, it was right for the moment.
Ross, amid frequent costume changes that found her briefly off the stage, leaving her 10-piece band and trio of backup singers to keep the music going, performed more songs from the solo career she began in 1969 than from her Supremes era.
Ross’ second song of the night, “More Today Than Yesterday” (the only hit for ’60s pop group the Spiral Staircase), was neither a Supremes nor a solo hit. But she did perform it during an “American Idol” guest appearance in 2007 and later named a tour after it.
Ross reached into her cache of Supremes hits for the show’s third selection, 1966’s “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Her backup singers effectively re-created the supporting vocals of Supremes Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard.
The singer followed “Touch Me in the Morning,” a solo hit from 1973, with another of the few Supremes songs she’d sing Friday, “Love Child.” Unfortunately, her vocals were low in the mix and obscured by the band, which included a drummer, percussionist and a four-piece horn section.
It didn’t help the “Love Child” performance that Ross walked off stage for another costume change while the band and backup singers turned this Motown classic about the pain and consequences of illegitimacy into a happy Latin dance number.
Ross was just a few years into her solo career when disco arrived and, inevitably, affected her work, including “Upside Down,” “Love Hangover,” “Ease On Down the Road” (from 1978 movie musical “The Wiz”) and the other disco-oriented songs she sang Friday.
“Ease On Down the Road” saw another exit by Ross, for her third costume change. She never stayed off stage long, but her half-dozen or so exits stalled the show’s momentum.
Ross saved an early solo career triumph, the Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson-penned “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” for late in the show. It proved a highlight, getting the biggest reaction of the evening during a concert that was part of the Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation Great Performers in Concert series.
For the show’s climax, Ross chose to sing Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 disco anthem, “I Will Survive.” Ross has some claim to the song because she got a European hit with it in 1995 and then performed it at the Super Bowl XXX halftime show the following year.
However much the crowd may have enjoyed putting its disco shoes on again, none of those dance hits match the many great Supremes songs that didn’t make the show’s set list.