"There are three versions of every story:- yours, theirs and the truth." Robert Evans
I recently saw the popular show Motown The Musical at the Chinese Theatre in Chicago. A great night of entertainment, however you know me, I couldn't just sit through what amounted to a re-telling of most of Berry Gordy's life. He was the founder of Motown and the inspiration, for what amounted to not just a record label, but a recognisable genre of music ie. the Motown sound. I started to try and marry up dates with events. Quite frankly, I was finding it a bit difficult with his life, until Diana Ross entered the picture, as Motown's biggest star.
I suddenly realized, some of her key scenes were worth investigating. Diana was far bigger than I had thought. She was named Female Entertainer Of The Century by Billboard Magazine, and in 1993 Guinness Records called her "the most successful female artist in history", with 100 million record sales and an incredible 70 hit singles. She actually challenged The Beatles for supremacy in the 60's. In the show there was one small scene towards the end when Berry Gordy, whose relationship with her had ended some years ago, was now rather pleasantly wishing her all the best, as she said she was leaving Motown, because RCA had made her a much better offer. Huge, in fact, at $20 million.
Then I was drawn to the back story about the making of the musical. Gordy, who had written his autobiography To Be Lovedback in 1994, was very unhappy with his virtual portrayal in the 2006 movie Dreamgirls. It showed him as unethical and insensitive to his artists and he said it was "100% wrong". In 2007, Paramount Pictures issued an apology, which was accepted. He decided to write a 'book', designed for the musical based on his autobiography, to set the record straight. Now Motown The Musical contains many (some would say too many) excerpts of hit songs without doing the whole song, but it has also been criticised for its thin plot line. I'll quote from one prominent review :- " rather than giving us a complex portrait of this fascinating businessman, the show's shoddily written book is essentially a self-serving theatrical memoir in which Gordy gets to tell his life story. But just as importantly it serves as a celebration of the music that brought America's black and white populations together, in a way nothing else ever did."
So, here we are then. Imagine you're Berry Gordy. Their version of the truth paints an unflattering portrait of a business owner, who ruthlessly exploited his musical stars. You rant and rave and decide to give your version of the truth. It gets a luke-warm tick from the critics. So just what is the truth and what the heck does it have to do with 'Life Cycles'. I look like I'm just off on some unreasonable witch-hunt on Gordy for no good reason. The reason is all about how old Diana Ross was at the moment of her scene, where she left Motown and the "real story" behind it. So this post is really about the career of Diana Ross.
Now the scene we are talking about in the musical refers to a series of events, that actually took place in the years 1980 (towards the end) and 1981 (the early part). Diana was born on 26th. March, 1944. What does your maths tell you? That's right it was happening in her important, mid-life 'Year of Revolution' when she was aged 36. So, just how life-changing and career-defining was this year for Diana? Firstly, if we back-up a little, we can see that following several years of disappointing record sales and high production costs (which was Gordy's counter-argument for not offering her a more lucrative contract renewal); 1980 was to become a stellar year in the career of Diana.
She began it with the release of her album Diana in May, 1980. Before this was released, she was advised to re-mix it to lessen the disco sound. One prominent critic even said it would ruin her career if she didn't, due to the anti-disco backlash at the time. After a shaky start, and without a lead single, it went on to become one of - if the the - biggest selling albums of her career, eventually featuring the hit singles Upside Down and I'm Coming Out. Berry had nothing to do with the production of this, which added fuel to the fire of her desires to gain more control over her career.
She followed this up with one of her most passionate ballads ever, It's My Turn, which was mirroring how she was beginning to feel. Berry however, still exerted strong emotional control on her, which is easy to understand since she had been totally dependent on him throughout her whole career. This wouldn't be easy to break. Her contract ran out in December and for the first time in over 20 years she didn't automatically renew it. What was going on? Is this another case of a career-defining 'Year of Revolution' but without the "one-way tunnels" and the "dark cellars"? If you think I've just lost the plot here with these strange phrases, by the way, I explain all in the post on Maya Angelou in the MAIN BLOG so give it a read.
OK, what happened next? All the biographic summaries talk of her discovering just how little she actually had coming to her if she left and then shopping around to find the deal of a lifetime with RCA. But, you know me, I want to know the truth. The unvarnished 'warts and all' truth. It's quite a story and it'll take you in a direction you might never have guessed.
Enter Gene Simmons from Kiss! Yes, that Gene Simmons. The 6 foot 2, fire-breathing (on stage that is), vampire-costumed and snake-tongued rock star, who claimed over 1,000 conquests, most with his stage face still on. He had been having a brief relationship with Cher, who in turn introduced him to Diana, since she (Diana that is) had just split up with Ryan O'Neill on the re-bound from her recent divorce. I know, it's hard to imagine a less likely duo and they were rated number 5 on a list of the top 10 weirdest Showbiz couples. Incidentally the number one spot was 'Cher and Anybody'. She was 36 and he was 31, so this all happened in a small window of 'Confluence'.
She actually joined Simmons in wearing a handkerchief over the lower half of her face when going out in public....weird or what? Anyways, it has been agreed that it was Simmons who convinced Diana to leave Motown. Simmons was known to be a brilliant and confident businessman and when Diana confided her problems with Motown he said, more than once :- "Get the hell away from there. What are you nuts?". He added :- "You only have one chance to cash in when you're in this business and this is it baby. You may never be hotter than this. You have to go for the money." After a top selling album and three hit singles in one 12 month period, he was right of course. Still she was unsure and this amounted to "bumbling and stumbling around in the dark".
In December, Simmons sent one of his entourage, a heavy-set rock manager over to negotiate with Berry. He said she already had a $20 million offer on the table and asked him to match it. It is highly likely this was pure bluff. This must have been a truly comical moment. After Berry recovered from shock he told this dude that he wanted to speak directly with Diana. She was now "at the bottom of the cellar". After this he tried stonewalling procedures into early 1981 and then begging her to stay, but eventually she found out how little she was worth at Motown (reported to be around only $200,000), which was a ludicrously small sum considering the millions she had earned for them.
It is now history that in March 1981, just at the close of the most momentous year in the career of Diana Ross, she signed a record-setting $20 million deal with RCA. She had now "emerged into the the warmth of a sunny day". Interesting since that was the amount originally suggested by Simmons. He was the real deal maker and in terms of 'Life Cycles' theory, he was what I have come to term'The Agent Of The Revolution'. In his case this took on a literal meaning as well.
So, there it is. Again, it meets all the criteria of an age 36, life and career-defining year. Not always pleasant as you live through it. Simmons was quite right. Just like her last hit record this was 'her turn'. Her one chance to cash in big. By the way, the RCA contract dissolved after 4 years and the studio lost money on her and she and Gene Simmons parted ways well before that, but in one brief shining moment they were all joined. Her, Berry, Simmons and RCA in a knot of destiny. They all, more or less, sang from the same song sheet :- "STOP IN THE NAME OF BUSINESS.....before you break my heart....think it o-o-over!"