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Ross tour becoming supreme flop

Published Jul. 6, 2000
Updated Sep. 27, 2005

From Detroit to Tampa, Diana Ross and the Supremes' Return to Love tour has been marked by half-empty houses _ far from the triumphant reunion that was billed.

It is Diana Ross and two Supremes onstage, but not the Supremes that backed her when the group was in its heyday: For up to an exorbitant $250 per seat, fans would not see Mary Wilson or Cindy Birdsong, but Scherrie Payne and Lynda Laurence, who were Supremes only after Ross went solo.

They were recruited, in fact, by Wilson, who kept the Supremes' name alive for three decades but declined to participate in the Return to Love tour because, she was quoted as saying, she was offered only $3-million _ compared with the reported $15-million to $20-million Ross is making for less than two months' work.

There are no reports about what Birdsong was offered. She replaced founding member Florence Ballard in 1967; Ballard died of a heart attack in 1976.

Where did our love go?

"The people are speaking, and they're not interested," says John Scher, president and CEO of New York's Metropolitan Entertainment Group, and one of the country's most widely known concert promoters. "Ms. Ross is a legendary artist and people would pay top dollar to see her in an intimate setting. But in arenas and it not being a true reunion, no."

The tour, say people in the concert industry, is testimony to how out of touch a superstar and her handlers can be.

"You're marketing to an educated audience, and if they feel they're being sold a bill of goods they won't pay it," says Jerry Thompson, president of Fort Worth's Caravan of Dreams and Promoterline. "With service charges, you take your wife and it's $550 before you walk out the door. Diana Ross has no new product, and nobody cares that much."

And why should they? There is no new compact disc; no greatest hits boxed set. And audiences have examples in recent years of how successful reunion tours can be _ provided they're the real thing.

The Eagles' Hell Freezes Over tour hit the road in the mid-'90s and sold out stadiums and arenas for months _ despite ticket prices in excess of $100. But there was a CD _ a compilation of several new cuts and Eagles favorites such as Hotel California.

The four original members of Kiss did just as well when they came back in 1996 with a show (makeup, explosions, etc. included) that harkened to their '70s heyday.

Despite a top ticket price of $201, this spring's Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunion _ the first time the four had hit the road in 25 years _ did solid if not sell-out business. They also released a new CD, though it didn't sell well.

"It was something really special," says Pollstar editor Gary Bongiovani of the Eagles' long stadium tour. "The public will pay for a special event _ but if it's not a really special event, and (you) price it as one, you can risk a sea of empty seats."

The Return to Love tour also seems somewhat insulting, as if Ross or her people thought fans would pay through the nose for any group marketed as Diana Ross and the Supremes.

Remember, for most of their time together, the group was marketed as "the Supremes"; it wasn't until mid-1967, after they already had scored 10 No. 1 U.S. singles, that Diana Ross got feature billing.

Although Ross certainly went on to great success as a recording diva, the sweet, sure records she made as part of the Supremes still stand as some of the best music of the '60s and are every bit as important to the legend of the Motown sound as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles or the Temptations.

Elegant but funky, the Supremes' rise from an inner-city neighborhood to pop superstars in the United States and in Europe was a remarkable rags-to-riches story, one accomplished with elegance and taste. These days, though, a diva seems to be any woman who has a number of hit singles and can get on a cable special about divas; the word has been devalued.

Some reviews have been positive, but the negative ones may make it hard for the tour to gain momentum, which is exactly what its promoters, TNA International, are hoping for at this point.

"I don't want to comment about ticket sales _ it is what it is," says TNA marketing director Susan Rosenberg. "The shows are fabulous, and hopefully when people read the reviews they'll get off the fence."

Rosenberg said that the "majority" of tickets are $85; she would not confirm how much Ross was paid for the tour.

But in the end, Ross may be the one paying. Tours by superstars don't usually fare as poorly as this, and there is a feeling among some that the bad publicity generated will not soon be forgotten.

"This can't be good for Diana's career," Bongiovani says. "Any time you go to a show and look around and there are a lot of empty seats, you don't feel as good about being there and paying your money. The psychological impact on people is not a positive one. It's always better to have a venue sell out, even if it's smaller."