On the evening of April 14, 1998, music network VH1 debuted a unique new concept as a benefit for its Save The Music Foundation. VH1 Divas Live was a live concert headlined by five of the industry’s biggest female stars, including Aretha Franklin, Celine Dion, and Mariah Carey. The women performed songs both solo and in groups, culminating in a rousing version of Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman.” Reaction was swift and favorable; the show became the highest-rated in the history of the channel, and was successfully released on home video and CD. Most importantly, it raised a bundle of money for the Save The Music Foundation, and led to an ongoing series of “Divas” concerts.
Certainly Diana Ross seemed a natural for a concert devoted to divas (especially on VH1, considering her “Missing You” was the first video ever broadcast on the network), though according to writer J. Randy Taraborrelli in Diana Ross: A Biography, she’d been asked to appear in 1998 and 1999 and had declined. However, in 2000, the network “decided to build an entire show around Diana in order to get her to agree to do it” (436). Timing likely had a lot to do with Diana’s decision, as well; plans had just been made for the Return To Love tour, featuring Diana Ross and 70s Supremes Lynda Laurence and Scherrie Payne. The idea of a Supremes tour was gaining tons of publicity and was expected by many to be incredibly successful; certainly a performance by the ladies on such a major platform would go a long way toward helping ticket sales.
The lineup that eventually came together for VH1 Divas 2000: A Tribute To Diana Ross (note the lack of the word “live” — this was the first in the series of concerts to be pre-taped) was as eclectic as the prior “Divas” shows. According to producers, Diana personally requested dance/rock legend Donna Summer to perform, and also asked for drag superstar RuPaul to appear. Mariah Carey returned, and rounding out the entertainment were country star Faith Hill – back from the previous year – and R&B group Destiny’s Child (featuring, of course the woman many would one day call the “next Diana Ross” — Beyoncé). Various presenters, including Oscar-winner Hilary Swank and Oscar-nominee Angela Bassett, also appeared on the show. The lineup was and remains a strong one; these are all women who have achieved a certain level of success and whose careers have stood the test of time. The elements were all in place for a blockbuster show that would reaffirm Diana’s position as the premier female entertainer in history. Unfortunately, it was not quite to be.
Taped on April 9, 2000 (and first aired two days later) at the theatre at Madison Square Garden, the 120-minute show opens with Mariah Carey moaning to the familiar strains of Diana’s 1976 #1 hit “Love Hangover.” Carey turns the song into an interesting mash-up with her own recent chart-topper, “Heartbreaker,” and the result was successful enough that the singer included the medley on one of her own singles and has since performed it in concerts. It’s a fabulous way to start the party; Carey sounds great on the sexy Ross song and the audience certainly seems in the mood to dance. Carey returns later to sing a stirring rendition of “Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Theme)” from her Rainbow album, the kind of self-empowerment pop anthem that Diana pioneered with “It’s My Turn” two decades earlier . Mariah’s appreciation for Diana’s music is clear; she’d previous covered both “Endless Love” and “Theme From Mahogany” (released on the singer’s limited edition Valentines EP) and mentions during the show her memories of being inspired by Miss Ross during the diva’s 1983 Central Park concerts.
Diana’s “girlfriend” Donna Summer provides the night’s second performance, singing a slightly strained version of the 1967 #2 Supremes hit “Reflections.” Summer’s voice is appealingly husky and thick, but she certainly doesn’t seem comfortable making her way through the song, and flubs the words a few times. She will more than make up for the lackluster start, however, when she shows back up to belt out her hit “Bad Girls” and then bring down the house with her then-recent dance single “Love Is The Healer.” This final song, in particular, shows the kind of energy and excitement the late Summer could generate on-stage; she is completely in her element, and the audience is visibly captivated by the singer and her performance. Summer also engages in some extremely cute, relaxed banter in which she shares a story about getting to sing with Diana Ross at a concert in Germany (her “I wanna touch…I want that ring!” is very funny).
Country star Faith Hill is the night’s third performer, kicking off her set with a rendition of the song ”Breathe,” peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 during the month the concert taped/aired. Her look seems totally inspired by the glamour of the night’s honoree; Hill’s hair is teased into flowing curls and she wears the kind of sparkling dress the Supremes practically invented in the 1960s. After completing her own hit, Hill launches into “Love Child,” the Motown girl group’s 1968 #1 smash. The singer’s voice works surprisingly well on the song, and she capably carries off the difficult melody and lyrics; it doesn’t sound much like a Motown hit, but this version emphasizes the rock qualities of the song and it comes off as suitably gritty. She later returns with a performance of her country rocker “What’s In It For Me,” also from the Breathe album.
Before Miss Ross finally makes her grand entrance, there are a few special performances. RuPaul prances through the audience and onto the stage carrying a long fur coat, tossing it aside during his spirited performance of “I’m Coming Out” in a perfect imitation of Diana Ross during her 1981 diana television special. R&B group Destiny’s Child — then riding high with the #1 “Say My Name” — also takes the stage, singing both that song and Diana’s 1980 smash “Upside Down.” This is an interesting moment as it’s the first time Diana Ross would cross paths professionally with Beyoncé; the young singer would go on, of course, to star in the film version of Dreamgirls (loosely based on the story of the Supremes) and her own rise to stardom has often attracted comparisons to Diana’s. Miss Knowles botches up the words to “Upside Down” quite noticeably, but soldiers on like a pro and the group members look great as they strut through the audience during the number (and, to be fair, producers confirm technical problems began plaguing the show during the group’s performance, which probably threw the ladies off a bit). Having the girl group perform is a smart and welcome addition to the show, nodding to Diana’s own musical past. And, of course, producers could never have known just how successful Destiny’s Child (and its lead singer) would become in the next few years.
Finally, 90 minutes into the special, the words everyone’s been waiting for: “Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Diana Ross.”
Diana Ross knows how to make an entrance, and she seizes the opportunity here; posing dramatically in silhouette behind a layer of Plexiglass, she is eventually revealed and spins around to the adoring audience, making her way down a staircase and onto the lighted stage in a wild-print-and-fringe dress and purple-tinged afro. It’s a stunning entrance, and a sudden piano run begins Diana’s 1973 #1 hit, “Touch Me In The Morning.” Her voice sounds quite good as she begins the song, smooth and relaxed on the opening lines; that said, she quickly reveals herself to be a bit hoarse and scratchy during the following verse and chorus. She soldiers through and hits the notes, and after the first chorus, the arrangement surprisingly flips, becoming a soft-jazz, free-flowing jam. This is where Diana really shines; she launches into the ”Mornings and blue and gold” lyrics while swaying back and forth, clearly feeling the song and the music behind her. She even tosses it over to her rhythm guitarist, giving herself a chance to “shake” a bit (yelling to the director, “Steve, get the fringe!”) and engage the audience with just her stage presence. ”Touch Me” may not be the energetic opener some expected, but it turns out to be a strong way to start her set; though there are some shaky moments vocally, the stellar arrangement and Diana’s obvious enjoyment of the moment pull it off.
The massive 1981 #1 ”Endless Love” comes next, in what is the first of the night’s several major disappointments. Had original duet partner Lionel Richie joined Ross on stage, the moment could have been historic; even perhaps bringing in Luther Vandross (who’d remade the song with Ms. Carey) would have elevated the performance. Instead, Diana carries the song solo, which turns out to be a mistake. While she delicately flows through the first two verses (occasionally aiming the mic into the audience to pick up the sound of those singing along), her strained voice just cannot handle the song’s climax, unfortunately revealing how hoarse she really was that night. Perhaps had the arrangement been in a lower key or altered slightly, Miss Ross would have sounded more appealing; as it is, she really goes off the rails struggling to hit the high notes which, on a better night, she would have been able to easily wail.
Coming off such a weak performance, Diana thankfully chooses to do something that generally works well for her; leave the stage and sing while walking through the audience. The song she selects for this is her 1993 single “The Best Years Of My Life,” a song that admittedly the audience probably didn’t know very well (due to the fact that it wasn’t a hit for the singer). That said, it’s a perfect one for the night — as Diana says, it’s a “testimonial song for my career.” It’s a huge relief as she begins singing the line, “As I play…my memories again…” and her voice sounds a million times better than it had at the end of the last number; her voice is again smooth and controlled here, and there’s a real sense of soul and feeling behind the words. The audience around her is giddy as she walks through; it’s a magical moment that producers say was totally unplanned. In a VH1 “Behind The Scenes” special, Music & Talent Relations SVP Bruce Gillmer comments, “The entire production staff held their breath for about three minutes, due to the fact that the audience was not lit properly for her, the director was not prepared for her to walk into the audience.” It may have been a bit of a catastrophe for the production team, but it turns out to be the highlight of Diana’s set; she is connecting with the audience on a real, personal level, and it’s one of the few glimpses we get of her true skill as a performer (even though her final line is totally off-key!).
Next up is Diana’s “reunion” with the Supremes – and the first appearances of the very talented and lovely Lynda Laurence and Scherrie Payne. As disappointed as many may have been that Diana was not teaming up with 60s Supremes Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong for her Return To Love tour, there is no denying that Laurence and Payne were legitimate members of the group (having been signed to Motown in the 70s) and had every right to be part of a segment celebrating the Supremes. The three women bound onto the stage to the urgent, heart-thumping guitar opening of the #1 “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” and they look fabulous in matching black dresses. After years of touring on their own, the two Supremes seem completely comfortable on the stage; the interplay between the women is nice to see, and Diana certainly seems to be having a great time between them. Her performance here isn’t bad; her voice is still quite scratchy and wobbly in some spots, but she’s not struggling as much to hit notes and she puts a little “muscle” behind certain lines that’s nice to hear.
The group next moves into an extremely odd song choice, the 1966 top 10 hit “Love Is Like An Itchin’ In My Heart.” Certainly this is a recognizable tune (written by Holland-Dozier-Holland, the team behind most of the group’s hits), but with a dozen number ones to choose from, there were stronger possibilities. With her voice in less-than-perfect shape, Diana probably should have sung something like “Someday We’ll Be Together,” a song that benefits from a huskier, low-key delivery. Unfortunately, “Love Is Like An Itchin’…” requires a deftness and energy that just isn’t there, and like “Endless Love,” it reveals the hoarseness in the singer’s voice that night that just doesn’t sound pretty. Like the pro she is, of course, Diana plows through the song anyway, giving the audience a fully live performance and not relying on lip-synching or backing tracks; it’s just a disappointment that the singer doesn’t display much of the vocal charm that made her a star in the first place. That said, those lucky enough to catch the Return To Love tour before it’s premature cancellation know that Miss Ross — when in stronger voice — could still belt her way through every single Supremes hit and make them sound as good as ever.
Producers of the show had hoped that the highlight of the night would be teaming Miss Ross with Mariah Carey and Donna Summer for a segment of more Supremes songs. But according to the “Behind The Scenes” special, Donna dropped out at the last minute due to a lack of rehearsal time. This leaves Diana and Mariah to flail their way through “Baby Love” and “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” during which it is completely obvious that the women hadn’t really rehearsed. Both divas look fantastic; Diana proudly proclaims that she’s wearing one of Mariah’s dresses, and she slinks around stage in the silvery mini with a teenager’s coyness. They also both sound good; Mariah’s grittier vocals work surprisingly well on the songs, and Miss Ross has recovered a bit and is somewhat vocally smoother than before. It is to the younger singer’s credit that she never tries to step over Miss Ross or out-sing her; she appears to be there solely for her purpose of getting to share the stage with the Ultimate Diva, and comes off as extremely reverential and respectful. The fact that there seems to be no real “plan” to this performance doesn’t kill it; the women are totally professionals, acknowledging their mistakes with a laugh (and, in Mariah’s case, a cute “Oh dear!”) and making it part of the show. Still, this is the kind of thing that never would have occurred in the 60s, 70s, or even 80s; Miss Ross was notorious for her work ethic during rehearsals, and even moments in her specials that appeared spontaneous were meticulously planned.
Every “Divas” special closes with a number bringing all the women together onstage; this time, the night’s stars join Diana one by one for her anthem, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Faith, Mariah, then Donna take a spoken line from the song, and Destiny’s Child and RuPaul eventually help out with the climax; it’s a quick performance, running less than four minutes. It’s fun to see Diana playing “Queen,” running around the stage and directing the rest of the divas, and though it makes total sense that “Ain’t No Mountain…” would be chosen as the show closer, it perhaps would have been a more memorable climax had something like “Reach Out And Touch” been performed instead. The problem here is that the women really don’t get a chance to interact at all; there’s no trading off lines or mixing of voices, and the women really aren’t distinguishable from one another during the last chorus. Diana, also, continues to strain for notes that she audibly just couldn’t hit that particular night. She actually sounds far better during the “encore” performance during the closing credits, as she returns to the stage with the Supremes for “I Will Survive.” This entire performance isn’t included here; it’s only kept up as long as the credits roll, which is a shame, because suddenly Diana’s voice is far stronger. In the little bit that we here, she’s digging deeper and hitting some stronger, fuller sustained notes; it’s too bad she didn’t seem to be able to do this during the show’s real finale, while surrounded by the other women.
VH1 Divas 2000: A Tribute To Diana Ross ended up being a major success for the network; in the VH1 “Behind The Scenes” special, Bruce Gillmer points out, “The show was absolutely one of the biggest challenges to pull off, but as it turned out, one of highest-rated, most successful shows in the history of the channel.” Those challenges dominated media coverage of the program; production was plagued by sound problems, and the show ended up in a marathon taping, with Diana having to perform her songs multiple times. Footage ultimately scrapped from the special shows Diana stalling for time on stage, talking to the sound engineers (at one point, uttering a “This doesn’t please me…” that’s about as Diva as it gets), and bantering with the audience. Nobody watching the broadcast would have known any of this happened, as it was all edited together into a seamless show. That said, this knowledge at least perhaps offers a partial explanation for why at times, Diana Ross seems a little unsure of herself on the stage. Biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli writes, “Diana was not even close to being at her best on this important night, sounding thin-voiced and seeming disoriented…It was as if so much was going on around her, she just didn’t have her wits about her” (439). This might be a bit harsh, but there are definitely moments when she looks rather thrown; maybe the ongoing technical issues were a contributing factor.
But there are other reasons that this special doesn’t hit the heights it aims for; song selection is surely one of them. Perhaps had each of the women chosen songs that highlighted different aspects of Diana’s career, it would have painted a clearer picture of why she’s such an important figure in popular music. For example, having Mariah Carey sing a big pop ballad (i.e. “It’s My Turn), Summer tackle a Ross dance classic (“The Boss,” perhaps), and Faith Hill cover Diana’s own foray into country (“Last Time I Saw Him”) would have gone a long way to show just how diverse the Diana Ross discography really is. Diana herself also missed an opportunity to remind viewers of her interpretive abilities; there’s no reason she couldn’t have stunned them with her always-stellar renditions of “Don’t Explain” or “God Bless The Child” or even an a capella “Strange Fruit” from Lady Sings The Blues. In the end, while successful from a ratings standpoint, VH1 Divas 2000 emerges as a mostly entertaining, but frustrating, tribute to Diana Ross.