15 minutes until showtime…
“Paul?? What the f***? It’s almost May and still no review for this? C’mon big boy!”
Okay…this is why Diana Ross fans are the best. The above words are from friend and fellow fan Rick, written in a comment on this site, in response to my last post about the Baby It’s Me reissue. And what can I say? Rick, you are 100% right (and nobody will ever, EVER accuse you of being “Too Shy To Say…”). I’ve been gone too long, and with no particularly good excuse except life getting in the way.
However, right now as I type this, I’m re-watching the 1975 film Mahogany (Diana Ross is looking out a cab window at Rome, to be exact) and trying to contain my excitement that tomorrow night, I’ll be seeing Miss Ross in concert for the sixth time. She’s performing in Atlanta at Chastain Park Amphitheatre, the same venue at which I saw her about two years ago. So, I assure you, even though I’ve been absent from The Diana Ross Project…the Project hasn’t been absent from me.
My thoughts on the Baby It’s Me reissue are still forthcoming (I know, Rick, I KNOW…), but for the time being, my attention is focused on the upcoming concert here in Atlanta. I don’t expect to see a drastically different show from what I saw in 2013; the singer opened with “I’m Coming Out” and ran through twenty songs, taking fans on a breathless career retrospective stretching over several decades. It’s a format and a setlist the singer seems comfortable with; she continues to win rave reviews for her shows across the country, particularly her recent stint in Las Vegas. These are songs that in some cases the singer has been performing for practically her entire life. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” for example, was released when the singer was 26 years old. She’s now 71, and has probably sung the song in 99.9% of her live shows since it first hit the charts.
During a Fleetwood Mac concert I saw a few years ago, band founder Mick Fleetwood took a moment to address this same situation. He told the crowd that he’s often asked, “How can you stand playing the same songs over and over again?” And his answer was so elegantly simple: they play the same songs over and over again because the audience always reacts like it’s the first time. It must be this way for Diana Ross; the way the fans cheer for “Touch Me In The Morning” and “Upside Down” — like they’ve never been sung live before — must keep the experience fresh and unique for the artist.
So tomorrow night, I’ll show my appreciation for Diana Ross and her music by applauding and singing along like I’ve never done it before. After all, each song — each costume, each concert — is a gift. And then I’ll sit down and I’ll write about the entire experience on this website. Seriously, I will. Really.
Since the beginning of The Diana Ross Project — since that very first post about Diana Ross (1970) — the most searched topic by visitors has been Diana’s 1977 LP Baby It’s Me. There’s a reason for this — it is perhaps the single best album ever released by the singer, although it certainly didn’t scale the commercial heights that much of her 70s output did. There’s another reason, too — IT’S BEEN SO DARN HARD TO FIND.
Well, Hip-O Select has finally reissued the phenomenal Richard Perry-helmed long-player, and the company continues to spoil fans by adding several bonus tracks and alternate mixes. We expected “Baby, I Love Your Way” (previously released on an anthology) and the written-about tracks “Country John” and “Brass Band” — but we also get a funky song called “Room Enough For Two” with a sexy, playful vocal by the singer (…and a tease in the liner notes about a duet version with Billy Preston!). And those alternate mixes — “Top Of The World” starts off like totally different song, with unusual “drip-drop” sounds accompanying the familiar strings!
As of now, the release is digital-only — it’s currently available on iTunes. As with the re-release of the Supremes’ Funny Girl project, it may very well remain download-only. That will disappoint some fans — we sure do like our hands on those info-filled booklets. But boy, does it sounds good. I’m going to live with these new songs and mixes awhile, then I’ll be back to share my in-depth thoughts. Until then, you can look back over my original post on the album, and share your initial thoughts on the Expanded Edition here. Baby It’s Me is finally back…will the “same love” still be there?
“I’ll just have to cry again, so why wait ’til then?”
In our current musical landscape — dominated by viral videos, reality singing competitions, and immediate iTunes availability — it’s easy to forget that not every artist is an overnight star. Once upon a time, performers sang on street corners and in bus terminals, toured with established stars as background singers, and cut demo records for aspiring songwriters. During the dawn of the rock era, there wasn’t necessarily an expectation of sudden stardom; the excitement of “Someday…we’ll make it!” was enough inspiration for most to make ends meet and find the creative outlets they could. False starts were just part of the due-paying process; failed singles and aborted record deals litter the outer space of popular music’s star-filled universe.
The story of The Supremes — and thus, the story of Diana Ross — has more than its share of false starts; the fact that the most iconic girl-group of all-time was not an immediate success is one of the few things that those connected with the group can agree on. Diana Ross, Florence Ballard, and Mary Wilson began singing together in the Brewster Projects of Detroit in the late 1950s; Mary Wilson dates the creation of The Primettes (named as “sisters” to local men’s group The Primes) as “early 1959″ in her book Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, which means the three girls were young teenagers. Originally including fourth singer Betty McGlown, the Primettes performed at local sock hops and even won the Detroit/Windsor Freedom Festival amateur talent contest.
Only one official release ever bore the name Primettes, and that’s the LuPine 45 single “Tears Of Sorrow” backed with “Pretty Baby.” Considering what a historical artifact this recording is — the earliest to feature the voice of Miss Diana Ross — there are many conflicting accounts surrounding both its recording and release. Diana, in her memoir Secrets Of A Sparrow, writes, “It was 1959, and we were still the Primettes. We had tried writing our own song. It was called ‘Tears Of Sorrow’…I can still hear that song repeating in my head. It’s funny how the mind holds on to certain words” (99). It’s interesting that Ross remembers writing the song, as it’s credited to Richard Morris (who would go on to write and produce songs like “Honey Chile” for Martha Reeves & The Vandellas). That said, the song’s structural similarity to the hit “There Goes My Baby” (recorded by The Drifters in the late 1950s) lends some credibility to the idea that perhaps the Primettes at least offered some input or influence on Morris, considering they frequently performed “There Goes My Baby” and even used it in their audition for Motown.
There are also some questions surrounding the lineup of the group featured on “Tears Of Sorrow.” There is no doubt that Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard are included on the two songs, as their three voices are all audible and distinguishable. Many references online, including this Wikipedia article, list Betty McGlown as being featured on the recordings. Writer J. Randy Taraborrelli, in his Diana Ross: A Biography, meanwhile implies that Barbara Martin had already replaced McGlown and took part in the session (Martin would sign with Motown as the fourth member of The Supremes, and feature on several of their earliest singles). However, Mary Wilson remembers the session as involving two other young women, Barbara Randolph and Betty Kendrick, brought along by Richard Morris “because he was worried that without Betty McGlown, our vocals wouldn’t sound full enough (Wilson 69).
And then there’s the question of release. In the liner notes to the fabulous 2000 boxed set The Supremes, “Tears Of Sorrow” and “Pretty Baby” are listed with the release number LuPine LR120, 1960. Several other writers over the years have said that the single was released in either 1959 or 1960, but it failed commercially (writer Mark Ribowsky notes a 3/11/1960 release date for the single in the discography section of his book, The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams , Success, and Betrayal). However, the incredibly detailed notes to the Hip-O select collection Let The Music Play: Supreme Rarities 1960-1969 give a different story: “‘Tears Of Sorrow’ was originally recorded for Robert West’s LuPine Records when the Supremes were still known as the Primettes. Richard Morris wrote and produced that version of the song, but it did not get an immediate release. After ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ hit no. 1 in 1964, LuPine quickly issued the original version…as a single. It didn’t draw much attention and quickly disappeared, eventually becoming one of the most sought after pieces of Supremes memorabilia.” Indeed, fans online have pointed out that the LuPine label on known copies of the 45 indicate it was not pressed in 1960, but rather a few years later.
Whatever the exact facts surrounding this early recording by The Primettes, the two songs do exist, and they are fascinating in what they reveal about Diana Ross and her singing partners, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard. “Tears Of Sorrow” is a full-on doo-wop number, featuring rollicking instrumentation and raw, slighty-discordant vocals behind a squeaky lead by Miss Ross. Much has been written about the ascension of Diana Ross to “lead singer” of The Supremes, especially looking through today’s Dreamgirls-colored glasses, so it’s important to note that here, before the group’s association with Berry Gordy or Motown, Diana’s voice is already out-front. Her early sound has been described as “nasally” and “whiney, and while both might be somewhat accurate, they also diminish the fact that Ross could undeniably sing. There’s a youthful energy and an appealing, almost boyish huskiness in a few of the lower notes that balance out the shrill sound of her higher moments. Ross has often pointed to the early influence of Frankie Lymon’s voice on her own style, and it’s abundantly clear listening to “Tears Of Sorrow” — listen to even her pronunciation during the line, “…I just had too much pride…to call you back to me…” about 45 seconds into the song, and the echo of Lymon is there.
Mary Wilson also appears to take some vocal cues from Frankie Lymon during her take on “Pretty Baby,” another flute-driven slice of late-50s doo-wop that features some interesting vocal interludes sung in high soprano by Florence Ballard. Though Wilson gained a reputation for possessing a muted, misty voice that blended well in background vocals, she displays here a rather powerful, brassy instrument that combines the classy crispness of Lymon with the joyful swagger of a Darlene Love. Though Wilson writes in Dreamgirl that “we were convinced that ‘Pretty Baby’ would be the hit” (69), the song has a less-memorable hook and the Ballard-sung sections don’t quite hit the operatic heights they clearly aspire to. In fact, once the girls signed with Motown in January of 1961 (with the provision that they change their name), they would re-record “Tears Of Sorrow” — but not “Pretty Baby.” That second version of “Tears Of Sorrow” would languish in the vaults until the 2008 release of Let The Music Play: Supreme Rarities 1960-1969.
“Tears Of Sorrow”/”Pretty Baby” aren’t really good songs, nor are they very good recordings. The talent on display is raw to say the least; as mentioned before, Diana’s voice pushes painfully high during her lead, and Florence Ballard sounds rather uncontrolled and sometimes sharp on both her background vocals and her “Pretty Baby” solo sections. The background arrangements have the girlish, disharmonious sound of an early Marvelettes record; there is certainly none of the smooth simplicity Diana, Mary, and Florence would later become famous for. But then again, why would there be? In the years between this recording and their first notable hit (“When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” in 1963), the young ladies would gain significant experience in the studio and as opening acts on multi-artist tours. Dick Clark would later remember of one of those tours, “I was walking through the backstage area of one of the auditoriums we played and as I passed by a dressing room I heard three a capella voices singing ‘People’ from Funny Girl. It was the Supremes” (Taraborrelli 98). These were three women who clearly knew that hard work would pay off.
And if the LuPine recording isn’t fascinating because it’s a “lost” masterpiece, it is fascinating because of what it contains in its rather primitive engineering. Right there in the grooves are the voices of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard, unaffected by show business or stardom. These are the voices of the young ladies who decided to sing together, performed locally together, and dreamed of having a record on the radio together. Long before anything else — the glamour, the number one hits, the breaking of racial barriers — there were only the dreams of these young ladies. The youthful exuberance of possibility is what really makes “Tears Of Sorrow”/”Pretty Baby” worth listening to, and whatever questions may forever surround the recording, there is no denying that.
Did you all see this?
The last remaining towers of Diana’s childhood home — the Brewster projects — are getting the wrecking ball. The Windsor Star mentions Diana and the Supremes in its article, stating: “Opened in 1938, the Brewster projects were the first federally-funded African American public housing development in the U.S. Famous former residents include Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard of the Supremes, actress Lily Tomlin and boxer Joe Louis.”
The pictures of the projects now show them in a state of total dilapidation, a far cry from the place Miss Ross wrote about in her book Secrets Of A Sparrow: “In the Brewster projects, on those hot and sultry Detroit nights, everybody gathered at the corner or sat on the three little steps in the doorways of their apartments.” It was there, of course, that she met Mary and Florence; the rest is music history.
It sounds like it’s time for something new to take the place of the Brewster-Douglass towers; the Windsor Star calls them “some of Detroit’s most visible and notorious blight.” But boy, what a history. Had there been no Brewster projects, Diana Ross would probably never have met Mary and Flo (who went to a different school). Who knows if she would have ended up at Motown without them?
Really, without that Detroit housing project, all of our lives would have been very different. So, for that (to steal a line from Miss Diana Ross herself…), “Thank you…for the best years of my life.”
Of the many aspects of Diana Ross’s life and career that have been written about, her actual working process in the studio is easily the most overlooked. People are happy to discuss her hair, her fashion, her relationships, and her temperament…but what about her musical contributions? Though Miss Ross is credited with executive producing many of her albums and co-writing several songs during her stint at RCA Records in the 1980s, this work has rarely been discussed, not even by the artist herself.
In terms of writing, Diana’s first credit was on “Work That Body,” her 1981 single from the Why Do Fools Fall In Love LP — which also happened to be her first project as executive producer. That song was a moderate hit, as was 1982’s “So Close,” another Ross co-write and the second single from Silk Electric. Neither of these songs is necessarily considered a Diana Ross “classic,” but both have their share of fans. Many count the 1980s b-side “Fight For It” as Diana’s strongest recording as a writer; though it was left off of her Swept Away LP, it remains a popular track for record-hunters and completists.
That song was co-written with Peppy Castro, renowned singer/writer/musician whose career has gone from psychedelic garage rock to Broadway to hard rock, pop and beyond. Castro’s credits are staggering; he’s worked with artists including Cher, John Denver, Michael Bolton, and Liza Minnelli, not to mention his own success with groundbreaking group the Blues Magoos. Castro has the distinction of working on two oft-discussed Diana Ross tracks; along with “Fight For It,” he also wrote (with Mary Anne Kelly) “We Are The Children Of The World” from Swept Away.
Recently, Mr. Castro was kind enough to briefly discuss his work and Ross-related experiences with The Diana Ross Project. We chatted by e-mail, and it was truly a pleasure and honor to hear from such a talented and legendary musician.
Diana Ross Project: First of all — let’s go back to the beginning. You first gained fame with group the Blues Magoos in the 1960s — I believe you were still a teenager at the time. What’s the story behind the founding of the group?
Peppy Castro: The group was formed in New York and 3 of us hailed from the Bronx at the time. We would play all the clubs in Greenwich Village and we broke out of a club called The Night Owl Cafe. We had a top ten record “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet” in 1967 and we were the first group to rise up from the underground in the Psychedelic rock movement to have a hit record.
DRP: Your rock career took you to Broadway. I can only imagine being part of the original cast of “Hair” was pretty wild. What are your recollections of the experience?
PC: “Hair” was the place to be, the most exciting time in musical history. It was yet another groundbreaking experience for me. That’s a book just on that subject. Everybody who was doing anything in the world came to that show. Unlike the Magoos, I had a principle role as an actor-singer in the Broadway production.
DRP: I believe it was through KISS that you met Diana Ross. A lot of people are unaware that Miss Ross and Gene Simmons dated for awhile. What are your recollections of them and how you became acquainted with the singer?
PC: I was introduced to Diana through Gene Simmons. He called me up and asked me, did I have any material for Diana? I went over to Gene, who at the time had a penthouse overlooking the Central Park Zoo on 5th Ave. in New York. I sat and went through lots of portfolios of Gene’s “on the road” memorabilia. Haha…you can imagine what was in there! What an amazing person Gene is. He took the songs I had and gave them to Diana for me and she had interest in “We Are The Children.”
DRP: The period during which you worked with Diana Ross was one in which she was quite vocal about wanting more independence and creative control in her career. Did you get that sense from her?
PC: Oh yeah…it was time.
DRP: Tell me about “Fight For It.” Although it never made it to an album, it’s a fan-favorite and sought after b-side.
PC: Diana, after cutting “We Are The Children,” called me up and asked me would I collaborate on the song. She wanted to know that she had writer’s credits now on her records, which was long overdue.
DRP: I happen to love the song — it’s got a sexy, subtle groove that is really fantastic. What were each of your contributions to the creation of the record?
PC: I wrote some melodies and lyrics and Diana did the same. It was give and take.
DRP: “We Are The Children Of The World” was the b-side to “Missing You” and is a song that still inspires much spirited debate among fans. How did the song come about?
PC: In all actuality, I had the song, which was written with my ex-wife Mary Kelly, and had a great concept for it. I tried to pitch Diana about it but she didn’t get it or wasn’t prepared to follow through. My original version was a little more rock and what Diana did was right for her and her record. I envisioned a video based around Diana in a stadium with children from all over the world marching in to her much like the Olympics. As it was PM Magazine, a TV show out of Philly, did a half hour special with Diana based on the song with children. So they got the concept. Somewhere in my treasure chest is an old VHS that one day I’ll transfer to DVD.
DRP: Did you work on any other songs with Miss Ross that were unfinished/unreleased? What are your overall feelings looking back on the experiences?
PC: Ya know, it’s funny. I’ve heard people say all kinds of things about Diana, she’s a diva and tough to work with, etc. I found her to be focused and charming and a pleasure to work with. I think there was one other song that didn’t make the record. I forget myself, as well, because we didn’t follow through on it.
DRP: Finally — you’re still a busy guy. Your album JUST BEGINNING is getting great reviews — tell me about the record.
PC: After being a rock and roll guy and in so many bands in my career, it was long overdue for me to just put my own CD out. Of course, now that CD’s are becoming obsolete. LOL. It’s my labor of love. I have Joey Kramer (drummer, Aerosmith) on a few cuts. Lucky for friendship. You don’t see him on other records so it’s a real honor. I do so many things that life is never boring.
Thanks again to Peppy Castro for answering questions about these two unique and memorable recordings with Diana Ross. Be sure to check out his website to hear samples from his album Just Beginning and read more about his incredible career.
“Lookin’ down you’ll never see me, try the sky ’cause that’ll be me…”
Before I write anything else, I must say I have no information regarding the possibility of a Baby It’s Me Expanded Edition. That is the number one topic that brings people to this little website, and is easily the most asked question over e-mail — my original post on the 1977 LP is far and away the most viewed on The Diana Ross Project. I wish I had some news — if any Diana Ross album deserves the deluxe treatment, it’s this one. It’s ripe for rediscovery, especially as more and more people finally start to realize what a singular musical talent the singer really is.
All that said, I hear from sources that 2014 will likely bring us the release of a “long-awaited cover” by Diana Ross & The Supremes on the wonderful Hip-O Select label. Does this mean Diana Ross & The Supremes Sing And Perform Funny Girl will finally get a proper CD release for fans?
If so, this is fantastic news. Although thus far The Diana Ross Project has solely been devoted to the solo career of Miss Ross, the 1968 Funny Girl LP was arguably the first major showcase for Diana Ross as a solo star. There is no doubt that the goal of the album was to position Diana as an entertainment force; critics had heralded Barbra Streisand as the ultimate female entertainer in Funny Girl on Broadway, and her film adaptation was about to be released. According to J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana Ross: A Biography, “Berry [Gordy] had the shrewd idea of beating the original soundtrack recording into the shops” (192). Though it was apparently rushed, the man who wrote the music for the show, Jule Styne, was involved in the Motown recording and wrote glowing liner notes for the LP.
Diana’s vocal work on the album (which really didn’t feature very much of the Supremes as a group) is easily her best of the entire decade; on some songs, her performances rival anything she’s done in her entire career. Producer Gil Askey is quoted by Taraborrelli as saying, “Diane was in her glory every step of the way” (192), and that’s extremely apparent in the finished product. There’s an unparalleled joy in her vocals on songs like “I’m The Greatest Star” and “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty,” not to mention the kind of power and control one would expect from an experienced Broadway actress. This is especially true on the magical “The Music That Makes Me Dance,” a song which finally found its way onto CD with the 2009 Supremes compilation Love Songs. This is one of the most thrilling and romantic musical moments of Diana’s 50+ year career; listen to the way she leisurely paces the song, beginning with a warm, sultry croon and ending in a brassy belt worlds away from her early-60’s work. This is a tour de force.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed that, indeed, 2014 is the year of Funny Girl. Although there are albums fans would probably much rather see reissued (not just Baby It’s Me…what about 1978’s Ross?), a chance to reevaluate this important moment in launching Diana Ross as a star would be a wonderful treat.
One of Diana Ross’s most startling television performances occurred in March of 2000, during the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony. The event was broadcast on VH1, and featured Miss Ross inducting Billie Holiday into the “Early Influence” category. The choice of Miss Ross for this task makes perfect sense; the singer won an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in the 1972 film Lady Sings The Blues, and her recordings of Holiday classics resulted in a #1 album. And as a member of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame herself (inducted as a Supreme in 1988), it was a nice full-circle moment as Diana Ross publicly acknowledged a woman who clearly had so much influence on her career.
During the televised ceremony, Miss Ross performed a sterling rendition of Holiday’s “God Bless The Child,” a song written by the jazz legend in 1939. This extended performance once again showcased how adept Ross is at singing jazz and blues; her relaxed, warm style is perfectly suited to the material, and her ability to deeply identify with lyrics lends it a layered, emotional edge. But it was another performance — an unexpected, a capella moment while introducing Ms. Holiday’s honor — that best demonstrates not only the true power of the jazz pioneer’s legacy, but also the incredible vocal skill possessed by Diana Ross.
Welcomed to the stage by a long, enthusiastic ovation, Diana Ross approaches a podium set up for spoken introductions of each inductee. She wears gardenias in her hair in tribute to Billie Holiday, and looks lovely in a long, black glittery dress and jacket. As the cheers and applause die down, Miss Ross takes a breath, and suddenly begins singing the opening lines to “Strange Fruit.”
Southern trees…bear a Strange Fruit…
This haunting song, written as a poem by Abel Meeropol, is an intense, graphic statement on the lynching of African-Americans. Made famous by Holiday in the late 1930s, it apparently became one of her biggest-selling songs and played an important role in the film Lady Sings The Blues, providing a musical reminder of the racism suffered by Holiday. Diana’s reading of the song on the film’s soundtrack was simple and stark, featuring only a piano and her voice. It was the right choice then; the simplicity allowed the disturbing lyrics to remain front and center, and Miss Ross offered a restrained performance which hinted at a dark angst bubbling just beneath the surface.
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root…
When she opened her mouth at the podium at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame 2000 Induction Ceremony, it’s safe to say the audience was expecting a speech. But instead of a few generic comments about Holiday and her legacy, Diana chose instead to perform a truncated version of “Strange Fruit.” This is done completely without accompaniment, and without any kind of spoken introduction. Diana’s voice is smooth and assured, her tone remarkably round and without a trace of the scratchiness which was apparent during some of her other appearances at the time. As she sings the third and fourth lines (“Black bodies swingin’…”), her face begins to register quick traces of intense emotion; met by the total silence of the crowd, the words eerily ring through the auditorium in a still-shattering portrait of racism.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze…
Though it lasts just 90 seconds, Diana Ross’s vocal performance on “Strange Fruit” ranks among her best live moments ever. This is the work of a master; Ross is smart enough to again let the lyrics speak for themselves, refraining from any unnecessary emotion that could tip the song into melodrama. The quality of her voice is remarkably strong, considering she’s singing into a podium mic and has no musical backing; she effortlessly glides from note to note, and channels Billie Holiday’s unique timbre as her voice slightly wavers at the end of each line. It’s also nice to hear the singer’s accomplished breath control; her deep inhaling is clearly audible, adding to the loose and unplanned feel of the performance.
But beyond the stunning vocal performance she’s offering, Diana Ross is also giving the crowd a personal glimpse into the real struggles faced by Billie Holiday. Holiday herself spoke of the racism she suffered during her career, such as being forced to use service elevators and back entrances at hotels and clubs. The jazz legend’s struggles can be heard in her music; she was an artist who clearly used music as an expression of her emotions. And so by singing this song, Diana Ross honors that; she tells the Billie Holiday story the way Holiday herself would have told it.
Strange Fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
As Diana Ross sings the final note and throws her head back, audience reaction is immediate and overwhelming. They know they have just witnessed an incredible moment. This is more than just an impromptu performance by one of the world’s most influential artists; it’s a performance by two of them.
Diana Ross would face her own tribulations during the early part of the new millennium; it would be a time of personal challenges and public disappointments for the singer. As with Billie Holiday, the experience of encountering these obstacles would seem to inform Diana’s music — just listen to her reading of “What About Love” from I Love You, a vocal performance that could only have come from a wise, mature woman who’d come out on the other side of a storm. Though the women lived very different lives in very different eras, the bond of being trailblazing African-American female entertainers is one that will connect them forever. And in a moment like this one, as the younger singer reminded audiences why the elder deserved to be honored, tribute was paid to entire generations of artists who used music to change attitudes.
On the evening of December 8, 2004, music legend Stevie Wonder was given Billboard Magazine’s highest honor for creative achievement — the Century Award — at the annual Billboard Music Awards ceremony. And it came as a surprise to nobody that Diana Ross would be there to pay tribute to her former label-mate and help him celebrate. Ross and Wonder share a long history; both signed with Motown in the early 1960s, and each had scored #1 hits within a few years. In her book Secrets Of A Sparrow, Ross writes, “I remember when he first came to Motown with his bongos, a genius talent. I respected his songwriting so much.” Indeed, over the years Diana recorded several Stevie Wonder compositions, including 1991’s “The Force Behind The Power,” which he wrote specifically for her.
Her performance at the Billboard Music Awards — held at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas — was part of a larger musical tribute to Wonder, including Mary J. Blige singing “As” and Destiny’s Child with a version of “Livin’ for the City.” Diana, of course, got the most media attention, turning in a medley of three Wonder classics, “My Cherie Amour,” “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” and “For Once In My Life.” Her performance was a spectacle to behold; clad in a stunning red outfit — which shed layers with each song — the 60-year-old star displayed the kind of energy and glamour she’d made famous four decades earlier. In a strictly visual sense, this was Diana’s best televised moment in years; probably her best of the entire decade.
Over a montage of pictures of both herself and Stevie, Diana begins the performance singing the familiar “La-la-la” opening to “My Cherie Amour.” It’s instantly noticeable that Diana’s voice is a bit wobbly; she’s not quite out of tune, but there’s a shakiness to her pitch uncharacteristic of a singer known for the clarity of her voice. As the stage lights reveal the singer at the top of a staircase, she begins “I Just Called To Say I Love You” (a song she notably performed on the Oscar telecast in 1985), on which she sounds a bit more confident. There’s no doubt she was hoarse that night — something obvious as she reaches for some sustained higher notes — but her voice sounds quite warm on the lower notes as she croons the lyrics, “…to say how much I care.” After just a few lines of that ballad, Diana tosses back the train of her dress, which had been wrapped up over her shoulders, to reveal a form-fitting red strapless bodice; this is a spectacular moment, a real “star” gesture and the kind of thing Diana hadn’t done much of since her stage extravaganzas of the 1970s. The audience ate it up; an intense roar from the crowd greets Miss Ross as she stomps down the stairs to the brassy strains of Wonder’s 1967 hit “For Once In My Life.”
Diana had earlier recorded “For Once In My Life” in the 1970s; her disco version went unreleased until finally surfacing on the 1983 LP Motown Superstars Sing Motown Superstars. Her version here is upbeat and fairly straightforward until a nice, unexpected Latin-flavored percussion break (similar to the singer’s arrangement of “Love Child” on recent tours). The band is in top-form, jamming out behind Ross with extraordinary energy, and her backing singers sound fantastic. The audience is primed, too; auditorium shots during the FOX broadcast of the show reveal an enormous crowd ready for a party. The only thing that keeps the performance from perfection are Diana’s vocals, which sound tired and strained. It’s been said she was suffering a cold at the time; if this is the case, it explains why she’s raspier than normal and has trouble with some of the notes. She doesn’t really sound bad; her voice is actually in better shape than it had been in the early part of the decade, when she promoted the Return To Love tour with the VH1 Divas 2000 television special. She also, at least, seems pretty “loose” here, ad-libbing “Don’t stop the music!” a few times and dancing around the stage, pulling off her flowing train and revealing a miniskirt underneath.
The interesting thing about Diana’s tribute to Stevie Wonder is how demonstrative it is about the singer’s stage presence and instincts as an entertainer. This is a woman who knows how to create an energy and excitement around her; in this case, compensating for compromised vocals, she used visual cues to elevate the performance. Sharing the stage with some of the biggest artists in the world at the time, Diana Ross really did emerge as the memorable moment of the night, and she did it without sounding even close to her best. Thus, this 2004 appearance becomes a perfect example of the importance of possessing “the total package” — and idea that Diana Ross practically invented back in the 1960s. There are a lot of people who can stand on stage and sing a song, but there are very few that can command the attention of an audience hungry for a show.