Super Bowl XXX Halftime Show: Diana Ross (1996)

Diana Ross Super Bowl 1January 28, 1996 was a milestone date for the National Football League; football fans across America gathered around TV screens for the 30th anniversary of the Super Bowl.  The Super Bowl is, of course, routinely the biggest television event of the year in the United States; this time around, it featured the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers in an eagerly awaited matchup.  For many, this particular Super Bowl is remembered as the one that brought the Steelers’ perfect Super Bowl record (4-0) to an end, as the Cowboys clinched the victory 27-17.  For others, Super Bowl XXX is most memorable for its halftime spectacular, starring the one and only Miss Diana Ross.

Miss Ross had already appeared at football’s biggest night, singing a stellar rendition of the National Anthem at Super Bowl XVI in 1982.  She was coming off her most commercially successful period ever at that time, following the releases of 1980’s diana and 1981’s Why Do Fools Fall In Love, both platinum smashes, and a string of major top 10 hits.  After a commercially cool period (not to mention time off to get married and give birth to her two sons), Miss Ross was back in the public eye in early 1996, publicizing her 1995 Motown release Take Me Higher.  Though not a big seller, the album did produce a #1 dance hit in the title track, and her cover of “I Will Survive” gained her a lot of traction.

The singer spared no expense in promoting Take Me Higher, clearly her most aggressive attempt at having a hit record in some time.  She appeared on several late-night talk shows, toured in support of the album, and collected several televised honors (including a World Music Award Lifetime Achievement and induction into the Soul Train Hall Of Fame).  However — there is no doubt that Super Bowl XXX gave her the largest opportunity for publicity she’d had in years.  In fact, according to Wikipedia.com’s article on the game, the NBC broadcast of Super Bowl XXX drew in 95.13 million viewers in the US, breaking the record for the most watched sports event ever on American TV, and becoming the second most-watched TV program ever.  Clearly, if ever the pressure was on for Diana Ross, this was it.

Diana Ross Super Bowl 4Considering that the Super Bowl was celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in 1996, it’s entirely appropriate that Diana Ross was chosen as the night’s key entertainment, being that she was also roughly 30 years into her career as a hit-maker.  The very first Super Bowl was held on January 15, 1967; at that time, the Supremes were the biggest group in the world.  Thus, Diana’s halftime performance was a collection of her hits over the years, serving as not only a celebration of her own discography, but also of hit music over the previous three decades.  Very few artists could be considered the “musical soundtrack” over a span of 30 years; Diana Ross is one of them.

Opening with a quick montage of pictures and video clips from Miss Ross’s career — and an announcer introducing “the legendary performer who has entertained millions of people around the world” — the show begins with Diana standing on a heart-stopping pyrotechnic crane, being swung high above the diamond-shaped stage and the back down again as she sings the chorus to “Stop! In The Name Of Love.”  Perhaps the biggest achievement here is that Diana doesn’t appear completely terrified for her life, although it certainly looks as if she could take a nosedive right off the crane at any moment.  Once she’s helped onto the stage by two of her several dancers, she immediately launches into Supremes hits “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “Baby Love,” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.”  Each song quickly segues into the next, with Diana bouncing all over the stage, interacting with her suit-clad dancers and seemingly having a ball.  The staging here is extremely impressive; the field is covered with various groups of dancers in formations captured by aerial cameras.

Diana Ross Super Bowl 2After these Supremes songs, Miss Ross flashes-forward to her RCA years, shimmering in her red mini-dress to the strains of her 1981 solo hit “Why Do Fools Fall In Love.”  It should be noted that the singer looks fantastic; her red lips match her dress and her mane of hair perfectly frames her face, and she looks incredibly trim and fit (especially considering she was about to celebrate her 52nd birthday).  That said, she’s in decent voice — not great voice.  She sounds fine as she breezes through the familiar melodies of the 60s Supremes hits, but her performances on the solo songs — especially “Why Do Fools…” and then “Chain Reaction” — reveal that she’s a little hoarse and perhaps a bit out of breath.  Rather than focus on her vocals, she was likely far more preoccupied with the visual aspect of the show, something that makes sense given the context of the performance.  Super Bowl Halftime shows, to be fair, are never about showcasing great singing; they are entertainment spectacles meant to keep energy high during the mid-game break of the football game.

After “Chain Reaction” (an interesting choice of song, since it wasn’t a big hit in the United States, although it points to the fact that the Super Bowl is more than just an American sporting event), Miss Ross begins one of her signatures tunes, “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand).”  Her voice sounds much better here, as the singer digs a little deeper and displays some vocal muscle while accompanied by a choir of kids surrounding the stage.  Within seconds, the field at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe Arizona is being filled with robe-clad choirs, and the familiar wordless hook of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” begins.  This is a rapid fire-paced version of Diana’s first solo #1 hit, notable for the fact that by the end, Miss Ross is again precariously perched on a very small and very high platform, wearing a shimmering gold jacket that appears to stretch out for miles.  This points to the intelligence of Miss Ross in using costumes as part of the visual spectacle, in this case literally incorporating her costume as part of the set (much in the way she opened her Broadway show An Evening With Diana Ross by using her dress as a projection screen).

Diana Ross Super Bowl 3But Miss Ross is about the take the show to a whole new level — literally — by closing out with snippets of “I Will Survive” and “Take Me Higher” (from her recent Motown release) as a helicopter flies into the stadium and lands on the stage.  Her voice has moments of power, despite sounding rather hoarse again, during “I Will Survive” — she’s a little thin on the verse, but recovers on the familiar chorus.  Any shakiness can be forgiven, however, considering she’s about to sit on the edge of the helicopter and be lifted out of the stadium, making perhaps the most memorable departure of her career (after a whole collection of memorable entrances, of course).  As the chopper flies away, the show comes to an end; the entire halftime performance takes right around 12 minutes, with the singer incredibly touching on ten songs in that time, from 1964’s “Baby Love” to the two 1995 releases.

Reaction to the Super Bowl XXX Halftime Show starring Diana Ross was largely favorable, and has remained so over the years.  In 2013, Billboard Online named Diana’s halftime show as number 9 in the top 10 best Super Bowl halftime shows, writing, “Diana Ross may be one of popular music’s original divas, but the Supreme singer capped off her Halftime duties in Tempe, Arizona with a gesture so grand, it was practically absurd. Ross ended her Motown-hit-studded performance, which included ‘Baby Love’ and ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On,’ by exclaiming, ‘Oooh, here comes my ride!’ She then flew off in a helicopter with her arms wide open, kicking up her heels ecstatically during the very appropriate finale, ‘Take Me Higher.'”  SI.com — the website of Sports Illustrated Magazine — did her one better, placing her at number 8: “Diana Ross sang a few lines from a dozen of her classic hits while making four costume changes. For her exit, she hopped into a helicopter, swung her legs out  the side and flew off into the sunset — to the strains of ‘Take Me Higher.’ Now that’s a diva!”

Diana Ross Super Bowl 5Although the show has its detractors, there’s no denying that Diana Ross succeeded from a visual standpoint.  The 12-minute performance is impeccably staged and never is there a major visible mistake or missed cue.  Considering the vast majority of halftime shows are handled by several popular music acts, the fact that this one featured only Diana Ross makes it even more impressive; she certainly shoulders all of the responsibility effortlessly.  This certainly wasn’t a great showcase for Miss Ross as a vocalist; she is capable of far better live vocal performances, as proven by some of her stellar late-show appearances during this period (especially her pair of performances on “Late Show With David Letterman,” two of her best of the decade).  However, it’s important that the show was 100% live; Diana refused to rely on lip-synching or backing tracks, which means the enormous audience was truly witnessing a live show.  The performance remains an important document of her abilities as an entertainer; after three decades of stardom, the singer was still able to rise to the occasion and captivate on the world’s largest stages.

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About Paul

Album-by-album, track-by-track, a look at the entire Diana Ross discography...
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16 Responses to Super Bowl XXX Halftime Show: Diana Ross (1996)

  1. Lawrence says:

    I still remember being allowed to stay up late and watch this amazing show, as it was past our bedtime in kindergarten. LOL! Just kidding 🙂

    Seriously, this was probably the best spectacle done on the Superbowl Halftime Show, 2nd only to Madonna’s recent halftime performance. I can recall watching Diana being lifted by helicopter and thinking, THAT is a true star’s exit!

    This era holds a special place in my heart, as it’s the time I met Miss Ross (and she kissed me) and also saw her in concert live for the first time, for the Take Me Higher Tour – front row no less 🙂

    I always thought that if Motown had issued the Take Me Higher single immediately after the Superbowl (or if Itunes had existed then), this could have been a huge hit for her on the hot 100. Even though it wasn’t, it was certainly a wonderful accomplishment people still talk about today.

    • Paul says:

      I think you are 100% right — the timing of this performance and the album release was just a little bit off. Imagine the iTunes bump we would have seen for “Take Me Higher” — had digital downloads only been available then. There is no doubt a performance of this magnitude could have pushed a Diana single onto the charts had the timing been better…so sad that it wasn’t. Certainly had Motown been willing to push “I Will Survive” as a single, this Super Bowl show could have helped it along, too.

      (Incidentally — the TMH tour was also my first time seeing Diana live! When she showed up onstage as “Take Me Higher” played I literally stopped breathing!)

  2. Tony says:

    Oh yes! I recall feeling so nervous for my star. I wanted her to nail it , to do something amazing. I adore her so much that I couldn’t bare to see her fail on such a big event. Needless to say ….I was very proud of her. From her entrance …I just sat back and knew….wow this is gonna be great.

    I agree the TMH album is a stunning piece of work. If, as Lawrence has said, the album was released after the game , it would have soared on the charts. I recall being so confused as to how come this album was not taking off given the preference she just gave! I guess it ws the release date and poor timing on Motowns Part.

    Now…..she looked great , confident and almost with a smug look as if to say ” just wait to see how I exit everyone”. Her voice was well pitched for the most part….I think all the bouncing around got her to lose some voice power. There were some strong moments……I recall Aint No Mountain being well done!

    Loved this performance!

    • Paul says:

      I was the same way — I wanted her to nail it, too, and was so glad that she did. Whew! This was probably the highest-pressure situation she’d been in since Central Park. So many Super Bowl halftime shows go flat and end up being totally panned — it’s great that Diana’s has held up so well.

  3. It’s nice to imagine if Motown had sorted the release dates with this performance she would have had a major hit on her hands – it certainly would have helped! – but I wouldn’t say it was necessarily guaranteed. Even recently Madonna’s Superbowl show couldn’t make a decent hit out of her single at the time. Probably because it just wasn’t a great tune and she fallen out of vogue (sorry) somewhat. In Diana’s case at the time – mid 90s – you have to remember she had troubled the US top 10 for well over a decade. I’d like to think she could’ve hit big with ‘Take Me Higher’ but realistically at the time? I’m not so sure. Maybe a few years earlier when Narada was still hot. To me, ‘Gone’ was the lost hit at R&B radio from that album – in sync with the Babyface style of the era..

    • Paul says:

      Hey! Well, of course, you are right — “Take Me Higher” never quite hit at radio, which is what ultimately killed the song’s chances. Radio just wouldn’t jump on board with the song — strange considering only a few years later it embraced Cher’s “Believe” whole-heartedly. Perhaps had Diana’s “Take Me Higher” gained major traction as an overseas hit, it would have transferred over to the states the way “Believe” did.

      I do think that today — with instant downloads thanks to iTunes, Amazon, etc. — the songs from the TMH higher album would stand a better chance. Diana’s appearance on “American Idol” had an immediate boost on downloads of “I Love You” — and there was a far greater audience watching her Super Bowl performance (and the Super Bowl was a FAR BETTER performance, too!).

      Anyway, no doubt that TMH deserved to be a major hit, along with the singles. I always thought “Gone” should have done much better, too. Beautiful song, great performance — one of the best from the album. I bet she’d sound great singing it these days, too — she rich, deeper voice would sound fabulous on the verses now.

  4. Lawrence says:

    by the way, is anyone else going to see Diana at the Hollywood Bowl on August 3rd? I just found out her daughter Rhonda is opening for her. Looking forward to the show – and hope she throws in some unexpected songs 🙂

    • Paul says:

      Wow — Rhonda as opening act?? Sounds amazing — wish I was going! Post a full report for us! I’m seeing her September 7th here in Atlanta. Counting down the hours 🙂

      • Lawrence says:

        oh come to LA and join me! it should be lots of fun. whenever Diana performs in LA, she usually adds some surprises 🙂

  5. Tony says:

    I wanted to also comment on her performance in that ….it was a true live show. At times she is out of breath , a few times she cracks and gets a little pitchy. Am I the only one who loves those raw moments? sometimes i listen for them and for some reasons i feel warmth and admiration for her. How brave and confident in the quality of her own voice must she be to not have it all pre- recorded. It was windy , it was cool, and yet she once a gain braved the elements and sang her heart out. I guess she knows that those who appreciate the tone of her voice will appreciate it “live” and flawed.

    I am not sure there are many other stars who will go without pre recording this type of show, or wouldn’t insist on some mechanical help with pitch!

    • Paul says:

      I totally agree — performers are notorious for pre-recording vocals at the Super Bowl due to bad acoustics, the elements, etc. People were indeed getting a 100% live performance, for which Diana Ross has to be commended. Even when Miss Ross is having off-days vocally (something that will be address in my next post — about the VH1 Divas concert), she still soldiers on and does her best as a live vocalist. This must come from her training on the road as a young Motown artist — I’m sure back then the “kids” had no choice but to go onstage, no matter how they were feeling. Not to mention Diana has always said she wants to give her fans a real show — which means hearing her voice live.

  6. I can tell you it was the first time I ever watched the Superbowl.
    Diana had been off the charts in the US since MISSING YOU in 1984. I was shocked to hear that my Diva had been chosen to perform the halftime show in 1986. In my mind she was a huge dance star after her TAKE ME HIGHTER had been a hit.
    Paul, you have wonderfully described the reactions. I love your review.
    Diana Ross has never been interviewed about her performance at the Sup
    erbowl 1996.

    • Paul says:

      I’d love to hear Diana’s thoughts on this show — I hope she’s proud of it. For many performers — a Super Bowl halftime show is the ultimate performance. For Diana, I think it must have seemed a little anticlimactic since she’d already set a new standard in live, televised performing — Central Park in 1983!!

  7. Pingback: World Music Awards 1996: Diana Ross Receives Legend Award | THE DIANA ROSS PROJECT

  8. Pingback: Super Bowl XVI National Anthem: Diana Ross (1982) | THE DIANA ROSS PROJECT

  9. Pingback: “I Will Survive” Billboard Article (2/17/96) | THE DIANA ROSS PROJECT

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