Super Bowl XVI National Anthem: Diana Ross (1982)

Diana Ross National Anthem Super Bowl 2Diana Ross is given credit for being a trailblazer in many regards, but there is one way in which she made history that is almost always forgotten.  According to writer Lorenzo Arguello on the website Business Insider, in an article about Super Bowl National Anthem performances, “Early on, the NFL called on college marching bands like Grambling State University and the U.S. Air Force Academy to perform ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’  The league’s first foray into having pop artists sing the National Anthem came in 1982 when Diana Ross performed.”

Indeed, a look at the history of National Anthem performances during the Super Bowl’s more than 40-year history shows Diana Ross as the first hugely popular music star to kick-off the football game with this important song.  She’d been preceded by singers like Charley Pride and Helen O’Connell, but after Diana’s performance at the 1982 game, she was followed by a long list of pop superstars, including Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, and — of course — Whitney Houston.  Houston’s famed rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was so well-received that it totally changed the game and has overshadowed every other version of the anthem; still, it might be fair to say that Diana’s pitch-perfect performance nearly a decade earlier paved the path for Houston’s spectacular success.

Super Bowl XVI was a showdown between the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals (the 49ers won, 26–21), played on January 24, 1982 just outside of Diana hometown, Detroit.  As is the case with every Super Bowl game, the 1982 broadcast was a massive television event; according to Wikipedia, “The game was one of the most watched broadcasts in American television history, with more than 85 million viewers. The final national Nielsen rating was a 49.1 (a 73 share), which is still a Super Bowl record.”  Thus, this broadcast was an enormous opportunity for the star (then at the very peak of her stardom, coming off of two platinum albums and a run of top 10 hits), and Miss Ross — in football terms — scored a touchdown.

Dressed in a patriotic, glittery jumpsuit and red headband (interestingly, Ms. Houston also wore a patriotic jumpsuit/headband combo for her performance), Miss Ross opens by commanding the crowd, “Can we sing our National Anthem with authority?  Sing with me!”  Then, taking her cue from a quick piano note, Miss Ross proceeds to sing the difficult song a capella!  This is, in and of itself, a big deal — very few popular singers would dare do this today, and many even pre-record their vocals for the big moment.  But Miss Ross sings clearly and deliberately without any accompaniment at all, save for the voices of the fans and players around her, who follow her direction to sing along.  The clarity of Diana’s voice is simply stunning; due to the often hushed quality of her early-1980s, it’s easy to forget that she was in great voice during this period; her previous three LPs (The Bossdiana, and Why Do Fools Fall In Love) all featured some very powerful vocal performances and expanded the singer’s range.  Here, her crisp soprano is so dead-on that it gives the song an almost-haunting quality; there’s something pure and childlike about her delivery that’s rare for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which so often is over-sung as a histrionic showcase.

Diana Ross National Anthem Super Bowl

As the song progresses, the notes get higher and higher; Diana’s voice has no trouble keeping up, and as she sings, “And the rockets red glare…the bombs bursting in air…” she nails the notes, hitting them dead-center, without a trace of “pitchiness” in her performance.  The song’s climax is notoriously challenging for singers, as they must reach high for the “…o’er the land of the free…and the home of the brave” finale; once again, Diana’s sweet, simple reading of the lyrics results in her having no problem at all delivering the lines.  Her voice rings out like a church bell on the word “free” — it is, again, almost a haunting moment in its perfection, and surprising given the way that many singers use the moment for showy melisma.  This is definitive proof of the brilliance of Diana Ross the vocalist; she always gives a song solely what it calls for.  On a song which requires belting and vocal gymnastics (i.e. “The Boss”) she can deliver; on a song that requires a quiet poignancy (i.e. “What About Love” from I Love You), she feels no need to give anything more.  Here, on her country’s anthem, Diana keeps the focus on the memorable lyrics and the spirit of unity; it really is quite spine-tingling to hear the entire audience quietly singing along with her.  The enormous crowd reaction as soon as she finishes the song is well-deserved — and unsurprising.

Though it’s not a performance that’s often discussed or ranked among Diana’s best (after all, the very next year she’d give the mother of all televised concerts, at Central Park), her appearance at Super Bowl XVI is truly a shining moment in her career.  Writer Rick Limpert gives it props in a Yahoo! post from 2010, commenting, “Diana Ross has performed at quite a few Super Bowls, but her singing the national anthem at Super Bowl XVI was her best performance. She was as on top of her game as Joe Montana was in defeating the Bengals. A great voice, and a great Star Spangled Banner.”  Indeed, while not as visually spectacular as her halftime show in 1996, this is a far superior vocal showcase.  Many say the National Anthem is one of the hardest songs for a singer; it’s extremely telling that Diana Ross makes it look so easy.


About Paul

Album-by-album, track-by-track, a look at the entire Diana Ross discography...
This entry was posted in Television Appearance and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Super Bowl XVI National Anthem: Diana Ross (1982)

  1. Jeremy Lee says:

    So look forward to every piece of your writing. It is inspirational, insightful and nails things in an honest and captivating way. Keep them coming!

  2. Tony says:

    Totally agree with Jeremey. Well said.

    Paul….bang on gain. I love her performance here. Haunting and mesmerizing at the same time. The respect from the crowd was for the song as well as for Miss ross! A daunting song to sing ,but she sang it effortlessly and with a graceful ease. She never looked more confident!

    • Paul says:

      This was such a good time for her. She was coming off a string of major hits, and her first self-produced LP was a platinum hit. I imagine she’d never had more self-confidence in her entire career, and it showed in this moment.

  3. I wasn’t aware of this at all – shame on me! I guess the Superbowl profile was next to nothing at the time in the UK (I only remember being aware of it all being a ‘big deal’ when Whitney performed about a decade later).

    Interesting what you say about Diana’s pitch perfect and very ‘straight’ vocal style on this. Post Whitney, every singer indulged in wild acrobatics – few with the control and natural grace of Houston. Christina probably being the worst offender. And then Idol came along and made it official – the more melismatic the singer, the bigger the applause. It’s good to remember the style and class of straight up singer. Diana pulls it out the bag here effortlessly.

    • Paul says:

      Indeed — the anthem here in the US has been massacred my many, many singers — thanks to a need to oversing it and “show off” vocally. No offense to any of these women — but I’ve heard versions by Christina, Beyoncé, and Jennifer Hudson that all completely rob the song of any meaning.

      Your description of Whitney and her “control” is dead on — she vocally attacks the song, but really doesn’t oversing it — her version is actually pretty straight-forward. Diana’s version merely takes another course — there is a quiet, subtle feeling in hers. Both work very well. And Whitney’s, of course, came at a time in American when such a powerful performance was much needed.

  4. Tony says:

    Gentlemen! Tastes in music had changed by the time Whitney sang her version. America didn’t “need” it as much as it wanted that rich thick sound. If Whitney sang her version 10 years earlier , I’m not sure it would have been as appreciated as much. It probably would have been considered a little too over done ! Timing and public tastes matter. Also …I don’t want to stir the pot…but was Whitney “live”? Just asking?

    Lawrence if you are out there …help me on this one !!!! (Lol).

    • Paul says:

      Tony, Tony, Tony…leave it to you to stir the pot! 🙂

      What I mean by Americans “needing” the performance is that Whitney’s national anthem came in 1991 — ten days after the United States went to war in the Persian Gulf. Her performance was an incredibly patriotic moment at a time when our country needed it. I remember the talk after this performance — and it was overwhelmingly focused on the fact that it was inspirational in respect to the men and women who were going to war.

      In other words, such a powerful performance of the national anthem (on such a massively watched night of television) hit at exactly the right time. That’s what I’m talking about here. Had Diana’s haunting, moving rendition come during a time of great turmoil in the US, I’m sure it would have had a much greater impact.

      • Tony says:

        I know what you meant Paul and I totally agree with you. W.H’s rendition was like a metaphors for the power we needed to project. Absolutely! ( but like I said I just want to stir it a little ). (Lol). Btw , Whitney and her voice were truly stunning that night. It is still ingrained in my heart and mind.

  5. Tony says:

    Ok …. I did want to stir the pot a bit!!!!!

  6. Lawrence says:

    Hi Tony! Help you out on the Whitney singing live issue? I have already read that most performers in recent history have been lip-synching at the SuperBowl, to avoid the echo/feedback in the stadium. So, yes, I believe Whitney was pretending to sing live, to a prerecorded track – but she mimed it quite well.

    • Paul says:

      I have also heard that Ms. Houston’s performance was lip-synced, as many performers do because of stadium acoustics. If it’s indeed the case, I don’t think it takes anything away from Whitney’s performance — it’s undoubtedly her voice and it was still an inspiring, galvanizing performance.

      That said — there is no doubt that Diana’s performance in 1982 is fully live — something that is extremely impressive — and impressive, too, that she did it again during her 1996 halftime show!

  7. Tony says:

    I knew you would know the answer! Thanks Lawrence ! We have to commend our Diana for her live singing.

  8. Lawrence says:

    My pleasure 🙂 I had never seen this clip before of Diana singing the anthem – it’s really beautiful! To be honest, I never watched the Superbowl before…1996 when Diana performed the halftime show! LOL

  9. Pingback: Super Bowl XVI National Anthem: Diana Ross (1982) | Pauliebronx's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s