Diana 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 Boss, diana, 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.
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.