“I remember when he first came to Motown with his bongos, a genius talent. I respected his songwriting so much.” -Diana Ross, Secrets Of A Sparrow
Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I, released in 1982, is a double-LP collection displaying the staggering range of hits produced by one of the most successful singer/songwriters of the modern music era. Spanning just about a decade of Stevie Wonder’s career, it covers classic Motown songs including 1972’s “Superstition” up through 1980’s “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” and includes four new tracks, one on each album side. One of those is the beautiful ballad “Ribbon In The Sky,” lifted as a single and charting at #10 on the R&B charts. The song remains a staple of late-night R&B “Quiet Storm” playlists, and though it wasn’t one of Wonder’s biggest pop hits, it has become a recognizable and often-covered composition.
Meanwhile, that same year, Diana Ross was following in her former labelmate’s footsteps by enjoying unprecedented creative control at her new home, RCA Records. Her second self-produced LP, Silk Electric, went gold and included a pair of Top 40 hits. She’d been on a major hot streak since 1980, and it would culminate the next year in her historic televised Central Park concerts. This mammoth two-day event has been written about as much as any other single event in her career (be sure to check out this great Dustin Fitzharris article and The QH Blend recap of Ross in ’83) and, thanks to a recent DVD release, probably doesn’t need another full assessment right now (at least not by me!). That said, while the concert is generally considered solely in the context of a larger-than-life, woman-against-nature spectacle, it does offer some strong vocal moments and some interesting popular song covers along the way.
“Ribbon In The Sky” is both; it’s a song that perfectly suits Diana’s warm vocal style, and is perhaps the best she sounded during the live shows. It’s also a real treat for fans, given that it’s a song she never actually recorded in a studio (and the Central Park shows were, surprisingly, never released as a live LP). Of course, it’s really not a big surprise that Miss Ross would choose to sing the Wonder song; she has recorded several of them over the course of her career, notably “Too Shy To Say” from 1977’s Baby It’s Me and a lovely and surprising cover of “Overjoyed” from her import Christmas CD A Very Special Season. Like both of those, “Ribbon In The Sky” is a gorgeous ode to love, a smooth and soulful piece that weaves both romantic and spiritual themes into its lyrics. It’s the kind of song Diana Ross does best, and her performance of it is a standout in this remarkable chapter of her career.
Bounding onto the stage in what could perhaps best be described as a “parachute pantsuit” — Miss Ross addresses the crowd, remarking of Stevie Wonder, “This is a young man I met when he was seven years old, in front of the Motown studios…He’s a genius.” She takes a few moments, allowing the band to riff the opening of the song (and, it should be noted, the band does a phenomenal job of recreating Wonder’s track), and finally begins, her voice warm and delicate as she slightly amends the opening lyrics (from “night” to “day”) as a nod to the crowd who returned for this unplanned second concert. Her voice is incredibly controlled on these opening lines, gently riding the melody with a lovely roundness in tone unexpected given the circumstances; despite the roaring audience and the fact that she’s standing solo on a giant stage, she doesn’t strain one bit, allowing the beauty of the song to fill the open space. The fact that Miss Ross is able to make the performance seem so immediately intimate in front of hundreds of thousands of people speaks to her abilities as an entertainer; again, she does so purely through the song and her vocals on it, which are deliberate and soulful. Listen, for example, to her wordless riff after the first two verses; this six-note ad-lib is a magical moment, and an example of the singer’s skill in using vocal flourishes only when appropriate. A slight roughness in Diana’s voice surfaces during the song’s climactic key change (something unsurprising given the fact that she’d been shouting orders during a storm the night before), but she uses it rather than fighting against it, singing through the moments of raspiness and adding another soulful layer to her vocals. This climax is the highlight of the performance, as Diana puts some real muscle behind her voice. Listen particularly to her reading of the words “From now on…it will be you and I…” — she stretches out the word “on” over five startling, soulful notes, perfectly matching Wonder’s characteristic melisma, then slurs the second half of the line together in a wonderful, jazzy phrasing. Her final three refrains of the title are powerful and dead-on pitch-wise; her vocals truly soar as she brings the piece to a close.
It’s a real shame Diana Ross never chose to commit “Ribbon In The Sky” to record; if her reading here is any indication, it could have been one of the great ballad covers of her discography. As it stands, the song is one of the singular highlights of what Diana has called the most important moment in her career. There are plenty of times when Miss Ross undeniably put her vocals on the backburner during these concerts, focusing more on visuals and crowd control; this is likely why the concert never got an audio release. But “Ribbon In The Sky” is thankfully a song on which she delivers an expertly thought-out and controlled performance, demonstrating why she became a star in the first place. Had the concerts been cobbled together into an album release, this would have been a wise choice as a song to service to radio.
Beyond this, however, Diana’s reading of “Ribbon In The Sky” is also a little bittersweet when taken a reminder of what Diana Ross might have accomplished in the 1980s had she really been given top material to work with. There is no doubt that she turned out some classics during the decade; however, the overall quality of songs she recorded notably dropped as the 1980s progressed. After the one-two punch of “It’s My Turn” and “Endless Love,” Miss Ross didn’t turn out another great ballad until 1984’s superb “Missing You” — a song that would be her final Top 10 pop hit in the United States. Diana Ross spent many years experimenting musically, which must be commended; still, a sonically clean, well-written R&B ballad is what the singer does best to this day, and a few more of these could have provided some career momentum when she needed it most.