“Ribbon In The Sky” (Live In Central Park, 1983)

Diana Ross Ribbon In The Sky 3

“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.

Diana Ross Ribbon In The Sky 1

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.

Diana Ross Ribbon In The Sky 2

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.

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About Paul

Album-by-album, track-by-track, a look at the entire Diana Ross discography...
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20 Responses to “Ribbon In The Sky” (Live In Central Park, 1983)

  1. theqhblend says:

    Thanks for the support Paul!!! <3-QH

  2. Tony says:

    I agree, she does an stunning job with this song. It actually sounds like the song belongs to her. Great voice , tone and power. She didn’t seem to take it as serious as I would have liked. I did NOT like the outfit. I wanted something more flowing ( think…Summertime ) Her outfit looked thick and chunky for such a delicate and flowing song

    I wish she had done this in the studio….even on the I LOVE YOU Cd.

    • Paul says:

      Tony — I hadn’t thought about it — but you are SO right — this song would have been a far better addition to “I Love You” than some of her other choices. Actually, wouldn’t it be interesting if Diana recorded a disc of Stevie ballads at this point in her career. With the warmth and maturity in her voice — which adds so much soul, I think — she could really turn out an amazing collection.

  3. Antje says:

    Thank you, Paul, for “making me hear”. Never paid much attention to this one bcause of the overall impact of the concert.
    I think I found a nice audio track: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2suBuvnvEK4
    What a smart move of yours to focus on just one song!
    Wish she’d record Stevie’s “If it’s magic” – should be magical…

    • Paul says:

      To me, the Central Park concerts have to be taken on a song-by-song basis — like I wrote above, the whole thing is so larger than life that it’s hard to focus on anything but the spectacle. But there are some really unique moments in there that I think are worthy of attention. What’s your favorite Central Park moment?

      • Antje says:

        Thought about it all week long! I do not care much about this concert, I must admit. But since your review “Ribbon..” creeped into my mind – love it!

  4. spookyelectric says:

    Totally agree with you Paul, she does a great, great job on this – it’s obvious she loves this song. I’d go as far to say this is my favourite of all her Wonder covers. Definitely one of the vocal highlights of Central Park alongside ‘Family’ and ‘God Bless The Child.’

    • Paul says:

      Her GBTC at Central Park is pretty amazing — I’d also lump her “I’m Coming Out” on Day 2 among the vocal highlights — she pretty much lives the entire song onstage right before our eyes!!

  5. Mark Aherne says:

    Dear Paul,

    Many thanks for this new post on ” Ribbon in the Sky ” which is a lovely song and almost tailored-made for Miss Ross. As are “Too Shy To Stay” and “Overjoyed” – which you mentioned in your text – but also the moving “Blame It On The Sun”. It is tragic that she did not release a full album of Wonder’s material – that would be a godsend.

    Despite the courage of Miss Ross and the spectacle of the Central Park Concert it was right to only contain it to Video. I am of the opinion that it would make a very poor audio album. Her vocals would not be consistently good throughout to merit a CD release.

    Besides your informative and well-written text I am very grateful for the 3 colourful images.

    Thanks for updating me and all of your hard work for this project.

    Mark Aherne

    • Paul says:

      Hey Mark! I’m a little torn on the question on if Central Park should have been released as an album. The massive publicity probably would have led to sales at least better than those of 83’s Ross. That said, you are right — the vocal performances were spotty at best. A full LP of Central Park probably wouldn’t have worked — but perhaps a “highlights” album with some moments from Day 1 and then several performances (like “Ribbon…”) from Day 2 could have been put together in a way to capture the moment and also showcase Diana’s vocals in a positive way.

      For example, maybe an “highlights album” tracklist like this could have worked:

      1) Rained Out Concert Montage
      2) I’m Coming Out
      3) Home
      4) Family
      5) Let’s Go Up
      6) God Bless The Child
      7) Mirror Mirror
      8) Ribbon In The Sky
      9) Beat It/Muscles
      10) Endless Love
      11) Theme From Mahogany/Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
      12) All For One

      • spookyelectric says:

        Got to agree with you on that Paul. As you say, given the profile of the event and the relative failure of the concurrent release of ‘Ross’ it would have totally made sense to get the album out as quickly as possible. Or even a home VHS (when you think this was the time when ‘The Making Of Thriller’ sold millions of video cassettes in that new market).

        I remember in one of Randy Tambourine’s biogs he claimed Diana wanted the album released and RCA refused. Who knows whether that’s true or not, but it certainly would have made a lot more sense than the Live album Diana released at the end of that decade!

      • Tony says:

        Spot on on Paul….but will need to have a Supremes section regardless of singing quality. Its respectful.

      • Paul says:

        Tony…does it HAVE to???? 😉 I wish she’d sounded better on songs like “Love Is Like An Itchin’…” and “You Can’t Hurry Love” at Central Park. I think she knew those were instant crowd-pleasers, and thus used them to “coast” a little bit.

        I’m glad that in recent years, Diana’s devoted a little more attention to the Supremes songs in her concerts — once again she does complete songs, and devotes a little more vocal care to them (as opposed to the breathless medleys she used to do!).

      • Paul says:

        Spooky — LOL — you are SO RIGHT. A Central Park LP would have been so superior to the “Greatest Hits Live” CD that came several years later that it’s ridiculous. Diana should have just skipped that one altogether and waited a few years, releasing a “Central Park 10-Year Anniversary” CD in 1993! Not to mention a CD like that probably would have been a more significant project than her poorly-received ’93 box set.

      • spookyelectric says:

        Absolutely. RCA really missed a trick on that one. I’m pleased the DVD eventually arrived (nearly 3 decades later!) better late than never I guess. But absolutely they were sitting on a surefire hit album there. Of course ‘Family’ from the show made it on the box set which was nice – shame ‘Ribbon’ didn’t sneak on too!

  6. Mark Aherne says:

    Dear Paul,

    Many thanks for committing my comments re “Baby It’s Me” ! It is good to see my own words in print. I will write more reviews over time. Thanks again for your clever and exciting Project.

    Mark Aherne Ireland

  7. Lawrence says:

    I like the idea of a highlights album. I agree that the vocals weren’t so consistent during the televised concert on day 2 – but there was something so historic about this event, a live recording should have been released. I think it would have sold a ton, and I wonder if the technical problems were the reason this never happened? Or was it a rights issue, since RCA didn’t own the Motown recordings she sang in the show?

    • Paul says:

      I wonder, too, Lawrence — I can’t imagine it was totally a right issues — seems like it was such a huge event that the labels and Diana could have worked something out. I’ve read that RCA just didn’t think it was strong enough — strange, considering you’d think they’d be looking at dollar signs more than quality, and a live recording of this massive concert could have at least outsold “Ross.”

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