On August 4, 1983 — just weeks after her historic pair of concerts in New York’s Central Park — Diana Ross appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” This was just the latest in a series of guest spots on the popular talk show, including an important 1968 appearance with The Supremes the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Her August ’83 stop by the show was the perfect opportunity to talk about the Central Park concerts, which had garnered the singer massive amounts of publicity; Carson even made her “feel at home” by turning on some sprinklers over his backdrop to make it rain in the studio. But it also gave Ross a further chance to promote her then-current RCA LP, Ross.
Ross was Diana’s third release under her RCA contract; the majority of the album was produced by Gary Katz, known for producing the albums of Steely Dan. This resulted in a major change for the singer, whose previous two albums were self-produced and featured disco-ready pop and R&B dance tunes. The sound on Ross was cool and synthesizer-heavy; it’s turned off many fans and critics over the years (the All Music Guide’s review of the album notes “…that precise, icy sound those guys always get, not a sound that meshes well with Ross”). None of the album’s three singles did particularly well; first single “Pieces Of Ice” hit #31 on the Billboard Hot 100, but “Up Front” and “Let’s Go Up” barely charted. It would take the next RCA release by Diana Ross — 1984’s Swept Away — to put the singer back on top.
All that said, Ross is a stunning album, and “Let’s Go Up” remains one of Diana’s best singles of the decade; the song is a classy, shimmering mid-tempo number with a powerful lead vocal. For those who love the song, it’s the one that got away; perhaps had it been the lead single from the LP (or, as Diana had apparently hoped, even the second) it would have found an audience. The song requires a gutsy, punchy vocal, and not only did Diana more than deliver in the studio, she also replicated it during live performances. She offered up exciting renditions during both nights of her Central Park shows, and especially on her “Tonight Show” appearance.
Running onto the stage with her trademark mane of hair flowing behind her, Diana immediately launches into the song, her warm lower range carrying the first verse with strength and ease. She looks fantastic; though her beige draped-blouse-and-skirt ensemble is unusual, it’s feels appropriate to both the occasion and her image as a businesswoman. The singer’s energy is immediately apparent; she shimmies and skips her way through the entire performance, completely filling the large stage and creating a visual spectacle without the assistance of a band, dancers, or backing vocalists. About 45 seconds into the performance, Diana begins the first chorus, and her voice shoots up an octave as she belts out the lyrics, “…love is the great pleasure, Let’s Go Up!” The singer’s vocal is incredibly powerful here; she is pitch-perfect and there’s a real strength in her upper register. Though she’s not a vocalist normally associated with belting, listen to her “Oh, yeah!” ad-lib at around 1:10; this is as good as she’d sounded since her late-70s recordings with Ashford & Simpson and on The Wiz soundtrack. During the truncated song’s instrumental break, Miss Ross ad-libs some more and shouts out to the audience, bouncing up and down with a giddiness reminiscent of her performances from the 1960s. As she brings the song to a close, her powerful pipes continue to soar; she deviates from her recorded performance by throwing in the line, “…is up to us, each and every one…go up!” and her voice is at the top of her register until the very final notes. The entire performance truly is a flurry of energy; the notoriously cool Carson can be heard instantly yelling, “Yeah!” before welcoming the singer over to his desk for a few minutes of chat time.
Though it’s a short performance, “Let’s Go Up” is one of the best television appearances Diana would make during the 1980s, and perhaps during her entire career. Her appearance is a real lesson in star-power; with nothing more than a microphone to keep her company on the stage, the singer creates a real excitement and offers up a spirited vocal demonstrating her too-often overlooked vocal range. Had “Let’s Go Up” been released as the first single from Ross — and been promoted with a few more televised performances like this one — it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t have become a pop hit for the singer. It certainly deserved to be; it’s a standout in a long career filled with musical highlights.