On the evening of December 8, 2004, music legend Stevie Wonder was given Billboard Magazine’s highest honor for creative achievement — the Century Award — at the annual Billboard Music Awards ceremony. And it came as a surprise to nobody that Diana Ross would be there to pay tribute to her former label-mate and help him celebrate. Ross and Wonder share a long history; both signed with Motown in the early 1960s, and each had scored #1 hits within a few years. In her book Secrets Of A Sparrow, Ross writes, “I remember when he first came to Motown with his bongos, a genius talent. I respected his songwriting so much.” Indeed, over the years Diana recorded several Stevie Wonder compositions, including 1991’s “The Force Behind The Power,” which he wrote specifically for her.
Her performance at the Billboard Music Awards — held at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas — was part of a larger musical tribute to Wonder, including Mary J. Blige singing “As” and Destiny’s Child with a version of “Livin’ for the City.” Diana, of course, got the most media attention, turning in a medley of three Wonder classics, “My Cherie Amour,” “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” and “For Once In My Life.” Her performance was a spectacle to behold; clad in a stunning red outfit — which shed layers with each song — the 60-year-old star displayed the kind of energy and glamour she’d made famous four decades earlier. In a strictly visual sense, this was Diana’s best televised moment in years; probably her best of the entire decade.
Over a montage of pictures of both herself and Stevie, Diana begins the performance singing the familiar “La-la-la” opening to “My Cherie Amour.” It’s instantly noticeable that Diana’s voice is a bit wobbly; she’s not quite out of tune, but there’s a shakiness to her pitch uncharacteristic of a singer known for the clarity of her voice. As the stage lights reveal the singer at the top of a staircase, she begins “I Just Called To Say I Love You” (a song she notably performed on the Oscar telecast in 1985), on which she sounds a bit more confident. There’s no doubt she was hoarse that night — something obvious as she reaches for some sustained higher notes — but her voice sounds quite warm on the lower notes as she croons the lyrics, “…to say how much I care.” After just a few lines of that ballad, Diana tosses back the train of her dress, which had been wrapped up over her shoulders, to reveal a form-fitting red strapless bodice; this is a spectacular moment, a real “star” gesture and the kind of thing Diana hadn’t done much of since her stage extravaganzas of the 1970s. The audience ate it up; an intense roar from the crowd greets Miss Ross as she stomps down the stairs to the brassy strains of Wonder’s 1967 hit “For Once In My Life.”
Diana had earlier recorded “For Once In My Life” in the 1970s; her disco version went unreleased until finally surfacing on the 1983 LP Motown Superstars Sing Motown Superstars. Her version here is upbeat and fairly straightforward until a nice, unexpected Latin-flavored percussion break (similar to the singer’s arrangement of “Love Child” on recent tours). The band is in top-form, jamming out behind Ross with extraordinary energy, and her backing singers sound fantastic. The audience is primed, too; auditorium shots during the FOX broadcast of the show reveal an enormous crowd ready for a party. The only thing that keeps the performance from perfection are Diana’s vocals, which sound tired and strained. It’s been said she was suffering a cold at the time; if this is the case, it explains why she’s raspier than normal and has trouble with some of the notes. She doesn’t really sound bad; her voice is actually in better shape than it had been in the early part of the decade, when she promoted the Return To Love tour with the VH1 Divas 2000 television special. She also, at least, seems pretty “loose” here, ad-libbing “Don’t stop the music!” a few times and dancing around the stage, pulling off her flowing train and revealing a miniskirt underneath.
The interesting thing about Diana’s tribute to Stevie Wonder is how demonstrative it is about the singer’s stage presence and instincts as an entertainer. This is a woman who knows how to create an energy and excitement around her; in this case, compensating for compromised vocals, she used visual cues to elevate the performance. Sharing the stage with some of the biggest artists in the world at the time, Diana Ross really did emerge as the memorable moment of the night, and she did it without sounding even close to her best. Thus, this 2004 appearance becomes a perfect example of the importance of possessing “the total package” — and idea that Diana Ross practically invented back in the 1960s. There are a lot of people who can stand on stage and sing a song, but there are very few that can command the attention of an audience hungry for a show.