Billboard Music Awards 2004 (Stevie Wonder Tribute)

Diana Ross Stevie Wonder Tribute 2

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 Ross Stevie Wonder Tribute

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 SuperstarsHer 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. 

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About Paul

Album-by-album, track-by-track, a look at the entire Diana Ross discography...
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9 Responses to Billboard Music Awards 2004 (Stevie Wonder Tribute)

  1. Carmine Porcaro says:

    Your posts are always so well written and insightful. I always look forward to reading them. I just watched the Stevie Wonder Tribute on YouTube and I absolutely loved it. Diana’s performance proves what a truly professional entertainer she is. A real singer sings around any vocal difficulties and delivers the songs in spite of them. Diana did this effortlessly because she is a trooper and an excellent vocalist. To this day, the uniqueness of her voice is what sets her apart from all others. No one sounds like she does and she does not sound like anyone else. The tibre of her voice is instantly recognizable whether it is paired with a powerful or softer delivery in lower and higher registers. Miss Ross is an artist able to use her voice like a paintbrush; each stroke is another note in the completion of the vocal painting. If a different brush is required but absent, she can complete the painting anyway by adapting the brush she has. Her Stevie Wonder painting was magnificent.

    • Paul says:

      Carmine — what a great way to describe Diana’s vocal style — I completely agree, she’s as skillful as a painter when interpreting lyrics. She definitely soldiered through the performance — as much as I wish the quality of her vocals has been higher, there’s no denying this is a very strong performance thanks to her incredible star-power. This is a performance I can watch time and time again.

    • Tony says:

      Carmine,

      This is a fantastic way to describe her voice. I’m afraid, and I hope you don’t mind, I’m going to steal your description whenever I start to describe how Diana uses her voice. This is incredibly well said, thank you.

      I find it strange that sometimes I really enjoy listening to Diana’s struggle with hitting certain notes, or even struggling with trying to maintain clarity in her voice. I suppose that it is so rare that she struggles that I enjoy seeing that human side of her, that side that doesn’t sound mechanical or overly technical, like so many other singers can sound at times. Those cracks and quivering that can sometimes occur in Diana’s singing seems to really speak to me, and I really enjoy those live moments.

      Having said that, I would not want to hear her perform like this too often, yet did enjoy her energy, her showmanship, and her “painting” of the Stevie wonder repertoire.

      • Carmine Porcaro says:

        Hi Tony,
        I am honored that you would want to “steal” what I said! The artistry displayed in her vocal performances is usually overlooked when people critique Miss Ross. Because her standards are so high, perfection is usually expected and delivered. When she, like every singer, has occasional difficulties singing, most people just notice the off note, crack or wobble. They don’t see the whole picture: what was done to compensate for the vocal imperfection. The art in singing is to deliver the song despite any vocal problems and to just keep singing. When Diana was a young Supreme, her voice used to crack often as she sang. It never mattered because of the energy in the presentation of the show and her ability to just keep singing. Later, at the time of “Reflections,” she learned to sing with correct breathing and vocal control. This is why she still sounds great today; she learned not to damage her voice by singing incorrectly. She refers to her time as a Supreme as “growth years” and I could not agree more. Listening to her many recordings, you can hear her develop as a singer. Her style depends on the actual melody of each song void of vocal improvisation while clearly and distinctively attending to each word to sing its meaning. She appears to do this effortlessly: the hallmark of a true professional. When her voice is not up to par, she sings anyway and keeps on singing while using her showmanship to sell the song. Since her days as a Supreme, I have seen Diana live hundreds of times over fifty years. I have seen her in top form and I have seen her struggle. Regardless, at the end of each show, the whole audience was smiling, mesmerized by the performance of a truly gifted professional entertainer. Every singer is not a great performer and every performer is not a great singer. Diana Ross is both. Of course, when everything is perfect, we get what we want and expect. But, when obstacles are presented vocally, physically or environmentally, we are intrigued and privileged to watch how they are overcome and how perfection is actually achieved. A real singer keeps on singing and a real performer keeps on performing. A real artist does both; this is the essence of Diana Ross.

  2. Mark Aherne says:

    Dear Paul,

    Thanks again for this post – I thanked you for another earlier in the week!

    Yes! like you I have very mixed feelings about this performance. Mostly, I found it disappointing as Miss Ross’s vocals were so poor.

    Keep up the excellent work and maybe you will have some of the contents on this excellent site published in book-form someday!

    Did you buy any of the books I told you about? The Ian Phillips book on her discography and the Geoff Brown superb photo book on DR’s life and music up until approx. 1981? They are well-worth having!

    Happy New Year!

    Mark Aherne

    • Paul says:

      Hey Mark — who knows what the future of this site holds — there are a lot of great books out there about Diana, like the two you mentioned — so we’ll see! For now, I just enjoy blogging about her various recordings and performances. I figure if I’m gonna listen to her and watch her so much, I might as well make something productive out of it!

  3. Carlton says:

    ONLY Diana Ross can turn a 3 minute tribute into a mini Diana Ross tour lol. Loved how she took 1 gown and made it into 3 different looks. Who does that??? Awesome!!! Only gripe was her vocals. For whatever reasons, it seems like when it comes to showing the World that she still has IT (vocally), she always falls flat (not literally). Divas 2000, Good Morning America, Soul Train Heritage Awards and this performance. I always feel like a proud parent (although she could be mine) when Diana Ross gets these opportunities to wow us with her vocals like she does on Tour but she doesn’t deliver. I hate that cuz I know Diana can SANG!!! And to prove it, I just watch her God Bless America performance for President Clinton. That ending note left me breathless!!!

  4. bokiluis says:

    Actually, one of the hottest moments of this tribute is watching Diana dance to “Higher Ground” as Stevie jams at the finale. She looks so hot in the mini-skirt and you really see that she is far from ready to throw in the towel! Unfortunately, most clips end before this jam session began.

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