One of Diana Ross’s most startling television performances occurred in March of 2000, during the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony. The event was broadcast on VH1, and featured Miss Ross inducting Billie Holiday into the “Early Influence” category. The choice of Miss Ross for this task makes perfect sense; the singer won an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in the 1972 film Lady Sings The Blues, and her recordings of Holiday classics resulted in a #1 album. And as a member of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame herself (inducted as a Supreme in 1988), it was a nice full-circle moment as Diana Ross publicly acknowledged a woman who clearly had so much influence on her career.
During the televised ceremony, Miss Ross performed a sterling rendition of Holiday’s “God Bless The Child,” a song written by the jazz legend in 1939. This extended performance once again showcased how adept Ross is at singing jazz and blues; her relaxed, warm style is perfectly suited to the material, and her ability to deeply identify with lyrics lends it a layered, emotional edge. But it was another performance — an unexpected, a capella moment while introducing Ms. Holiday’s honor — that best demonstrates not only the true power of the jazz pioneer’s legacy, but also the incredible vocal skill possessed by Diana Ross.
Welcomed to the stage by a long, enthusiastic ovation, Diana Ross approaches a podium set up for spoken introductions of each inductee. She wears gardenias in her hair in tribute to Billie Holiday, and looks lovely in a long, black glittery dress and jacket. As the cheers and applause die down, Miss Ross takes a breath, and suddenly begins singing the opening lines to “Strange Fruit.”
Southern trees…bear a Strange Fruit…
This haunting song, written as a poem by Abel Meeropol, is an intense, graphic statement on the lynching of African-Americans. Made famous by Holiday in the late 1930s, it apparently became one of her biggest-selling songs and played an important role in the film Lady Sings The Blues, providing a musical reminder of the racism suffered by Holiday. Diana’s reading of the song on the film’s soundtrack was simple and stark, featuring only a piano and her voice. It was the right choice then; the simplicity allowed the disturbing lyrics to remain front and center, and Miss Ross offered a restrained performance which hinted at a dark angst bubbling just beneath the surface.
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root…
When she opened her mouth at the podium at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame 2000 Induction Ceremony, it’s safe to say the audience was expecting a speech. But instead of a few generic comments about Holiday and her legacy, Diana chose instead to perform a truncated version of “Strange Fruit.” This is done completely without accompaniment, and without any kind of spoken introduction. Diana’s voice is smooth and assured, her tone remarkably round and without a trace of the scratchiness which was apparent during some of her other appearances at the time. As she sings the third and fourth lines (“Black bodies swingin’…”), her face begins to register quick traces of intense emotion; met by the total silence of the crowd, the words eerily ring through the auditorium in a still-shattering portrait of racism.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze…
Though it lasts just 90 seconds, Diana Ross’s vocal performance on “Strange Fruit” ranks among her best live moments ever. This is the work of a master; Ross is smart enough to again let the lyrics speak for themselves, refraining from any unnecessary emotion that could tip the song into melodrama. The quality of her voice is remarkably strong, considering she’s singing into a podium mic and has no musical backing; she effortlessly glides from note to note, and channels Billie Holiday’s unique timbre as her voice slightly wavers at the end of each line. It’s also nice to hear the singer’s accomplished breath control; her deep inhaling is clearly audible, adding to the loose and unplanned feel of the performance.
But beyond the stunning vocal performance she’s offering, Diana Ross is also giving the crowd a personal glimpse into the real struggles faced by Billie Holiday. Holiday herself spoke of the racism she suffered during her career, such as being forced to use service elevators and back entrances at hotels and clubs. The jazz legend’s struggles can be heard in her music; she was an artist who clearly used music as an expression of her emotions. And so by singing this song, Diana Ross honors that; she tells the Billie Holiday story the way Holiday herself would have told it.
Strange Fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
As Diana Ross sings the final note and throws her head back, audience reaction is immediate and overwhelming. They know they have just witnessed an incredible moment. This is more than just an impromptu performance by one of the world’s most influential artists; it’s a performance by two of them.
Diana Ross would face her own tribulations during the early part of the new millennium; it would be a time of personal challenges and public disappointments for the singer. As with Billie Holiday, the experience of encountering these obstacles would seem to inform Diana’s music — just listen to her reading of “What About Love” from I Love You, a vocal performance that could only have come from a wise, mature woman who’d come out on the other side of a storm. Though the women lived very different lives in very different eras, the bond of being trailblazing African-American female entertainers is one that will connect them forever. And in a moment like this one, as the younger singer reminded audiences why the elder deserved to be honored, tribute was paid to entire generations of artists who used music to change attitudes.