What makes someone a truly great performer? Range? Clothes? Stage presence? Here’s a suggestion: The ability to make a grand entrance without even being onstage. Rather than merely walk out and take the microphone at the Meyerson Symphony Center on Wednesday evening, Diana Ross sent an army of glamorous decoys in her place. A large group of models marched out one-by-one, smiling and strutting in the sleek yet elaborate costume dresses of the singer’s past. Behind them an orchestra swelled with thunderous intent. It was perhaps the most dominant spotlight grab I’ve ever seen, and Ross wasn’t even there.
In that moment she was herself in a way that physical presence would not have made any truer. She later tells the crowd that the “vintage” stage clothes had been sitting in storage; surely no place for such twinkling star dressing. She says the “girls” were “wearing what I used to wear when I was skinny.” But that’s absurd. The singer just turned 70 in late March and her energy level and general appearance have no regard for that fact.
The players gracefully segued into “I’m Coming Out,” which is the singer’s obvious opening choice for over three decades. The song was famously appropriated by Stevie J for Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” just around the time when producers stopped sampling, and started riding the whole damn track all the way home. If you’re going to take an entire song, it’s certainly not a bad choice. The song was a smash posthumous hit.
Ross did her best to draw energy from a crowd that was required to wear proper business attire, and she did an excellent job. It was the 23rd Annual Arts Performance Event for Vogel Alcove, an organization that offers childcare services for impoverished and homeless families. The singer was in good company considering the history of this event. Itzhak Perlman played in 1992 and Ray Charles performed in 1994. It was stated that this is one of the most important fundraising operations that Vogel Alcove organizes all year.
The organization evolved out of the Dallas Jewish Coalition for the homeless, which was founded in 1987. Following the tragic crash of Delta Flight 1141 at DFW Airport the next year, it was rechristened Vogel Alcove for Thelma Vogel, who died in the accident. The event was sold out, and it was clear that the organization has maintained an elite presence among the city’s outreach programs. Roger Staubach is one of the co-chairs and had a beaming smile anytime I spotted him in the crowd.
Ross continued her performance with a cover of Spiral Starecase’s 1969 momentary flirtation with pop stardom, “More Today than Yesterday.” This was a hint as to where she wanted to take the crowd, timeline-wise. It was followed by “My World is Empty Without You,” which was aided very well by the ominousness of the sizable orchestra. Both of the opening notes from the instantly recognizable two-chord riff thudded with dark gorgeousness.
This was a performance that had all the over-the-top trappings of a Vegas set, and as a result Ross smiles through songs over which you’ve likely been reduced to tears. It’s the essential cheeriness that a successful life in showbiz requires, and the singer was around decades before you could mope your way to the top. By contrast, the following number, “Where Did Our Love Go?,” has a horn part that splashed over the symphony center like the ceiling had just cracked open and sunlight came came pouring in. I think I smiled, but only for a few seconds. Ross has been smiling for 53 years.
As we’re deep into a medley that includes “Baby Love,” it dawns on me that I haven’t seen a set with this many hits since an entirely different show: New Order’s Palladium set in 2012. Medleys exist only for the very few artistic barons who simply don’t have time to play all of your life’s most important memories all the way through. You’ll take what you can get.
It’s love of every kind imaginable: Missing love, baby love, love that must not be hurried, and love for which you must stop. The singer has taken her own advice and she gestures and snaps in descending fashion, all the way across the stage and according to each firmly-imprinted lyric. These songs are the evolutionary ooze out of which so much pop and nearly all radio RnB would eventually take shape. It was America’s best chance to combat the musical imperialism of Great Britain, coming back to win the war that their ancestors had lost. The soft power of Detroit’s Supremes was as American as you could get.
Ross brags about the conductor coming “all the way from London,” and about how the orchestra had been rehearsing all day. She was grateful that they had repurposed her “boogie music” for the traditional instruments, which was especially true for her later material. The “horns and strings” are “so beautiful,” she says.
Like any performer, Ross seemed to enjoy her later material more. She bounced around to the cadence of each word, which was rhythmically more sophisticated as the decades wore on. “Love Child,” one of the Supremes’ last hit singles, dissipates into a latin music-inspired jam while Ross undergoes an offstage costume change. It was one of three. The band is rushing the beat a step or two on almost every song, and that hot and hyper rush is the in-the-moment luxury of live music.
“It’s My House” was Ross at her most natural and relaxed, and she tossed off one of her abundant feather boas as if to show how much she was going to live out the lyrics. The song has a rising refrain of complex jazz chords that stands up to any song factory still churning out dance numbers.
Ross closed the set with a faithful version of Gloria Gaynor’s disco-defining “I Will Survive.” But it was another cover that made that point more clearly. During her take on Frankie Lymon’s 50s hit, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” the scope and vastness of the singer’s life and career came into view. She has smiled, glittered, and sang through fall after fall of the many casualties she’s outlived. Lymon was an early influence, and yet he died of a heroin overdose at age 25, before the Supremes had even ended their reign. When MLK was assassinated, the Supremes took on the unthinkable task of performing on The Tonight Show the very next day. She takes a moment in the middle of the song to quote King, and while she was onstage I wondered what pop star we would trust to handle such an event today. Following the Supremes’ performance, Johnny Carson solemnly interviews her and asks if her performance came from “deep inside.” Her response:
I didn’t sleep very much last night, Johnny. I, uh—I’m very sad. And I’m very angry, too. But I don’t think it’s good to be angry. I really don’t know what to say. All I can say is what I feel inside.
What makes someone a truly great performer? There’s your answer.