Best Star Spangled Banner Performance: Diana Ross

 

Diana Ross was the first pop star to perform the national anthem at a Super Bowl, and her 1982 performance set a standard not yet surpassed at any professional sports venue. From high school to professional sports events, Americans have long started these secular public rites with our national anthem. The NFL had long leaned on college marching bands and choruses, but broke from tradition with a pop star actually past the peak of her genre. Diana Ross, Motown royalty, rose to the occasion in Detroit’s Silverdome Stadium, setting the standard for future performers.

There are three basic rules for a good national anthem vocal performance:

  1. Get the lyrics right
  2. Stay on tune
  3. It ain’t about you; points off for stylizing in most forums

Diana Ross knocked all of these out of the stadium, and she did it without a net. She sang unaccompanied and without auto-tune correcting her pitch. She knew the words by heart, to the level of not stumbling in front of a large live and nationally televised audience.

Listen to the beginning. She gives a brief introduction, inviting the live audience and players to sing with her.

Can we sing, our national anthem, with authority?

Sing with me.

Diana Ross then makes a short gesture with her microphone that cues a pianist, off-screen, to give her the first note. Just the first note, mind you. Then she launches into a completely straightforward rendition, without any of her craft’s signature vocal ornamentation. The audience responds by listening in silence and then singing along with Miss Diana Ross. You see some of the very rough-looking football players of the era joining in towards the end.

There have been any good and bad, great and occasionally ghastly performances.* Yes, Whitney Houston gave an amazing dramatic performance at Super Bowl XXV, but I stand by my claim that Motown star Diana Ross set the gold standard for all professional sports venue performances of the Star-Spangled Banner back at Super Bowl XVI, in the Motor City.

What say you?

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* Honorable Mention to Demi Lovato for getting the lyrics right, singing on tune (with autotune assumed), and not significantly stylizing after her platinum album achievement.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    A great look into a significant moment of the past that deserves to be remembered. Thanks, C.A.B.

    • #1
  2. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Will check it out.  Whitney can still give me chills.  

    • #2
  3. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    First time I ever heard of Diana Ross being “Queen of Disco.”

    Are you sure you don’t mean Donna Summer?

    • #3
  4. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    kedavis (View Comment):

    First time I ever heard of Diana Ross being “Queen of Disco.”

    Are you sure you don’t mean Donna Summer?

    Good catch, not sure how I jumble the two, as Diana Ross and the Supremes were Motown, not disco. But that prompts a quick search, and it turns out that the Queen of Disco, Donna Summers, knocked ’em dead a cappela repeatedly. See, for instance, the MLB All Star Game when Kurt Shilling and Randy Johnson were pitching together for the Yankees.

    So on the same three criteria, Donna Summers or Diana Ross?

    • #4
  5. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Well, she did what I think is the essence of a successful performance of a nationally important song–she involved the audience and asked them to participate.  Just lovely.  Almost Second World War in its throwback appeal.

    Almost ever since, it seems, the “performance” has become more and more stylized, amplified, and–yes–narcissistic, to the point where it’s all about the performer, and the loudest buzz before it happens has to do with whether or not the “artist” will be able to fit the song into the two-minute time slot allocated for it, given all the necessary ruffles and flourishes (normally, I love “Ruffles and Flourishes,” but not in this context) vocal slides, hiccups and embellishments, and the requisite physical posturing and arm (and other body parts) waving that accompanies it. 

    Along the way, it gets further and further removed from the audience, who find it impossible to sing along with a song they’ve known from infancy, because it’s been rendered not only unsingable, but almost unrecognizable.  Small wonder people don’t seem to find it important anymore.

    • #5
  6. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Clifford A. Brown: It ain’t about you; points off for stylizing in most forums

    I’d call it an epic fail if a singer (or musician) uses the Anthem to show off his vocal/musical skills.  This rubs me raw the most when it happens . . .

    • #6
  7. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    Yes, Whitney Houston gave an amazing dramatic performance at Super Bowl XXV

    Her performance was pre-recorded. She was singing live, but the mike wasn’t connected to the stadium’s sound system.

    NATIONAL ANTHEM WASN’T LIVE, BUT IT WAS WHITNEY – Orlando Sentinel

    • #7
  8. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Diana’s rendition was gorgeous. She gave me chills.

    • #8
  9. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    She (View Comment):
    Well, she did what I think is the essence of a successful performance of a nationally important song–she involved the audience and asked them to participate.

    Yes. It’s not a spectator sport.  

    • #9
  10. Richard O'Shea Coolidge
    Richard O'Shea
    @RichardOShea

    Every member in the stadium should be a choir member for ninety seconds – everyone should sing the National Anthem at every sporting event.

    • #10
  11. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    My small choir did the national anthem some years ago, at an Orioles game. It was fun. I even have video proof.

    I know, all of us assembled does not make half a Diana Ross….

     

    • #11
  12. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    iWe (View Comment):

    My small choir did the national anthem some years ago, at an Orioles game. It was fun. I even have video proof.

    I know, all of us assembled does not make half a Diana Ross….

     

    And likely nobody was kneeling.

    • #12
  13. Darin Johnson Member
    Darin Johnson
    @user_648569

    OldPhil (View Comment):

    Yes, Whitney Houston gave an amazing dramatic performance at Super Bowl XXV

    Her performance was pre-recorded. She was singing live, but the mike wasn’t connected to the stadium’s sound system.

    NATIONAL ANTHEM WASN’T LIVE, BUT IT WAS WHITNEY – Orlando Sentinel

    Ross’s version is great, but I’d give odds that it is recorded, too.  There are two pieces of evidence I’d point to:

    First, prior probability: all performances this big and this difficult are pre-recorded.

    Second, the way the song started.  Notice how long she held the “O” shape with her mouth before you hear the voice.  That was her waiting for the tape to begin.

    Diana Ross was a great singer, and her performance at the Super Bowl was also great.  But Whitney Houston was one of a kind.  Ross is battling for second place, in my opinion.

    • #13
  14. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    Darin Johnson (View Comment):

    OldPhil (View Comment):

    Yes, Whitney Houston gave an amazing dramatic performance at Super Bowl XXV

    Her performance was pre-recorded. She was singing live, but the mike wasn’t connected to the stadium’s sound system.

    NATIONAL ANTHEM WASN’T LIVE, BUT IT WAS WHITNEY – Orlando Sentinel

    Ross’s version is great, but I’d give odds that it is recorded, too. There are two pieces of evidence I’d point to:

    First, prior probability: all performances this big and this difficult are pre-recorded.

    Second, the way the song started. Notice how long she held the “O” shape with her mouth before you hear the voice. That was her waiting for the tape to begin.

    Diana Ross was a great singer, and her performance at the Super Bowl was also great. But Whitney Houston was one of a kind. Ross is battling for second place, in my opinion.

    Cannot like.

    • #14
  15. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    I would have to put Whitney Houston ahead of Diana Ross too, and I’m old enough that I can be objective, having experienced both Ross and Houston in their primes.  Young whippersnappers might think Diana Ross sang “Midnight Train To Georgia” or something.  Or maybe they tip to Houston because of her tragic death, whatever.

    • #15
  16. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    That’s the first time I have heard her performance. I avoid pop music stars singing Christmas carols and “The Star Spangled Banner” because they put way too much vibrato into my favorite notes. :-) Diana Ross sang this the most beautifully that I have ever heard. 

     

    • #16
  17. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Darin Johnson (View Comment):

    First, prior probability: all performances this big and this difficult are pre-recorded.

    Second, the way the song started.  Notice how long she held the “O” shape with her mouth before you hear the voice.  That was her waiting for the tape to begin.

    Possibly so. Yet, consider that we are watching unofficial video with any number of delays/distortions between video and audio track recordings/replication. There is an enthusiast/ super-fan segment of YouTubers who patiently align high quality audio recordings with  good quality video, synchronizing the two note by note. They tend to disclose this in the video description text area. Also consider that we have plenty of counter examples of epic failures, lyrics jumbled or even forgotten.

    See Christina Aguilera, Super Bowl, 2011, where she botches the lyrics:

    Christina Aguilera majorly botched the national anthem: according to the AP, instead of singing “O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming,” she sang “What so proudly we watched at the twilight’s last gleaming.”

    See this year’s Super Bowl, with what was supposed to be a duo performance by Eric Church, country performer, and R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan. If they had pre-recorded their performance, someone would have realized it was not working and rearranged it before it was presented before a live audience.

    Instead of working together, the anthem turned into something you’d see at a dueling pianos bar at a beach boardwalk. Nothing meshed well together on the back end, and you’ve got to wonder why they went for this. It would have been so simple: Church plays guitar, Sullivan sings. That would have worked perfectly, as we saw during Sullivan’s verse. We absolutely did not need the two of them singing at the same time.

    • #17
  18. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    MarciN (View Comment):

    That’s the first time I have heard her performance. I avoid pop music stars singing Christmas carols and “The Star Spangled Banner” because they put way too much vibrato into my favorite notes. :-) Diana Ross sang this the most beautifully that I have ever heard.

     

    Ever heard this one?  I like it.

     

    • #18
  19. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    I dunno all these other versions, but the Ross version was perfect.  Thank you for posting this.

    One notes that unlike the narcissistic and over-hyped singer who performed it at Mr Obama’s second inauguration, Ms Ross sang the Anthem in the correct meter, 3/4, rather than altering the rhythms (and thus the meaning of the poetry) by putting it into 4/4 time.

    • #19
  20. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Ok. Will no one defend Robert Goulet? 

    • #20
  21. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    The national anthem isn’t the worst song ever written, but it’s down there. I only like it when a marching band plays it or when it is sung straight.  A marching band is best though. 

    • #21
  22. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Ok. Will no one defend Robert Goulet?

    What has he done this time?

    • #22
  23. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    The Reticulator: What has he done this time?

    He never lived down botching the anthem prior to the Ali-Liston fight. He had never sang the anthem before an event before and took the gig because he wanted to see the fight. 

    • #23
  24. Quietpi Member
    Quietpi
    @Quietpi

    Darin Johnson (View Comment):
    Second, the way the song started.  Notice how long she held the “O” shape with her mouth before you hear the voice.  That was her waiting for the tape to begin.

    This is the only objective measure you offer.  Actually, singers are often trained to form the first syllable with their vocal instrument (far more than just the mouth) while taking their initial breath.  It helps to keep you relaxed as you start the first note, and eliminates spurious noises if you start to sing before everything is in position.  So . . . normal stuff.  I just re-watched.  That isn’t the least bit unusually long before striking the first note.

    Had she been lip synching, there would have been no need for the piano giving her the pitch.  

    Finally, an honest – to – goodness professional singer like Diana Ross would have no problem doing exactly what she did.  

    • #24
  25. Quietpi Member
    Quietpi
    @Quietpi

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):
    One notes that unlike the narcissistic and over-hyped singer who performed it at Mr Obama’s second inauguration, Ms Ross sang the Anthem in the correct meter, 3/4, rather than altering the rhythms (and thus the meaning of the poetry) by putting it into 4/4 time.

    Now that was a straight up abomination.  Like so much else.

    • #25
  26. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    Quietpi (View Comment):

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):
    One notes that unlike the narcissistic and over-hyped singer who performed it at Mr Obama’s second inauguration, Ms Ross sang the Anthem in the correct meter, 3/4, rather than altering the rhythms (and thus the meaning of the poetry) by putting it into 4/4 time.

    Now that was a straight up abomination. Like so much else.

    Thank you, Quietpi.  I’m glad not to have been the only citizen to notice this.

    • #26
  27. Darin Johnson Member
    Darin Johnson
    @user_648569

    Quietpi (View Comment):

    Darin Johnson (View Comment):
    Second, the way the song started. Notice how long she held the “O” shape with her mouth before you hear the voice. That was her waiting for the tape to begin.

    This is the only objective measure you offer. Actually, singers are often trained to form the first syllable with their vocal instrument (far more than just the mouth) while taking their initial breath. It helps to keep you relaxed as you start the first note, and eliminates spurious noises if you start to sing before everything is in position. So . . . normal stuff. I just re-watched. That isn’t the least bit unusually long before striking the first note.

    Had she been lip synching, there would have been no need for the piano giving her the pitch.

    Finally, an honest – to – goodness professional singer like Diana Ross would have no problem doing exactly what she did.

    I’m not sure that’s the only objective evidence I offered.  In fact, as you point out, it’s a bit subjective, at least in terms of interpretation. 

    In my years as a voice student and teacher, I can’t say I’ve ever heard of or noticed the technique you describe.  That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, of course.  I’ll take your word for it.  (I just watched a bunch of videos of Diana Ross singing live and didn’t find any other examples, but okay.)

    Your counter-argument regarding the piano is legit.  My counter-argument to your counter-argument is that the piano note served two purposes: 1) to tell Ross the tape had started, and 2) to give the pitch to the fans she’d just exhorted to sing.  (Anyone who has attended a birthday party where somebody counts to three and we all start singing knows why this matters.)

    Calling Diana Ross an honest-to-goodness pro singer is a true thing.  Implying that Whitney Houston was not — even by comparison — is not.  Maybe that’s not what you meant to imply, but I thought I’d nip that in the bud.  Houston is on the shortest of short lists.

     

    • #27
  28. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Darin Johnson (View Comment):
    Calling Diana Ross an honest-to-goodness pro singer is a true thing.  Implying that Whitney Houston was not — even by comparison — is not.  Maybe that’s not what you meant to imply, but I thought I’d nip that in the bud.  Houston is on the shortest of short lists.

    Houston is a one trick pony who only has one trick — singing at extremely high intensity in every annoying note.

    • #28
  29. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Darin Johnson (View Comment):
    Calling Diana Ross an honest-to-goodness pro singer is a true thing. Implying that Whitney Houston was not — even by comparison — is not. Maybe that’s not what you meant to imply, but I thought I’d nip that in the bud. Houston is on the shortest of short lists.

    Houston is a one trick pony who only has one trick — singing at extremely high intensity in every annoying note.

    You don’t get out much hear much of her material, do you?

    • #29
  30. Quietpi Member
    Quietpi
    @Quietpi

    Darin Johnson (View Comment):

    Your counter-argument regarding the piano is legit.  My counter-argument to your counter-argument is that the piano note served two purposes: 1) to tell Ross the tape had started, and 2) to give the pitch to the fans she’d just exhorted to sing.  (Anyone who has attended a birthday party where somebody counts to three and we all start singing knows why this matters.)

    Calling Diana Ross an honest-to-goodness pro singer is a true thing.  Implying that Whitney Houston was not — even by comparison — is not.  Maybe that’s not what you meant to imply, but I thought I’d nip that in the bud.  Houston is on the shortest of short lists.

    I have indeed been taught to do that by some voice teachers, but my level of expertise doesn’t approach yours.  Re: the piano pitch – good point.  What’s more, I was a little surprised that the piano played the first note rather than the key note.  But if that’s what Diana wanted, then great.  That would clearly be better if the target is the crowd.  Boy oh boy do I agree with the birthday party thing.  Even worse – when the wait staff gathers ’round the table of some hapless soul and drones this . . . thing, sometimes accompanied by somebody pounding on a serving tray or sumpin’.  In my own family, somebody will always ask for the pitch, thank goodness.  And being a first tenor, I have to be v-e-r-y careful lest I torture the sopranos.  

    Re: Houston, no comparison intended.  I’m not a big pop music fan of any genera.  I know the Houston name, and I’m certain that I’ve heard her recordings.  Don’t know that I’ve ever heard the Houston version of the National Anthem.  I’m very aware that many rock musicians have their start in “classical” music and training, and for many it remains their first love.  The ones who are sensations simply via electronics usually don’t last very long.  

    • #30