Diana Ross’ Charismatic Stage Presence: 5 Unforgettable Live Performances

Long live Diana Ross! Since her emergence in the 1960s as the leader of the Supremes, the singer has been a defining force in the sound of Motown R&B and pop, and has given the world countless classic songs — from “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Baby Love” and “You Can’t Hurry Love” with her pioneering girl group to solo smashes like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “I’m Coming Out” and “Endless Love” with Lionel Richie.

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However, even more than her skill in the recording studio, the magic of Miss Ross is defined by her indelible persona on the stage, commanding audiences around the globe with her natural charisma, generosity, and pure love of music.

Below, American Songwriter rounded up five of the most unforgettable live performances from the more than six decades of Ross’ storied career.

1. Ed Sullivan Show (1969)

Just one year before she departed the pioneering girl group to become a bonafide solo star, Diana Ross and The Supremes hit the bright lights of The Ed Sullivan Show to perform a medley of some of their biggest hits. Dressed in flowing, glitzy robes and dripping in diamonds, the trio of golden goddesses ran through hit after hit that launched their career and helped define the music of the decade — from “Baby Love” and “Stop! In the Name of Love” to “Come See About Me,” “The Happening,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”

After delivering “Love Child,” which they’d debuted on the show one year earlier, Ross, Mary Wilson, and Cindy Birdsong ended the dazzling, three-minute greatest hits compilation with 1966’s “I Hear a Symphony” as their grand finale.

2. The Muppet Show (1980)

Is there anyone more charismatic in Hollywood than The Muppets? (If you beg to differ, we bid you good luck telling Miss Piggy.) However, Miss Ross did a great job keeping up with Kermit and friends during her delightful 1980 appearance on The Muppet Show.

The only difficulty is choosing which of her musical numbers during the episode is better than the others. There’s “Love Hangover,” which found her dancing stride for stride in a shining gold jumpsuit next to Fletcher Bird. (The song earned Ross a perfect 10 from Statler and Waldorf, who spent the episode doling out scores for each scene.) Mid-show, the singer teamed up with Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem for a jangly rendition of her 1973 single “Last Time I Saw Him,” which started as a backstage jam with Floyd Pepper and Dr. Teeth before the rest of their bandmates joined in onstage. But Ross’ closing number, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” with help from Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Scooter Floyd, Janice, and more, is easily the most joyously heartfelt — it even inspired Statler and Waldorf to miraculously sing along from their box seats. 

3. Central Park (1983)

Miss Ross’ concert in New York City’s Central Park on July 21, 1983, will forever go down in history as one of the most legendary moments in her career. The event was free and drew roughly a million fans to the sprawling Great Lawn to see the icon perform. However, a summer storm unexpectedly blew in to disrupt the spectacle, and left Ross drenched as she belted out “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” The wind reached gusts of 55 miles per hour, furiously whipping the honey-voiced singer’s giant mane of hair and vibrant orange cape around her, all as she calmed the roaring crowd by insisting, “It’s all right, we’re gonna get wet, that’s OK! I’m here! Feels good, actually!”

“I was getting all kinds of messages to get off the stage and my costume was getting soaked. I had an electric mic in my hand and the musicians were all standing in puddles of water. I knew that if I left the stage, the lights would go out and there would’ve been some form of panic and I knew people would’ve been hurt,” she reminisced years later in a TV special about the event. 

So instead of causing mass pandemonium, Ross soldiered on for the rest of the 22-song set, covering the likes of Billie Holiday (“Lady Sings the Blues”), Michael Jackson (“Beat It”) and Stevie Wonder (“Ribbon in the Sky”) in between “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Endless Love” and closer “All for One.”

“Diana Rains Supreme!” the New York Post shouted with its headline the following day when she returned to a now-sunny Central Park to do the show all over again for an even larger crowd.

4. Super Bowl XXX Halftime Show (1996)

In 1996, the National Football League tapped Ross to headline the Super Bowl XXX halftime show, thirteen years after she’d first performed the National Anthem at the big game.

The production may seem old-fashioned compared to the high-flying, perfectly synced spectacles fans expect these days (one of the biggest stunts of the show, after all, involved hundreds of purple, red, and pink balloons into the sky above Sun Devil Stadium in the shape of a massive heart) but for thirteen and a half minutes, Miss Ross enraptured the audience with a jubilant trip through her career of hits. 

Starting with her hits with the Supremes and ending with“Take Me Higher” (1995), the singer the crowd (and viewers across America) to multiple costume changes, blasts of pyrotechnics, stadium card stunts, a cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and even a robed gospel choir to back her on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

However, Ross saved the biggest moment for her grand exit from the stadium, when a helicopter landed on the field to whisk her away in all her triumphant splendor. 

5. Grammy Awards Birthday Tribute (2019)

What better way to celebrate Ross’ 75th birthday than with a special performance at the GRAMMYs? As the 2010s gave way to a new decade, the Recording Academy honored the living legend by giving her the spotlight 

Introduced first by Alicia Keys and then by her own nine-year-old grandson Raif-Henok, the Leading Lady of the Supremes took to the stage in a ruby red gown and performed classics while expressing her gratitude for a life filled with music.

“When I was a little girl, I felt the joy of singing. It made me happy, it made my parents happy, and it led to this day, and it brings me joy,” she said before launching into“The Best Years of My Life” (1993). “Through my life, there has always been music and its power.”

Photo by Tom Gates/Getty Images

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