Friday, April 13th, 2012

Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand): My Three Nights with Diana Ross, Including The Night She Was Snubbed by Beyonce

The first time I saw Diana Ross in person it was not an intimate occasion, just the legendary entertainer and 72,000 of her worshipful flock at the cavernous Giants Stadium in Rutherford, New Jersey.  It was July 4th, 1982; I had just graduated from high school a few weeks before and Carol, my then-boyfriend Steven, and I were beyond excited to attend this huge, all-day event, which, in addition to Diana, also featured opening acts Miles Davis, Frankie Beverly and Maze, and a huge fireworks display designed by George Plimpton. For this outing, we went all-out and splurged for the expensive floor seats priced at a whopping $15.oo!

Diana in a promotional photo for the Giants Stadium Gig

Beyond the scorching heat on that sunny Independence Day, I clearly recollect that jazz legend Miles Davis played his entire set with his back to the audience! I was far too young to understand that this was part the whole Miles thang, but even if I had known that I wouldn’t have given a rat’s ass, because when you pay $15.00 for a concert ticket and the performer ignores you it can only be interpreted as hostile. In fact, I was so offended by Miles’ blithe indifference to the crowd that after the second or third song –when I realized he was going to do his whole set facing the wrong way — I responded in kind by turning my back to Miles Davis and snapping open the latest issue of People Magazine for the rest of his longass, boring set.  At least when Diana gave you self-love she looked you in the eyes and made you think that you were the object of her affection; Ross was all about connecting with her audience and letting us know — breathlessly and repeatedly– how endless her love was. In fact, I would bet my pink vinyl copy of I’m Coming Out that becoming a Diana Ross fan in the first place has always been particularly irresistible to people who need the reinforcement of hearing they are loved emphatically and often, preferably echoing through a stadium.

The Giants Stadium gig was most certainly an exciting day for Diana as well, being the largest concert she had played in many years and the first concert of the tour behind her first post-Motown album Why Do Fools Fall In Love.  Miss Ross had recently signed a huge deal with RCA Records and was celebrating her newfound independence from Berry Gordy and the Motown home where she had presided as queen for almost twenty years, first as the lead singer of the Supremes — the most successful girl group of all time — through her crossover success in Lady Sings The Blues and a continued streak of hit singles and albums throughout the 1970s.  At the time of this album’s release, Diana Ross taking charge of her own life was as much a part of the new narrative as the music on the records, which included the Top Ten singles Mirror Mirror, Why Do Fools Fall in Love and Work That Body.

While it might seem hard to believe now that Diana Ross was big enough to sell out a 72,000 seat stadium, I assure you she was — and “big in 1982″ was bigger, much bigger, than “big in 2012″ because in a less fractured cultural landscape, more people were paying attention to a fewer number of things. Thus major success resulted in more widespread cultural presence, something that is extremely lacking in today’s world of information overload. Diana Ross was a multi-media star and a trailblazer for African American women, the connecting link from the Old-Hollywood African American stars, like Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, to the stars of today like Janet Jackson, Beyonce and Rihanna. And on that moment on that day in Rutherford, New Jersey, Carol, Steven and I helped Diana Ross enjoy what was probably the zenith of an absolutely astonishing career arc.

The second time I saw Diana Ross in person was the first week of September 1984, in a much smaller (though still huge) venue: the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid.  The occasion was a record-release party for her second RCA album, Swept Away. I had been invited as the guest of an N.Y.U. friend, Amy Lumet, and as the party was my first real celebrity event I was, once again, overwhelmed.  Amy was the daughter of the legendary film director Sidney Lumet, who directed Ross in The Wiz and granddaughter of Lena Horne, who also appeared in that film, so that was her connection to the party. Aside from possessing almost preternatural beauty, the thing I remember most about Amy was that even though she was, ostensibly, quite wealthy, whenever we went out, she invariably always needed to borrow five dollars for a taxi!

I remember three things about my first star-filled night out in New York City: standing next to Lauren Bacall at the buffet table and making small talk like I was a big macher, that the vast space of the aircraft carrier was far too big for the number of guests in attendance, which gave the party a strange aura of sadness, and the enduring image of the evening’s honoree, Diana Ross. Picture this: Diana was wearing a flowing, red, satin number placed in the center of the dance floor, dancing to the album’s first single Swept Away, spinning in endless, nauseating circles, and smiling that 100-watt smile for the Entertainment Tonight film crew by herself!  Phony fun for a film crew! This was the first time I had ever encountered the smoke and mirrors of public relations and observed at first hand the construction of image.  As Diana “danced” by herself, smiling and spinning, spinning and smiling, I thought to myself that underneath all of the flash bulbs and feigned delight, she was probably as bored as Lauren Bacall who sat glumly eating a pastrami sandwich, just off the dance floor (read Joan Collins’ directions for how to seat a star).

My then-boss Denise Rich with Diana Ross at Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy party, 2005

The last time I saw her (to quote Diana’s 1973 top-20 hit), was at Clive Davis‘ pre-Grammy party on February 12, 2005. The awesome thing about this annual party is that it is so very exclusive and the guest list so very restricted with no press, that the very famous tend to assume a very unusual pose: relaxation.  Everyone from Rob Thomas to Tony Bennett, Beyonce to Mary J. Blige was in attendance. Some folks I already knew, some I didn’t, but everyone was approachable because they just assumed that if you were in the room, you were somebody. In my case, though I was actually a nobody, I was attached to a somebody — my then boss, songwriter/socialite Denise Rich– and that was good enough.

Me and Gavin Degraw at the party.  This was the terrible period where I did that hip hop thing with my hands in every picture.  Oy.

That year, Diana was the honoree, meaning that she would be saluted in a star-studded finale that I remember included Alicia Keys and Fantasia. Clive Davis stepped up to the podium to deliver his usual long-winded, portentous speech. Diana sat in the center of the room at the first table (right where Joan Collins, who was not there, though her sister Jackie was, would say she should have been seated).  That’s when it happened: half way through Clive’s rambling soliloquy, Beyonce and her posse who filled the table she was sitting at directly behind Miss Ross, got up en masse and noisily left the room, forcing some people, including Diana Ross herself, but especially me, to turn our attention away from Mr. Davis, now in his twelfth minute of oratory to figure out what the source of the commotion was!  It was beyond thoughtless — it was R&B treason!  I mean, Beyonce is not a small woman, and between the posse and the chairs scraping and the “excuse me’s” it seemed to go on longer than the 12″ remix of Love Hangover.  After Beyonce and company got toward the door, the room settled down again and refocused on Clive Davis but I never really recovered, so stricken was I by the abject lack of respect shown by Miss Knowles.

Now I’ve never met Beyonce and she seems like a nice enough girl, but on February 12, 2005, there was no excuse for her boorish behavior.  Even if she was running behind schedule for the next place she had to go to be all Beyonce-ish, she should have known that ten people getting up in a hushed room in the middle of a solemn salute to a legend like Diana Ross was bad form!  It’s not like people expect Beyonce to, you know, be on time anyway.  Bad, bad, girl!  Bad Beyonce!

I was so upset by all of this that I decided to do something very, very risky and very, very brave: I would speak to Diana Ross myself and say something comforting because even though her smile never dimmed, I in fact knew something that was only obvious to individuals with a heightened sense of emotional attunement or the gay men in the room: Diana Ross’ feelings were hurt.

After the tribute had ended, as people began to gather up their things, I seized my chance.  I walked over to Diana Ross, who was still sitting in her seat (exactly where a star should be seated), and approached her gently with a look of supplication.

“Hi Diana, I’m David Munk — I work with Denise Rich. May I say something to you?” I asked softly.

“Of course,” she answered kindly.

I came closer to her, close enough to feel her hair tickling my face, which isn’t necessarily that close), and I whispered sweetly and deliberately “I noticed what you noticed before and I just wanted to say: if it wasn’t for you there would’t be a Beyonce.”  Stars love it when you give them dramatic moments of this sort and, in this case, it was completely sincere and easy to be kind; I saw the person inside of the persona that night and I felt sorry for her.   Diana thanked me warmly and gave me an appreciative hug as her family pulled on her to leave — which was fine with me because I’m not a gambler and was just fine walking away from the table while I was up. I excused myself and beat a hasty retreat over to Denise who was sitting with Sharon Stone, relatively speaking, to safety.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: I touched her in the morning then just walked away, but here’s the take-away: in the course of three singular occasions, Diana Ross went from being an abstract object of admiration that helped me survive my childhood to a very real person to whom I was able to give something back.  In my own way, I had looked her in the eyes and said, “I love you, too.”

My favorite photo of Diana Ross, by Skrebneski, from the album “Baby It’s Me”, 1977.  Nobody gave glamour like Miss Ross