Thursday, July 21, 1983 was a sweltering hot and sticky 95-degree day in New York City. It was the ninth day of 90-degree weather in 10 days. Ladies on the street fanned themselves below noisy air-conditioner window units. Hot steam rose from the pavement. Below ground, subway cars were boiling. After days of suffering, the unrelenting heat had finally pushed resilient New Yorkers to their breaking point. Even ice became a commodity. Savvy street vendors started charging 50 cents for a cup. That morning, weather forecasters predicted thunderstorms for New York, but no one could have anticipated what was about to come.
In 1983 there were few stars who could command attention like Diana Ross. Since she first began her career with the Supremes in the '60s, Ross consistently broke down barriers and set an example for others to follow. With 18 number-one hits, an Academy Award nomination, a Tony, and the title of Billboard's Female Entertainer of the Century, Ross' success was unparalleled. When New York City announced that Ross would give a free concert in Central Park, it was an experience that, as one newscaster noted, "will be an event -- the kind you tell your grandchildren about."
Shortly after 6 p.m., Diana Ross slinked on the stage and joined the Bernice Johnson Dancers, a dance troupe from Harlem she had seen perform and decided she wanted for her opening. As Ross completed the African tribal-dance choreography by Michael Peters, she stripped off her multi-colored Issey Miyaki coat, revealing a studded, orange bodysuit, ran to the microphone and yelled, "Hello, New York!" Over 450,000 people standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the 13-acre Great Lawn roared as they watched Ross struggle to calm her mane, which the wind was blowing straight toward her face and into the microphone. As Ross was taking the audience on a musical journey, a dark cloud made its way into Central Park. Then, at 6:25 p.m., the first raindrops began splattering the stage. Determined to defy the elements, Ross cried out, "It took me a lifetime to get here, and I'm not going anywhere." In between singing, she calmed the crowd and encouraged those who wanted to leave to do so slowly. But it soon became clear that this was one show that could not go on. Months of planning were washed away.
Ross titled the show "For One and For All." It was the third free summer concert to benefit Central Park. The others were given by Elton John in 1980 and the reunion of Simon & Garfunkel in 1981. The intention behind Ross' show was to build a children's playground in Central Park. As Ross told The New York Times, "I take my kids to Central Park, and I noticed that there was no real playground, with soft ground for little kids. That is why I was a dreamer who had to create a dream." Money from the sale of souvenirs and 7.5 percent of the proceeds from the telecast of the event, which was to be broadcast live by satellite on the pay-cable network Showtime, would go the playground.
Ross chose Steve Binder to direct the concert. Binder had a long career in the entertainment business doing specials, including Elvis Presley's '68 comeback special. He first worked with Ross on the concert movie The T.A.M.I. Show in 1964, while she was with the Supremes. In 1981 she called upon him to direct her CBS television special. Binder says before any meetings took place for the Central Park show, Ross took him aside and asked, "Would you mind just being the director on this one and I'll be the producer?" He had no issues with that arrangement. Then in the first big production meeting at Ross' offices in midtown Manhattan, the superstar caught him off-guard.
"I wasn't expecting the crowd that was there," Binder recalled. "There had to be at least 75 to 100 people. We walk in and Diana's not there, and everybody is gathering. In comes Diana like a whirlwind. She looks phenomenal. She welcomes everybody and tells them how great it's going to be and so on and so on. I'm expecting her to start laying out the show. Then she says, 'If you have any questions about the show, talk to Steve Binder.'"
Just two years prior to the concert, Ross signed what was then the most lucrative recording contract in music history, with RCA, after leaving Motown, the company that first signed her in 1961 with the Supremes. Her contract with RCA gave her control to oversee all aspects of her career. Robert Summer, president of RCA at the time, said he was very proud to have made the connection for the record company after what he called a "vigorous vetting process on her part."
"I enjoyed her," Summer said about his relationship with Ross. "She was very determined to be her own woman at that time. She started her own production company. She opened offices. I thought it was admirable."
For RCA Ross signed a seven-album deal -- three-firm with options, either her way or the record company. Therefore, Ross was expected to deliver at least three albums. After the third, discussions to continue could once again take place.
The Central Park concert would coincide with the release of Ross' pivotal third album for RCA, simply titled Ross. To produce the majority of the album, Ross reached out to veteran music producer Gary Katz, best known for his success with Steely Dan. Katz remembered how he was mixing a record for the group Eye II Eye in downtown New York on a very hot afternoon. Someone in the studio said to him, "You have a call; Diana Ross is on the phone." He was certain it wasn't her and just some friend playing around, but indeed it was. She told him how she really liked his work and would like to talk with him about doing an album. He immediately left the studio and met her at Joe Allen restaurant in New York's Theater District.
"She walked in," Katz said, "and I'm not kidding, she barely had any clothes on. She had the tiniest top on and the shortest shorts you could imagine. I was the only person sitting there. Every waiter just watched her walk step by step to the table."
It took a while before Katz and Ross went into the studio, because he was tasked with finding material for the album. This proved to be a challenge, because most of the previous artists he had worked with, unlike Ross, wrote their own songs.
One of the songs he discovered was "Pieces of Ice," written by John Capek and Marc Jordan. The duo is perhaps best known from writing Rod Stewart's "Rhythm of My Heart." "Pieces of Ice," which became the first single from the album, has often been criticized for its vague, artsy lyrics, such as, "Where the zebra lightning strikes the room," and, "In the darkness you're Tunisia." Capek, who continues to write and recently formed a studio band called The Grease Corps., can't help but laugh when asked what the song means. He said he's gotten used to explaining his writing partner's style. Because Jordan went to school to work in film, Capek said he often thinks and writes in pictures. Once words are written, it's then his job to write the musical underscore for Jordan's sketches.
"Like all great art, when you go to an art gallery and look at a van Gogh or something, you can look at it repeatedly because it's multi-layered. There's depth. That is the great thing about Marc's lyrics; they speak to you in layers and you interpret them as you wish," said Capek.
The public didn't seem too interested in dissecting art. While the song did crack the top 40, it wasn't a smash. Two other singles from the album, "Let's Go Up" and "Up Front," were released but failed to chart.
Despite the lack of success for the album, Katz holds on to fond memories. "Diana and I had a very good relationship," Katz said. "I did very much like working with her, although I don't think I did as good of a job for her as I would've liked. [Choosing songs] is not my forte, and I don't know if I've ever done another record like that ever again."
Once the album was complete, RCA's creative director, Tony King, introduced Ross to renowned photographer Uwe Ommer. Born in Bergisch-Gladbach, Germany, Ommer began his career in Paris, admiring the work of photographer Art Kane. From the first hello, Ross and Ommer hit it off and began thinking of concepts for the album cover.
"She was looking for something sexy without being shocking," said Ommer, who describes his style as "natural sophistication."
Ommer worked with his stylist, Michele Saunders, on the project. Saunders, a Paris native, said Ommer always gave her "carte blanche" to do anything she wanted. She remembered the day of the cover shoot Ross came with a bunch of her own dresses. However, she had another idea in mind. She brought with her almost transparent red chiffon fabric.
"We didn't want to do a fashion shoot and advertise any dresses," Saunders said. "We wanted something that would last and not say, 'Oh, that's the dress from so and so last year.'"
With just chiffon covering Ross' naked body as a fan forced the fabric to cling to her, Ommer captured the look he was going for. Ross enjoyed her working relationship with Ommer and Saunders so much that she asked them to do the photographs for her Central Park concert, based on a jungle theme. Ommer came up with the idea to shoot Ross at his country home in Bellport, Long Island.
"She came out there for a day, and we shot in a tick-infested field with wild-looking makeup and two small pieces of cloth as a sole 'dress,'" said Ommer.
That "wild-looking" makeup was done by makeup artist Rene de Chamizo, who covered Ross' face and body in tribal makeup. He was also involved in the album cover. Saunders couldn't contain her excitement when she reminisced about that day.
"We had the most fun. It was hot and crazy. It was a small group of people. Diana didn't have anybody with her. I think it might have just been her driver and this woman from the record company. Today, if Beyoncé were to have a shoot like this, there would be 150 people. It was just a weekend and us being creative," Saunders said.
The finished product from that session was shown to the audience on the two 34-feet-wide-by-24-feet-high video screens at Central Park during Ross' African jungle-themed opening.
With the meetings, the record, photographs, and the set by famed scenic designer Tony Walton behind her, there was only one thing left for Ross to do for Central Park: perform.
"I've never done a free concert on this scale before," Diana Ross told The New York Times days before the concert. "This concert is the most extraordinary thing to be able to do. How could anyone not want to do something as wonderful as this? I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the kind of person who says things are impossible and can't be done."
A few days before the concert, Ross flew in her costume coordinator, Diana Eden. Their relationship began a year prior. One morning Eden was at home still in bed and the phone rang. Her husband answered it, and an astonished look came over his face, Eden recalls. He covered the phone and told his wife it was Diana Ross. Ross had received Eden's name from legendary designer Bob Mackie after another dresser dropped out right before she was about to embark on a European tour. Without hesitation, Eden took Ross up on her offer to fly to Atlantic City to meet. In that meeting one of the first things they realized was that with both of them having the same name, things could get confusing. With little time to agonize over choosing a new name, Eden decided she'd go by "Dee."
The morning of the show, Eden brought the costumes she knew Ross wanted to wear to the park and waited for the star. "She was totally upbeat," Eden said about Ross' mood that day. "I don't think she would ever say, 'I'm nervous,' but I do remember it was a really big day for her. When she stood on that stage and said, 'I've been dreaming about this all my life,' that is true."
What wasn't in Ross' dream was the storm. As rain poured down, Ross remained in full control on stage, but her musicians and crew were in chaos. Musical conductor Joe Guercio can still remember those moments.
"I'm in a pit. Do you know how many amplifiers I have plugged in? Do you know how many lights I have plugged in? When it started to rain, it started to puddle down there. I quietly had all the guys unplugging one at a time, but she kept singing. Soon we had me, a drummer and an acoustic piano," Guercio said. "She kept them [the audience] in order. When Diana rules, Diana rules."
By 6:55 p.m., it became apparent to Ross that the show had to stop for everyone's safety. On the spur of the moment, without any confirmation from officials, she said to the audience, "We'll do it again tomorrow." Ross remained on stage for quite some time because she was afraid that if she left, the lights would go out and concert-goers wouldn't be able to leave the park safely.
That night 2.26 inches of rain fell, two thirds of the month's total precipitation. Winds up to 50 m.p.h. were reported, and electrical power was disrupted for about 40,000 homes throughout the metropolitan area during the storm. Meanwhile, those involved with the show wondered what was next -- would there actually be another show?
"It was scary for a minute," Guercio said. "We went back to the Le Parker Meridien, and then it became funny. We were like, 'Now what are we going to do tomorrow?'"
Eden didn't have it so easy. When others involved in the show left the park, she remained with Ross' soaked orange jumpsuit in hand and rounded up her crew. "We were in pitch black. We took black garbage bags and made ourselves ponchos. Meanwhile, I lost my shoes," Eden said. "I said to my crew, 'We're going to have to walk out of this park. Get out your sewing scissors.' We marched out over to the Le Parker Meridien. They were fabulous. They didn't look down their noses at this strange group arriving. Either Diana herself or the company manager had said to the front desk, 'If anyone needs a room; just give it to them. No questions asked.'"
The following morning Ross' concert made the front page of papers all over the world. Eden even called Ross to alert her she had made the cover of The New York Times. During that conversation, Ross instructed Eden to go to her home in Greenwich, where she had all her back-up costumes, and pull a bunch of things for the show. With temperatures in the '70s and the grounds cleaned, Ross returned to Central Park as promised.
"The second night to me, non-stop, of all the concerts I've done with her, was the best she ever did, looked, and sounded," said Binder. "The second day was a case of, 'OK, I know I've got them in the palm of my hand; I'm going to entertain the hell out of them.'"
Once the show was over, the challenge was to get out of the park safely. That proved to be dicey. For more than two hours after the concert, roving bands of youths attacked and harassed people around the park. Police said there were a number of chain snatchings and beatings. A total of 171 people filed complaints, 83 were arrested, and at least 41 were injured, 16 of whom were taken to hospitals. The crime had nothing to do with Ross or her concert, but it did sour the city on future free concerts in the park. Parks Commissioner Henry Stern ruled that there would be no more concerts in the park that may attract violence. The next big free concert in Central Park didn't occur until July 5, 1986, for the Celebration of the Restoration of the Statue of Liberty. The act: the New York Philharmonic.
New York was also at a loss financially. First there were the costs of the initial production and those involved with making the show happen. Then the concert had to be repeated, and in addition to hiring everyone for a second day, the grounds had to be cleaned to make the show possible. Furthermore, sales from T-shirts and other souvenirs that were supposed to go to the city were washed away in the storm. In the end the concerts wound up costing the city over $2 million dollars, and New York was left wondering how they were going to build a playground when they didn't have the funds. However, Ross would not let her dream die. She personally handed Mayor Ed Koch and Commissioner Stern a check for $250,000. Stern said Ross' gift provided a far larger amount for the city than all the Central Park concerts combined since 1967. On Sept. 11, 1986 groundbreaking for the Diana Ross Playground took place on Central Park West and 81st Street in New York. Today it remains a place for all children to enjoy.
The DVD of the concert is set to be released on May 15, 2012. It marks the first time the concert will be available for home entertainment. Twenty-nine years later, the memories for Miss Ross are still fresh. For this celebration she said, "Now, almost 30 years later, I can still say Central Park was one of the peak experiences of my career, an historical event -- rain and shine."
Diana Ross: Live in Central Park is available May 15. Visit www.shoutfactory.com to learn more. For the complete interviews with John Capek, Diana Eden, Joe Guercio, Gary Katz, Uwe Ommer, Dennis Rosenblatt, and Michele Saunders, visit dustinfitzharris.wordpress.com.
*Black-and-white photo by Albert Watson