My interest in researching Diana Ross’ Central Park concert dates back to 2001. When I was completing my undergrad at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, I took an arts class and for our final project we were asked to write about an event that happened in the arts. I threw myself into the project–spending hours at the library digging up old newspaper clippings on microfilm. Although it wasn’t that long ago, archival information was not as readily available on the Internet.
In 2009 I revisited the project while studying at Columbia University. I expanded on my original research and was looking for a place to publish my story. However, my professor gave me some advice. He told me to sit on the story for a while because something would happen in the future where information on the concert would become relevant again. When it was announced earlier this year the concert would finally be released on DVD, I knew this was the moment.
My original idea was to just interview the concert’s director, Steve Binder. Then as I became more involved in my research, I wanted to know more about everything that was happening around the concert, including Diana Ross’ current album at the time, “Ross.” That led me to Gary Katz. After that interview I knew anything was possible. For the past four months I’ve talked with some really wonderful individuals and heard their stories. I would like to share them with you.
I want to give a sincere thank you to John, Diana, Joe, Gary, Uwe, Dennis, and Michele. Without you, this would not have been possible.
What do the artists Olivia Newton-John, Joe Cocker and Cher all have in common? The answer is songwriter John Capek. All of those artists, among many others, have recorded songs penned by Capek. Perhaps he’s best known for writing Rod Stewart’s “Rhythm of My Heart” in 1991, which became a hit all around the world.
In 1983 Capek and his writing partner, Marc Jordan, were fairly new to world of songwriting in the United States. One of their earliest American hits was “Pieces of Ice,” recorded by Diana Ross. While the song was a Top 40 hit, it wasn’t considered a smash. It’s also a song that tends to divide Diana Ross’ fan base. Over the years it’s often been criticized for its vague and artsy lyrics. I talked with Capek about the song, his reflections on it 29 years later and what he’s currently working on.
How would you describe your style?
I was born in the Czech Republic. My family goes back there about a thousand years. I have a lot of Celtic influence. I’m also fascinated with black gospel music. Everything from Maliya Jackson on. As a piano player my first influences were people who utilized piano in rock & roll when it first came out in the mid ‘50s. Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Ray Charles. You combine bagpipes, black gospel and boogie-woogie piano, and you get my style.
You have a book titled “How to Write a Hit Song Without Even Trying.” Can anyone really write a hit song?
That’s an interesting thing. That book comes out of workshops and seminars I’ve presented. The thing about songs is they are incredibly simple. A song is a nursery rhyme. It’ simple. Ninety percent of all rhyme schemes go, “Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow.” Because they are so simple, anybody can write a song. The challenge is writing a good and interesting song that people are going to want or possess or play repeatedly. Ninety percent of songs are about love, but how are you going to write it in a way that is going to interest anybody?
Songs are mostly about love, but others stray from that—like “Pieces of Ice.” What was the inspiration behind that song?
My partner Marc Jordan and I had arrived in Los Angeles from Canada, where we had both lived for about 20 years. We started to write songs together, and we were both signed to music publishers. At the time, the music publishers were encouraging us to write songs in a very standard form for artists who didn’t write songs. For instance, Kenny Rogers and Anne Murray. Marc and I really tried to write in that form. Marc has been my songwriting partner for 30 years. He’s become a close friend. He sang at all my weddings—
Weddings? How many were there?
This is my third marriage. (laughs)
Okay. I don’t want to get personal here. Tell us more about Marc.
He comes from a fabulous tradition of Canadian lyricism. That comes from storytelling and the particular lyrical blend of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. There is something going on with folk music and storytelling in Canada—maybe it’s the cold weather. That’s what attracted and kept me there. They have a way of writing there that has layers and has depth. So, as we were in Los Angeles trying to write sort of mundane pop songs, we were not having any success.
Marc and I got together and started banging out heads against the wall trying to fit in to the requirements in Los Angeles. Then we said, “We’re just going to break every rule in the book. We’re not even going to record our music at the studios designated by the publishers.” We decided to work out of the system and record some songs and break as many rules as we possibly can. Out of that there were four songs recorded, and one of them was “Pieces of Ice.” The other three were recorded by the group The Manhattan Transfer and an Australian artist by the name of John Paul Young. All four of those pretty much launched our careers as songwriters.
The lyrics to “Pieces of Ice” are very intriguing, but what do they mean?
I’ve often had to explain Marc’s lyrics. He writes not in a writing sense. The best way you can understand Marc’s lyrics is that he went to school to become a film guy. He thinks in pictures. Everything that he writes is related to visual images. More often or not, the way we’ve collaborated is that I essentially provide the musical underscore to his movie. In the 100s of songs we’ve written over the years, I’ll give him a piece of music, he’ll come back with some lyrical sketches and melody, and I take that and put it on my computer. Then I start to revise the original music that I gave him and provide the musical underscore as if it were a movie.
So, when you say what to do they really mean? They don’t mean as much literally as they mean in pictures. Like all great art, when you go to an art gallery and look at a van Gough or something, you can look at it repeatedly because it’s multi-layered. There’s depth. Depending on the light. Depending on the time of day, depending on your mood, you’re going to perceive something different. That is the great thing about Marc’s lyrics; they speak to you in multiple layers and you can interpret them as you wish, yet they still kind of make sense.
What did you think when you found out the song was going to be the first single from her “Ross” album?
It’s a funny thing in retrospect. I was excited, but I have a different perception on it now than I did at the time. That single got a lot of airplay and did quite well. It ended up being a Top 40. Yet, I was incredibly and intensely disappointed. I was looking for number one. Now I look at my resume and all of the big records I had, I can point and say, “I had a Top 40 hit with Diana Ross.” So it appears completely different now.
I love it, but maybe the lyrics were too complex for radio.
You’re not the only fan of the song. After all of these years, people are still intrigued by it.
You also did another song for Diana Ross called “Stranger in Paradise.” How did that come about?
I was in Los Angeles when I first arrived there and somebody called me from Toronto and told me about this woman who was coming to LA who was really good and asked if I wanted to write with her. It was Amy Sky. We had gotten together. The funny thing about that song was I had a piece of music without lyrics that I played for Amy within 20 minutes of her arriving at my house. I had never met her before. She looked in the binder and pulled out a piece of paper with a lyric that had no music and the two came together instantly. Some months later I had a barbeque at my house and Amy was there. Marc was there, and they met, and then they got married.
What are you currently working on?
I commute between Toronto where my wife and children live and Nashville, Tenn. In Nashville I’ve partnered up with three other guys to form a studio band. We call ourselves the Grease Corps. All of us are songwriters. All of us have studios. We’re working project by project on both original material and people are coming to us who are resisting the whole technology revolution and want to get back to using live instruments.
After all of these years and everything you’ve accomplished, what are you the most proud of?
Having a song like “Rhythm of Heart” by Rod Stewart is a big deal. I think for me, personally, that my work covers a lot of areas and they seem to equally stand up. Music that I’ve played keyboards on that I didn’t write or produce are still on the radio 30 years after the fact. They are mainly Canadian songs. There is a Canadian classic by Ian Thomas, “Painted Ladies,” and it’s constantly on the radio in Canada. Then as a producer, particularly with an artist by the name of Dan Hill. His second biggest song is “Can’t We Try” with Vonda Shepard. I’m on that as a producer. Then as a songwriter, having written for some of pop music’s icons. From Diana Ross, who is the best-selling female artist of all time, to Rod Stewart.
Ask any die-hard Diana Ross fan who Dee is and they will tell you the woman who brought Miss Ross her gown in Central Park. While that’s true, in reality Dee is Diana Eden, a three-time Emmy nominee and award-winning costume designer who has created costumes for many of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
The Canadian native always had a dream to be a famous ballerina. Eventually, her dreams of dancing did come true. She was one of the showgirls in the original film “The Producers” and also landed roles in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Fade Out, Fade In” with Carol Burnett.
After working on the stage, Eden was LA bound. She had a brief acting career, but her fate changed when she met a producer for “The Ann Margret Show,” who offered her the job of coordinating the dancers’ wardrobe for Margret’s Las Vegas act. What followed was a friendship with Bob Mackie. He brought her on as an assistant, and today she credits the legendary designer for teaching her almost everything she knows about costume design.
Before Eden secured her first job as the full costume designer for the “The Facts of Life” in 1985, she worked with Diana Ross. Today Eden looks back on that time in her life fondly and still vividly recalls the night she was caught in the rain with Miss Ross.
What are you currently up to?
I’m in Vegas. My husband I moved here from Los Angeles where we’ve been for 30 odd years working in TV and films. Now were in Vegas, and we love it.
How did you get involved with Diana Ross?
It was 1982. I wasn’t even up yet and the phone rang. My husband answered it, and this astonished look came over his face. He covered the phone and said, “It’s Diana Ross!” Indeed it was. She had gotten my name from Bob Mackie. She needed someone to tour with her to Europe. Someone else had fallen through at the last minute. She said, “Can you be on a plane tomorrow morning to Atlantic City to meet me?” I flew in to meet her. The first thing we realized was that with both us being named Diana, one of us was going to have to change her name.
Is that something she suggested?
Yes. Basically she turned to her company manager and said, “She’s got to find another name.” On the spot what do you come up with? I didn’t want to use my middle name. Dinah or Di didn’t seem far enough away. Finally, I said Dee. I did the European tour with her, which was fabulous. I did the US tour also.
What do you remember about the Central Park concert?
She had been planning this concert for a long time, and we knew it was a really, really big deal for her. She flew me in three or four days before to New York. She said she was going incorporate some dancers, and she had recently done a music video. I went to rehearsals and met with her.
We had gone shopping for that white jacket I brought out [toward the end of the show.] We were shopping for that on Rodeo Drive. She wanted something that had that manish, Judy Garland-look. She wanted it for the show. I can’t remember if we went shopping together or if I went shopping for her and brought her choices. It was an expensive jacket.
Can you describe the day of the show?
We were all there bright and early. I brought the costumes I knew she wanted to wear. I had a wardrobe crew of some local wardrobe people. I usually worked out of her trailer. We had all the dancers and the other wardrobe crew in another.
What was Diana’s mood like that day?
She was totally upbeat. This was a big day for her. The day was gorgeous. We were there in our shorts and t-shirts. We had no idea what was about to hit us. As we got near to start time, the winds started to come up.
Would you say she was nervous?
I think so. I don’t think she would ever say, “I’m nervous,” but I do remember it was really a big day for her. When she stands on stage and says, “I’ve been dreaming about this all my life,” that is so true. In the beginning the wind was blowing her hair the wrong way, and it was interfering with the mic. Then we looked out over the horizon, and we saw this black cloud coming. It was like, “Here comes the end of the world kind of thing.”
I had this instinct before the rain, but when the wind was really blowing. I went into her little quick- change area right off under the stage. I went and got her orange cape because I knew that if she put that on the visual would just be fabulous. I got the orange cape, and I was crouched down at the edge of the stage, and I’m saying, “Miss Ross, Miss Ross.” She finally sees me and beckons me. I put the cape on her, and it did exactly what I wanted it to. Of course she took it from there and made it just magnificent.
Whatever happened to the cape?
It blew away. I don’t know if it ended up in the trash or some lucky person has it stashed somewhere.
Can you recall what took place once it started to pour?
It was just chaos backstage. They had all the park officials and fire officials and the mayor. They were kind of pushing me out of the way because who was I at that point. Backstage the mud was knee deep. We were all afraid of being electrocuted. In my quick change area under the stage I had a serge strip where I plugged in a steamer or hairdryer, and water was pouring in that. I guess my thought was, “They’re going to have to cancel the show.”
Once the show was over, did you two interact?
No, she was so surrounded by people at that point. She went to her trailer for a little bit. I must have helped her out of her clothes because I took the orange jumpsuit back to the Le Parker Meridian Hotel with me. The musicians left. The crew left. And here was the poor wardrobe crew trying to find the missing pieces and all of a sudden the lights went out.
We were in the pitch black. We took black garbage bags and made ourselves ponchos. Meanwhile, I lost my shoes. I said to my crew, “We’re going to have to walk out of this park. Get out your sewing scissors. We are going to march out of this park in our ponchos with our sewing scissors.” We marched out and over to the Le Parker Meridian. I must say they were fabulous. They didn’t look down their noses at this strange group arriving. Either Diana herself of the company manager had told the desk, “If anyone needs a room, just give it to them, no questions asked.” And that was the night of.
And then you all came back for another show.
The next morning when I ordered my room service breakfast the paper came with it. There it was on the front page. I called her and said, “Do you know you are on the front page of The New York Times?” She hadn’t actually seen it. We had a brief talk, and she told me she wanted me to drive out to her house in Greenwich where she had all of her back-up costumes. She wanted me to pull a bunch of things and then drive back in.
How would you describe your relationship with Diana Ross?
We had a very good relationship. I’m not trying to pretend we were best buds or anything. That’s not the way it works around her. She is very much the boss. It’s not like I was signed to be her girlfriend, but I did work closely with her. When we were on tour, I would be the only one in the dressing room with her for at least an hour before the show.
How long did you stay with her?
About two years. Then my career as designer started taking off. I knew it wasn’t in my best interest to stay on the road, and she was totally supportive of that.
What would people be surprised to know about her?
People always ask me if she was difficult; was she a diva. I’m always surprised. She was wonderful to her crew. We stayed at the top of line hotels wherever we were. We had limos, private planes and the best catering. She wasn’t our buddy, but she took very good care of us. She was appreciative to me. I have no complaints whatsoever.
Joe Guercio has worked with some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry. Perhaps he’s best known for working as Elvis Presley’s conductor from 1970 until the time he died in 1977. He’s also had hit songs on the charts. His arrangements of the medley “Sweet Inspiration/Where You Lead” was a 1972 hit for Barbra Streisand, and his arrangement of “The Way We Were/Try to Remember” was a hit for Gladys Knight in 1975.
Diana Ross fans also know his name and recognize his face. As the DVD for Ross’ legendary 1983 Central Park concert is about to be released for the first time, I caught up with Guercio who was there in the park conducting his musicians and wondering what was going to happen as a storm ferociously struck in the middle of the show.
What have you been up to lately?
We’ve been doing what we call Elvis the Concert. It’s the original cast. We’ve isolated Elvis’ voice. All of the music is live, except his voice. It’s a homerun.
You have isolated voices before. You were the first individual to put Natalie Cole’s voice together with her father’s for “Unforgettable.”
I did it in the ‘70s, and David Foster took a bow for it many years later. It came out of a whole medley and at the end of the medley, I did “Unforgettable.” We did it with slides because we couldn’t use a lot of computer pulses in the ‘70s. That was my thing, and I get no credit for it, unless I talk about it. I love the headline in the Las Vegas entertainment newspaper because I was living there at the time. They did a whole story about who was missing from the Grammys. The reviewers were there the first time it went off in the ‘70s, so they knew it wasn’t new.
When did you get involved with Diana Ross?
It was probably ’78. Shelly Berger is the one that brought me on. Shelley was managing the Temptations. I knew Shelly from that whole Motown set up. I had just left Paul Anka, and I got a call. I went to LA and met Diana. Diana Ross—that was major. I loved that whole Motown set up. I thought Berry Gordy was a genius. Everybody looked in the right direction for Diana. She had a wonderful attorney, John Frankenheimer. She was in another league. She was in a league that I wanted to play in.
You are seen with her on her HBO special taped at Casears Palace in 1979.
David Winters put that together. That was David’s show. I came on with David. That show was my first Diana gig. David was brilliant. Before that Joe Layton did a lot of her stuff. I did a lot with Joe. I did Streisand with Joe. That was a thrill. But one of my biggest thrills was Gladys Knight. That lady can sing her ass off. She’s a first-class lady.
How would you describe the Central Park concert?
That first Diana in the park was an Italian movie, man. Wow.
What is a funny memory you have about the show?
The thing that impressed me was we had an English scenic designer. [Tony Walton]Everything with the show was the ultimate. That was my opinion from where I was watching. The thing I remember the most was that they decided on chiffon because the wind would blow through chiffon and it would look good. It was a great idea. But have you ever seen chiffon when it gets wet? (laughs) That took on a look of “oops.”
What do you recall about that first night in Central Park?
First off, I’m 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. This was a storm! 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. She kept them in order. When Diana rules; Diana rules. She really handled it.
What happened after everyone unplugged?
It was scary for a minute. I was really concerned someone was going to get electrocuted. Then we went back to the hotel. We were staying at the Meridien. Then it became funny. We were like, “Now what are we going to do tomorrow?” The temperature of that day of the show, oh, it was really hot. It was unbearable. For the rehearsal it was extreme. It was a hot, sticky day. And you know hot and sticky in New York. Meanwhile, my wife was missing. She was trying to get out of the park. I was trying to find her because we had a limo or a small bus taking us back to the hotel, and I never found her. The bottom line was when we got the hotel, she was already there. That was before cell phones.
And then you all came back for take two.
The next night was a killer.
Did you have favorite songs that Diana Ross did?
“Mirror Mirror.” I loved that. From the old things, one of my favorites was always “Mahogany.”
What would people be surprised to know about Diana Ross?
I worked on the road with a lot of people. I’ve never seen one handle her family as well as Diana did. When they were out there, they were always a part of her. That to me is four stars. Her kids were always a major part of it. She’s one of the best showbiz mothers I’ve seen. All of her daughters were just cool. They have class.
You currently live in Nashville. Diana recently performed there. Did you see her?
No, I was in Europe. I have two pictures. One was at her birthday in Rotterdam at the Ahoy. There’s a picture of her and I over a cake. I never got it signed. I left it with a couple of people who were going to see her in Nashville who knew her. I sent a note along with it that said, “Sorry I can’t be there, blah, blah… if you ever need a real conductor, call me.” It was just a little bandstand humor. Although some people would think it’s conceited.
I’m sure if she saw the picture and note she smiled. Do you have final thoughts on your relationship with Diana?
She’s one of the major people in my life.
Gary Katz is often referred to as the man behind Steely Dan. After all, he did produce every Steely Dan album recorded during the first run of their career. In addition to producing records, the Brooklyn, N.Y. native was also a member of Warner Bros. Records’ A&R staff and helped sign Rufus, Jim Croce and Jimmy Buffet. He was also involved in a team that signed Prince, Christopher Cross and Dire Straits.
Diana Ross fans will recall his name for being the main producer of her 1983 album titled “Ross.” Not much is known about the project. To find out more about this mysterious album, I talked with Katz. After our candid discussion, I came away with a clearer picture and an even deeper appreciation for the album.
Before we start talking about the Diana Ross album, I want to talk about another artist we both enjoy: Bobby Darin.
I love Bobby. He gave me an opportunity when no one else would. It’s one of those times where they say, “What have you done?” And you say, “Well, if you don’t let me get started, then I’ll never have an answer.” I was a big fan, and he treated me very nicely.
What are you currently working on?
I do occasional projects. I find artists or they contact me. Sometimes people recommend me. Then I go to a special place where I love working out in Bloomington, Ind. I park myself there with them, and we make records.
You have said that today’s music business is “drastically different” from when you first started and what you hear is so repetitive. You even said that many artists we consider classic today would never have been signed by today’s standards.
I could run through a list of people in the Hall of Fame who never would have gotten signed. No, I don’t think Steely (Dan) would have been signed. I don’t think Led Zeppelin would’ve been signed. I don’t think the Allman Brothers would’ve been signed. We could just keep going. My feeling about it is the music business was for more or less run and overseen by music people. So, if you went in and played a really great piece of music, and it didn’t fit into the 3 minute and 20 second format, people knew what was good, and they got signed.
Why do you think everything sounds the same?
It is because the people who sign don’t know what they’re signing, and they want to make sure that what they sign sounds like what was a hit yesterday so they have a chance to keep their job.
How would you describe your style?
I like working with artists who create their own music. I’m not very good at having an artist who needs the songs, and I have to find them, help arrange them, and help create it. That’s not my forte. Richard Perry is good at that. Richard and I got out of college together and we opened a company together. He is exactly good at what I wasn’t. I was kind of good at some of the things he wasn’t. With Carly [Simon] she brought her own material, but the Emotions and the Pointer Sisters—he was very good at finding material and creating a record. My forte was working with artists who had material and then getting the best from them.
Richard Perry did an album with Diana Ross called “Baby It’s Me.”
He was better suited for her than I was, although, Diana and I got along very well.
How did the relationship between you and Diana Ross come about?
I’ll tell you exactly how it happened. I was mixing a record downtown in New York with a group called Eye II Eye. I remember it was the middle of the summer. It was like 105 degrees. It was just one of those days, and someone said, “You have a call; Diana Ross is on the phone.” Well, I have a bunch of friends—one day it would be Babe Ruth on the phone and one day it would be or whoever. So I picked up the phone and fortunately I didn’t say anything too stupid like, “Who is this? Who’s fucking with me?” It was her.
She said, “I really like your work, and I’d like to talk to you about a record. I left the studio right then. She asked to meet me. I met her at Joe Allen on 46th Street. This was like 2:30 or 3:00 in the afternoon, and I knew nobody would be there. I got there a good 20 minutes before her, which is customary for her.
She walked in, and I’m not kidding; she barely had any clothes on. First of all, she is extraordinarily thin. She had the tiniest top on and the shortest shorts on you could imagine. I was the only person sitting there. Every waiter just watched her walk step by step to the table. On the other hand I went to a restaurant with her called Dove on 3rd Avenue. She wore a bolero hat and one of the most upscale couture dresses. We talked. We got along. We liked each other, and we said we’d make a record.
Diana and I had a very good relationship. 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 to.
Where was the album recorded?
I used to work at a studio called Sound Works. It was in the basement of Studio 54—nobody knew anything about it. We did Steely records there. It was a one-room place, and I just took it over and worked.
You were tasked with finding the material for the album since Diana Ross did not write her own material. One of the songs you found was “Pieces of Ice” by John Capek and Marc Jordan. It’s one of those songs where some fans love it and others hate it.
I know that. I saw that.
How did the song come about?
I called friends. I called publishers. I don’t think I’m best suited in that style of recording because I don’t live in that world of Diane Warren—where you can pick up the phone and say, “I’m doing a Diana Ross album, and I need …” I didn’t live in that circle. I found a bunch of songs that she liked, and that’s how they came about.
And Donald Fagen from Steely Dan wrote a song called “Love Will Make It Right.”
Again, Donald is obviously a fabulous songwriter, but it’s not easy for him to adapt to a certain artist and say, “I’m writing a song for…” It’s not really what he did. It was a great song, so we did it.
The album coincided with Diana Ross’ Central Park concert. What do you recall from that concert?
It was an event. It was extraordinarily hot. I was sitting off stage with my wife, Judy, who was nine months pregnant at the time. I sat next to Dustin Hoffman and his wife. Then this unbelievable storm came. I lived in New York all my life, and this was as torrential as I’ve ever seen. The stage was above ground level—maybe 40 feet. When we got to the stage, you had to go up this ladder. When the rain came, there was a bit of riot, we were up on top of the stage, and Judy, who I said was in her ninth month, had to delicately get down this very steep ladder that was wet. That’s what I remember most about that night.
Did you go back the next night?
I did go back. Judy didn’t.
Let’s talk more about the album. There have been rumors that the song “That’s How You Start Over” was originally recorded as a duet with Michael McDonald. Is that true?
No. Michael came in. I did those overdubs at Media Sound, which doesn’t exist anymore. It was on 57th between 8th and 9th. It was a church on the north side of the street. It was a fabulous studio. I remember one night Diana and I were in there working really late—maybe midnight—and Burt Bacharach called her. He was with Carole Bayer Sager at the time. He started pitching her a song, and she couldn’t say no to him. She wanted to, but didn’t. So a half hour later Burt and Carole came to the studio. He in a tux and she was in a gown with a train on it.
They must have come from somewhere.
Obviously. I didn’t think they had gotten dressed for us. They walked in and pitched the song as if they had never had a song recorded ever.
And to my knowledge you never did the song.
We didn’t. It wasn’t awful. It was just weird. Honestly it was like having somebody who had never had a song recorded pleading, “Oh, you have to do this.” Well, we didn’t end of up doing it. That was at Media Sound.
What about Prince? There were also rumors he was involved with the album.
I don’t think so. At least not at that moment.
Interestingly, you helped sign Prince.
I’ll tell you how that came about. I was at Warner Bros. at the time. He kept sending us demos. Every time he’d send them we’d say, “Well, this sounds good, but it just sounds like Stevie Wonder copies.” One day his manager, Owen Sloane in Minneapolis said, “You guys are nuts. I’m going to send him to LA, and in front of you, he will show you what he can do.” We said, “Okay.”
And when he arrived—
We walked in and there was Price with a keyboard, a guitar and a drum kit. We heard him play, and I was like “Holy shit!”
“Ross” wasn’t considered a successful album. You did mention that you didn’t think you did as good of a job for her as you would’ve liked. What are your thoughts looking back on it today?
It was just a personal feeling. That’s not my forte, and I don’t know if I’ve ever done another record like that ever again—find the material and generate the style of the record. I was really happy to work with her. It was a very nice experience. Sometimes you feel like you’ve done a good job and sometimes you feel like you could’ve done better. That was just one of those cases.
As a young boy growing up in Bergisch-Gladbach, Germany, Uwe Ommer fell in love with photography. At 14 he received his first camera and from that point on the sky was the limit. In 1963 he moved to Paris to study French and began working as an assistant to advertising photographer Jean Pierre Ronzel. Ommer never looked back. Three years later he opened his own photography studio, primarily shooting fashion and advertising photos for small women’s magazines.
In the late ‘70s Ommer made his way to New York and formed a partnership with agent and stylist Michele Saunders. Together they began working on various advertisements. Eventually they found their way into the music business. One of the first shoots they did was for Nona Hendryx’s 1982 album, “Nona.” That project led to working with Diana Ross a year later. Ommer not only shot the images for her album titled “Ross,” he also photographed images for her legendary concert in Central Park.
In the 1995 Ommer switched gears and turned his attention to taking photographs that documented families from around the world. From 1995 to 1999, Ommer visited 130 countries and interviewed and photographed over 1,000 families. The project was met with rave reviews and in 2000 a catalog titled “1000 Families” was published. In 2002, Ommer received an Honorary Fellowship to the Royal Photographic Society for the impact of his lifetime of work.
As the DVD of Diana Ross’ Central Park concert is finally being released, I talked with Ommer about his endeavors with Miss Ross.
What are you currently working on?
A new book: “Teens and Families.” Also, an exhibition of my “Black Ladies” in Germany.
Can you describe your style?
Describe Diana Ross’ process when taking the pictures for the “Ross” album. Did she come with ideas?
She was looking for something sexy without being “shocking.” The “red dress” is a simple piece of rather transparent cloth.
Where did the session take place?
In a New York studio.
Many fans and critics have mixed emotions about the cover image for the album. Where were your thoughts on it?
She liked it … me too.
Tell me about the Central Park photo shoot. It was meant to look like an African jungle, but it was actually shot at your home in 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.”
Did you attend the Central Park concert?
Yes. I remember the storm.
What would people be surprised to know about Diana Ross?
She’s extremely “simple” and brave.
Today Dennis Rosenblatt is a sought after director. He’s been the man behind “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,” “Mad TV,” “Politically Incorrect,” and so many more. However, in 1983 he was honing his craft and working as an assistant director with Steve Binder, who became known for doing TV specials, including Elvis Presley’s famed “’68 Comeback.”
Binder was asked by Diana Ross to direct her Central Park concert. To assist him with the project, he turned to Rosenblatt. It was not something Rosenblatt had to think twice about saying yes to.
I was thrilled. It’s not the kind of event that comes up very often,” Rosenblatt said, “Plus, I’m from New York, and it was a very exciting project to be involved with.”
Rosenblatt had no idea just how exciting and dramatic the experience would actually be. That night in Central Park for Diana Ross’ concert a torrential rainstorm hit during the show and many, including Rosenblatt, were left wondering, “What are we going to do now?”
I caught up with Rosenblatt from his home in Los Angeles where he reflected on two days in his life that he will never forget.
What do you remember about the early stages of the planning for the Central Park concert?
We were back in Los Angeles and Steve [Binder] had hired an art director, whose background was in Broadway.
I went into a meeting with Steve and him and with representatives with Showtime, who were broadcasting it, as well as a couple of executives from Paramount. What Tony designed was really lovely. The idea was to keep it open and something indigenous to the park. What he came up with was basically arms that would come up from the upstage side of the stage that would have kites and streamers that would make a variety of looks. It was very pretty.
I was looking at it, and I spoke up and said, “I don’t see any rain cover.” One of the Paramount executives turned back to me and said, “It’s not going to rain.” A few minutes went by—and mind you, I’m not the director on this—so you don’t want to be obnoxious in a meeting like this. A few minutes went by, and I kept thinking about it. I spoke up again and said, “Listen, I know it’s not going to rain, but I’m from New York and late July in the city, it rains.” The same executive turned to me and now through gritted teeth said to me, “It’s NOT going to rain!”At that point I shut up.
A post script to that was the following winter that executive was based in California. It rained so hard that the 405 freeway closed because it flooded. I called his office that day and left a message and said, “It’s not going to rain today.”
What was the day of the concert like for you?
Diana had an idea. She knew people were going to show up early the day of the show, and the last thing you want is really bored crowd baking out in the sun all day with nothing to do. She had an idea to show her movies to provide some entertainment. Believe it or not, you can’t just plop a movie in. If you have a crowd out there, you have to clear the rights. Paramount did that for us. We received clearance to show “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Mahogany.” It was probably 1:00 in the afternoon and we started “Lady Sings the Blues.” I don’t know how far we were into it when someone from the police department found me and said, “There’s a scene coming up where the tour bus comes across a black man who has been hung. We really don’t want to show that scene to this crowd today.”
I had seen the movie, but I didn’t recall where the scene was, but because of the length of the movie, it was actually on two different reels. I had the tape operator sitting there with his finger on the eject button, and I started scanning the second reel of it. We find the scene and we jumped the movie ahead. Then about 15 minutes later the same police captain came into the truck and said, “There is another scene where she ODs on the floor of the bathroom, and we don’t want to show that to the crowd either!” At that time I hadn’t seen the movie “Mahogany.” I yelled into the back part of the truck where the tape machines were, and said, “Does anybody die or OD in ‘Mahogany?’” They said, “No.” I said, “Fine! Stop ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ and roll ‘Mahogany!’” We switched movies right in the middle.
Once the rain came, what were you thinking?
At the time you didn’t know if this was going to be a little inconvenience or if the heavens were going to open and we were all going to drown.
We started losing things. The sound of the band changed as the lead guitarist gets zapped and puts his guitar down. Various instruments start leaving. The sound of the drums start to change when the snare has a puddle of water sitting on it. Then cameras start going out on you.
One of the bravest souls, and I don’t know who it was, is out on the lighting tower. There were two spotlights about 100 yards from the stage and at least 60 feet up in the air. This was a carbon arc Super Trouper. If you think about it, there are two guys, high up in the middle of Central Park with no trees around them, basically just bare-assed naked up there, with this high-voltage carbon arc instrument. One of them went out fairly early. I don’t know if they guy abandoned ship, which would have been a sensible thing to do, or if it just died. But there is one light that hung in there and this guy stayed with it. Without [the light] it would’ve looked a whole lot different.
What is going through your mind when she announces out of nowhere that she is coming back tomorrow to do the show again?
We were all like, “Really?” She had decided this for herself. I think the fact that she announced it probably put a little more pressure on the city’s departments to go along with her desire. She said it very eloquently. I’m not sure if I’m quoting her verbatim, but she said, “I’ve waited a lifetime to do this.” She didn’t want it pre-empted by weather. If you know anything about her you know she’s a very strong and determined woman. She wasn’t about to see her dream partially squelched because of a little bit of rain.
What happened after the show was rained out?
There were a series of meetings to talk about the feasibility of doing the show the following day. Diana really wanted to do it—everybody really wanted to, at least from the production standpoint. Obviously the city had a lot to say about it. Then they all conferred and allowed it to be done the following day.
I don’t know why but somehow all the vehicles left and Steve and I and a couple other people were standing in the park after all of this trying to plan the next day, and we realized all the transportation had gone. So, we walked back to the Le Parker Meredian. Everyone showered and then trundled out to the bar at the Le Parker Meredian. Now it must have been around midnight.
Diana had selected this African dress she had wanted to open the show with. Some people thought it was great; some people thought it wasn’t so great. We were sitting at the bar, and I said to Steve, “What do you think about doing a new opening for the show tomorrow?” He asked what I had in mind. I told him a lot of people would be tuning into the show because of all they heard, but they may not have seen it from the first night. The footage is so dramatic, it would be a shame not to use it. Plus, I knew it was going to be in the newspapers. So I said, why don’t I see if I can get some edit time, and I’ll go in and we’ll build a new opening for it. We had pre-produced some packages for the show opening that line producer Greg Sills had arranged editing time for us to work at NBC. I had gotten a call from Broadway Video wanting to pitch their editing facilities for that stuff. At the time I told them, “I’d like to work there, but there was already a deal with NBC.”
So now it’s somewhere between 12 and 1 a.m., and Steve liked the idea. I said, “Let me see if we can get an edit bay.” I went to my room and called Broadway Video, and I got the answering service. I said, “Just start calling people at home until you wake someone up and then have them call me.” A few minutes later someone called, and I asked if they still wanted our editing business. The guy said, “Yes.” I told him to meet us in seven hours, and we had to be out by 10 because we had a live show to do. That morning I went out to the newsstand on 57th, and of course it was on the front page of every New York paper. I scooped them up and we built a new opening. Steve talked to Diana about it, and she decided the song she was going to segue to. I spoke with Joe Guercio, the musical director, about how we would transfer from this pre-package to playing live. We worked out those details. That’s how the show opened the second day.
The first night the show opened with an African dance number. What were your thoughts on it—besides the costume?
It was something Diana very much wanted to do. All of her creative thoughts were important. Michael Peters created a dance number around it. It all worked well.
The opening worked well with Uwe Ommer’s photographs that depicted Diana in a jungle.
That jungle setting actually happened in the Hamptons. Steve asked me to go out there. I don’t think I served any purpose, but he asked me to go out there, which I did. It’s interesting because I wound up coming back from that shoot with Diana in the limousine.
Now I’m from Hicksville, and it’s just the two of us in the car, so we started talking about where I grew up. I told her it was really only known for two things at that point: Billy Joel, who went to my high school, and the egg rolls at this Chinese restaurant in Mid-Island Plaza. I just remember growing up there, and at the time there were not a lot of culinary things going on. I mentioned to her about this Chinese restaurant that had the most amazing egg rolls. She said, “Well, let’s stop then.” I gave the driver directions, and her limousine pops up, and I got a bag full of egg rolls. We had them all the way back to the city.
Have you and Diana worked together since Central Park?
About a year ago Diana called Steve because there was something she wanted to do for one of Oprah’s last shows. She talked to Steve, and he told her to call me. I went over and shot something with her for that. I hadn’t seen her since the concert. Plus, I wasn’t the director for that concert, so it was a fraction of the interaction she had with Steve for that concert. It was interesting because we started talking about Central Park. Obviously the experiences from a production point of view were much more different from the experiences she had. So, we just had a great old time sharing stories about it because I was telling her stories that she had never heard.
Did she remember the egg rolls?
You know, I didn’t ask her about that.
Do you have any final thoughts on the Central Park concerts?
It was really a once in a lifetime experience. That night in July in 1983, I would say Central Park was the most exciting place in the world to be. It was the kind of experience that is not really repeatable.
After we went off the air, we were in a video truck, which at the time was the finest in the country. It was called the Greene Crowe Truck. It doesn’t exist anymore. We had them drive it out form LA where it’s based to do this show in New York. It was a fairly new truck. Aside from being the best truck of its kind at the time, it was also staffed with the best engineers in the business. One of the reasons we could have any cameras still up and running was because these guys were running in and out trying to keep things alive and working. The truck was parked behind the stage. There’s a ton of mud and all the engineers are going in and out. When we finally went off the air, everyone just took a breath, and it was quiet for a minute. Greg Brunton, the lighting director, sat looks down and sees that there is mud all over the place. Everything was really, really quiet. He gets up and announces, “I just waxed these floors!” Everyone just cracked up.
When Michele Saunders was a young girl she came to America from France. She says it was the Motown Sound that “fetched” her. She loved and lived that sound, and one of her favorite acts was Diana Ross and the Supremes. In fact, she saw them in St. Louis. Little did she know, one day she’d work side by side with Miss Ross herself.
In 1983 Ross was two years into her contract with RCA Records and was working on her third album for the company. When it came time to shoot the cover art for the album, Ross worked with German photographer, Uwe Ommer. Saunders was not only Ommer’s close friend; she also collaborated with him on projects. Ross’ album was no exception. That project led to them working with Ross on photos for her Central Park concert.
Saunders took some time to reflect back on that period in her life. As we talked, the memories flooded back to her as if it all happened yesterday. While listening to her stories, it was obvious that working with the woman she admired growing up fulfilled all of her expectations and brought her nothing but joy.
You were there in Central Park that night when Diana Ross performed.
I was backstage, right there. It was a crazy night, that’s for sure. It’s really exciting to be able to talk about this. Sometimes when you talk about the past you sound like this old person.
No, it’s going to be fun! Tell me how you got your start.
I lived in Amsterdam and I divorced there and worked at a modeling agency. That’s where I met John and Fernando Casablancas who were starting Elite. There were coming to Amsterdam to get girls for Paris.
Elite Modeling was just starting at the time when they met you.
They met me in Amsterdam where I was kind of bored at a desk. They hired me to go to Paris with them. I moved to Paris. Instead of working at the modeling agency, I started working with John’s brother, Fernando, to start a photography agency. So, we were also representing photographers. I was able to find great and edgy photographers. Then I decided to move to New York.
How did your relationship with photographer Uwe Ommer begin?
I’m from Paris, but I didn’t meet him in Paris. He’s German. In the ‘70s he was a very hot photographer in Paris. There were a few guys who were creating the most avant-garde and edgy things. In those days everything was new too. Nowadays everything is almost the same all the time because it’s reinvented constantly.
Uwe always gave me carte-de-blanche to do anything. We were a great team. I was his agent and producer. In those days it was so much easier than now. The business was so free and fun. You had a lot of freedom. I don’t think now anybody can work the way we did in those days. You didn’t even have to ask if you wanted to do something. You were given money and you did it. Those were the golden days of advertising.
When I was in New York I was representing Art Kane. Art was Uwe’s was sort of inspiration. Uwe was a young guy. Art Kane was the photographer he admired the most. Uwe came to me because I was representing someone he admired so much. He wanted to be in the same league. He came to me, and immediately I was crazy about him and his work and how cool he was. And gorgeous looking on top of it! We started a very unusual relationship and worked together. Not a personal, personal relationship; just great friends. This is one example where I can say we could mix business and pleasure. I started repping him. With Uwe I was getting the cream of the crop. He had great ideas. We worked on all kinds of advertising from fashion to Kodak. We did across the board. Not just fashion.
How did you find your way into them music business?
I used a lot of my contacts. At the time I had a lot of friends in the music industry. One of my very good friends was Tony King. For years he worked with Elton John. Now he works for Mick Jagger. At the time he worked at RCA. First he introduced me to Nona Hendryix. We did a really good album with Nona. After Nona he told me, “I’ve got Miss Ross for you now.”
What do you recall from your first meeting with Diana Ross?
First we met at the studio. Uwe and Diana liked each other immediately.
Tell me the story behind the “Ross” album cover.
We didn’t want to do a fashion shoot and advertise any dresses. We wanted something that would last and not say, “Oh, that’s the dress from so and so last year.” Rather than doing fashion, I brought fabric. Chiffon—and very good quality. She loved it, and I still have it, by the way. Uwe is great with simple ideas. She didn’t have any clothes on. It was just fabric that was clinging to her. It’s the wind that blows it that makes it stick to her.
And her hair—
Her hair was flying. She wouldn’t let people do her hair. She always came ready with her hair. We did her makeup. It was basic. It really wasn’t anything special with the makeup. First she came with a bunch of her own dresses, and we went down to that piece of fabric.
Uwe said she was going for something that was sexy without being shocking.
Yes, sexy without showing T&A all over the place. And skin.
I think the photographs fit perfectly with the material that’s on the album. Was that planned?
I knew what was on the album. Uwe too, but I think he went for a look for her, rather than expressing totally the album. I think he just imagined her like that, and she went along with it. They were like two peas in a pod for a minute. She’s pretty bossy. The boss. But in a case like this, she went along with his suggestions.
She obviously loved working with you and Uwe because she asked you to do photographs for her Central Park concert. How did that come about?
We went to the Uwe’s country house in Bellport, Long Island. He was always having these great parties. We decided to shoot Diana in like a jungle style in the bushes. I had a wonderful makeup artist, Rene de Chamizo, who passed. Oh, what a wonderful man he was! He covered her body with tribal makeup. Uwe and Diana were shooting in the bushes. It was so crazy.
Whose idea was it to do jungle pictures?
Uwe and Diana together! We were trying to think of what we would do in Long Island. Plus, she wanted to keep the jungle feeling. Plus, I think she wanted to give something more black to her persona.
It sounds like a fun time.
We had the most fun for two days shooting. It was hot and crazy. The day of the shoot it was a small group of people. We had a big car. She didn’t have anybody with her. I think it might have just been the driver. Oh, and this woman. It was somebody from the record company. It was just us. This was not a big shoot. Today, if Beyonce were to have a shoot like this, there would be 150 people. It was just a weekend and us being creative.
Uwe described the location as a “tick-infested field.”
That’s true. It was an un-kept garden. Mosquitoes were everywhere.
Let’s talk about the night of the Central Park concert.
Uwe was there. I was there with a friend of mine. Renee was backstage. I was there backstage too. I wore some kind of crazy outfit.
What comes to mind when you think of that night?
The field was packed with thousands and thousands of people. I was on the side and it started raining, and she kept singing. It was amazing. Something like this would probably be cancelled today. It was quite a sight. I get goosepimples thinking of it.
What would people be surprised to know about Diana Ross?
She’s really a homegirl! She is. She’s so basic. She’s very approachable. Very real.
What is one memory you have of her music?
I think of Larry Levan playing “Love Hangover” at the Paradise Garage. Ohmygod. It was the last record he played before the club closed. Diana Ross owned the dance floor.
**Photos, excluding DVD cover art, by Uwe Ommer, 1983