“I don’t know how to be nothin’ but yours…”
Considering the calculated effort it took to extricate Diana Ross from The Supremes — including a frantic race to release a final #1 single on the group and then a whirlwind of publicity surrounding the move — the first year of the singer’s solo career was surprisingly erratic. When Diana’s debut solo single, the Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson-penned “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” failed to make an immediate impact on listeners, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. panicked and put Deke Richards to work with the singer. Then, suddenly, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” raced to #1 on the pop and R&B charts, and producers Ashford & Simpson were back in the driver’s seat, quickly coming up with a follow-up single (“Remember Me”). The result was that the Richards album, titled Everything Is Everything, was released without a promotional single…and “Remember Me” was released without a parent album.
“Remember Me” ended up peaking in the pop and R&B Top 20 in early 1971, and it led Ashford & Simpson to produce a second full-length album on the singer. According to Simpson in the liner notes to the 2008 reissue of Surrender, “The fact that we had a No. 1 record out of the first album meant that Berry Gordy just gave us another album to do.” Because the writing-producing duo had been so busy throughout 1970, working up material for Diana’s debut along with a pair of joint albums by The Supremes and Four Tops, Ashford & Simpson simplified the process a bit for this album, recycling some tracks that had been cut for other artists and producing new versions of songs that had been previously recorded. “And If You See Him,” for example, was initially meant for Marvin Gaye, while “I’m A Winner” was first assigned to Edwin Starr.
Says Simpson in the 2008 liner notes, “Diana Ross was probably the hardest worker of any of the people we worked with at Motown. She was always prepared, ready, early, on time.” Perhaps most importantly, Ashford & Simpson clearly pushed the singer to expand her range, something that resulted in some of the most outstanding vocal work of Diana’s career. The combination of strong material and soulful, assured vocal performances should have lifted the album to unprecedented success; unfortunately, the timing of Surrender was all off. Finally released in July of 1971, Diana was unable to promote the album due to pregnancy; she would give birth to her first daughter, Rhonda Suzanne, in August. Immediately following the birth, Ross dove headfirst into research for her first motion picture role, as trouble jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Sings The Blues. Principal photography would begin at the end of the year.
Thus, Surrender (Motown 723) fell through the cracks; despite a Billboard review dubbing the album “a smash,” it enjoyed only moderate success on the charts. It did better in the U.K., although the success overseas ironically came thanks to Deke Richards, who’d been bumped aside as Diana’s producer by Ashford & Simpson; when the Richards penned-and-produced “I’m Still Waiting” became an unexpected smash hit there, the song was tacked onto Surrender and the album renamed I’m Still Waiting for its U.K. release. In any case, this album stands as definitive proof that chart positions have nothing to do with quality; Surrender remains one of the finest albums of Diana’s entire career. Because the singer would “re-emerge” the following year as a motion picture actress and jazz/pop singer, Surrender is really the closing chapter on the first phase of her solo career – that of a young, exciting, soulful woman bursting onto the music scene and finding her voice. If it had to end, at least it came with her best collection yet.
1. Surrender: Ashford & Simpson had cut the track for the fiery “Surrender” way back in August of 1970, as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was approaching the top spot on the music charts; work continued on the track through September. If “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” pushed Miss Ross to new heights as a soul stylist, then “Surrender” sent her soaring into a completely new universe; Simpson describes the song as “edgy, pushy” in the 2008 reissue liner notes, and those words are an understatement for the full-on musical attack waged by the producers and the vocalist. Opening with thunderous, repetitive piano jabs and a driving percussive beat, the cut is immediately more aggressive than anything Diana had thus recorded in her career; soon, the track erupts into a swirling storm of keys, blaring horns, and wailing background vocals. Ashford & Simpson turn in clever, playful lyrics as memorable as those featured in the brilliant “Keep An Eye” from Diana’s solo debut, and the singer is completely committed to them here, turning in a commanding vocal performance which erupts into soulful abandon at 1:30, when she begins her ad-libbing with a dazzling “Ow!” that remains spine-tingling to this day. Valerie Simpson’s piano work here is absolutely stunning, displaying a strong gospel influence, and the rest of the musicians turn in impeccable performances. When Surrender was released, its title cut immediately gained some airplay; a Billboard article from the time mentions that WCAR (Detroit) program manager Neil McIntyre added the song to its playlist before it was officially issued as a single. Motown did end up releasing “Surrender” as a single on July 29, 1971, but it fizzled out just inside the pop Top 40, peaking at #38 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hitting #16 on the R&B side. The lack of promotion from Miss Ross (who gave birth to her first child in August) certainly didn’t help, and Valerie Simpson also partially blames the moderate response on audience expectations: “We might have been putting her in too much of an R&B direction on the album,” she says in the 2008 liner notes. Perhaps some listeners preferred to hear Miss Ross tackle more pop-oriented material, but she definitively proves here that she is a superb soul vocalist, and possesses a range and power for which she’s often not given credit.
2. I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You: It’s likely that few fans realized how many times this song had been recorded before it showed up here on Surrender; prior to this album, the tune had been cut on singers Kiki Dee, Rita Wright (aka Syreeta), and even Diana Ross as a member of The Supremes. Written by Ashford, Simpson, and Brian Holland (of the famed Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team), it was initially released in 1968 as the first single on Rita Wright, though it failed to chart; then-Supreme Diana Ross would also record it that year, but it went unreleased until 2008’s Let The Music Play: Supreme Rarities. Says Valerie Simpson of this version, “It was Nick’s idea to revisit the song. Sometimes, you almost feel like you missed the mark and you don’t know why but you feel like the song has some potential so you try it again” (2008 reissue liner notes). Whether they’d missed the mark previously is up for debate, but one thing’s certain: They hit the bullseye with this version. Ashford & Simpson admittedly arrange it in a similar style to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” in terms of spoken passages, sung refrains, and passionate, over-the-top climax. And as with “Surrender,” the instrumental track here is superb, featuring another fabulous piano performance by Simpson and a prominent bassline, along with blaring, memorable horns that help whip the song into a frenzy during its final minute. But the star of the show is Diana Ross, who delivers a chilling performance that puts her in the league of the very best female soul vocalists of the era. Ross gives an impassioned reading of the lyrics for the first two and a half minutes, but as soon as she belts out the lyrics, “‘Cause it will grow/’Til the world won’t go ’round/No more,” she transforms into a full-bodied singer who demands attention through the sheer power and force of her pipes. In the liner notes to the re-release of this album, Valerie Simpson says Diana’s ad-libs at the end of this song are “in the stratosphere!” – and it can’t be said any better than that. (NOTE: A few years later, singer Diahann Carroll would cover the song — complete with spoken passages — for her self-titled 1974 Motown album. In 1982, Ashford & Simpson produced the song for Stephanie Mills, and it ended up on her LP Tantalizingly Hot. Mills, of course, is the woman who originated the role of Dorothy in The Wiz on Broadway, a role Diana would play on film.)
3. Remember Me: “Hot on the heels of her No. 1 chart winner, ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ comes a driving rock ballad penned by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Headed right for the Top 20,” wrote Billboard in a December 19, 1970 review of this single, and indeed, that’s right where “Remember Me” ended up. By February, the single was peaking at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #10 on the R&B listing, not the singer’s biggest hit, but certainly a solid showing; had Motown waited a little longer to release the song so that it coincided with the April airing of her first television special, Diana!, it would have certainly done even better. The song itself is an impassioned pop/soul number with an intensity that ebbs and flows with each section; the verses begin with Diana’s breathy vocal over a sizzling beat and build to explosions of slicing strings and the singer’s frenzied repetition of, “Didn’t I, boy?” The lyrics which Miss Ross are given to deliver are also particularly descriptive and, at times, quite whimsical; lines like, “Remember me as a funny clown/That made you laugh when you were down” give the singer plenty of opportunity to sing with emotions ranging from regret and resignation to moments of humor and wisdom. Her vocal performance is extremely impressive, and she’s matched by the soaring backgrounds of Ashford & Simpson and the brilliant work of the studio musicians. It’s unfortunate that the song wasn’t a bigger hit, because the singer only occasionally included it in her live shows over the years; it was included to great effect during her famed stage show captured in the 1980 HBO television special Standing Room Only: Diana Ross, when the Diana used it following her tribute to The Supremes. (NOTE: When Surrender was finally reissued in an expanded edition in 2008, it included Valerie Simpson’s demo performance of “Remember Me,” which features a really nice, soulful performance from the writer over the same backing track.)
4. And If You See Him: “That’s an odd song,” says Valerie Simpson in the liner notes to the 2008 Surrender reissue. “It starts in the middle of a sentence and picks up out of nowhere.” The track was initially cut for Marvin Gaye (under the working title “And If You See Her”) in January of 1971, but ended up getting vocals from Diana before the male vocalist had the chance to record it. When he reviewed the album for Rolling Stone magazine in 1971 (in a somewhat confusing analysis, during which it’s hard to tell whether he admires or despises the album), Russell Gersten praised this particular cut, writing that it “has the poignancy of the great early Motown songs like ‘You Beat Me To The Punch.’ The brilliant, but simple use of rhythm instruments, and the rapid shift of moods perfectly recreate the ambivalence and desperation of someone rejected.” Considering Gersten seems to long for the days when Ross sang more straightforward, simplistic material, it makes sense that he would prefer this song, which doesn’t include any background vocals and features a beat-driven instrumental track. That said, it is an absolutely outstanding cut, led off by a heartbeat-mirroring bass and guitar line that erupts with pulsing horn blasts during the refrain. There’s an inherent, sizzling urgency in this instrumental line, and Miss Ross instinctively picks up on the tone, elevating it with her fully-engaged vocals. Ashford & Simpson add a nice touch by doubling the singer’s vocals at times, lending the song something of an otherworldly quality; when the overdubbing stops and Diana wails the swinging refrain solo, it’s a striking change. Although “And If You See Him” remains an under-appreciated gem from the singer’s early solo career, it did gain a spot on the Tamla-Motown release Greatest Hits, a compilation assembled from Diana’s first three solo albums which was never released in the United States.
5. Reach Out, I’ll Be There: Motown released this song as a single on April 8, 1971 — just ten days prior to the airing of Diana’s first solo television special, Diana! Unfortunately, as the special had been taped way back in December, “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” wasn’t performed by the singer, which meant the label missed a major opportunity to promote this particular release. The single eventually stalled just inside the Top 30 of the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #29 there and at #17 on the R&B chart. The song itself, of course, was already a very familiar one to record buyers, having topped the charts in both the United States and the U.K. when it was released by The Four Tops in 1966. That said, the Holland-Dozier-Holland tune gets a radical makeover here, transformed by producers Ashford & Simpson much in the same way the duo had reimagined their own “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for Miss Ross a year earlier. Interestingly, session notes included in the 2008 Surrender reissue list this song as having been initially intended for Valerie Simpson; Simpson’s own self-produced debut album Exposed was released in May of 1971, and featured liner notes by none other than Diana Ross (who wrote, “The only word for this album is fantastic!”). As they’d done for Diana’s previous #1 hit, Ashford & Simpson take the basic structure of “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” and stretch it out, letting the piece slowly build from a near-a cappella opening to a thunderous, gospel-inspired finale. While this approach isn’t terribly surprising, considering it had been done to great success before, it is a surprise just how effective it is a second time around. The original “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” is one of the most urgent, driving recordings to ever come out of the Hitsville studios, featuring a galloping beat and the impassioned lead vocals of Levi Stubbs. This time around, Ashford & Simpson really slow things down, letting Diana’s gorgeous, velvety vocals drive the action for the first half of the song’s five-and-a-half-minute running time; Diana’s performance is astonishingly lovely, with each syllable from the singer landing like a crystal-clear drop of water. In a way, her vocals during these first three minutes foreshadow her work on the Lady Sings the Blues soundtrack, as she lags behind the beat with the command of a seasoned jazz singer. Then, of course, things really begin to build; Miss Ross, buoyed by the choir of background voices, repeats the phrase “You can always depend on me” over and over again until the track explodes into a soulful climax, featuring some of the best belting of Diana’s career. It’s a stunning production; if it’s not as iconic as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” how could it be? That earlier song is a once-in-a-lifetime work. But “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” more than stands on its own merits, and is a highlight of Surrender; it certainly deserved better than the moderate success it found, and Diana’s definitive performance is so good that it easily deserved to garner her another Grammy nomination, and frankly, a win. (NOTE: Part of the issue might have also had to do with Diana competing with herself; the April 15, 1971 Soul Brothers Top 20 chart published in Jet magazine lists Diana’s own “I’m Still Waiting” from Everything Is Everything at #18, indicating it was generating some interest at the same time.)
6. Didn’t You Know (You’d Have To Cry Sometime)?: This is a terrific soul ballad first cut on Gladys Knight & The Pips back in 1969; it was released as a single on that group, although it wasn’t a major hit (it did manage to climb to #11 on the Billboard R&B Singles chart). As they did on the previous track, Ashford & Simpson really ramp things up for this version of the song, creating a track with a swirling introduction and dominated by big, boisterous background vocals provided by the producers and Joshie Armstead. It’s to Diana’s credit that she’s not completely swamped by the choir of voices behind her; although this isn’t the most melodic song on the album, Ross actually delivers a skilled performance that would be easy to overlook. During the verses, the singer delivers a husky, sultry vocal reminiscent of her work on “I Wouldn’t Change The Man He Is” from Diana Ross; but, as is standard on this album, Ashford & Simpson pitch the refrain so that Miss Ross is required to really stretch into her upper register, something she accomplishes very well. There’s a nice rawness to her ad-libs here, a roughness around the edges that helps sell the song’s “I told you so” message. To be fair, “Didn’t You Know (You’d Have To Cry Sometime)?” does lack a little of the punch present on the previous five songs; the melody isn’t as easily accessible and the track feels a little baroque at times. That said, it’s still a terrific slice of soul; an album with highlights as good as those on Surrender needs strong filler to keep it afloat, and that’s exactly what this song is.
7. A Simple Thing Like Cry: This is one of the more offbeat songs featured on the pair of early Diana Ross albums produced by Ashford & Simpson; “A Simple Thing Like Cry” boasts a slinky vibe that bears some similarities to the weird and wonderful “What Do You Have To Do (To Stay On The Right Side Of Love),” a tune featured on the Supremes and Four Tops joint album The Return Of The Magnificent Seven, which was released right around the same time as Surrender. Both songs shuffle along with feline basslines and and soulful piano chords, and both give their vocalists plenty of room to offer up strong, surprising performances. Diana shines on the track, beginning the song with a low-key, relaxed delivery and then exploding with power during the swinging refrain, pushing way up to the top of her range; she sounds especially full-bodied and raw as she wails the word “cry” several times toward the end. There are moments here, as with so many other songs on this album, that are goosebump-inducing; the emotion in Diana’s voice is that stunning. Interestingly, when Motown decide to release “I’m Still Waiting” (from Everything Is Everything) as a single in October of 1971, following that record’s massive success in the U.K., this song was placed on the b-side; I wouldn’t be surprised if a few radio disc jockeys flipped the single and played this song, too.
8. Did You Read The Morning Paper?: Ashford & Simpson share the writing credit with Richard Monica on this tune, which stretches Diana’s skills as a storyteller by giving her a specific narrative; in this case, she’s a woman who sees a newspaper picture of her lover with another woman. Although lyrically this song is a departure, and more in line with something like “I’m Still Waiting,” it follows the Ashford & Simpson formula of beginning with just a whisper and building to a bold, powerful finale. The opening, with Simpson’s deliberate piano playing giving way to cinematic strings, lends the piece an ominous quality which Miss Ross picks up on right away, dulling her tone into one of complete resignation. She’s joined by some incredible lovely counter-harmonies (listen to the way Simpson’s voice rings above Diana’s on the song’s title phrase at :25), and the bridge beginning at 2:29 contains a melodic phrase similar to that featured on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” an interesting touch that could make “Did You Read The Morning Paper?” something of a sad sequel to that earlier, triumphant hit. At nearly four minutes in running time, this is one of the longer songs on Surrender, and in the hands of a lesser artist, it might have become a bit plodding; thankfully, Diana Ross is a superb musical storyteller, and the song works brilliantly. Diana more than handles the couple of key changes toward the end of the song, her voice in full command of the challenging tune.
9. I’ll Settle For You: This delightful song was first recorded by Candy & The Kisses back in the 1960s, when the female trio had signed by Scepter Records and was assigned to work with Ashford & Simpson; that group’s biggest hit, by the way, came with the Kenny Gamble-Jerry Ross dance song “The 81” (1964), which bears much more than a passing resemblance to “In My Lonely Room” by Martha & The Vandellas. While the original version of “I’ll Settle For You” is arranged as a slow, almost somber ballad, Ashford & Simpson add in a little sizzle for this version, and the result is a sparkling pop song that stands out as one of the most memorable of Diana’s early career. According to Miss Simpson in the liner notes to the 2008 Surrender reissue, “We called it our ‘crossover’ song, in case white radio wanted to play something. Diana was one of those artists who really did cross over to pop.” Indeed, the lyric and melody of this song are much more simplistic and strait-forward than the more soulful material the precedes it; the song is essential a series of couplets that sound like nursery rhymes (“Every star has a twinkle/Every palm has a wrinkle,” etc.) Though it’s not as vocally challenging as the songs that come before it, this kind of tune is right in Diana’s wheelhouse; her great gift as a Supreme was to inject even the simplest of words and melodies with passion and meaning, and that’s exactly what she does here. The singer’s performance is achingly pretty; her breathy lower notes and round, healthy higher notes a perfect match for the sing-song melody. Meanwhile, she’s complemented by superb harmonizing from the background vocalists and an orchestral track marked by lovely strings and wind instruments. In an era dominated by the singable pop songs of The Carpenters and The Osmonds, “I’ll Settle For You” should have been a huge hit for Diana; it’s not the best song on Surrender by any stretch, but it’s a perfect, compact recording that doubtlessly would have caught on quickly as pop radio and could have been a great addition to the singer’s live shows.
10. I’m A Winner: This track serves as an interesting counterpoint to the album’s title track; both are energetic, in-your-face pieces of soul, but while “Surrender” has a staccato, slightly discordant (and thus darker) instrumental, this is a feel-good tune, and nicely builds upon the sugary pop of “I’ll Settle For You” while requiring a much more energetic performance from Diana and company. This driving soul number was first cut on Martha Reeves & The Vandellas for the 1969 LP Sugar ‘n’ Spice; Ashford & Simpson then re-cut the song in April of 1970, originally intending it for singer Edwin Starr before giving it to Miss Ross instead during the Surrender sessions. It was a good move; while Starr no doubt would have delivered a sterling version of the song, “I’m A Winner” gives Diana a chance to really cut loose, and the singer dives in headfirst with an aggressive vocal performance. Buoyed by a rollicking instrumental track with Simpson’s soulful piano work and a ringing brass section, not to mention a fantastic break led by funky guitars, Miss Ross attacks the vocal, confidently shifting from a breathy urgency to soulful belting and screeching. Ashford & Simpson give her playful lyrics to deliver, filling the piece with allusions to gambling as a metaphor for love, and Diana sings as if she’s Sharon Stone in Casino, blissfully tossing her chips in the air. There’s a real sense of freedom in Diana’s performance, and it’s something to be savored; in the coming years, the singer would become more measured and calculated in her performances, and it’s nice to hear her really letting loose. It its review of Surrender, Billboard named this as one of the album’s standouts; it was later placed on the b-side of the “Surrender” single. (NOTE: Coincidentally, Diana Ross would later turn the phrase “I’m a winner” into something of camp masterpiece when she famously shouted it at Billy Dee Williams in the 1975 film Mahogany!)
11. All The Befores: If there’s a hidden gem on Surrender, this is it; a largely-overlooked soul ballad, “All The Befores” is one of the most beautiful songs recorded by Miss Ross during the early part of her solo career, and remains an incredible achievement due to her brilliantly controlled performance. The song is something of a cousin to the spectacular “I’m Glad About It,” also written by Ashford & Simpson and recorded by The Supremes and Four Tops for The Return Of The Magnificent Seven, an album released the same month as Surrender; though they are very different songs, both bear a gentleness and intimacy that are quite rare within the Motown fold. “All The Befores” is a slow, haunting ballad far more complex in structure than anything else on the pair of Ashford & Simpson-helmed albums Diana recorded in her early solo days; the phenomenal instrumental track features piano and string arrangements that sound almost classical in comparison to the songs that come before it. The melody also takes a little work to access; it’s not like “I’ll Settle For You” or “I’m A Winner,” both of which are immediately singable even to those hearing them for the first time. This is a song with a dense, textured melody, and Diana Ross excels at letting her voice slide up and down the scale, resting lightly on each note before moving on to the next; she gets a rare chance to showcase the bottom of her vocal range on lines like “But as you see, here I am/ Loving you stronger than ever,” hitting low notes that sound startling coming from the same singer who’d wailed to soaring heights on earlier songs. The song is probably way too slow to have ever been considered for single release, especially given that there’s not even any singing on the last full minute of the song. It is, however, one of the most beautiful ballads Diana Ross ever recorded, and probably one of the most beautiful that had come out of the Motown studios up to that point. It’s also a perfect way to end the album, carrying forth the theme of beautiful yet darker songs that are often focused on the painful side of being in love.
In his 1999 book The Soulful Divas, writer David Nathan quotes Diana Ross as saying about her early solo career, “I was beginning to feel happier, you know…I also felt like I could sing. I was beginning to trust myself more as a singer. I was getting much more confidence, and I think that may have shown through, too.” Diana’s confidence shows through loud and clear on Surrender, which remains one of the best albums the singer has ever released and contains some of her most impressive vocal work. It’s unfortunate that the timing of the album worked against it; when it was released in July of 1971, it managed a disappointing peak of #53 on the Billboard 200 and #10 on the R&B listing, her lowest showings yet as a solo artist. As noted earlier, Miss Ross immediately gave birth following the release of the album, and then began preparing for her debut as a motion picture actress; she wouldn’t return to the album charts for more than a year, with the release of the Lady Sings The Blues soundtrack album.
Although many fans and critics prefer 1970’s Diana Ross to this album, Surrender is a darker, more challenging work; this album doesn’t contain a single song as dazzling as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” but it presents a dynamic portrait of a young woman coming into her own as an artist. Years later, when Diana broke out of her stately pop diva phase with 1979’s disco classic The Boss and it’s hard-edged follow-up diana, music buyers would be shocked at the range and explosive power displayed by the singer; this album proves that fire had been there all along, waiting to resurface when the time — and material — called for it. As Valerie Simpson says in the 2008 reissue liner notes, “We had a good union, Diana, Nick, and I. We pushed her and she delivered. I think sometimes an artist wants to ‘show out.’ Diana did. She felt freed up. She should be proud of her vocals on this album.”
Final Analysis: 5/5 (A Soulful “Winner”)
Paul’s Picks: “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You,” “All The Befores”