“I roll the dice, 7-11…you’ll either take me down, or you’ll take me to heaven…”
Diana Ross’s third solo album is one of the best of her career, and the absolute best of her early 1970s output. Not only that, but it’s one of the best Motown albums of the era, period. This, my friends, is a work of classic soul, featuring the strongest singing Diana Ross would do until the end of the decade and some of the finest songs by writing/producing team Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Ashford & Simpson had, of course, delivered Diana’s first solo LP, and while there’s not a single song here stronger than the first album’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” this album as a whole is far superior, more complex piece of work.
Perhaps Surrender isn’t generally placed in the category of great Motown albums because it lacked a massive hit single. Though “Remember Me” was a Top 20 hit and two other songs made the Top 40, none of them are as instantly recognizable as later hits like “Touch Me In The Morning” and “Upside Down.” At the time, it was probably also lost due to the fact that it was one of four Diana Ross albums (three studio and one TV special soundtrack) released in less than two years. It’s a shame that none of the songs caught on the way “Ain’t No Mountain…” had, as a stronger single might have helped push the album up the charts and increase its visibility.
Surrender is also important because it’s the last true soul album Diana Ross would record for several years. This is due to the fact that her entire career was about to vault to the next level thanks to her starring role in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues. In the wake of her Oscar-nominated movie and #1-selling soundtrack, the singer’s entire vocal style would change; she would lose much of the breathy, raw power of her early recordings and replace it with a smooth, sophisticated style that leaned much more toward pure pop than R&B. Surrender, therefore, is the end of the first phase of Diana’s solo career – a portrait of the singer as young, exciting, vital woman bursting onto the music scene alone in the spotlight – and if it had to end, at least it came with one of the best collections she would ever release.
1. Surrender: Opening with thunderous, repetitive piano playing and a driving percussive beat, the album’s title track is immediately more fiery than anything Diana had thus recorded in her solo career. The clever, playful lyrics are as memorable as those in the brilliant “Keep An Eye” from Diana’s solo debut, and the singer is completely committed to them, turning in a commanding vocal performance which erupts into soulful abandon at 1:30, when she begins her ad-libbing with a dazzling “Ow!” reminiscent of her work during the climactic chorus of “Ain’t No Mountain…” Valerie Simpson’s piano work here is absolutely stunning, displaying a strong gospel influence, and the rest of the Funk Brothers turn in impeccable performances. Though it’s not the strongest song on the album, “Surrender” is a perfect opener, and shows Diana Ross at the absolute top of her game. Though it was released as a single, it wasn’t a major hit for the singer; in retrospect, this might be because it was too soulful a song for a singer with such a broad pop fanbase. This is a shame, because if more people were aware of work like “Surrender” and other songs on this album, there’s no doubt Diana Ross’s abilities as a vocalist would be given much more respect.
2. I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You: The complex, soulful, slightly dark vibe set by the opening tune is continued here, in a song I’d argue showcases Diana Ross’s strongest vocal performance until her work on The Wiz soundtrack seven years later. A song previously recorded by Rita Wright (Syreeta) and even Diana Ross as part of the Supremes, Ashford & Simpson here arrange it in a similar style to “Ain’t No Mountain…” in terms of spoken passages, sung refrains, and passionate, over-the-top climax. 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. Diana Ross gives an impassioned reading of the lyrics for the first two and a half minutes, but as soon as she belts out the lyric, “…’cause it will grow ‘til the world won’t go ‘round…NO MORE!” she transforms into a soul singer on par with any other. 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 I couldn’t put it any better than that. The incredible range and power on display here, as with her work on the preceding track, should be enough to silence any critics who say Diana had a limited vocal ability. This song is one of the undoubted highlights of Diana’s career.
3. Remember Me: The album’s biggest hit, this was a Top 20 success and the single that immediately followed the #1 “Ain’t No Mountain…” Though it’s not necessarily considered a classic in quite the way her other solo hits are, this is a great single and features another strong vocal performance by the singer, who continues to showcase a power in her voice that she’d rarely used while with the Supremes and had mainly subdued in her Everything Is Everything album a few months earlier. Once again Ashford and Simpson display an ability to produce a timeless song; while this undoubtedly sounds like an early 1970s production, it doesn’t have the dated, almost-campy feel of many of the productions on Everything Is Everything. The backing vocals are particularly soaring on this track, and it’s to Diana’s credit that they don’t outshine her at all, but enhance her own performance.
4. And If You See Him: And Ashford, Simpson, and Ross make it four in a row with this song, another glorious slice of 70s pop/soul that opens with heartbeat-like guitar/bass notes that set a nice tone of urgency which Diana matches in her vocals, especially during the swinging chorus, in which she really lets loose. Unlike the previous three tracks, there are no backing vocals here, so this is a nice chance for Miss Ross to totally command the song, and she does so easily.
5. Reach Out, I’ll Be There: The first (and only) song not written by Ashford & Simpson, the duo nonetheless arranged the classic Four Tops hit into something that sounds like one of their originals, aping their own “Ain’t No Mountain…” formula of slowing it down and letting it build slowly to a thunderous finale. I have a feeling many fans are split on this song; though it was released as a single, it was only a moderate hit and certainly isn’t considered a classic among her catalogue. That said, I think it stands as a major highlight of both the album and of her whole career; while it might pale somewhat when compared with the masterpiece of “Ain’t No Mountain…,” it’s a brilliant piece of work on which Diana displays some gorgeous vocal work. Her crisp, smooth vocals during the first three minutes of the song foreshadow her work in Lady Sings the Blues, as she lags behind the beat with the command of a seasoned jazz singer. There’s also a roundness to her high soprano here that was often missing in her earlier work; she could sound brassy when going for high notes on her later-Supremes tracks, but here her voice is as clear as a bell. That said, she matches her fantastic, soulful work on “Ain’t No Moutain…” at the end of this song, when, at nearly four minutes in, we finally hit the “I’ll be there” climax. As with “I Can’t Give Back The Love…,” Diana’s voice absolutely soars here, belting out notes heretofore unheard of in her career.
6. Didn’t You Know (You’d Have To Cry Sometime): Perhaps not as immediately grabbing as the five superb songs that precede it, this song — originally recorded and released by Gladys Knight and the Pips – is still a good addition to the album and a nice piece of early 70s soul. The fact this is probably one of the two or three weakest tracks on the album speaks to what a great album this is; on either of her two earlier releases, this song would be a stand-out. However, in the context of a work that includes such strong singing and production, it tends to get lost of a little.
7. A Simple Thing Like Cry: Another song featuring extremely strong vocals from Diana, the lyric here isn’t as memorable as “Surrender” or “Remember Me,” but it’s saved by great production and the passionate, reaching vocals, especially in the last minute of running time. Diana pushes the top of her range here, as in “Can’t Give Back The Love…,” and she sounds especially full-bodied 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 power and emotion in Diana’s voice is that stunning.
8. Did You Read The Morning Paper: Similar to her previous album’s “I’m Still Waiting,” this is a story-song – the lyrics here tell the tale of a woman who sees a picture in the newspaper of her lover…with another woman. Because Diana Ross is a superb lyrical storyteller, the song works; in the hands of a less-talented artist, it might be plodding. 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: After eight straight songs that push Diana Ross to new, emotional heights as a singer, this pretty, melodic song gives her and the audience a chance to relax. An album with such a dizzying succession of soulful and shattering songs needs a track like this to break up the pace a little, and this is a perfect addition to the album. Diana’s voice is gorgeous, singing simple rhymes that sound almost like passages from a children’s book. The understated production and backgrounds provide a perfect musical bed for the lead vocal. Had it been released to pop radio, this song would’ve easily stood beside other early 70s “AM Gold” hits and probably could have done well for the singer.
10. I’m A Winner: An upbeat, funky track in the vein of Everything Is Everything’s “Ain’t No Sad Song,” but surpassing that song thanks to the presence of a stronger hook and clever lyrics. Originally cut on Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, Diana Ross is a perfect match for the material, with her aggressive vocals attacking the song and nicely interpreting the message. “I’m A Winner” serves as an interesting counterpoint to “Surrender” – both are energetic, in-your-face pieces of soul, but while the title track of the album has a staccato, slightly discordant (and thus darker) instrumental, this tune is a feel-good one, and nicely builds upon the sweet “I’ll Settle For You” while requiring a much more energetic performance from Diana and company. This is another performance that flies in the face of those familiar only with Diana Ross’s later work with Michael Masser, and thus convinced she wasn’t a “soul singer.”
11. All The Befores: The album closes with this beautiful, haunting ballad that it one of the best on the album and one of the great hidden gems of Diana’s solo career. The song is certainly the most complex that Ashford & Simpson had delivered to Diana Ross over their two albums with her; the phenomenal instrumental track features piano and string arrangements that sound almost classical in comparison to the songs that come before it. Diana, meanwhile, carries the challenging melody and lyrics with one of her most impressive and understated performances, and gets a chance to use her lower register on lines like “…loving you stronger than ever” – during which she hits 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 negative side of being in love.
Note: For information on bonus tracks from this album, click HERE.
Again, Surrender was released about a year before the soundtrack to Lady Sings the Blues, and thus would become totally lost in the whirlwind of publicity surrounding Diana Ross’s triumph of acting and singing in the film. This is, however, a triumph of singing on its own, and deserves greater appreciation amongst soul and Motown aficionados. Diana Ross fans already know of the great treasures this album holds, but it’s been criminally ignored by lovers of 70s souls for far too long. It would be awhile before Diana would make another album this consistently strong, and it’s a work that she as well as Ashford & Simpson should hold in high regard; this is an album made by artists at the top of their game, and there’s not a single bad song on the entire set.
Final Analysis: 5/5 (A Definite “Winner”!)
Choice Cuts: “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You,” “All The Befores,” “Reach Out, I’ll Be There”