“Mornings were blue and gold and we could feel one another living…”
The evening of March 27, 1973 brought perhaps the first real crushing defeat in the career of Diana Ross…at least, in the eyes of the singer and everyone at Motown Records. That night, Miss Ross sat in the audience of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, watching nervously as presenters Raquel Welch and Gene Hackman took the stage to announce the nominees for the Best Actress Academy Award. Diana Ross was nominated for her groundbreaking performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings The Blues, and it was widely predicted in the media that she would win the award. Taking home the Oscar would be the kind of validation that Ross and Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. had sought from the entertainment industry for more than a decade; after being publicly ridiculed for even attempting to break into the motion picture business, they proved everyone wrong by releasing a critical and commercial success which immediately turned Diana Ross into a movie star and made Motown Records a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood.
When Liza Minnelli was announced that evening’s Best Actress for her performance in Cabaret, it by all accounts threw Ross, Gordy, and company into a funk. A planned album of jazz standards was immediately shelved and the company began plotting Diana’s return to the music charts, hoping to re-establish the singer as a prominent force in popular music. Ross had already been recording various songs with a number of producers, including some intended for an album dedicated to her children, and ten of those tracks (two of which would be combined into a medley) were cobbled together to create a new album, titled Touch Me In The Morning. The album’s title track and first single was written by Ron Miller (“For Once In My Life”) and then-newcomer Michael Masser. In an unaired 1986 interview for “PM Magazine,” Masser would remember, “A lot of the company people at Motown felt that Diana Ross didn’t sound like Diana Ross, because here she’s singing a ballad with the kind of chord structure, something she’s not used to doing, and also having to stick precisely on the melody which was very important to me.”
Indeed, the Diana Ross of the Touch Me In The Morning album is a very different vocalist from the one featured on the singer’s first trio of studio albums. The explosive soulful abandon of Surrender is replaced here by a mature sound marked by far more restraint and precision. Billboard noted the style change immediately, remarking in its July 1973 review of this album, “This is as deeply pop as Diana has ever gone on records. Is she forsaking her background in commercial soul music?” A combination of factors is likely the reason for the change in Diana’s vocal style; certainly foremost among those is Lady Sings The Blues, and the fact that the singer had spent so much time immersed in the music of Billie Holiday. The growth she experienced while taking on the role had fundamentally changed her; as Michael Thomas would write in the February 1, 1973 issue of music magazine Rolling Stone, “…she can’t quite shake off this queasy feeling that it’s not her anymore. She hasn’t quite caught up with herself yet, but she doesn’t want to get up there in those ten thousand dollar gowns anymore, she’s a little tired of all the autographs and sunglasses.”
Perhaps that inner conflict is why Touch Me In The Morning (Motown 1239) sounds so compelling decades after its release; there is an undercurrent of tension in many of Diana’s performances here that adds a layer of complexity to material that could otherwise be viewed as generic 70s pop. The album certainly achieved its goal of returning Ross to the good graces of consumers, but beyond that, it opened to the door to the second phase of the singer’s solo career: Diana Ross, Pop Diva. The success of the album and its #1 single laid the groundwork for the stately, sophisticated ballad work that would mark the rest of Diana’s career, not to mention directly influence every solo female pop/R&B singer to follow. Without “Touch Me In The Morning,” there never would have been a “Theme From Mahogany” or “It’s My Turn,” and without those glittering love ballads, there might never have been a “Saving All My Love For You” from Whitney Houston or a “Hero” by Mariah Carey. In that way, Touch Me In The Morning is far more groundbreaking than it’s ever been given credit for.
1. Touch Me In The Morning: “Diana is back in a delightfully contemporary vein after saluting Billie Holiday,” announced Billboard on May 12, 1973, just as this single was entering the marketplace; it would take the single three long, laborious months to climb to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the singer’s second solo #1 hit and fourteenth overall, counting her work as a Supreme. The song was penned by Motown writer Ron Miller, best known for the classic “For Once In My Life,” and a young songwriter recruited to the company by label executive Suzanne de Passe named Michael Masser. “Meeting with Berry Gordy and Suzanne de Passe, at the time, they were very much looking for a song for Diana Ross, who hadn’t had a hit for, I guess, about two years following ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,'” recalled Masser in an unaired 1986 interview for “PM Magazine.” Ron Miller says the title was his idea, and together the two men crafted a lush, modern pop ballad about a sexually liberated woman who tells her lover that “nothin’ good’s gonna last forever.” By all accounts, the recording process was a nightmare, with a less-than-enthusiastic Ross forcing take after take until the producers managed to get enough material with which to piece together a winning performance; Miller is quoted in the Billboard Book of Number One Hits as saying it took 300 hours of editing to finish the song. Still, it’s to the credit of everyone involved that the finished product is so seamless; from the opening piano chords to the swirling final fade in which Diana duets with herself, this is a professional ballad that sounds light years more sophisticated than the solo material Ross had recorded just two or three years earlier. “Touch Me In The Morning” is, in fact, the perfect musical evolution of Diana Ross from the newly-solo, attention-hungry singer desperate to please to a wiser woman with nothing left to prove; whereas before she pledged to her audience that “Nothing can keep me from you,” now she’s a movie star with unabashed worldwide acceptance, waving goodbye with a simple “Let’s just be glad for the time together.” The instrumental track is a warm collection of contemporary instruments, from the crisp piano to the deeply-felt guitar work (possibly performed by the great Jay Graydon, who played on several Diana Ross recordings of the decade, including many of the songs on this album), and it’s matched by a superb performance by Miss Ross, whose voice retains the healthy roundness she’d first displayed on her Lady Sings The Blues recordings. The producers (Tom Baird and Michael Masser) smartly include some echoes of Diana’s earlier work, from spoken passages to swelling background vocals reminiscent of those favored by Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson, but the aggressive breathiness of Diana’s previous solo recordings is gone, replaced by a relaxed resignation that perfectly suits the song’s lyrics. The result is a song that easily stands the test of time, and became one of Diana’s biggest hit singles; along with topping the pop charts, it also hit #1 on the Billboard Easy Listening chart and peaked at #5 R&B. The recording also earned Miss Ross her third solo Grammy nomination, for Best Female Pop Vocal Female Performance, an award ultimately won by Roberta Flack for “Killing Me Softly With His Song.”
2. All Of My Life: Although it wasn’t released in the United States, this song was pulled as a second single in the U.K., where it peaked at #9 (the same position at which “Touch Me In The Morning” topped out). Written and produced by Michael Randall, this is a syrupy love ballad, the kind with which The Carpenters were having hit after hit with at the time; although “All Of My Life” sounds far more dated today than “Touch Me In The Morning,” it’s a perfect snapshot of pop music in the early 1970s and probably could have been a big hit had it been pushed as a single in the United States. Backed by a lush, symphonic instrumental track and big, boisterous background vocals (provided by Motown’s West Coast session singers, The Blackberries, made up of Sherlie Matthews, Clydie King, and Venetta Fields), Diana delivers another smooth, restrained vocal performance; as with the previous track, there’s a relaxed confidence to her work here that really contrasts with her work as a Supreme and on her first three studio albums as a soloist. There are a few moments in which Miss Ross seems to be straining to hit high notes, which is odd considering she’d sung much, much higher on her work with Ashford & Simpson; still, it’s hard to find much fault with a performance this engaging.
3. We Need You: “I saw the way Diana held her little girls, Rhonda and Tracee; with all that love, I still sensed an emptiness that so obviously needed to be filled,” recalls writer-producer Deke Richards in the liner notes to the 2009 reissue of Touch Me In The Morning; according to Richards, the image of a pensive Diana Ross at one of her at-home gatherings led him to write the song “We Need You.” Richards, of course, knew Diana well, having worked with her as a Supreme before producing her second solo LP, Everything Is Everything; together, the two had scored a massive #1 hit in the U.K. with “I’m Still Waiting.” This song is very different from anything Richards had produced on Ross before; a slow, shuffling ballad, this one requires a depth of feeling and maturity from the vocalist which she probably wouldn’t have been able to offer any earlier in her career. It’s hard to believe that this is the same woman who’d been cooing about her “Baby Love” less than a decade earlier; the reality is that Ross had greatly matured as a human being over the course of her career, and that growth is evident in her artistry. It’s not a surprise to learn that the song was written specifically for Diana Ross; it’s a perfect match for the singer and she delivers one of the best vocals on the entire album here. The song itself is quite somber, with effective lyrics written from the point of view of a mother left alone with her children; whether the man in their life has died, gone to war, or simply left for a new life, we’re never really sure. This universal message of loneliness was apparently favored by Richards, Ross, and Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr.; according to Richards, all three agreed that the song would be a strong second single. However, in the liner notes to the 2009 reissue of Touch Me In The Morning, writer-producer Richards remembers getting so lost in the mixing process that he “drowned” Ross in echo; the error was realized too late, and the first pressing of the album contained this muddled mix. Instead, Motown rushed out “You’re A Special Part Of Me,” a duet with Marvin Gaye from the upcoming Diana & Marvin LP, as Diana’s next single. It’s hard to say if “We Need You” would have been a hit had it followed “Touch Me In The Morning” onto the charts; it is, however, a very solid and memorable recording that beautifully blends the jazz, soul, and pop elements present on its parent album.
4. Leave A Little Room: This pop ballad, tinged with elements of country music, is the album’s second written and produced by Michael Randall; it had surfaced about a year earlier as the lead-off track on Individually & Collectively by The 5th Dimension and was also released in 1973 by singer Vikki Carr. The 5th Dimension version is fronted by Billy Davis, Jr. and it’s really a vocal showcase for him, allowing the singer to display his generous range and power. It’s a nice showcase for Miss Ross, too, though not in quite the same way. More than power, Ross really shows off that newfound warmth in her voice, a velvety smoothness that is extremely pleasing to hear. Thematically, it’s a perfect choice for Touch Me In The Morning, as it shuffles along with a relaxed, mid-tempo groove and addresses the issues of love, loss, and moving on. Although Miss Ross does reach toward the higher end of her range during certain sections of the song, those parts are memorable more for the doubling of her voice than for the actual vocal performance; this doubling was quite popular in pop hits of the time, notably used on Michael Jackson’s debut single, “Got To Be There,” released in late 1971 (incidentally, Ross cut “Got To Be There” around the time she recorded the other songs on Touch Me In The Morning, though it wasn’t released until 2009). The parts here are all strong; Diana sounds great, as do the backgrounds by The Blackberries, and the instrumental track is classy and well-done. But the whole isn’t quite the classic album track in the way that other songs on the album are (notably the two that follow it, “I Won’t Last A Day Without You” and “Little Girl Blue”), and it’s hard to pinpoint the reason. Part of the issue could be the production, which does sound fairly dated today; the song’s melody is also unusual, and it’s certainly not the most immediately memorable on the album. Still, in its original review of the album, Billboard named this as one of the album’s best cuts, so perhaps it’s more successful when viewed strictly through the lens of 1973 musical tastes.
5. I Won’t Last A Day Without You: This is one of the album’s unqualified highlights, and a recording so good that it easily could have been a big hit for Diana Ross; instead, when it did become a hit, it was attached to the name The Carpenters. According to the 2010 book Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter by Randy Schmidt, writers Roger Nichols and Paul Williams submitted this song to The Carpenters as a demo in 1971; the duo recorded it, but they demanded changes in the structure (something Nichols refers to as “a sore point” for him). The song was placed on the group’s 1972 album A Song For You, but wasn’t immediately released as a single; writer Paul Williams also cut the song and stuck it on his Life Goes On album the same year. Meanwhile, Diana recorded the song as it was written with producers Mel Larson and Jerry Marcellino (who had penned some songs recorded by The Supremes and Four Tops for the Dynamite LP) and it was placed on the b-side to the “Touch Me In The Morning” single; singer Maureen McGovern also recorded the tune and released it as the follow-up to her hit “The Morning After” (the song which had preceded “Touch Me In The Morning at #1!). With these various versions out in the marketplace, The Carpenters finally released the song as a single in 1974, and it peaked at #11 on the Billboard Hot 100. Whatever the merits of the Carpenters, Williams, and McGovern versions (not to mention many others to follow, including Barbra Streisand), Diana’s is a standout; this is a superb recording, featuring an easygoing instrumental track upon which Miss Ross unfurls a gorgeous vocal. The song itself is one of the strongest on the album; it’s easy to see what it was recorded so frequently, as it’s a beautifully written work with a memorable chorus and lyrics. Diana delivers the hopeful message a with a delicate yet assured performance; she is pitch-perfect throughout the song, nailing each note dead-center. As with “Leave A little Room” and “All Of My Life,” the song certainly sounds like it came out of the early 1970s; there is a dated quality to the production and especially the backing vocals. But because the song itself and the lead vocal are so strong, it doesn’t really matter. This is a perfect addition to the album, and one of the most enjoyable album tracks of Diana’s mid-70s career; had it been released as a single on Miss Ross before any of the other competing versions hit the market, it almost certainly would have given her another major hit.
6. Little Girl Blue: This track, simply put, is a masterpiece; “Little Girl Blue” is a stunningly beautiful recording, ranking among the best work Diana Ross has ever produced. Ross originally recorded this Rodgers & Hart classic during the sessions for Blue, the album of jazz standards canned by Motown when she lost the Oscar for Lady Sings The Blues. The singer certainly had plenty of experience with the material of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, having recorded a superb album of their songs with Supremes back in the mid-1960s; as with that earlier album and her soundtrack sessions for Lady, this cut was produced by the great Gil Askey. Thanks to Askey’s masterful arrangement, this 1935 showtune (introduced in the musical Jumbo) manages to sound both classic and contemporary, merging perfectly with the surrounding material while also standing out due to a lush, romantic orchestration. Led off by a breathtaking jazz guitar line and marked by sparkling piano work and sweeping strings, the track itself has to be among the accomplished to ever come out of the Motown fold; the musicians playing here are so strong that they’d make even a mediocre vocal performance sound good . But Diana isn’t anywhere close to mediocre, instead minting a performance as fine as anything she’d done before; relaxed and confident, Diana reaches both the high and low ends of her range, and her crystal-clear enunciation is put to use here better than on any other recording from the era. But aside from the technical aspects of her performance, there is something indefinable about the way Diana Ross sings “Little Girl Blue” that lifts it far above an ordinary album track. This is a performance of reserved emotion, in the same way that “God Bless The Child” and “My Man (Mon Homme)” were on the Lady Sings The Blues soundtrack. There’s a complexity here, a subtlety that hints at an entire story happening beneath the surface of the lyrics, that makes it a compelling listen. This kind of subtle shading is something Diana Ross is so good at that it’s too often taken for granted or, unfortunately, completely overlooked, which is such a real shame. Diana Ross may not be exhibiting the kind of vocal gymnastics here that many equate with great singing, but you would be hard-pressed to find a more magical, sensitive performance from any of her contemporaries.
7. My Baby (My Baby My Own): This cut was written and produced by Tom Baird, with whom Diana recorded a batch of songs about children for the intended To The Baby album (which was finally released in 2009). The track had been recorded way back in October of 1971, just two months after Miss Ross became a mother for the first time with the birth of her daughter Rhonda; Diana would later remember these sessions in a 1976 interview with Don Pietromonaco, “I recorded them while I was pregnant and they were for my children, but we had to split them up…those were recorded for an album, you know, for a total children’s kind of album.” Considering it was meant for her children, “My Baby (My Baby My Own)” is surprising melancholy, starting with a vibe similar to that of “We Need You” but then dragging it down into the depths of despair; although Ross is calling her baby a “sweet little breath of spring,” she’s also crying out, “How could your daddy leave us all alone?” The instrumental track is astonishing; there’s a repetitive three-note piano hook that’s crying out to be sampled by a modern-day R&B/Hip-Hop artist, and it sparkles against a stirring string arrangement. Diana doesn’t so much sing the lyrics as wail them, her voice thick with emotion; an alternate version released on the album’s 2009 reissue proves that this version was slowed down a bit in its final mix, deepening the singer’s voice even further. Her wordless vocal work at two minutes into the song is devastating; she sounds like she’s crying straight into the microphone. Although it’s a dark song, “My Baby (My Baby My Own)” is a beautiful addition to Touch Me In The Morning, providing a perfect counterpoint to some of the lighter pop ballads placed earlier on the album.
8. Imagine: This cover of the John Lennon classic is another one originally intended for the To The Baby album; it was produced by Diana Ross herself in January of 1972 as part of a medley with Marvin Gaye’s “Save The Children.” For whatever reason, when creating the Touch Me In The Morning album, “Imagine” was broken out of the medley and included as its own song, while “Save The Children” was pieced together with “Brown Baby.” Recorded by Lennon in 1971, the single was released later that year and became a smash hit; it has since become a classic, recorded by dozens and dozens of artists. Lennon’s original is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to hear any other version and not instantly compare it to his; still, this cover is surprisingly successful, thanks to Diana’s tasteful production and straightforward vocal performance. Thus far in her career, Diana’s work covering songs written or originally performed by John Lennon had been extremely spotty; the 1964 Supremes LP A Bit Of Liverpool, for example, features covers of several Beatles songs and remains an abysmal representation of what Ross was capable of as an interpreter of popular music. The key to success here is how relaxed Diana seems to be; by simply singing Lennon’s meaningful words, she passes on his message of peace without muddying it up with her own need to be noticed. Many a singer has ruined a cover by trying way too hard to make the song his or her own; here, Diana the artist and producer trusts the material enough to let it stand for itself.
9. Medley: Brown Baby/Save The Children: Touch Me In The Morning closes out with the medley pieced together from two other songs recorded for her To The Baby album; Tom Baird produced “Brown Baby,” and Diana herself helmed “Save The Children,” initially meant for a medley with “Imagine.” It’s to the real credit of whoever ended up combining these two recordings into a single inclusion (likely Deke Richards, who mixed the entire LP) that they sound so good together; you’d never guess they weren’t meant to be paired from the very beginning. “Brown Baby” was written by Oscar Brown, Jr., and had already been recorded by singers including Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone; Baird cut the track for the song in November of 1971, with additional work continuing into January of 1972. As good as Diana’s performance is here, Baird’s track is the real star here; his soulful symphony creates a whirlwind of a musical atmosphere, a haunting, hollow groove that seems to echo straight from the Detroit projects. Miss Ross matches the quality of the instrumental work with a wise, deeply-felt vocal, urging her child to “walk with your head held high.” Nearly four minutes in, the track shifts to a jazzier instrumental, marking the beginning of “Save The Children,” a song written by Marvin Gaye, Al Cleveland, and Renaldo Benson (of The Four Tops) and recorded by Gaye for his landmark 1971 album What’s Going On. Miss Ross duets with herself here, speaking and singing lyrics with such command and emotion you’d swear she wrote them herself. Her singing here sounds extremely influenced by her experience singing the songs of Billie Holiday; listen to her sing the words “Oh, what a shame” at about the six-minute mark, and you’ll hear how much Holiday had influenced Diana’s style at the time. The medley ends with a brief reprise of Baird’s “Brown Baby” track, a perfect way to close out not only the recording, but the entire album, once again capturing the adult, soothing, almost daydream-like vibe set from the start by “Touch Me In The Morning” and carried through most of the songs.
In his AllMusic review of the album, Stephen Thomas Erlewine calls Touch Me In The Morning “something rich, gorgeous, and romantic, something of a slow-dance classic,” and record-buyers certainly felt the same way. Thanks to the huge success of its title track, Touch Me In The Morning became Diana’s most successful solo studio album to date, peaking at #5 on the Billboard 200 and topping the R&B Albums chart for two weeks. Certainly her recent success as a motion picture actress helped fuel sales, but it’s arguable that the album’s emphasis on pop melodies over strictly soul music is the real reason the album did so well. Diana’s first trio of solo albums was far more rooted in soul music, which likely limited their appeal for certain audiences at the time. With this album, Motown and Diana Ross definitively infiltrated the pop market, evolving the singer’s imagine in that of an untouchable, sophisticated songstress.
Although Touch Me In The Morning was a major hit, its impact was diluted a bit by Motown’s determination to flood the market with Diana Ross product in 1973-1974. Instead of releasing a second single from the album in the United States, the label immediately moved on to Diana’s next album (Diana & Marvin) and then the next after that (Last Time I Saw Him), obviously anticipating the time that the singer would be busy filming her second motion picture and thus unable to devote attention to her recording career. Had this album been allowed to “breathe” a little bit, and had a second or even third single been released from it, it might have become the biggest her career; certainly on the heels of an Oscar-nominated film debut, she’d never been hotter. Still, Touch Me In The Morning easily remains one of the stronger efforts of the singer’s solo discography, and a testament to the strength of material Diana was given to recording the 1970s.
Final Analysis: 4.5/5 (Little “Room” For Improvement)
Paul’s Picks: “Little Girl Blue,” “Touch Me In The Morning,” “I Won’t Last A Day Without You”