“All of your life to share is all I’m asking, all of the minutes and the years…”
If the first three solo albums of Diana Ross’s career (Diana Ross, Everything Is Everything, Surrender) comprise the first definite era of her solo stardom, then this – her first studio album following the Lady Sings The Blues soundtrack – neatly kicks off the second. That trio of early 70s albums were strong and soulful, and took Diana Ross out of the pop-leanings of the Supremes and placed her back squarely in R&B territory. But with the film and soundtrack release of Lady, featuring Diana Ross’s stunning renditions of the Billie Holiday jazz catalogue, the singer’s career shot to a new level. No longer just an R&B diva and “former lead singer of the Supremes,” Diana Ross was now truly an international star, and her recording career would never be the same. She herself is quoted in David Nathan’s The Soulful Divas as saying, “Somehow I feel [a little] lost between ‘Baby Love’ and ‘Lady Sings the Blues.’ I’m not sure which direction my career will take now” (153).
The direction she took was up – straight to #1 – with the hit song “Touch Me In The Morning.” The song was a huge success and is now a Diana Ross classic, and was the perfect continuation of her solo career. Just as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” showcased a major growth from her work with the Supremes, “Touch Me…” shows off a further maturation in Diana’s voice, which had lost some of the breathiness from her earliest solo recordings but gained a smooth, velvety tone used in her jazz recordings. The song was the work of Michael Masser and Ron Miller (she’d have a few more ballad hits thanks to Masser later in her career), but the album that followed was mainly put together by Deke Richards, who’d masterminded her Everything Is Everything.
Much in the way Diana Ross (1970) served as a definition for Diana as a solo star, the Touch Me In The Morning album helped re-define Diana Ross as an entertainment star. The songs are tailored to a much broader audience, mixing R&B and pop in equal parts, and even retaining some jazz for the new fans gained thanks to Lady. It is to Richards’s credit that this time – while he’s again working with a variety of songwriters and producers, as he did on Everything Is Everything – there’s a cohesive feel to the album, with each and every song building off the adult contemporary tone set by the title track. This is not “bubblegum” pop music; Diana Ross is now singing about adult relationships, motherhood, and social issues.
1. Touch Me In The Morning: The instantly-recognizable piano chords that open this Grammy-nominated, #1 hit immediately set the grown-up, classy tone that will be carried through until the end of the album. The Diana Ross singing here sounds far more mature than the one who squealed “This is My Place…” on Everything Is Everything, which is pretty astonishing considering only about two years separated the two songs. Ron Miller and Michael Masser came up with a perfect vehicle for the new, grown-up Diana Ross; the song is a pop masterwork, with a sweeping chorus and memorable lyric. Diana herself turns in a confident, laid-back performance; she is far less-giddy than she sounded on her earliest solo albums, and clearly is incorporating some of the relaxed singing techniques of her jazz performances here. On the opening especially, when she’s accompanied by only the piano, there’s a smoothness to her voice that wasn’t present at all on songs like “Now That There’s You” from Diana Ross, on which she sang a similar introduction in far breathier, youthful voice. The overdubbed ending, during which Diana Ross sings along with herself, almost in a duet, is a stroke of genius that makes the recording feel modern even today. Though there’s been much written about the turmoil behind the recording process of the song (apparently Diana Ross was…shall we say…unmotivated to work on it), it’s to everyone’s credit that it ended up as such a great record.
2. All Of My Life: Another memorable pop tune, this one was a hit overseas (though, oddly, never released in the United States). The song isn’t as strong as “Touch Me…,” but I suspect it still could have gained plenty of airplay had it been released as the second single here at home. Listening to the song today, the biggest issue is that is souns dated; the instrumental track and background vocals are a bit overpowering and very 1970s-ish, and while Diana gives a nice performance, she does sound like she’s straining to hit the high notes, which is odd considering she’d sung higher on much of her work with Ashford & Simpson. Still, this is one of those songs that easily sticks in the brain, and was a good inclusion here.
3. We Need You: This song apparently was supposed to be the second single, though it ended up never being released. A Deke Richards production, “We Need You” is light years better than some of the work the two churned out for Everything Is Everything, and is a sad, shuffling soul ballad that gives Miss Ross the chance to show off a little bit of the passion that’s missing from some of the other performances on this album. Her vocals are really nice on the song; similar to “I’m Still Waiting,” this is a story-song, and Diana Ross is never better than when she’s telling a story to her listeners. She tailors her performance to that story, keeping it simple and slightly mournful, never being too dramatic nor too weak. I’m not sure this would have been a huge hit if it had been released, but it is a nice album track.
4. Leave A Little Room: Thematically, this is another perfect choice for Touch Me In The Morning, as it’s a mature song about love, loss, and moving on. The composition itself isn’t as immediately grabbing as the tunes that proceed it, however, due to an unusual chord progression (the verses and chorus sound like they could have come from completely different songs) and the instrumental track, which has a much more country/pop feel than anything else on the album. Though Diana capably delivers the song, and her voice is nicely doubled on the choruses, the vocal performance isn’t a particularly interesting or powerful one. Still, the song seamlessly fits into the album and serves as a nice bridge between the sadness of “We Need You” and the joy of the love song that follows…
5. I Won’t Last A Day Without You: This song is best known as a hit by The Carpenters (who took it to the Top 20 in 1974), and has been recorded by several popular singers over the years, including Barbra Streisand. The song itself is one of the strongest on the album; it’s a beautifully written work with a memorable chorus and lyrics, and Diana turns in a lovely vocal here, giving an delicate, yet assured performance. 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 more enjoyable album tracks of Diana’s mid-70s career.
6. Little Girl Blue: This is one of the unqualified highlights of the album, a stunningly beautiful inclusion that ranks with the best work Diana Ross would ever produce. Apparently recorded for the Blue album (a proposed follow-up to Lady Sings The Blues which went unreleased for several decades), this Rodgers and Hart standard manages to merge perfectly with the contemporary songs that surround it here, while also evoking the work Diana had turned out for the Lady soundtrack. The instrumental track here is beyond superb; the jazz guitar work is an absolute joy, and the sweeping strings here are achingly beautiful. Diana’s performance, meanwhile, is masterful; this is as good as her voice would ever sound in the mid-70s. Relaxed and confident, Diana easily reaches both the high and low ends of her range, and her crystal-clear enunciation is perhaps 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 piece of album filler. 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 soundtrack. There’s a complexity here, a subtelty 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 a real shame. This is a masterpiece.
7. My Baby (My Baby My Own): This is one of the great surprises of the Touch Me In The Morning album, and a song with a instrumental track so good that it’s a surprise it hasn’t been discovered and sampled by a modern-day R&B/Hip-Hop artist (if it hasn’t already). This is a song that takes the basic groundwork laid by “We Need You” and drags it into the complete depths of despair; to describe the song as mournful doesn’t even do it justice. Diana doesn’t so much sing the sad lyrics like “How could your Daddy leave us all alone?” as wail them, her voice thick and deep with emotion. Her wordless vocal work at 2 minutes into the song is devastating; she sounds like she’s crying straight into the microphone. The instrumental track is top-notch 70s soul; the repetitive 3-note piano hook is so brilliant that, again, it’s begging to be used again.
8. Imagine: A nice, laid-back cover of the John Lennon classic. Though it’s never been a favorite of mine, the Lennon compsition is undeniably catchy, and Diana’s version is simple and straight-forward. The most notable thing about this inclusion is that it bears Diana’s name as producer, and thus is her first credited album track in the capacity. It’s to her credit that while not a standout here, the familiar song does seamlessly fit in with the rest of the album.
9. Medley: Brown Baby/Save The Children: Touch Me In The Morning closes with an eight-and-a-half minute, pure soul medley of Oscar Brown, Jr.’s “Brown Baby” and Marvin Gaye’s “Save The Children.” Like “Little Girl Blue,” this is a hidden treasure of the album that should be played for casual fans unaware of the diversity of work recorded by Diana Ross. Much of the success of this medley lies in the phenomenal instrumental track, featuring a soulful groove as good as anything on Gaye’s classic What’s Going On album (which originally featured “Save The Children”). Diana’s vocal work is top-notch as well, her relaxed and emotional delivery as good as anything else on the album. This is a perfect way to close the album, as the song once again captures the adult, soothing, almost daydream-like vibe set from the start by “Touch Me In The Morning” and carried through most of the songs.
Note: For information on bonus tracks from this album, click HERE.
Touch Me In The Morning was a big success, hitting #5 on Billboard’s top album charts and #1 on the R&B album charts, a deserved success since it stands as one of the stronger albums in the Diana Ross discography. That the album works as such a complete musical piece is surprising, considering it’s made up of songs by a handful of writers and producers, and many of the songs were apparently recorded for other projects that were never finished. Still, it’s a testament to how strong the material was that Diana was being given in the mid-70s. Though Touch Me In The Morning is not as musically interesting as Last Time I Saw Him, which would come a year later, it is much more even, and therefore makes for a nice, complete listening experience. I wish some of the songs didn’t sound as dated, and that at times Diana Ross would’ve pushed herself vocally a little more, but it’s hard to complain about an album that features some sterling highlights and on which even the weakest songs are still listenable.
Final Analysis: 4/5 (Only “A Little Room” For Improvement)
Choice Cuts: “Little Girl Blue,” “Touch Me In The Morning,” “Medley: Brown Baby/Save The Children”
The Grammy nominees for Best Female Pop Vocal Female Performance that year were:
Roberta Flack, “Killing Me Softly With His Song” (Winner)
Bette Midler, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”
Anne Murray, “Danny’s Song”
Diana Ross, “Touch Me In The Morning”
Carly Simon, “You’re So Vain”