“What a sweet surprise, can’t believe my eyes…this has really made my day…”
Diana Ross’s 1995 studio album Take Me Higher, released during her second tenure with Motown, is without a doubt one of the singer’s best offerings ever. From start to finish, the album is fresh and exciting, featuring contemporary and classy songs that are perfectly suited to Diana’s gorgeous, mature vocals. Though the album wasn’t a huge seller in the United States, it did give her a #1 dance hit with the title track, and song still beloved by club-goers. The set’s closer, “I Will Survive,” has been adopted by Diana as her own latter-day theme song, often closing her own shows with it and performing it to appreciative audiences. Between those two upbeat anthems, Take Me Higher includes some absolutely stellar mid-tempo numbers and ballads, some of the best of Diana’s storied career and certainly among the most underrated.
Incredibly, as strong as Take Me Higher‘s twelve released tracks are (eleven on the US version plus “Swing It,” a song included on EMI’s international release in place of the ballad “Let Somebody Know”), there were more. There are three b-sides that didn’t make it onto final pressings of the CD, but did manage to find release from other venues. According to Diana’s biographer, J. Randy Taraborrelli, the song “Soul Kiss” was featured on a Canadian promo cassette. Another song, “Too Many Nights,” showed up on the international single for “Take Me Higher,” while the ballad “I’m So Happy (To See You Again)” featured on an international single for “Gone.” This wasn’t uncommon for Diana Ross in the 1990s; because Motown handled her domestic releases and EMI released her work internationally, what ended up on store shelves often varied country to country.
The three songs continue working relationships with people who already figure prominently on Take Me Higher; “Soul Kiss” and “Too Many Nights” are Nick Martinelli songs, while “I’m So Happy (To See You Again)” is a Brenda Russell tune. While the album as released doesn’t suffer from any of these songs being left off, all three could have easily been added to Take Me Higher and maintained the high level of quality set by the collection of contemporary soul and dance tracks. Each of the three b-sides feature strong production values and gorgeous, soulful work from Diana Ross. This was a peak time for Ross, who was embracing her maturing voice and showing off her deepened range, and these three songs are the perfect way to “extend” an album that was already pretty much perfect.
Soul Kiss: A cool, beat-heavy mid-tempo tune written by Diana’s longtime collaborator Nick Martinelli, this is probably the funkiest work the two turned out together. The track is driven by a thick, heavy bass and metallic-sounding guitars that provide a more angular (almost Chic-like) musical bed for Diana’s smooth and soulful work. Miss Ross provides a breathy, sexy vocal here that works perfectly with lyrics like, “All you have to do is breathe with your lips close to mine…” She sounds loose behind the mic, offering up a lot of sighs and spoken snippets that make the piece feel intimate and warm (the same kind of thing she’d done back in 1976 with her #1 “Love Hangover”). The chorus is light and airy, memorable without being overtly “hook-y,” and probably would have sounded really good on adult R&B radio had it made its way onto the finished album. “Soul Kiss” isn’t necessarily stronger than any songs on the album, but it would have been a nice change of pace had it been included thanks to the unique instrumental track; a few lines sound similar to the melody of “Don’t Stop,” which did feature on the CD, which may be why “Soul Kiss” ended up getting left off. Much of Diana’s work with Nick Martinelli was rooted firmly in the pop world (especially the duo’s work on Forever Diana and, of course, A Very Special Season), so it is nice to hear something different from them. Anyway, bottom line, “Soul Kiss” is a nice “hidden” treasure in the Diana discography that fans of her mid-90s work really need to hear.
Too Many Nights: Another sexy Nick Martinelli track; the vibe here is pure, cool sophisticated soul, with Diana Ross yet again offering up a sublime vocal that shows off just how great she was sounding during the sessions of this album. It says a lot about Take Me Higher that a song this good was left off the finished album; Diana was recorded so many good songs at this time that obviously there just wasn’t room for them all. On any other album, “Too Many Nights” would have been a welcome addition; it would have sounded particularly good among the other sophisticated R&B tunes on her next studio album, Every Day Is A New Day, and in fact bears a similarity to “Free (I’m Gone),” a Japanese bonus track from that album. “Too Many Nights” is classic mid-90s R&B; the track doesn’t differ much from the work being released by artists like Brandy or Faith Evans, with its cool, head-bopping beat and soulful instrumental flourishes. Miss Ross sounds confident and mature on the vocal, keeping it low-key and allowing the deeper end of her range to do much of the work. Listen to her sing beginning at the 2:00 mark; her voice lightly dusts the lyrics “Now I’m as serious as a heart attack, ’cause I’ve decided baby, we’re through…,” riding the melody with the perfect mix of attitude and detachment to create the perfect kiss-off. Again, had “Too Many Nights” been added to the Take Me Higher tracklist, it would have merged in seamlessly while also managing to sound unique; the closest song to it, in terms of production and tone, is “Keep It Right There” (and, perhaps, “If You’re Not Gonna Love Me Right”), and it doesn’t really sound too much like that. Instead, the song was a pleasant surprise to those who found it, and remains a great supplement to the album.
I’m So Happy (To See You Again): It should go without saying that this a lush, gorgeous track; after all, Diana’s work on Brenda Russell tracks is always near-perfect. “Let Somebody Know,” from the Motown release of Take Me Higher, was one of the standouts of the entire work, and her recording of “What About Love” on 2006’s I Love You is among her most moving performances ever — and both of these are Brenda Russell songs. “I’m So Happy (To See You Again)” was also co-written by the great Ms. Russell, and the result here is another standout ballad, a melody-driven song that really allows Diana Ross to shine. Diana shows off far more range on this song than on the previous two; not only does she use her lower tones, but she also spectacularly displays her still-supple upper range, with her higher-notes on the verses ringing out clear and strong. Just the opening line (referenced earlier in this post), as her voice spills down the scale singing “What a sweet surprise, can’t believe my eyes…,” is so pitch-perfect and full of emotion that it’s impossible to not be moved. There’s a bit more of a beat on the chorus, which adds some nice variation to the piece and certainly makes the song sound more contemporary and memorable. That chorus (with the bouncy “I’m So Happy To See You Again” repetition — reminiscent of a slowed down “Real Love” by Mary J. Blige) absolutely would have sounded perfect on R&B radio in 1995; this song could have easily been pushed as a single had it found a domestic release. Again, Take Me Higher isn’t worse for missing this song, but it would have been just as good had it been added to the project. What a sweet surprise, indeed.
Nearly twenty years later, Take Me Higher remains one of the single best discs ever turned out by Diana Ross; it is still a vibrant listen and shows Diana Ross at her vocal best. There’s not a single dud on the project, and there’s not one among the b-sides, either. It would be interesting to hear from Diana Ross herself — executive producer of her later projects, including this one — what goes into choosing which songs make it onto the CD and which get left off. Certainly quality has nothing to do with why these three songs were left off; they all match the high standard set by the others. Whatever the reason, at least the songs saw the light of day at all — giving fans the chance to extend the CD to fifteen total tracks (not to mention additional remixes of “Take Me Higher,” “I Will Survive,” and “If You’re Not Gonna Love Me Right”). This remains a high point in Diana’s career, and these additional songs take Take Me Higher…well…even higher.
Best Of The Bunch: “I’m So Happy (To See You Again)”