Diana Ross Climbs Over the Mountain and Beyond the Valley
What happened when Diana Ross left the Supremes? The answer might surprise you. Two recently unearthed solo albums tell the story.
"Good evening everybody, and welcome to the let's-see-if-Diana-Ross-can-do-it-by-herself-show".
-- Diana Ross, 7 AUGUST 1970, The Grove (Los Angeles, CA)
In the first six months of 1970, it seemed like Diana Ross could not do it by herself.
On January 14, 1970, Diana Ross & the Supremes gave their final performance at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. Standing onstage, adorned with massive flower bouquets, Diana Ross passed the torch to her replacement, Jean Terrell. It marked the end of an era. The lead singer of the most legendary female group of all time was launching a solo career, and a new incarnation of the trio would carry on its sequined-studded legacy.
In truth, the Ross-less Supremes had already commenced recording their debut album, Right On (1970), in late 1969 while Diana Ross & the Supremes' swan song, "Someday We'll Be Together", was still on the charts. (It is important to note that Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong did not actually sing on the Johnny Bristol-produced track, since "Someday We'll Be Together" was initially intended to be the solo debut single for Diana Ross.) While Jean Terrell learned the solo parts for the group and laid tracks with Wilson and Birdsong, Ross began working with producer Bones Howe (the man behind many hits by the 5th Dimension), as well as in-house Motown producers Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson. The Howe sessions, which included Ross's takes on Laura Nyro gems like "Time and Love" and "Stoney End", were aborted after only a few tracks were recorded. Instead, Ross continued to record with Ashford & Simpson. The duo produced her eponymous debut album and on June 19, 1970,Diana Ross officially introduced Diana Ross: Solo Artist.
Meanwhile, within a month of the Supremes' last performance with Ross, the Jean Terrell-led version of the group were riding high on the charts with a top 10 pop hit, "Up the Ladder to the Roof". The same could not be said for their former lead singer. Released in April 1970, two months ahead of Diana Ross, "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)" charted a respectable but disappointing #20. Even though the song became an anthem for the singer, it was hardly the success that label boss Berry Gordy had envisioned. Gordy's prospects for a successful follow-up single from Diana Ross dimmed, and he rushed the singer back into the studio with another one of Motown's house producers, Deke Richards.
As a member of "The Corporation", a stable of writers and producers at the label, Richards lent a hand in crafting the Jackson 5's earliest hits, including "I Want You Back", "ABC", and "The Love You Save". He'd also previously worked with Ross on the Supremes' Funny Girl (1968) album, as well as their chart-topping "Love Child" single. Though not explicitly stated, Richards's task was to create a more radio-ready pop record to ensure that if the second single from Diana Ross was unsuccessful, one of his productions would give the singer that all-important smash hit.
While sessions were underway for the Richards-helmed Everything Is Everything album, which was rush-released in September 1970, something remarkable happened. A truncated version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (the last track actually recorded for Diana Ross) shot to number one on the pop charts. The heavenly choir and thrilling orchestration, coupled with Ross' sung-spoken performance, was a mini-masterpiece. The irony was that Gordy was initially reluctant to pull the song for a single release at all, deeming it too unconventional. Wasting no time to capitalize on the success of the suddenly-hot Ashford & Simpson-Diana Ross collaboration, Gordy commissioned the duo to produce another album for Ross. To quote Valerie Simpson, "Motown was very big on the idea of repeating something if it was successful." The result -- Surrender (1971) -- was released 13 months after Diana Ross and a mere ten months after Everything Is Everything. The soundtrack for Ross's TV special, Diana!, was also released in the spring of 1971. How's that for saturating the market?
Despite their historic significance, Everything Is Everything and Surrender have been widely unavailable for nearly 40 years, though each album made a very brief appearance on CD in the mid-'80s. Hip-O Select has lovingly dusted off the masters, dug through the vaults, and re-released the albums in stunning expanded and re-mastered editions. These albums offer a wealth of undiscovered gems in the sorely underappreciated Motown catalog of Diana Ross.
If ever a song was designed to open an album, it's the first song on Everything Is Everything. Strings, guitar, and bass are plucked out on four staccato notes, Diana Ross cries "Hoo-hoo-hoo", the background singers repeat the phrase, and "My Place" launches into a wistful arrangement highlighted by crisp drumming and tambourine taps. Ross's warm and engaging, yet snappy, delivery is directly lifted from the Vegas show playbook, where the singer "invites" the audience into their world through the opening number. "This is my place and I want to share it with you", Ross sings. At face value, it works splendidly.
Deke Richards was not the only producer on the track, or even the entirety of Everything Is Everything. Given the frantic timetable Richards was working in (Gordy wanted the album "yesterday", the producer recalls in the liner notes), he brought Hal Davis on to manage one-third of the album's production. In addition to his work on "My Place", Davis is credited on the soulful "Ain't No Sad Song", where Ross bears a passing resemblance to Eddie Kendricks, the lovely and lilting title track, and the Marvin Gaye-penned "Baby It's Love". Berry Gordy worked with Davis on the latter, contributing to the album's most romantic track, made all the more sensual by moaning sax inflections. (Expanded edition producers Andrew Skurow and Harry Weinger note that overdub sessions for "Baby It's Love" coincided with Gaye's "What's Going On", hence alto saxophonist Eli Fountain's possible double duty on the two tracks. An extended version of "Baby It's Love" is also included as a bonus track.)
Following "Baby It's Love" is the album's signature tune, "I'm Still Waiting". Akin to the fate of the chart-topping "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", label boss Gordy wasn't pleased with the song, and yet "I'm Still Waiting" gave Diana Ross her first solo number-one hit in the UK. Listening all these years later, it's not difficult to understand why the song made an impact. Written and produced by Deke Richards, it contains a tender, tear-stained performance by Ross. Painted in foggy brushstrokes of bittersweet nostalgia, she sings about an unrequited love that haunts her years after the "boy" has abandoned her. She gently entreats him to come back. The song is so beloved by UK audiences that a remixed version of "I'm Still Waiting", included here, landed at #21 on the UK charts in 1990.
Building on the success of "I'm Still Waiting", Tamla Motown, the UK branch of the label, issued the phonetically titled – get ready - "Doobedood'ndoobe, Doobedood'ndoobe, Doobedood'ndoo". The track gave Ross another UK hit (#12), though it remained little more than a curious album track in the US. Richards cites the song as one of his better writing efforts. Even if the title is a mouthful, it truly is an adventurous tune, replete with angelic background vocals, majestic horns, a baroque-styled harpsichord, and strings that emotionally amplify the lyrics. Unlike "I'm Still Waiting", the song is a celebration of a heaven-sent love, its title a wordless expression of the "good, good feeling" Ross feels in her soul.
The original Side B of Everything Is Everything explains why the album is considered by many to be a patchwork affair. Richards was pressed for material so he turned to popular hits by the Beatles ("Come Together", "The Long and Winding Road"), Aretha Franklin ("I Love You"), and the Carpenters ("Close to You") to complete the album. The interpretations by Ross, while certainly adequate, are not wholly distinct enough from any number of versions recorded by other artists at the time, and certainly not from the artists who popularized the songs. Of the bunch, only the lushly orchestrated "The Long and Winding Road" is most in accordance with the natural interpretive abilities Diana Ross regularly deployed over the years.
"How About You", the only Richards-penned track on Side B, is a diamond among the album's hidden gems. A nod towards the more bossa nova-influenced work of Burt Bacharach, it seems like a misstep that the song wasn't pulled for a single release by Motown. The closest it came was turning up as a b-side when "Remember Me" (from Surrender) was released as a single in December 1970.
Another of Richards's tributes to Bacharach is "Wish I Knew", appended to Everything Is Everything as a bonus track. The song could have survived the final cut of the album had it not suffered from repetition and a melodic sameness. The other pair of tracks recorded for Everything Is Everything but ultimately withheld from release were Ross's versions of "Something" by the Beatles and the Oscar-winning "What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life" from the film The Happy Ending (1969). The sweeping drama of the latter works more in the singer's favor than the insipid Vegas-styled pizzazz of the former.
The legacy of Everything Is Everything is that of a producer giving his very best towards assembling a hit album for a world superstar under intense deadlines and working conditions. In the liner notes, Richards explains that one of the challenges in producing the album was creating continuity between his original material, well-known songs, and the tracks that Hal Davis produced. He concedes that Everything Is Everything lacked an overall concept, an accurate assessment that would unfortunately plague a few of the subsequent albums Diana Ross recorded at Motown. Of course, the decision not to release "I'm Still Waiting" as a single until October 1971, more than after a year after the album hit the stores, hindered any momentum the album might have been generated if the single was released closer to the album's September 1970 street date. (In fact, all three singles extracted from Surrender had a run on the charts before "I'm Still Waiting" even had a chance to make an impression on the radio.) With no hit singles in the US, and compared to the sleeper success of Diana Ross, the second solo outing by Diana Ross was a blatant disappointment.
In a way, Ashford & Simpson were faced with a slightly more daunting task than Deke Richards -- they had to follow up their own work with Ross, which now included a career-defining number one single. Throughout late 1970 and early 1971, the hit songwriting duo wrote a batch of new material and combed through their own catalog for previously recorded songs that they felt might suit Diana Ross. And they succeeded. Surrender is a superior album. On a list that includes Diana Ross, The Boss (1979), and diana (1980), the album ranks among the finest work by Diana Ross in her 45-year recording career.
The opening title track sets the album off, firing on all cylinders. Comparing it to "My Place" from Everything Is Everything might be too facile -- they are clearly different kinds of showcases for Ross, and set different moods for their respective albums -- but there's a reason why no less a modern day legend than Luther Vandross considered "Surrender" one of his favorite songs, and why soul music tastemakers like David Nathan (who pens this set's liner notes) include Surrender on their short-list.
Singing over Valerie Simpson's gospel-derived piano inflections, Ross is out to claim the love that is rightfully hers. "You must pay for the lonely nights / That I walked the floor for you / And don't you know that you must erase / All these tear stains on my face", she hisses, before the song is airborne on Paul Riser's magnificent string and horn arrangements. Backed by Ashford, Simpson, and Joshie Armstead on vocals, Ross is in full command of her instrument. The song reaches an incendiary climax during the "Give it to me!" bridge, where her ad-libs reach through time and space to grab a hold of the listener's senses. The song's powerful tonic might have been too much for radio to handle at the time. When it was released as a single in July 1971, it narrowly made the Top 40 singles chart, becoming little more than a footnote as the years passed. Its full impact can once again be completely appreciated, now that it's right where it should be: front, center, and foretelling a whole album's worth of exceptional material. (A slightly extended, alternate stereo mix added to the expanded edition reveals a bevy of sonic goodies virtually buried on the original album version.)
"I Can't Give Back the Love I Feel for You", a song Ashford & Simpson co-wrote with Brian Holland, is one of the songs on Surrender that already had something of a shelf-life at Motown. Syreeta "Rita" Wright introduced it to music audiences in 1967, and the tune was later recorded by Kiki Dee for her Great Expectations (1970) album. Diana Ross had also previously recorded the song with the Supremes in 1968. Speculation indicates that the song might have been intended as a follow-up to the Ashford & Simpson-penned "Some Things You Never Get Used To" single off Diana Ross & the Supremes' Love Child (1968) album. On Surrender, Ross treats the song as a completely new interpretive experience. Her spoken word introduction recalls "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", but the song's infectious chorus is faithful to Syreeta's version. For those three minutes, the song belongs to Diana Ross.
Similarly, Ross takes a song recorded by Gladys Knight & the Pips and makes it her own. In David Nathan's interview with Simpson, the producer explains that she and Ashford felt they could improve the song, given a second opportunity. The track in question -- "Didn't You Know (You'd Have to Cry Sometime)?" -- serves up another highlight on the album, without taking anything away from Knight's hit version.
"I'm a Winner", the penultimate track on the original Surrender album, was a key cut on Sugar N' Spice (1969) by Martha Reeves & the Vandellas two years before. Label mate Edwin Starr was actually slated to sing over the backing track that appears on Ross's version. Instead, "I'm a Winner" was "won" by Ross. Her performance is soulful, sassy, and brimming with confidence, not to mention a characteristically funky workout by the Funk Brothers.
To further illustrate Motown's frequent track reassignments, "And If You See Him" was supposed to be "And If You See Her" for Marvin Gaye. With a change in pronouns, the tune went to Diana Ross and furnishes Surrender with one of its most memorable cuts. The backing track simmers, bubbles, and reaches a feverish boil as the song progresses. Ashford & Simpson double-track Ross's voice during the verses and create a psychological duality. "And if you see him / Tell him I miss him / Tell him I feel so bad / For messing up what we had", she pleads gently. Carrying an emotional burden of guilt, Ross could very well be imagining the visage of her scorned lover on the face of random passers-by, begging forgiveness, while carrying on an internal dialogue to help her sort through the pain. Ashford & Simpson always had a penchant for writing love songs of depth and substance. "And If You See Him" is one of those.
They were also bold producers, pushing songs beyond the three-minute conventions of the era. Their boldest move on Surrender became the second single off the album. Ashford & Simpson dared to touch pop perfection and re-imagined the Four Tops' "Reach Out, I'll Be There" as a sprawling, six-minute opus. As Simpson says in reference to this track, "We like big choruses, lots of strings, and multi-layered backgrounds." These are the qualities that define the Diana Ross version.
To Ashford & Simpson's credit, their version of the Holland-Dozier-Holland-penned song is barely recognizable to what the Four Tops recorded. Great care was evidently taken to create something unique. The song is divided into three distinct sections. The first movement is a soft, sparse slow burn that features Ross singing the song's well-known lyrics softly, caressing each word with sensitivity and tenderness. The background vocals float in, the strings enter, and the hi-hat becomes more pronounced. A key change at 2:56 shifts the song into its second part, where Ross cries, "You can always call on me". The rhythm track intensifies underneath the rich and evocative background vocals. (When Ross and the backing vocalists sing, "When you're lost and about to give up / 'Cause your best just ain't good enough" in unison, don't be surprised if you find yourself a mite choked up.) At 3:54, the song climaxes with Ross shouting, "I'll be there!" Ashford & Simpson sustain the excitement for two minutes more, bringing the song to its rousing conclusion.
Of course, the songs originated by Diana Ross on Surrender are just as noteworthy. "Did You Read the Morning Paper?" is a clever take on infidelity. Without giving too much of the song away, a newspaper figures prominently in the narrative's denouement. In addition to a nuanced vocal by Diana Ross, it is an expertly written and produced song, chock full of sharp lyrics, changes in key, and sudden rhythmic shifts. "A Simple Thing Like Cry" contains another strident performance by Ross, one Valerie Simpson remains particularly partial to. "I'll Settle for You" finds Ashford & Simpson immersing their vocalist in a pop vein, while "All the Befores" has a more subtlely dramatic atmosphere, closing the album's original Side B.
If "I'm Still Waiting" defines Everything Is Everything, then "Remember Me" defines Surrender. (So integral is the song to the album that Andrew Skurow and Harry Weinger include no less than four versions of the song here: the original album version, an alternate vocal mix, a special vocal dub from the original soundtrack to the Diana! television special, and Valerie Simpson's revelatory demo of the song.) Motown released "Remember Me" as the first single off the album in December 1970, following the monstrous success of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough". (Just a reminder, Everything Is Everything had already been released by this point, but "I'm Still Waiting" would not be released until late 1971.) The single climbed to #16 on the pop charts and made an impressive showing in the Top 10 of the R&B charts.
"Remember Me" also became a staple of the elaborate concerts Diana Ross staged in the late '70s. Though the song essentially traces the end of a romantic relationship, Ross recontextualized the song for her shows. In her heralded run at Caesar's Palace in 1979 (coinciding with the release of The Boss), she sang the song while standing underneath a gargantuan screen that flashed photos of her life, from childhood through the Supremes through her turn as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972). Adding yet another layer to the song, it also foretold Ross's departure from Motown and from under the direction of (former paramour) Berry Gordy. In 1971, though, "Remember Me" was simply a beautiful, heartfelt, and misty-eyed remembrance of days gone by.
"Remember" is a central theme to the re-issues of Everything Is Everything and Surrender. Except in the hearts of Diana Ross and classic Motown devotees, these albums have been forgotten in the decades since their original release. However, it is important to remember that they comprise an important moment in Diana Ross's career. Competing with her old group on the charts, the unpredictability of her solo success, her willingness to go in different stylistic directions, the expectations of her label while it tried to secure its footing in a new decade, and the desire to be make some kind of artistic statement in the process, is the subtext of those first two years when Diana Ross ventured on her own. It may not have been clear at the time, but after absorbing these albums years later and experiencing the unearthed beauty of tracks like "Baby It's Love", "How About You", "And If You See Him", and "Did You Read the Morning Paper?", one thing is absolutely irrefutable: Diana Ross did do it by herself, after all.