By 1971, Diana Ross was on her way to becoming the kind of crossover, all-across-the-board superstar that she and Motown founder Berry Gordy planned. Merely being one-third of the greatest girl group in pop music history wasn’t enough for the prodigiously talented and ambitious Ross; Motown’s First Lady was destined to become the embodiment of Superstar. Through careful choices in her career, she was being groomed to enjoy a kind of phenomenal success that included TV, film, the stage, and of course, music.
In the 1960s, Ross’ voice was a major part of the soundtrack of a tumultuous time. As a beautiful, elegant, and glamorous Black woman, she was an aspirational figure, seemingly part of and separate from the turmoil raging in the streets. Media mogul Oprah Winfrey was greatly inspired by seeing the Supremes for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show, saying that it signified “the possibilities for a future beyond poverty to something beautiful. [Diana Ross] represented that beauty and more importantly, hope for me. Hope that my life could be better, that I could do better”. Winfrey adds that the Supremes were important for Black girls in general because of what they embodied:
At the time, there were not other images of Black folks on television that were beautiful and powerful and strong and meaningful and so for me to be a little Negro girl and having only had Buckwheat and those people as images, to all of a sudden see Diana Ross and the Supremes on Ed Sullivan said, “That can be possible for me”.
The goal of Motown was to market artists who would transcend race and be as successful and popular with white audiences as they would with Black audiences. Though Motown did contribute to the politically charged sound of the 1960s and 1970s with conscious records (most notably by artists such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye), much of the label’s biggest successes was devoted to songs that weren’t overtly political but made an impact nonetheless by their ability to cross racial barriers. These advancements weren’t just artistic or social, but commercial as well. Whilst the British Invasion was cutting into the successes of homegrown bands, the Supremes continued unabated, even rivaling the Beatles in the 1960s.
When Ross left the Supremes in 1970 (for her inevitable solo career), the plan was for her to have a Barbra Streisand-like appeal as an all-around entertainer who can appeal to all ages and all races. Not only was Ross recording hit records and albums, but she would also headline her own television variety special—Diana!—in 1971. That same year, she released her third studio LP, Surrender. The record was a concerted effort to remind listeners that, above anything else, Diana Ross is a fabulous recording artist. But, beyond the gowns, the hair, the marabou boas, and the elaborate stage shows, there was always the vibrant singer. Producers Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson created a set of songs that engaged with a soulfulness that Ross had rarely shown in her solo recordings; they tapped into that urgent, oft-anxious yearning that she displayed in some of her best Supremes records. (Just listen to her frantic urging on “You Keep Me Hanging On” and not be moved by her angst!)
Though Ross was one of the most important figures in 1970s pop music, she has often been unfavorably compared to fellow soul divas Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, and Gladys Knight. Unlike those remarkable singers, Ross wasn’t a gospel-reared vocalist. Her voice wasn’t a large, guttural instrument; it was a beautiful—but thin and airy—croon. When Franklin sang, she sounded as if the holy spirit was moving her. In contrast, live LaBelle seemed possessed, and Knight had a powerful grit. On the other hand, Ross was compelling because she could bend and twist her sinewy coo to wring emotions from her evocative music. Unfortunately, because she was interested in becoming a crossover superstar, she was far more amenable to recording Broadway-style pop ballads and radio-friendly tunes, so her singing was often constricted and mannered (which hurt her records).
The title track opens Surrender and is a musical punch in the face, showing listeners that Ross could be just as soulful and impassionate as her peers if necessary. It starts with a consistent beat as a subdued Ross, in a lower register, sings, “I want the love that you deny me / That I need so desperately / The tenderness that you possess you’ve deprived of me / You must pay for the lonely nights that I walked the floor for you / And don’t you know that you must erase all the tear stains on my face”. As the strings rise around her, Ross’ singing gets more hyperactive, giving way to a sort of mania before she ends the verse with an impassioned belt of “on my face!” Then, she’s quickly joined by her backup vocalists as the chorus bursts: “Surrender, your love, baby, surrender your love!” Horns join the majestic chorus, and the track (initially an understated and ruminative ballad) becomes a grand, epic soul-shouter that finds itself more in common with Philadelphia soul than Motown pop.
As the song builds to a crescendo, there’s a fantastic break at the 1:20 mark, wherein the backup singers start to chant, “Give it to me, give it to me” (reminiscent of Aretha’s “Sock it to me!” on “Respect”); Ross responds with a pained “Owww!” that would make James Brown proud. Her voice—normally clear and crystalline—becomes thick with pain and emotion, crying over the relatively gospel backing vocals. Though Ross’ father was a Baptist preacher and she came from the church, that influence was rarely felt on her music. Thus, it’s amazing when it does happen, such as on “Surrender”.
The song’s songwriters (billed as Ashford & Simpson) prove to be as sympatico to Ross’ sound and musical persona as the trio of Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, and Eddie Holland. Performers themselves (the married duo would have a string of R&B hits in the 1980s), Ashford & Simpson remove Ross from the context of her assembly-line Motown sound and instead reimagine her as a soul diva. The lyrics—demanding, slightly paranoid, and wounded—match great with Ross’ innate vocal vulnerability and unease. (After all, she can sound joyful, yet there’s nothing sadder than a tear-drenched Diana Ross ballad.)
Ashford & Simpson first joined Motown in the late 1960s, after the label started responding to the shifts in musical taste by incorporating more soulful sounds into its brand of pop music. In addition, sounds of rock and psychedelic soul were finding their way into the later-day hits of artists like the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and the Supremes. Ashford & Simpson first worked with Ross when she still was part of the Supremes (on “Keep an Eye” from 1968 album, Love Child). The record deliberately presented the Supremes as a more mature soul group (such as with the title track, which dealt with having a child out of wedlock); “Keep an Eye” was a moody, dark, and suspicious song about a lying, scheming friend that could be seen as an allegory of the crumbling relationship of the members of the Supremes (for instance, original member Florence Ballard was cruelly fired the year before).
The duo would continue to work sporadically with the Ross and the Supremes until she left the band; from there, they were tasked with helming her 1970 self-titled solo debut. Berry Gordy had a lot invested in this venture, as Ross was leaving Motown’s biggest act; hence, Ashford & Simpson had a heavy task in front of them: create a new signature sound for their muse that was different enough to be novel and exciting but familiar enough not to alienate her prior legions of fans. The resultant LP was a great introduction to Diana Ross as a solo star, peaking with the grand and epic reworking of the pair’s classic hit, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. Originally a top 20 hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Ashford & Simpson reimagined it for Ross as an operatic number (lasting over six minutes), with dramatic spoken passages, a hallelujah gospel choir in the back, and an exultant Ross promising that she’ll “always be there!” It was the perfect vehicle for Ross as a solo star: melodramatic, campy, sincere, and just ever so slightly ridiculous.
For her second album (1970’s Everything Is Everything), Ross went in another direction by working with Deke Richards and Hal Davis before reuniting with Ashford & Simpson for Surrender. At this point in her career, she was fulfilling many of the goals she and Gordy had established for her. She was no longer simply a recording star; she was an entertainer. She became a regular guest on variety shows, showing a showbiz versatility that included performing in comedic sketches with the likes of Dinah Shore or Lucille Ball, as well as singing supper club pop music, pop standards, or Broadway show tunes. All this made Ross an increasingly bigger celebrity; yet, it also diluted that music’s effect on her career. (This issue would come up again in the 1980s—during her RCA years—when music seemed to have devolved into an extension of her career as a professional diva.)
When the trio returned on Surrender, Ross was yet again given a fantastic list of songs to record with producers who understood her power as a vocalist and didn’t seem to underestimate her (like some critics did), finding her lacking compared to leather-lunged singers like Aretha Franklin). In fact, the record contains some of the most potent and pressing singing of her career (it’s no surprise that when Ashford & Simpson worked with Ross on her 1979 classic disco record, The Boss, Ross proved yet again to be a brilliantly passionate vocalist).
After the powerful punch of the title track, the album moves into another heartbreaking song (“I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel for You”), one in which Ross bids farewell to a lover and vows to hold on to the love she feels for him (despite him leaving); slightly reminiscent of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, it sees Ross giving dramatic readings of the verses before she starts to sing the somewhat hopeless chorus; it finds her lamenting, “But I can’t give back the love I feel for you / I’m gonna be stuck with it / No matter what I do”. The urgency in Ross’ performance is matched by the charging musical accompaniment and the glorious backup vocalists, all of whom push Ross further in her singing.
Moving on from the perspective of the hurt lover, we get another POV in the album’s first single, “Remember Me”, from the partner who is leaving the relationship. We then get another tune of regret via “And If You See Him” prior to her colossal cover of “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”. There’s are also tunes of resignation (“I’ll Settle for You”), defiance (“I’m a Winner”), bleak yearning (closer “All the Befores”).
So much of Surrender deals with the bruising effect of how love can destroy one’s world and dignity. The songs tell stories of women who find themselves bereft and alone without their lovers to complete their lives. Obviously, the themes would seem somewhat repellent in current times (when so much of what we tell ourselves is that we don’t need lovers to make ourselves complete), but pop music in the 1970s—particularly romantic pop music—was all about heightening the importance of romantic love to almost fatal proportions. Obviously, Ross’ ability to inject despair into these lyrics meant that the record packs a potent emotional punch.
One of the album’s highlights, “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”, is a perfect example of how Surrender pushes Ross to new heights as a vocalist whilst simultaneously remaining on-brand as a heartbreak record. The original song was a 1967 hit for Ross’ Motown labelmates, the Four Tops. Written by Holland-Dozier-Holland (with Four Tops frontman Levi Stubbs singing the lead), the song was a driving, up-tempo tune of devotion. It’s a pushing song that has power in Stubbs’ gritty, grainy vocals.
In Ross’ hands, the song is slowed down to a near-dirge; she replaces Stubbs’ emotive shouting with a more languid approach, her soft voice exposing the melancholy inherent in the track. A choir of heavenly female voices joins Ross in the austere arrangement. Like the message of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, Ross professes and promise an undying love and devotion, and like that hit record, it eventually shifts from the stillness of the verses to a more fervent, churchy sound with the chorus joining as she persistently sings, “You can always / You can always depend on me”. It goes on repeatedly as her performance gets more spirited, her voice swaying and pushing the song to the grand wave-your-arms-in-the-air sound she loves.
After Surrender, Ross starred in the 1972 musical biopic Lady Sings the Blues, based on the life of jazz titan Billie Holliday. Despite misgivings from the media and press, Ross was superb, stunning audiences and critics with a brilliant turn (earning an Oscar nomination and enjoying a No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts with the soundtrack in the process). She would work again with Ashford & Simpson in the 1970s—most notably on 1973’s duet LP with Marvin Gaye, Diana and Marvin, via “Just Say, Just Say” (a high point on an album that was strangely disappointing given the talent involved). That said, their most fruitful collaboration was The Boss; in the time between Surrender and The Boss, Ross mostly fell back on the heavily-stylized vocalizing of her poppier material, and it’s apparent from listening to the feisty vocals on The Boss that Ashford & Simpson brought out the best in her.
Ross entered the 1980s with a gigantic hit record (and arguably her greatest solo effort), the Chic-produced diana. From there, her career took on wildly variant ups and downs, as she left Motown for RCA for a near-decade string of hits that relied heavily on ’80s pop radio before returning to Motown in 1989 and eventually settling into a routine of sporadic recording, endless touring, and ruling as the queenly Diva of all Pop Divas. As for Ashford & Simpson, they found the 1970s and 1980s particularly productive not only as songwriters/producers but also performers because they had several hit records (including the top 20 Billboard hit, “Solid”). Unfortunately, Ashford passed away in 2011, whilst Simpson continued to record.
Ross has recently announced a new album that’s slated for a release in September 2021 (some 15 years after her last studio effort, 2006’s I Love You). The new set will include collaborations with young, hip producers like Jack Antonoff, Spike Stent, and Tayla Parx. After years of recording so-so material, there’s hope that hooking up with forward-thinking and innovative people like Antonoff will have a similar effect on Ross as Ashford & Simpson did decades earlier.