During the first two years of the “Can Diana Ross make it on her own?” show, the Motown superstar enjoyed just one out-and-out smash in America: the almighty “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which climbed to No. 1 in Billboard in September 1970.
The British, on the other hand, bestowed four consecutive Top 10 singles upon Miss Ross during the same period, including a different No. 1, “I’m Still Waiting.”
Two of that quartet of hits, “Remember Me” and “Surrender,” are present and correct in this, Diana’s third studio album, released in 1971, while “I’m Still Waiting” is a bonus contained in the later, “expanded” version.
Now that logistics are out of the way, let’s consider the power and the glory that is Surrender – testimony to Diana’s supreme talent, and the considerable creativity of the album’s writing and producing team, Valerie Simpson and the late Nick Ashford.
Valerie gets right down to business on the opening track, pounding her piano with one-note repetition in sync with the snare-and-bass-drum lockstep of Uriel Jones. Within 30 seconds, Diana’s powerful voice brings the song to a climax, aided by the sophisticated strings, percussion, brass and background vocals that prove to be the hallmarks of this album. She wants it all, and in less than three minutes!
That said, Surrender is an endearing mix of Diana both in command and vulnerable. She dictates the terms of a relationship in the title track – boy, does she – as well as in “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You,” “I’m A Winner” and “Didn’t You Know (You’d Have To Cry Sometime)?” Even in the tale of deceit that is “Did You Read The Morning Paper?,” she’s the boss, offering to lend the unfaithful lover her copy of the newspaper, and demanding on the fade: Where do we go from here?
Yet on “Remember Me,” she is plaintive, as Nick Ashford’s lyrics make it clear that Diana’s lover is destined for higher things, and as she wistfully pleads not to be forgotten. On “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” she sounds lost in an echo chamber at the start, although her dramatic persona soon asserts itself as the tale spins on. Here, Ashford and Simpson are clearly aiming to replicate the widescreen power of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which they shaped into that American chart-topper for Diana the previous year. At more than five minutes of running time, it is an epic, but deceptive. Listeners are led to the foot of the mountain three times, only to find Diana reluctant to climb until the third. A similar, delayed climax worked on “Mountain,” but when released as a single, “Reach Out” couldn’t match those same chart heights.
Nonetheless, Ashford and Simpson – Diana Ross‘ sherpas, if you’ll forgive the continuing metaphor – are the best in the business, and Surrender is a fine piece of mountaineering. They stretch the limits of her voice, knowing that it can rise to the challenge, whatever the tempo. And the pair, in turn, enlists the most capable backpackers, such as Paul Riser, who is never better represented than here, his string and brass arrangements broadening the horizons of almost every song.
Equally, the rhythm team lays down a bedrock of sound and synchronicity that is beyond belief. Where does James Jamerson get the rocket fuel for his bass lines? How many hands does Eddie “Bongo” Brown actually have? It can’t be two, based on the percussive evidence of this album. (Riser mostly recorded the strings and brass in New York, while the rhythm tracks are unmistakeably welded in Detroit.)
The details of Ashford and Simpson’s songs and studio strategies are laid out in the illuminating liner notes of the expanded edition of Surrender, together with the tale of “I’m Still Waiting.” That most melancholy of Diana’s A sides is like the album’s adopted child – at least in Britain, where BBC disc jockey Tony Blackburn’s relentless airplay turned what was an album track (from Diana’s second LP) into a No. 1 single.
After that, Motown’s British partner, EMI Records, added “I’m Still Waiting” to Surrender, even though the hit was written and produced by Motown’s Deke Richards, not Ashford and Simpson. But Deke knew how to bring out the best in Diana Ross, too, especially her vulnerable side: “Wait patiently for love/Someday it will surely come.” The only mystery is why American music buyers didn’t surrender to the same extent as their British cousins, who made “Waiting” a hit on three separate occasions.
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