“Although it’s been said, many times, many ways…”
In a recent interview with Lance Chau, producer Nick Martinelli remembered, “EMI UK decided they wanted a Christmas CD. I was asked to put it together. The studio sessions lasted about three to four weeks. All the tracks were recorded in London except for ‘Amazing Grace.’ Most of the musicians were from the London Symphony. My favorite tracks were ‘Overjoyed’ and ‘War Is Over.'”
The Christmas CD he’s talking about is A Very Special Season, which is Diana’s Ross’s first and only full-length solo holiday album. Like 1989’s Greatest Hits Live, this was an international project only, and was never officially released in the United States. That said, it’s relatively easy to find in the states, and has certainly become an essential for fans; reviews were also strong, with the All Music Guide stating that it “easily ranks among the diva’s best of the ’90s. Instead of opting for hip arrangements aimed at pleasing a younger, jaded audience, all the songs on this set are classically arranged with lush orchestrations, resulting in a truly timeless holiday album, not unlike what one would have expected from the crooners and sirens of yesteryear.”
It’s not a big surprise that EMI asked for a holiday CD; Diana’s recent Christmas In Vienna TV special and recording with Plácido Domingo and José Carreras had been very successful around the world (“Amazing Grace” from that concert is included here). She’d also had some recent big ballad hits in the UK with songs like “When You Tell Me That You Love Me” and “One Shining Moment” and the massive One Woman collection (with some new songs produced by Martinelli). Also — for longtime Diana Ross fans — the only holiday material available from the diva were the Christmas In Vienna songs and her 1965 LP with the Supremes, Merry Christmas. That dearth of holiday material makes this a real treat for fans, who’ve always known that if anyone could deliver a top-notch holiday album, it would be Miss Ross.
And she certainly does deliver. As the AMG review pointed it, it’s a huge relief that Martinelli and Ross go the traditional route; nothing ruins a Christmas CD faster than an artist trying to be “modern” with holiday songs, and thus completely screwing them up. The whole point of a holiday album full of songs everyone already knows is to provide a chance for listeners to sing along, and that’s exactly what A Very Special Season Does. Even the “surprise” inclusions, like “What The World Needs Now” and “Overjoyed,” manage to fit in perfectly and sound like seasonal classics. Diana’s voice, meanwhile, sounds about as smooth and creamy as a perfect cup of eggnog; she’s as dreamy and lush as the lovely orchestral arrangements. Motown, once again, missed a huge opportunity here; when done right, holiday albums sell and sell and sell, and this is a Diana Ross album that even non-fans would buy.
1. Winter Wonderland: Opening with a lovely, seldom-heard introduction, this song sets the tone for the entire album to come; it is slickly produced by Martinelli and gently delivered by Miss Ross. The arrangement here is classic in the best sense of the word; this sounds exactly like a track Judy Garland would have sung along to, as though it were recorded right on an MGM soundstage. There’s a lightness to the strings that evokes images of fluttering snowflakes, and Diana keeps her vocal performance simple and wise; though this isn’t much of a showcase for her in terms of range or power, she does sound like she’d having a good time, and that joy is exactly what makes holiday music come alive.
2. White Christmas: This is Diana’s third recording of Irving Berlin’s Christmas classic; the tune had opened the Supremes holiday album, and she’d also performed it on Christmas In Vienna. The Supremes version from 1965 is truly a masterpiece; there’s an elegance and class to their performance on the track that remains stunning even today, and it boasts one of Diana’s most sensitive and smooth performances of the era. The new recording here is nice, but certainly lacks the dreamy, late-night-by-the-fire feel of the earlier version; it’s a shame, in a way, that fans can compare the two, as really it’s impossible to match the perfection of the 1965 version. Taken on its own here, it’s a pleasant addition to the album, though not necessarily a standout.
3. Wonderful Christmastime: The first of two “Beatles-related” inclusions here, this one was written by Paul McCartney in 1979 and has since become a seasonal staple. Diana’s version is pretty standard; her voice is high and clear, and she sticks close to the limited melody (although she hums a 5-note run starting at 1:26 that allows her to show off the top of her range). There is the unfortunate addition of children singing at 1:20; the kids actually sound strangely similar to those featured on “The Children’s Christmas Song” from the Supremes offering, and even sing the same “ding, dong” refrain. Adding children’s’ voices to songs is always dicey, because it can easily cheapen the overall sound; at least producer Martinelli smartly keeps it to a minimum here.
4. What The World Needs Now: Being that “What The World Needs Now” (first recorded in 1965 by Jackie DeShannon) isn’t known as a holiday song, this seems like an odd choice for the album. However, over the years, Diana has expressed her admiration for the songs of Hal David and Burt Bacharach several times; she’s recorded many of them, from “(They Long To Be) Close To You” in 1970 to “The Look Of Love” in 2006. This is a lovely version of the song; it’s presented in the same manner as the others here, with a swirling orchestra arrangement that borders on operatic in feel. And being that it originated as a pop song, it’s a better showcase for Diana’s vocals; this is the best she’s sounded thus far on the album, offering up a deeply felt, emotional performance with a touch of “classic Ross” in the opening spoken lyrics. Listen, for example, to her singing at 2:24, with the lyrics, “Lord, we don’t need another meadow…;” there’s a real, solid strength in her voice here, and she sounds almost like a Broadway singer in her delivery through the rest of the running time. After three much more traditional inclusions, this is a beautiful but non-jarring change, and it’s a highlight of the set.
5. Happy Xmas (War Is Over): The second “Beatles-related” tune, this one was written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono and released by them in the early 70s. While the song itself isn’t necessarily to everyone’s holiday music tastes, vocally this is an extremely strong moment on the album, and it’s not a surprise that Martinelli singled it out in the aforementioned interview. Musically this is also one of the more complex pieces here; the prominent drums, piano, and background voices set it apart from most of the other tracks. Beginning around 2:18 into the song, Diana really opens her voice up; her “Merry Christmas!” and “Happy New Year!” belted over top the children’s voices are powerful and moving. Her quiet repetition of “war…is…over” in the background is also a nice touch.
6. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!: One of the “lightest” tracks on the album, this is a brief (barely more than two minutes) little holiday treat, with a cute, relaxed performance from Miss Ross. She opens the song with a Ross-pantented “oooh!” and ends with that “brrrrrrrr” sound she used on “Shockwaves” from Red Hot Rhythem & Blues. In between, both the instrumental and Diana’s vocals are bouncy and fun, perfectly fitting the lyrics of the song.
7. Amazing Grace: This is the performance from Christmas In Vienna; read my review here.
8. His Eye Is On The Sparrow: An amazing version of the song Diana Ross has often referenced in interviews as one her mother loved to sing; it is to this song that she’s referring in the title of her memoirs, Secrets Of A Sparrow. In it, she writes, “Mama would hum or sing these words till I remembered them well. The words are haunting, sad, and when Mama passed away, I had it sung for her this last tune. Her favorite tune is so much a part of me” (67). She later writes, “Mama gave this song to me, and I am blessed in my life” (68). Her thoughts here really say all that needs to be said about why she chose to record it here, and also about why her voice is so moving on it. The song begins with the lyrics, “Why should I feel discouraged?” sung almost a capella, and her sensitive and soulful delivery continues atop the swelling strings and, later, a muted organ line. What’s amazing about this recorded performance is that as it continues, it sounds like a live performance; there are a few minor imperfections here and there, and the choice to leave them in is brilliant. Listen to her suddenly jump up an octave on the word “because” at 2:23; the moment sounds totally impromptu, and though Diana is completely filled with spirit, which she probably was. Though it might have been nice to have a more traditional gospel instrumental track behind her (rather than the abundance of strings), Diana Ross could pretty much be singing over anything and her compelling vocals would still make this a standout.
9. Silent Night: A quiet, straight-forward reading of the traditional Christmas carol; this is another case of Diana displaying a deliberate, yet sensitive vocal performance. Her voice, while subdued, is strong and clear; when she goes for the higher notes, she nails them dead-on, and her more hushed moments never sound raspy or weak. This is one of the longest tracks on the album, running just more than five minutes, but it’s a beautiful version of a song that many have recorded, and Diana does it right by respecting the message and meaning of the words.
10. Overjoyed: This is the other “favorite” noted by producer Martinelli, and certainly one of the more surprising inclusions here. “Overjoyed” was a 1985 Stevie Wonder release, pulled off his In Square Circle album; it hit the pop and R&B top 40 and was a #1 Adult Contemporary hit. Though it is not really a holiday song and had never necessarily been associated with Christmas before, it’s not a surprise that Diana would want to sing a Stevie Wonder song, since she’d done so several times in the past (most recently with his “Blame It On The Sun” and “The Force Behind The Power” in 1991). Many of her Wonder covers have been outstanding, especially the stunning “Too Shy To Say” from Baby It’s Me, and this one is easily near the top of the list; Diana’s delivery here is probably her best, from a technical standpoint, on the entire album. This is complex song with some quickly-paced lyrics and key changes, and Miss Ross proves herself as deft as ever when keeping up with those challenges. Listen, for example, to the final minute of the song, as Diana sings the lyrics beginning with, “And though the odds are improbable…” Her voice is full and lush, and she manages to enunciate each quick word perfectly without ever making it seem like an effort. If there’s an issue with the song, it perhaps lies with the production; though the strings here certainly allow the song to mesh well with the others on the CD, it does seems a little overwrought. Had the instrumental been a bit simpler and low-key, it would have given Diana a stronger base on which to lay her tremendous vocals. Still, this is a great moment for Miss Ross, and certainly showcases her voice at its loveliest.
11. O Holy Night: One of the more challenging holiday songs, this is one often taken on by singers with a showy, powerful, explosive vocal style, like Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston. It’s hard to beat Mariah’s version of the song; the track on her Merry Christmas album (also released in 1994) is truly a vocal wonder, and the gospel-inspired arrangement is sublime. Still, Diana Ross does well with the holiday carol; her performance here is strong and heartfelt; it’s far less bombastic than most recent recordings of the song. Miss Ross doesn’t shy away from the higher notes, and she sounds very full-bodied when going for the highest, on the word “night” at 3:42. The classical arrangement here is well-done, though I prefer the more soulful version on Miss Carey’s CD.
12. Someday At Christmas: Another song made famous by Stevie Wonder; this is the title track of the male singer’s 1967 Christmas album, and was written by Ron Miller, the man responsible in part for Diana’s #1 hit “Touch Me In The Morning.” Wonder’s version, while somber, had a nice, Motown “bounce” to it, thanks to the shuffling Funk Brother instrumental track. The version here is sorely missing that expert background; the arrangement is so slow that is lacks a beat completely, and thus becomes laborious to get through. Diana begins the song in an almost-childlike voice; the key is cut rather high, and this is one of the few tracks on the entire project during which she seems to struggle a few times to hit higher notes. The key change at 2:10 is also not handled particularly well, and the result is that Diana almost sounds like she loses the melody, though I don’t think that was the case. A Very Special Season probably could have been an even stronger work had it been a little shorter, and this is one of the songs I think could have been left off.
13. Ave Maria: Sadly, this is another one that I’m not sure needs to be on the CD. The prospect of Diana singing the operatic “Ave Maria” is certainly an exciting one; her work on Christmas In Vienna and “Amazing Grace” proved she could combine operatic overtones with her own personal style successfully. That song, however, works far better than this one. Here, Diana sounds a bit too wobbly in her singing, and the performance ends up sounding a bit weak and awkward. Even when the lyrics eventually switch to English, she still sounds too hesitant in her vocals, as if she had never grown comfortable enough with the material before recording it.
14. The Christmas Song: This is the perfect way to end A Very Special Season; Mel Torme’s classic “The Christmas Song” is a perfect song for Diana (who’d recorded it with the Supremes, though it went unreleased for years). The best versions of this classic are smooth and lounge-ready, in the tradition of Nat King Cole’s iconic take on it, and Miss Ross easily accomplishes that. Her vocals here are wise and light-hearted; there’s an ease and a comfort that shine though in this performance (and that contrast sharply with her work on the previous track). This is one of the best recordings here, and would be a welcome addition to any holiday playlist.
Fans waited a long time for a Diana Ross solo Christmas recording; thankfully, A Very Special Season was well worth that wait. Though it’s a tad long and a few tracks could have used a little more “fire” in them (the same issues with Miss Ross’s last studio offering, The Force Behind The Power), Ross and Martinelli turned out an accomplished, timeless recording that paid respect to both the well-known music and also the voice singing the songs. The best thing that can possibly be said about a holiday album like this is that it’s a pleasure to listen to every single year during the season, and this one is. International fans were lucky to get this one on store shelves; certainly music-buyers in the United States are missing out not seeing this one show up every year on store shelves.
Final Analysis: 4/5 (A Very Special Work)
Choice Cuts: “Overjoyed,” “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” “The Christmas Song”