“Hang all the mistletoe, I’m gonna get to know you better…”
For many, Motown is an essential part of the holiday season; in the 1960s, Berry Gordy, Jr. was smart enough to have most of his acts record holiday-themed songs or complete LPs, many of which have become classics and are reissued year after year. One of the biggest, of course, is Merry Christmas by the Supremes, with Diana Ross leading the way on stunning renditions of “White Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” and “My Favorite Things” among others. The Temptations, The Jackson 5, and Stevie Wonder also produced some seasonal must-plays, and their respective Christmas albums continue to fill up store shelves and sell strongly each year.
As Motown’s sound evolved in the 1970s, becoming less inspired by the classy, upscale supper-club sound of the 1950s and 60s, the label slacked off on efforts to produce popular holiday music. It’s surprising, but after Merry Christmas with the Supremes, Diana Ross didn’t release any holiday-themed material until the 1990s, when she joined opera tenors Plácido Domingo and José Carreras for Christmas In Vienna, appeared on the Hallmark special CD Making Spirits Bright, and released her own EMI project A Very Special Season internationally. Because Diana is so identified with warm, melodic popular music, it seems natural that she would have continued to sing and record Christmas songs through the 1970s; for one reason or another, it didn’t happen.
That’s why the 1993 release Christmas In The City was so exciting; the Motown compilation is billed as “Featuring rare and unreleased Motown holiday classics,” and Diana Ross (and The Supremes) get prime exposure. Marvin Gaye is represented with four tracks, including the oddly hypnotic “Purple Snowflakes,” while Stevie Wonder, Kim Weston, and Smokey Robinson and The Miracles also get some spots here (along with Motown house band The Funk Brothers, finally getting a spotlight with the funky “Winter Wonderland”). It’s safe to say, however, that many of those who purchased the CD were Diana Ross/Supremes fans; three Supremes songs are pulled from the vaults for this collection, including the famed “Silent Night” with Florence Ballad on lead vocals. Miss Ross also gets a solo spot with Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” thus far the only Christmas release from Diana from her first decade of solo stardom.
“This Christmas” was originally recorded by Hathaway in 1970, co-written by the singer and released on the Atco label. It quickly became a standard, with versions The Whispers, The Temptations, Patti LaBelle, and Christina Aguilera hitting the airwaves over the next several decades. Diana’s version was recorded in the mid-1970s, likely between (or part of) the sessions for Last Time I Saw Him and Diana Ross (the song was included in an alternate version on the 2012 Hip-O reissue of the latter LP). It’s not clear why Diana recorded the song; whether it was for a planned various-aritsts collection or a holiday album of her own remains a mystery, though no other solo Christmas songs have been pulled from the vaults. It opens with Miss Ross crooning the lyrics with just a piano accompanying her, transforming the song from its traditional uptempo, funky arrangement into a warm, intimate ballad. She sounds lovely on this opening; her vocal work here is similar to that on ballads like “After You” and “Share Some Love,” also recorded around 1975 and featuring a slight deeper, earthier sound to her voice. After wrapping up a round of the classic “And this Christmas…will be…” refrain, by which time some delicate strings are also layered into the arrangement, the tempo kicks up, returning the song to its original faster beat. The arrangement from this point on is less brassy than the norm; rather than horns (as on Hathaway’s original), most of the instrumental here is made up of keyboards and a shuffling percussion. In this way, the song continues to sound far lower-key than most listeners would expect, which allows it to retain the warmer, more intimate feel. Diana’s vocal after the first minute remains relatively straight-forward; though many singers use “This Christmas” as a platform for vocal runs and ad-libs, Diana keeps it far more simple. At times, she sounds gloriously soulful; listen at 2:26, as she sings, “Fireside blazin’ bright…we’re carolin’ through the night…” — she is controlled and mannered while still sounding joyful. However, there are also times when her reluctance to really push causes her to sound slightly sluggish and off-key; the same line at 3:16 is just a little wobbly. Her ad-libs at the end also seem just a little forced, as if she’s just trying to finish up the song and move on. That said, Diana sounds quite appealing, as one would expect from a talented singer taking on a seasonal classic.
As noted before, Diana Ross’s “This Christmas” was again issued in 2012 on the Hip-O expanded edition of 1976’s Diana Ross, this time featuring a slightly different arrangement that adds in some of the brass that’s missing on the earlier-released Christmas In The City version. To be honest, both versions work equally well; the horns are nice since they provide a stronger link to Hathaway’s famed original, but the toned down version also gives Diana a little more ownership of the song. At the end of the day, “This Christmas” just makes the lack of holiday material from the 1970s Diana Ross seem like more of a shame; a full LP of Christmas standards from a peak era for Diana Ross would have been a strong addition to her discography. Though her 1990s Christmas work is good, it often lacks in the production department, featuring generic, vanilla orchestrations that don’t really serve the songs well. Had Miss Ross been helped out by the Funk Brothers on a full 1970s Christmas LP…well…the most wonderful time of the year would’ve been that much sweeter!