The “Christmas In Washington” television special has become an annual tradition in the United States, featuring big-name stars singing holiday favorites for an audience including the President and First Lady. Aired on the TNT Network since the late 1990s, the concert has featured some major headliners, including Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, and Christina Aguilera. The 2012 lineup was one of the most eclectic yet, bringing together South Korean rapper PSY (of the “Gangnam Style” craze), pop star Demi Lovato, and Broadway belter Megan Hilty among others. But the clear star of the night was Miss Diana Ross.
Diana Ross seems a natural choice for such a program, with her warm vocal style perfectly suited to the holiday season. That said, Ross has actually recorded surprisingly little Christmas music in her decades-long career. Aside from her popular Merry Christmas LP with the Supremes, Diana’s holiday output is relegated to three releases: 1993’s live Christmas In Vienna, the 1994 international-only CD A Very Special Season, and the Hallmark collection Making Spirits Bright (1994). Thus, her performance on the special is a welcome addition to her limited holiday offerings. The announcement of her participation was also a pleasant surprise to fans considering her television appearances had been quite rare in the years following 2007’s I Love You.
As headliner, Diana both opens and closes the show; she begins with a medley of songs featured on all three of the above-mentioned Christmas discs. Because none of them were major mainstream releases, this was the first time many casual fans had heard the diva take on songs like “Someday At Christmas.” Her opening notes on the Ron Miller-penned track are crystal-clear and controlled; there is little musical accompaniment — and no backup singers yet — which means Diana’s voice is the whole show. The noticeable raspiness that had marred some of her early-2000s performances is gone, and the classic Ross warmth and perfect enunciation are a beautiful match for the slow, poignant song. The medley then shifts to the upbeat, jazzy “Sleigh Ride,” during which Diana is joined by an energetic choir. There’s a lovely lightness to Diana’s performance here; her proficiency in jazz singing clearly aides with the quickly-paced, almost improvisational-sounding melody. Paul McCartney’s 1979 classic “Wonderful Christmastime” comes next, on which Diana delivers perhaps her much alluring vocals of the entire medley. Sounding completely relaxed now, she practically “coos” the opening lyrics, “The mood is right…the spirit’s up…” in a tone reminiscent of her early Supremes recordings. The song, unfortunately, ends after a few lines, transitioning to a quick snippet of “Jingle Bells” and then “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year.” Listen to Diana at the beginning of this final number; she appears to have trouble finding the correct pitch, but smoothly lets her voice find the correct key. It’s a great moment — not because it’s pretty hearing Diana sing a few words off-key — but because it shows how adept she is at live performing. The medley as a whole isn’t, perhaps, a showstopper — but it is an accomplished, well-crafted opener to the show.
The showstopper comes at the end, when Diana takes the stage again to sing “Amazing Grace,” the traditional hymn for which she clearly has a strong affection (she’s performed it many times, including famous on the Christmas In Vienna special). Though not necessarily a “holiday” song, Diana’s transcendent reading makes this the most memorable moment of the entire concert; in fact, her performance is one of the highlights of her entire career. Perhaps never before has the singer sounded more “soulful” — there is a deep, deep feeling coming through here, resulting in some quiet, surprising gospel flourishes. Her reading of the line, “I once was lost…but now am found…” is achingly honest; the reverence is obvious on the faces of both her fellow performers and the audience. And listen to the way she plays with the next line, “…but now I see” — her brief melisma on the word “I” is a religious experience unto itself. As the song quietly builds to its climax and the singer is joined by a red-robed choir, she gets the chance to display a little vocal muscle, which she delivers effortlessly. Finally, she thrusts her arms into the air in her iconic pose and the song ends — and the thunderous cheers and standing ovation that follows is well-deserved.
It’s worth noting that Diana Ross looks stunning during both performances — dressed in a floor-length blue dress first and then a black, white, and gold creation that effectively hides the cast on her ankle. Not long before the taping of “Christmas In Washington,” the singer had broken her ankle while in India; she was still recovering when she traveled to Washington for the show. That the 68-year-old performed at all with a cast on her foot is pretty impressive; that she nailed the performances — especially her closer — is even better. During a time in the diva’s life when she’s finding herself memorialized with “lifetime achievement” awards and in Broadway musicals, it’s nice to see her take the stage and demonstrate again why she became a star in the first place. Amazing grace, indeed.