“I’m the star upon your tree, that makes your Christmas bright…”
August, 1965 must have been an incredibly exciting month for The Supremes. It was another sizzling summer in New York, made even hotter thanks to the group’s nightly appearances at the famed Copacabana nightclub. Opening night on July 29 was a smash success, and Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard continued dazzling crowds there for the next few weeks, blowing the door wide open to bigger and better supper club work around the world. Meanwhile, More Hits By The Supremes (released in July) was another top-selling LP for the group, featuring a pair of #1 hits (including “Back In My Arms Again,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 the week of June 6) amidst a solid lineup of classic Motown recordings. And all the way across the country, in Los Angeles, studio musicians gathered to begin cutting a batch of holiday tracks for a future Supremes release.
Immediately following the historic Copa engagement, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard apparently took a little time off; Diana Ross, meanwhile, went back to Detroit and recorded her vocals for the holiday album (the singer is quoted in J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana Ross: A Biography as telling a journalist, “I even took my vacation to do a whole Christmas album while the other girls went on vacation!” . Taraborrelli, meanwhile, writes that “Diana, alone, recorded this album” ). Producer Harvey Fuqua shaped that album, while all three Supremes continued their work with Holland-Dozier-Holland, recording “I Hear A Symphony” in late September and “My World Is Empty Without You” in October. Finally, in November, Motown released both The Supremes At The Copa and Merry Christmas. The former was a solid hit, capturing much of the magic of the group’s Copa run. The latter climbed to #6 on the Billboard Christmas charts.
Had Merry Christmas been a lackluster entry into The Supremes discography, it would be understandable; it was recorded months before the holiday season and in the aftermath of an extremely stressful — albeit successful — live engagement. This is why the resultant album is remarkable; it isn’t just good, it’s great. This is one of the all-time classic holiday albums, a collection of beautifully-produced songs capturing all the joy and magic of Christmas. It’s also one of Diana’s shining moments as a vocalist; her warm performances are absolutely glorious, and a few of the tracks rank among her very best work. Knowing that Mary and Florence didn’t record the album with her may be disappointing, but it doesn’t detract from the quality of the songs; Diana Ross delivers such sterling vocal work that she easily carries Merry Christmas herself (although she is ably supported by great background singers and session players). This is simply a perfect album, one that’s deservedly become a classic and an essential part of the holiday season.
(NOTE: The following summaries are based on the 2003 CD reissue titled The Best Of The Supremes – The Christmas Collection: 20th Century Masters.)
1. White Christmas: Merry Christmas opens with its single best track, an achingly beautiful version of the Irving Berlin classic. “White Christmas” might belong to Bing Crosby, who sang the song in the films Holiday Inn and White Christmas, but Diana Ross comes pretty darn close to stealing it; her vocals here are some of the best of her entire career. Opening with gorgeous strings languidly descending the musical scale like fluttering snowflakes, the instrumental track has to contain some of the most lush and polished playing in the entire Motown canon; if these are the same musicians who worked on the group’s previous Los Angeles-cut LPs (A Bit Of Liverpool and We Rememeber Sam Cooke), they were really holding back on those albums. The playing here is smooth and sophisticated, the soft percussion, twinkling piano, and orchestral strings mixing together to create a sparkling Christmas cocktail. Diana’s singing here is just stunning; her relaxed reading of the lyrics, lagging just slightly behind the beat, foreshadows the masterful jazz singing she’d deliver less than a decade later in Lady Sings The Blues. Her voice is incredibly strong here, likely due to the fact that she’d just come off the important Copacabana run; certainly the dynamic nightly shows had helped get her instrument into top shape. But more than just being technically strong, there’s a dreamy sensitivity to her performance that’s perfect for the song which begins with the lyrics, “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas…” The voices behind her certainly don’t sound like Mary and Florence; the backgrounds here are thicker and deeper in tone, and I’m assuming are the work of Motown session group The Andantes (those talented ladies would later support Diana on hits like “Love Child” and “In And Out Of Love” — and have the same sound as those featured here). Still, those backing vocals are just lovely, perfectly matching Diana’s warmth, and when they break into harmony at :50 (as Diana sings “…and children listen…”) it is simply breathtaking. Because this is a holiday song — and an oft-covered one, at that — it’s never featured on Supremes anthologies, but it should be; this is one of the truly great records bearing the group’s name, and a highlight of Diana’s career.
2. Silver Bells: Another song closely identified with Bing Crosby, this is a perfect companion piece to “White Christmas” and another one of this album’s top tracks. The only major difference between this song and the one preceding it is the natural inclusion of bells to the instrumental, which ring as though from a church tower at the beginning and ending of this recording. “Silver Bells” features another accomplished instrumental track; strings once again swirl over understated percussion, providing a soaring musical bed for Diana’s confident lead vocal. Her performance again matches the tone set by the lyrics, shifting from the dreaminess of “White Christmas” to a sparkling optimism as she croons, “…in the air, there’s a feeling of Christmas.” The voices behind her serves as a bell-like echo, softly repeating key phrases and underscoring other sections with superb harmony. Although I personally prefer the lush and almost-otherworldly “White Christmas” — this song is just as good in its way, perfectly capturing the soaring magic of the holidays.
3. Born Of Mary: The third song on Merry Christmas is a definite departure, a more traditional-sounding carol that tells the religious story behind Christmas. The instrumental here is given a less-polished, reedy interpretation, incorporating musical sounds evoking Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth. Diana and The Andantes (again, assuming that group is solely responsible for the backgrounds) sing this one completely in unison, which makes it tougher to notice the absence of actual Supremes Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard. The vocals are simple and straight-forward, rarely breaking into harmony; this is a smart decision, as it focuses attention on the lyrics and sounds more authentic as a hymn. Though it’s not as heart-tugging as “White Christmas” nor as memorable as “Silver Bells,” this is a beautiful song that helps really ground the album and gives it a heart. It’s hard to think cynically about the commercial reasons behind a Christmas album when Diana Ross is singing so convincingly about “the glories of his wondrous birth.” It also boasts a fantastic ending, as the vocalists hauntingly deliver the song’s title — it’s one of the single best moments of the entire LP.
4. Children’s Christmas Song: It’s a little easier to be cynical when it comes to this song, a Motown original which was lifted as special single, issued as Motown 1085 in mid-November, 1965. The song charted at #7 on the Billboard Holiday Singles Chart, and the group performed it on the television show “Hullabaloo” (if you’ve never seen this performance, YouTube it immediately and note the part where it sure seems like Mary and Florence have no clue what words they’re supposed to be singing!). Written by producer Harvey Fuqua and Isabelle Freeman, this is a repetitive, sing-song composition in which Diana implores boys and girls around the world to learn the words and sing along with her. During her first spoken passage, Diana calls out several kids by name; one is her brother Chico, the others are Berry Gordy, Jr.’s children Joy, Berry, and Terry (whose names, by the way, form the word Jobete, the name of Motown’s publishing company). After three repetitions of the song’s cloying refrain, most listeners will be ready for the song to end, and thankfully it does without dragging things out any longer. None of this means “Children’s Christmas Song” is terrible; I’d argue it’s not really that bad, since it states its purpose early (learn the lyrics, then sing along) and delivers in under three minutes. But it’s a novelty tune, and never rises above that.
5. The Little Drummer Boy: A simple and sweet version of another Christmas classic, this song wisely features a prominent drum-line and nice, staccato background vocals appropriate for the subject matter. Diana’s vocal is nicely done; there’s a tenderness to her performance that makes it sound like she’s singing directly to a child, but it’s never too saccharine. The piece builds to a climax during which the narrator plays his drum for the baby Jesus, and the added bells and strings and harmonizing are lovely. This isn’t a standout of Merry Christmas, but it’s a necessary counterpoint to some of the more exciting inclusions; an album like this could easily become too boring if there weren’t some lower-key moments to bridge together the peaks.
6. My Christmas Tree: If Motown wanted to release a Christmas single and use one of its own songs, it’s interesting that it went for “Children’s Christmas Song” over this one; not only is this a far better recording, it’s one that probably could continue to garner more airplay during the holidays had it been pushed at the time of the album’s release. “My Christmas Tree” was written by the prolific Jimmy Webb (of “MacArthur Park” among many other songs, and the man who would craft the 1972 LP The Supremes Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb for the group), who I believe was signed to Motown as a songwriter for a time. This song is a bittersweet ballad about lost love at Christmastime, and perhaps the execs at the label felt it was a little too sad for release; still, it’s a memorable recording, and certainly no more morose than the popular standard “Blue Christmas.” Miss Ross offers up another great vocal here; her performance is full of yearning and heartbreak, as it should be given lyrics like, “I have been so lonely since you left me all alone.” They key here is cut fairly high, which means Diana’s reaching toward the top-end of her range for a good portion of the song; that said, she acquits herself well, avoiding the nasal sound of her earlier recordings and allowing the strain to add to the emotion of her performance. The Temptations would later cover this song on the group’s 1970 LP The Temptations Christmas Card; it sounds just as good done by that group, with Eddie Kendricks infusing the tune with a more adult, soulful passion. Both versions deserve some spins during the holiday season.
7. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer: Speaking of The Temptations Christmas Card, a highlight of that LP is a funky re-working of this classic Christmas song, given a chunky beat and soulful group vocals. The version here couldn’t sound more different; The Supremes get a jazzed up, showbiz version that could have been tailor-made for their then-recent run at the Copacabana. Thus far on the album, Diana’s been delivering stirring renditions of new and classic Christmas recordings, but here she finally sounds like she’s really having fun; the entire production comes off like a mini-Broadway show, with Diana Ross as leading lady. The arrangement lends the tune a big-band swing, and The Andantes get a few “Andrews Sisters” moments (such as their tight harmonies on the line “…join in any reindeer games!”). Diana’s performance is pure joy; she’s exaggerated (listen to the way her lips really pop on the word “him” at roughly :46) and brassy and imbues the entire reading with a delicious whimsy. Her delightful spoken line at 1:15 (“Rudolph, with your nose so bright!”) is the kind of touch only she could pull off; it’s silly and over-the-top, and she’s clearly having such a good time that it’s impossible not to love it. After months of preparing for the group’s run at the Copacabana and then weeks of performing standards like “Put On A Happy Face” and “I Am Woman” — it’s obvious that Diana had mastered the art of the showtune, using the songs to display her personality to full effect; she does that here, and it’s a wonderful treat. Nothing can sink a Christmas recording faster than an obvious disinterest by the artist; there’s no danger of that anywhere on this album, least of all on this track.
8. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town: An upbeat version of the holiday perennial, this inclusion had the potential to be the most “Motown” of these songs, but falls a little flat due to the production. This is an issue with all of the Supremes albums cut in Los Angeles; the West Coast musicians always suffer by comparison to the enormously talented Motown session musicians, The Funk Brothers, especially on uptempo numbers. While the ballads and mid-tempos generally sound great, the rhythmic playing of bassist James Jamerson, drummer Benny Benjamin, and others is sorely missed on more aggressive tracks. This isn’t to say the instrumental here is bad; it’s fine, and certainly does exactly what it needs to. But the best Supremes songs are built around crisp, angular instrumentals, and it’s hard not to compare — even on a Christmas song. Diana’s delivery is spirited and engaging, but misses the mark a few times; she really “punches” certain words and phrases, and comes off a little schoolmarm-ish every once in a while. Again, this is really nitpicking; the song works perfectly well on the album, and listeners hearing it on the radio wouldn’t notice any of this stuff; maybe it’s better that it doesn’t stand out more, since Christmas music is often meant to be played in the background during family gatherings. But to see what Motown could really do with this song, look no further than the scorching version recorded on 1970’s Jackson 5 Christmas Album.
9. My Favorite Things: Given the arrangement and performance on “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” it makes sense that Merry Christmas goes a step further, giving Diana Ross an actual Broadway showtune to sink her teeth into. “My Favorite Things” is, of course, one of the most famous songs from the 1959 stage sensation The Sound Of Music, and was further popularized by the 1965 film version. Because the blockbuster movie had been released earlier that year, it makes sense that Motown would want to include something from it on this album; since “My Favorite Things” includes lyrics about snowflakes and wrapped packages, it certainly works well as a holiday piece. The arrangement here is everything is should be; it’s splashy and colorful, with slicing strings and Vegas brass and the ringing of jingle bells to help tie it together with the rest of the album. Diana Ross is at her bombastic best, belting out the song with such joy and verve that it sounds like it was written for her; as with “Rudolph” and a few others here, she’s totally in her element, displaying her gifts as both a pop singer and an interpreter of standards. She really attacks the song here, anticipating the beat rather than allowing herself to lag behind it, and nailing each lyric with her uncanny precision and perfect annunciation. Along with the stirring instrumental track, the background vocals are masterfully done; the way The Andantes ride the melody with their wordless “oooohs” at the beginning is incredibly exciting, and their harmonies with Diana at the tail end of the bridge, during the line “And then I don’t feel so bad,” is gorgeous. This recording is perfect in every way; it continues to garner airplay during the holidays, which is totally deserved. There have been a lot of great versions of “My Favorite Things” over the years, but this one easily stands with the very best. (NOTE: The Supremes gave a sensational live performance of this song on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which is currently available on the DVD The Best of the Supremes on the Ed Sullivan Show.)
10. Twinkle Twinkle Little Me: This is another Motown original and was co-written by the great Ron Miller, a man whose name will forever be associated with Diana Ross thanks to the fact that he co-wrote her 1973 #1 hit, “Touch Me In The Morning” (along with many other Motown classics, including “For Once In My Life” and “I’ve Never Been To Me”). It’s a lovely little gem, written from the point-of-view of the star on top of a Christmas tree; it was placed on the flip side of the “Children’s Christmas Song” single and managed to chart even higher, topping out at #5 on the holiday chart. This is a quiet song, a flickering ember in the wake of the big and blazing “My Favorite Things” — there’s a gentle warmth here, in both the softly chugging instrumental track and the smooth vocal performances. During the song’s opening few lines, Diana is accompanied by a strumming guitar; it’s one of the prettiest moments on the album. The background vocalists deliver some of their best work of the entire album here; their sophisticated harmonies behind Diana are amazing. Just as “My Favorite Things” captures the excitement of waking up on Christmas morning, this is the song to listen to in the peaceful, final few hours of Christmas, just as the fire dies down.
11. Little Bright Star: This is an interesting inclusion, as it has something of a dual history at Motown. It was featured here first, as a Christmas song for The Supremes; later, it was recorded by Tammi Terrell as “I Can’t Go On Without You” and included on her 1969 LP Irresistible. The melody is exactly the same, but the lyrics are changed; no longer a Christmas song, it’s been transformed into a soulful song of heartbreak (weirdly, “Little Bright Star” is credited to Al Capps-Mary Dean, while “I Can’t Go On Without You” is credited to Harvey Fuqua-John Bristol-Sylvia Moy). “The Motown Sound” is certainly present here, in terms of the song’s structure and chord progressions; there’s also a little more fire in the musical bed than what we got on “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” Diana is solid, as always; the melody isn’t the most memorable and it’s a bit more rhythmically challenging, but the singer keeps it simple, and gets to let loose with a little vocal power toward the end with her repetitions of “Keep on shinin’!” The Andantes are a little tough to understand on this track; the odd syncopation of their refrain makes it a challenge to figure out what the lyrics are (the hook works much better as “I-Can’t-Go-On-With-Out-You” than “Li-Tle-Bright-Star-Keep-Shining”). Not necessarily a standout, but this song gives the LP some nice variation.
12. Joy To The World: Merry Christmas ends with a bang, thanks to this frenetically-paced version of the traditional Christmas carol. Bridged together with a triumphant “Hallelujah!” refrain, Diana and the other singers commandingly race through several verses of the song, underscored by superb string work and a marching percussion line. The instrumental work is most impressive here; the symphonic arrangement is almost epic in scope. This song was a good choice to end the LP; it serves as a musical “exclamation point,” driving home the notion that this project is truly a celebration of the season, and more than just a commercial endeavor.
Note: For information on bonus tracks from this album, click HERE.
Along with this perfect dozen, The Supremes worked on a few other holiday tracks which have surfaced over the years; fans missing the presence of the other two Supremes on this LP can at least enjoy Florence’s leads on “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night” — both now available elsewhere. Although there are some sterling vault tracks (“O Little Town Of Bethlehem” in particular is poignant and haunting), it’s hard to argue with the original lineup of Merry Christmas; from start to finish, this is just a really good album. As a Christmas work, it’s a tough one to top; it’s perfect background music for a holiday party or family dinner, and just as good for singing along to. And as a Supremes album, it’s one of the few that’s truly solid from start to finish, without any jarring moments or total misfires. The tasteful production is a big part of that, and so is the work of Diana Ross; few singers would sound as comfortable on every single one of these songs. To any naysayers who still doubt the ability of Motown’s first lady, listen again to “White Christmas” — how can anyone not fall under the spell of that voice?
Final Analysis: 5/5 (A Deserved Holiday “Favorite”)
Choice Cuts: “White Christmas,” “My Favorite Things,” “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”