2015 brought a Christmas to remember for Supremes fans, as the fine folks at Motown Select released an expanded edition of the 1965 classic Merry Christmas. This deluxe digital package included both the mono and stereo versions of the original album, along with a hefty helping of songs left off of the original release. Most of these tunes had been released on various collections over the years, but this was the first time they’d all been presented together, in all their remastered glory. Along with the must-loved Florence-led tracks (“Silent Night” and “Oh Holy Night”), Merry Christmas: Expanded Edition presented an alternate version of “Silver Bells” with an extra verse and a live version of “My Favorite Things” recorded at New York’s Copacabana in 1967, among other treats.
It’s impossible to argue with Motown’s original 12-track release of Merry Christmas in November of 1965; the dozen tunes are perfectly sequenced and arranged, forming one of the strongest single albums in the Supremes discography. More than 50 years later, the album remains a classy and timeless package, and still receives plenty of airplay on holiday stations around the world. Aside from the tracks featuring Florence on lead, Diana Ross recorded the album solo, backed by Motown’s invaluable session singers The Andantes; though the sessions were crammed in quickly following the group’s historic first engagement at the Copa, Ross turned in some of the best vocal work of her career thus far, minting sensitive and engaging performances on every single recording.
Still, the tracks left behind in the vault are also worthy of release; though a bit more variable in quality, they feature the same sophisticated production and fine vocal work. Fans new to these songs will likely be most interested in those led by Miss Ballard; her thick and operatic vocals are a nice counterpart to Diana’s elegant, light-as-air readings. But they’re all worth a listen, as is the entire Expanded Edition. It doesn’t necessarily improve upon the original, but it proves once again that The Supremes are a perfect match for the joy and magic of the holidays. (And, as always, a HUGE thanks to the team at Motown Select for keeping this music alive.)
1. The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You): This recording first surfaced on the 1987 CD collection The Never-Before-Released Masters; it’s a fun listen for Ross fans, because the singer would record the song again in 1994 for her international release A Very Special Season. The Mel Torme-penned classic is a perfect fit for Diana; it’s a song with a very strong and engaging melody, and Diana Ross is one of the best melody singers in music history. Her performance here is sublime; it may be a bit too syrupy for some listeners, but that was simply the singer’s style at the time, and the sugary-sweet tone certainly matches lyrics such as “Tiny tots/With their eyes all a-glow.” The instrumental track is stunning; as with the original release’s “White Christmas,” the sweeping strings must be among the most lush and sophisticated of anything Motown had released up until that point. It should be noted that the tracks were cut in Los Angeles, not Detroit; the West Coast players do a tremendous job of conjuring up the Christmas spirit, especially considering the sessions for these songs were held in August! Though nobody can top Nat King Cole’s iconic recording of “The Christmas Song,” this version easily does the song justice and stands up alongside the original dozen tracks released on Merry Christmas.
2. Just A Lonely Christmas: Written by Alan Freed and Harvey Fuqua (Fuqua produced the Merry Christmas album), this recording first showed up on the interesting 1993 CD Christmas In The City, a collection of previously-unreleased Motown Christmas songs which first featured Diana’s solo take on “This Christmas.” This is a country-tinged tune akin to those included on The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop; it’s actually a bit surprising that this one wasn’t written by Clarence Paul, who handled many of the songs on that album. A nice, slow-shuffling beat accompanies Diana, who offers up a sensitive performance as she croons “If only my loved one/Would come back me.” The wonderful Andantes (Marlene Barrow, Jackie Hicks, and Louvain Demps) softly coo behind her, proving again how incredibly sophisticated they were when it came to background harmonies. In terms of original compositions, this one isn’t as strong as “My Christmas Tree” or as kookily memorable as “The Christmas Song,” but it’s a pleasant listen tailor-made for a late night by the fire.
3. Noel: This traditional Christmas song first surfaced on the 1999 issue of Merry Christmas; of these vault tracks, it’s probably the weakest, due to a rather lackluster arrangement. The instrumental track is nicely done, but the key is cut rather high, which forces to Diana to strain. She speaks through a large chunk of the song, accompanied by her own voice quietly singing in the background; though Ross is a pro at delivering spoken passages (remember a little song called “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”?), it’s unexciting in this context, and sounds more like the singer just didn’t want to keep pushing toward those high notes. Though “The First Noel” isn’t terrible, it’s not a surprise that this one was left off of the original release.
4. Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem: Another traditional carol, this one is perhaps the most achingly beautiful of any Christmas song recorded by Diana Ross. “Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem” initially showed up on the 1995 release A Motown Christmas Carol, and was among the best on that collection; it’s a beautifully rendered recording. Similar in tone to “Born Of Mary” from Merry Christmas, Ross and The Andantes deliver the song in unison, singing with a quiet reverence; they are gloriously accompanied by a string-laden instrumental track which is as good as anything placed on the original album release. When Diana sings the final lines solo, she does so with a clear, round tone that is startlingly beautiful (listen to her sing “The hopes and fears/Of all the years” at 1:55; it’s gorgeous). This recording is a real treasure; it would have been a standout on the original album release, and it certainly a standout here.
5. Silent Night: Fan first heard Florence Ballard singing “Silent Night” on 1987’s The Never-Before-Released Masters in an a cappella mix; later the song was placed on Christmas In The City with its backing track. Both Mary Wilson and Diana Ross would write in later years that Ballard was a naturally gifted classical singer who could have studied opera; this song is an indication of what they meant. Ballard’s performance here is assured and commanding; there are certain moments (at 21 seconds in, for example, as she sings “All is calm…”) at which she does sound like an opera singer, her solid soprano ringing out like a bell. Miss Ballard nails every single note here; this ranks up there with “Ain’t That Good News” (from We Remember Sam Cooke) as one of the singer’s shining moments as a Supreme.
6. Oh Holy Night: This is a real treat for fans, another Ballard-led recording which didn’t surface until 2001’s A Motown Christmas, Vol. 2. As with “Silent Night,” this is a perfect fit for Florence’s golden soprano; “Oh Holy Night” is a powerful song which requires a big voice with range, and Ballard does an excellent job with it. I prefer the backing track on this one to that of “Silent Night” — she’s given a lush bed of music upon which to sing. Listen to the song’s stunning climax at 2:13, as Florence jumps to the high note on the word “divine” and then soulfully riffs for a moment; this is further proof of the singer’s talent, sadly underserved during her professional career. Miss Ballard’s voice wasn’t necessarily a perfect fit for the Holland-Dozier-Holland hits of the 1960s (as Diana’s undeniable was), but she excels on material like this. It’s a shame that this song wasn’t included on the original Merry Christmas release, as it would have given more listeners a chance to hear Ballard’s beautiful voice; at least we’re lucky enough to hear it now.
7. Silver Bells (Alternate Version): “Silver Bells” is one of the highlights of the Merry Christmas album; Diana sings it solo on the mono version of the album, and is accompanied by The Andantes on the stereo mix. This alternate version runs about 40 seconds longer than the original album recordings, and includes an additional verse; Ross leads the mix solo for the first verse, and is joined by background singers after that. The extra material isn’t particularly revelatory; it’s nice to get a little “bonus” music, but it doesn’t radically change the piece. Thus, “Silver Bells” remains an accomplished addition to the Supremes Christmas canon in any form.
8. It Won’t Be Long ‘Til Christmas: This song wasn’t actually cut during the Merry Christmas sessions; produced by Frank Wilson, it was recorded in 1967 for the group’s unreleased Disney album and held back for twenty years, until The Never-Before-Released Masters. “It Won’t Be Long ‘Til Christmas” was written by Robert and Richard Sherman for the 1967 Disney film The Happiest Millionaire, thus its considered inclusion in the Disney LP. Interestingly, the song sounds like it could have come from the 1965 recording sessions; although Diana’s voice had become brassier by 1967, she delivers the bulk of the lyrics here in a childlike voice that matches much of her work on Merry Christmas. Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and Cindy Birdsong all took part in the Disney sessions, but Diana is joined by a choir of voices here that don’t sound anything like The Supremes; the background cooing could have been lifted straight from The Wizard Of Oz. In any case, this is a pleasant recording; it’s not the most memorable, but it’s well-done, and Diana sounds great.
9. My Favorite Things (Live): Here’s a real holiday gift, a newly-released live version of “My Favorite Things” recorded by The Supremes at The Copa on May 20, 1967. The swinging standard (from The Sound of Music) was one of the highlights of the original Merry Christmas album; Diana had never sounded so confident on record, and she attacked the song with the gusto of a Broadway veteran. This live arrangement is basically identical to that featured on the 1965 album; Diana’s voice easily rides over the engaging melody (she’s strained, but this isn’t a surprising considering it came during a challenging live show in which she did a lot of powerful belting), and Mary Wilson in particular really belts out the background. I believe this was Florence’s final engagement with the group at the Copa, which makes the inclusion a little bittersweet; she’d soon be replaced by Cindy Birdsong, and the group would be re-branded as Diana Ross and The Supremes. (NOTE: Additional portions of this May 20 Copa show are available on YouTube, and are a lot of fun to listen to.)
10. Season’s Greetings: The final “bonus” track issued on Merry Christmas: Expanded Edition is a pair of spoken holiday greetings recorded by The Supremes for promotional purposes.
It remains quite an astonishing feat that in the midst of such a demanding schedule, Motown was able to pull together the resources to deliver such an accomplished Christmas album. It would have been easy for this one to sound rushed, and for the vocal and production to come off as “cheap” and unfinished (as is the case with the British tribute album A Bit Of Liverpool), but the stars were aligned for this one, matching a wonderful group of holiday tracks to a singer gifted with a natural affinity for the material. Merry Christmas: Expanded Edition is the definitive Christmas album for Supremes fans; the only problem is that with its release, the vaults seem to be dry of any additional holiday recordings for fans. Perhaps someday, something else will be discovered; wouldn’t that be a Christmas miracle?
Best Of The Bunch: “Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem,” “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You),” “Oh Holy Night”