Diana Ross was no stranger to performing Christmas songs by the time she recorded A Very Special Season in 1994. She had released a seasonal set with The Supremes in 1965, they’d delivered the Latin-Christmas standard “Feliz Navidad” in 1968, appeared on numerous seasonal compilations for Motown (among them the 1973 classic, A Motown Christmas), and, as if to prove that any Christmas without Diana is barely Christmas at all, the singer had even turned up alongside José Carreras and Plácido Domingo on a live album, Christmas In Vienna, in 1993. Which begs an obvious question: when you’ve cut as many Christmas records as Diana Ross, what could you bring to yet another one? Especially as there are plenty of songs on A Very Special Season that have been both crooned and butchered by numerous other artists.
If you’re looking for an album that offers edgy, experimental adaptations of snowy classics, yet still in a Christmas mood, we politely direct you towards The Soulful Strings’ The Magic Of Christmas instead. Ross’ gambit here was not to transform the standards found on A Very Special Season. Her aim was to make the best possible, utterly sincere Christmas record she could – a plan that paid off perfectly. Here is a mature, highly engaged Diana Ross singing seasonal material in a sympathetic, orchestrated setting. If you are any kind of fan, you can surely anticipate what this sounds like. It does not let you down.
But there are surprises. Nick Martinelli, though a major fan of Ross, is perhaps not the most obvious choice as producer. He rose to prominence as a dancefloor supremo, known for his brittle, buoyant productions that updated the sound of Philadelphia for the mid-80s. Here, however, he sets up lush but never overbearing string sections that allow the Motown legend to do what she does best. Hear “Silent Night”: it may not be the soul music the artist and her producer grew up with, but it’s undeniably honest and sounds as pure as the driven snow.
Both artist and producer seem set on making a traditional seasonal record without resorting to crummy cliché: there are no sleigh bells on “Walking In A Winter Wonderland” – perhaps all the more remarkable because Martinelli was once regarded as the king of the electronic cowbell. A Very Special Season may offer a slightly Hollywood view of Yuletide, but it’s delivered in the right spirit.
What’s more, not all the material is gooey figgy pudding. A version of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” is nothing short of lovely. Elsewhere, Ross takes on the gospel standard “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” and one wonders if Marvin Gaye’s shattering version (from the 1968 album In Loving Memory, which included a contribution from The Supremes) was on her mind when she selected it: she doesn’t take the same tears-and-fire approach to the song, but still conjures up a believable sense of desolation and redemption. John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” gets an intriguing marching intro, as if the arrangement was inspired by Jona Lewie’s “Stop The Cavalry,” though it falls some way short of the entire Great War hog. To her credit, Diana, as a true star of the 60s should, sounds deadly serious about halting conflict. The other side to Lennon’s message is a lush version of Bacharach & David’s “What The World Needs Now” – hardly the most blatant seasonal fare, and Diana briefly allows the deeper end of her register an alluring, all-too-rare airing.
Sleigh bells do turn up on “Wonderful Christmastime,” with Paul McCartney’s automaton keyboards swapped for pizzicato strings; Mel Tormé’s ‛The Christmas Song” is perhaps too silken and distant when intimacy might have better suited Diana’s relaxed vocals. “Amazing Grace” does not remotely attempt to compete with Aretha Franklin’s definitive soul template, but works to its own parameters, with Diana draped in ethereal echo as if soaring towards the pearly gates.
Selling well in Europe and Japan, and going gold in the UK (US devotees were forced to buy the album on import), A Very Special Season finds Diana Ross setting out to make a record that revealed how she feels about the holidays. What she could bring to yet another Christmas record was her heart. On this evidence, you can bet that Christmas at Chez Ross is warm, cozy, heartfelt, and luxe, but not without a sense that we should all be trying that much harder to make the world a better place.