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The Supremes - Merry Christmas

It only takes a few spins (yep, this review comes courtesy of a piece of vinyl spinning on a 1970's piece of kit called a turntable) of the Supremes 1965 album 'Merry Christmas' to make you realise what a special release it is (even the CD reissue has plenty of worth as it includes a Florence Ballard fronted version of 'Silent Night'). Pity then that Diana Ross and her band only recorded a single Christmas album given the abundant riches that came as a result of this effort. 'Merry Christmas' was exquisitely tailored thanks to producer Harvey Fuqua who also produced Sam Cooke.

The Supremes Christmas album was released by Motown and much of its sound is redolent of the Detroit label. As you'd expect there was 12 tracks (you've got to question any Christmas record that strays from that magical count!) and they mostly comprised of well known secular standards like 'White Christmas', Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer' and 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town'. There were a couple of curveballs too, like the cover of 'My Favorite Things' which had originally appeared on the soundtrack to 'The Sound of Music'. 'My Favorite Things' leaves you in no doubt that it is a product of the sixties but in adding plenty of sleigh bells it is an altogether perfect aid to downing a pint of eggnog. Elsewhere on the album there are tunes that don't often get a look in on festive releases like 'Little Bright Star' and 'Born of Mary'. Both are sumptuously delivered and what might have been a risky move in other hands ends up being a triumph when performed by the Supremes.

'Merry Christmas' opens with a string and glockenspiel laden 'White Christmas'. It is a pretty, albeit safe, start and it is only when the subsequent track 'Silver Bells' arrives that you begin to feel you are in the company of greatness. The production is pristine, orchestral flourishes abound and the harmonies are heaven sent. 'Merry Christmas' includes 2 originals called 'Children's Christmas Song' and 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Me'. The latter is a perfect little ditty that puts Ross's vocals in the spotlight (and my how she was happy about that) but Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard do their best to steal it back with their trademark delightful cooing. 'Children's Christmas Song' was released as a single and it is a shame that it has somehow got lost along the way, for this is 3 minutes that is deserving of annual praise. 'My Christmas Tree' (written by Jimmy Webb) is doused in melancholy with Ross playing it as if her heart had been broken in two. This turn of events is hardly surprising given that the lyrics are flush with genuinely lonesome scenes.

The general tone of 'Merry Christmas' is quiet and reflective which is not something you'd expect from the normally exuberant Supremes. Not that it is detracts from your enjoyment and 'Merry Christmas' makes for the gentlest of background decorations. The less than upbeat mood is probably a result of the song choices. 'Little Drummer Boy' for example is note perfect with all 3 singers getting into costume, rowing behind the slow marching drum beat. Even the normally frantic 'Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer' is coolly played, all dashing brass and effortless swing but just one step short of the expediency that the song is best known for.

Of course the girls do let their hair down on occasion. This is most pronounced on their rendition of 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town' where they add subtle nuances to a song that is loved all around the world. 'Joy To The World' is similarly action-packed with a momentum that you don't normally expect from the cherished carol. Ross and the frenetic instrumentation set a galloping pace and end 'Merry Christmas' on a truly triumphant note.

So good is 'Merry Christmas' that you might find yourself sneaking a listen during those pesky non-Christmas months. This is probably down to the fact that the Supremes recorded an album that is not only a wonderful festive piece but one that is truly great no matter what time of the year it is played. That said there is something exhilarating about waiting until December 1st to unwrap this gift each year, for it is a gift that can't help but keep on giving.

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