‘THIS CHRISTMAS’ AND GETTING TO KNOW DONNY
[The following is a prologue to what could possibly be a book I’m writing on the life and music of Donny Hathaway. So, read it, give me notes, pass it around — just let me know if this is something you think I should actually pursue. — CDL]
The first time Donny Hathaway really resonated with me was when I began hearing “This Christmas” in December of 1993. I heard a bit of Hathaway before that. I remember listening to the original version of the Grammy-winning “Where Is the Love” one of the many duets he did with Roberta Flack, in 1991 (shortly after Stephanie Mills and Robert Brookins, another male singer whose life was cut short, did a slow-jam version of the song in 1988). Around that same time, I heard rapper Too Short sampling Hathaway’s “The Ghetto” for his song of the same name. But my love of Hathaway didn’t truly start until I began hearing “This Christmas” around the holiday season.
The first time I actually began hearing it was on TV, during my senior year of high school. The yearly Christmas episode of Martin (the one where Martin and Gina were stranded at a bus station en route to Gina’s parents’ house) ended with a rendition of the song playing over the end credits. In Living Color, another black, Fox show, also ended their Christmas ep with then-cast member Jamie Foxx singing the song. That was a weird, peculiar instance, with Foxx, the cast and The Fly Girls, the show’s resident dancers (which included a pre-superstar Jennifer Lopez), gathered around a man playing the tune on the piano. Foxx and the Fly Girls were wearing Santa hats, while most of the cast were wearing black hats and sunglasses, mean-mugging for the camera. (Years later, I found out that they were protesting due to the show’s creator and executive producer, Keenan Ivory Wayans, getting ousted from the show.)
I didn’t get to hear the original version until Christmas Eve, playing on the radio around my house. My teenage self was immediately drawn in by the horns and sleigh bells working together to start off that infectious melody, which was later said to be lifted from the theme to the celebrated Western The Magnificent Seven. “We flipped the music and we put our spin on it,” longtime friend and collaborator Ric Powell told the website The Undefeated in 2016.
And, of course, there was Hathaway’s voice, beautiful and cascading as it was, singing of spending the holiest of holidays with that special someone:
“Hang all the mistletoe/I’m gonna get to know you better/This Christmas/And as we trim the tree/How much fun it’s gonna be together/This Christmas”
Hathaway follows that up with a verse that could be seen as Hathaway recalling an evening of musical joy or orgasmic ecstasy:
“The fireside is blazing bright/We’re caroling through the night/And this Christmas will be/A very special Christmas for me”
This isn’t the first time someone equated Christmas with sex. “Santa Baby,” released in 1953 and originally sang by Eartha Kitt, was a tantalizing tease of a song, with Kitt coquettishly calling for St. Nick to “hurry down the chimney tonight.” And just two years before “This Christmas”’s release, Clarence Carter assumed the role of a horny Kris Kringle in the randy, rousing “Back Door Santa” (“They call me Back Door Santa/I make my runs about the break of day/I make all the little girls happy/While the boys are out to play”). Interestingly enough, “Back Door Santa” appeared on the “Soul Christmas” album, which would include “This Christmas” when the album was re-released on CD in 1991, which would also explain why the song would start becoming so popular in the early ’90s. (It was also added to the CD release of Hathaway’s self-titled album from 1971.) But Hathaway did it in a way that made it safe for families to sing around the Christmas tree.
“This Christmas” was released just as Hathaway’s professional career was taking off (in the singles chronology, it’s sandwiched between “The Ghetto” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” another duet with Flack). The song came about due to Hathaway’s obsession with creating the next, great holiday anthem — especially one that would make black America proud. An interior decorator linked Hathaway up with songwriter Nadine McKinnor, who had already written the lyrics in 1967. Hathaway invited McKinnor to his office/studio where he laid out the melody. (While they’re both credited as co-writers, Hathaway is listed as “Donny Pitts,” a shout-out to his younger days as “Little Donny Pitts: The Nation’s Youngest Gospel Singer.”) McKinnor was very impressed with Hathaway’s seamless work ethic. In a 2008 episode of TV One’s Unsung, McKinnor said, “He arranged it, produced it, recorded it like a weaver. He just put it together in his head.”
It was written at the songwriters’ workshop of soul singer-turned-politician Jerry Butler, who initially scoffed at the idea of yet another Christmas song. Nevertheless, Hathaway recorded the song anyway in the fall of 1970, at the Audio Finishers Studio on Ontario Street, produced by Hathaway and Powell (as “Don-Ric Enterprises”) and arranged by Hathaway. The session musicians were old pals who worked on Hathaway’s first two albums: Powell on drums, bass drum, congas and sleigh bells; Phil Upchurch on guitar; Morris Jennings on drums; Willie Henderson on baritone sax and Louis Satterfield on trombone. Hathaway played Upchurch’s keyboard bass, an electric piano that goes down an octave. It was a gift to Upchurch by Harold Rhodes, creator of the Fender Rhodes piano.
”Donny was very upbeat during the session,” Powell told the Chicago Tribune in 2009. “He knew what he wanted to do musicially and the impact he wanted to make with this song.” Upchurch also told the Tribune how magical a Hathaway session could be. “All of Donny’s sessions were a marvel to behold,” he said. “He always wrote charts. He had sketches of the chord changes. During that time, producers relied on the cast they called to embellish what they wrote. They left it open for interpretation. I found out the fewer notes you put on the paper, the better the song was going to come out. Donny called on musicians who could do that. We knew when we left the studio we hit something. Our hair stood up on our arms. Working with Donny was as exciting as working with Quincy Jones or Dylan.”
In December of that year, “This Christmas” was released in 1970, on Atlantic Records subsidiary ATCO, which distributed Soul Christmas two years before. Unfortunately, it didn’t get much notice. (It did make Billboard’s Christmas Singles chart two years later, peaking at №11.) Back then, both labels and black-music artists were beginning to discover that there was a market out there for albums full of funky, holiday cheer by contemporary black artists. As mentioned earlier, Atlantic/ATCO already had its Soul Christmas album. James Brown dropped two Christmas albums in the late’60s, James Brown Sings Christmas Songs and A Soulful Christmas. Before Motown dropped its first holiday album, A Motown Christmas, in 1973, several of its artists (Stevie Wonder’s Someday at Christmas, Jackson 5’s Jackson 5 Christmas Album) had already released popular Christmas albums. So, it was easy for “This Christmas” to get lost in the shuffle back then.
Before its early-‘90s resurgence, the song was considered a holiday deep cut. Only a handful of soul artists — The Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Patti LaBelle — did versions for their respective Christmas albums. (LaBelle even titled her album This Christmas.) Diana Ross also recorded a version of 1974 that didn’t get released until 1993, when it was included on Motown’s Christmas in the City album. Cut to today. The song is now deemed a timeless classic. It has been covered over a 100 times, by everyone from Christina Aguilera to Harry Connick, Jr. to Lady Antebellum to Chris Brown (who recorded a version for a 2007 movie called This Christmas, which he also starred in) to — I kid you not — Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta. Covers done by Seal and the band Train each went to number one on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart.
The song has served as fodder for many, online tribute pieces as of late. Over at the feminine-fueled site Jezebel, Kara Brown called it “basically the standard black Christmas song” and “one of the few Christmas songs you can actually dance to without looking super stupid.” At the Very Smart Brothas site, Panama Jackson penned a lengthy salute to the song. “From the opening horns and drums, you know it’s about to go down,” Jackson wrote. “Your head might nod because your neck knows its phat. Your foot might tap. Your hips might unconsciously sway a little bit. It’s impossible not to feel good about…something…when it comes on. The song is perfect. When I think of Christmas, I immediately think of ‘This Christmas,’ The Temptations ‘Silent Night,’ and the Whispers ‘Happy Holidays to You.’”
Jackson also pointed out the song’s ubiquitousness not just in black households, but all over. “I’d wager that there isn’t a Black household in America (maybe a few of you ingrates, probably folks like Lawrence Otis Graham, Ben Carson, and Armstrong Williams) where this song doesn’t show up at least ONE solid time during the holiday season. It’s that infectious. It plays in Macy’s and CVSs. When I visited my mother in Michigan, in as white an enclave as possible, I heard this song playing in the gas station when I went to pick up milk at 10pm and hoped the place didn’t get robbed later that evening because I knew if that happened, I’d have spent Thanksgiving in jail. I like to think that Donny kept the store safe and me out of jail that night.”
As much as “This Christmas” is played around the holiday season, it’s still not that universally known. When I went to see a movie at a North Carolina shopping center one recent Christmas, I spotted two teenage, white girls who were volunteers for the Salvation Army. They had the handbells and red bucket for donations, and they were singing Christmas songs to get people to donate. When I asked them if they knew “This Christmas,” they both had dumbfounded looks on their faces. I jokingly scolded them, telling them they need to start practicing that song if they want to sing around black folk. (They did know Wham’s “Last Christmas,” which I also requested.)
It’s become the norm for African-Americans to say it isn’t the holiday season unless we hear “This Christmas” somewhere. Whenever the Christmas season rolls around for me, there are usually a trio of songs — I called it “the Holy Holiday Trilogy” — I have to hear during the holiday season: Nat King Cole’s traditional “The Christmas Song,” Prince’s untraditional “Another Lonely Christmas” and, of course, “This Christmas.” Back when I used to write for an alt-weekly in Philadelphia, I’d make it a tradition to bring up that soulful, yuletide triumvirate in some piece every year.
Yes, “This Christmas” was a joyous love song for the holidays, but Hathaway, ever the social commentator, slid in some peace-on-Earth sentiments when he added “Shake a hand, shake a hand now” and “Wish your brother Merry Christmas, all over the land.” In 2010, back when I was writing for the Raleigh News & Observer, I wrote a column about the song and its secret, social/spiritual message: “It’s funny how I usually get so caught up in the romantic, joyfully cheeky aspects of the song whenever I hear it, that I’m quick to forget the meaningful messages Hathaway dropped not just in this song, but in nearly all of his work. ‘This Christmas’ is just as profound and socially conscious a composition as his classic numbers ‘The Ghetto’ and ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free.’”
While “This Christmas” has became the Christmas standard Hathaway wanted it to be, it also was the jump-off point to getting me more interested in the music, career and life of Donny Hathaway. How could a man who could sing so beautifully and craft songs so memorably cut his life so short? With the very few albums he left, the people he worked with and the impressions he left on so many people, I’m looking to craft a Hathaway history that’s both comprehensive and critical, part biography and part critical analysis. While Hathaway’s journey didn’t begin with “This Christmas,” that’s where it began for me.