Originally published in Chicago Sun-Times Dec. 13, 2009
Merry Christmas from the bottom of this Chicago heart.
Chicago native Donny Hathaway co-wrote and recorded "This Christmas," the greatest holiday song composed by an African American. The traditional Christmas songbook is known for the likes of Irving Berlin, Gene Autry, Burl Ives and Mel Torme. Catch my snowdrift?
Released in 1970, "This Christmas" was a significant departure. The song endures through Hathaway's sweeping tempo changes, sweet vocal range ... and warm promise.
The lyrics declare:
Presents and cards are here / My world is filled with cheer and you, ohh yeah / This Christmas / And as I look around / Your eyes outshine the town, they do ...
The song is a made-in-Chicago classic. It was written at Jerry Butler's songwriters workshop, 1402 S. Michigan. Nadine McKinnor put the lyrics to Hathaway's melody.
Butler's initial response? "Nobody wants a new Christmas song and nobody wants a new 'Happy Birthday' song," he said with a hearty laugh. "Well, 'This Christmas' has become one of the biggest songs ever."
Last year, the musicians' rights group ASCAP revealed its 25 most-performed holiday songs of the five years prior, based on radio airplay data tracked by Mediaguide. "This Christmas" re-entered the list at No. 25. ("Winter Wonderland" was No. 1.)
"This Christmas" was recorded in the autumn of 1970 at Audio Finishers Studio, a brownstone on Ontario Street that was an offshoot of Universal Recording Studios, 46 E. Walton. The song was released later that year as a single for ATCO Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic.
Hathaway had signed with Atlantic in 1969 and broke through in 1970 with the epic hit single "The Ghetto, Part 1" on ATCO. In 1972, Hathaway recorded an album of duets with Roberta Flack, whom he met while studying music at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Their million-selling pop crossover hit was "Where Is the Love," co-written by Ralph MacDonald, currently a percussionist with Jimmy Buffett. (NOTE, Ralph died Dec. 18, 2011)
By January 1979, Hathaway was dead. He was 33 years old. His body was found outside the Essex House hotel in New York City. His death was ruled a suicide.
Hathaway's solo work was intense, experimental and sophisticated. His final release in 1973, "Extension of a Man," included "Someday We'll All Be Free," which Spike Lee used as the closing theme of his film "Malcolm X."
But Hathaway's "This Christmas" has grown in epic proportions.
It has been covered by Christina Aguilera, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, Harry Connick Jr. and Michael McDonald, who titled his new Razor & Tie holiday album after the song. "That's one of my favorite contemporary Christmas songs," the former Doobie Brother said from his home in Nashville, Tenn. "It has such a contemporary R&B jazz groove. We typically associate Christmas songs with church music or very languid melodies."
The version now heard most often on radio is by Gloria Estefan. More than 100 artists have tackled "This Christmas." The Whispers' 1980 self-titled album included "A Song for Donny," set to the succulent melody of "This Christmas."
"'This Christmas' is absolutely the premiere holiday song written by an African American," said guitarist Phil Upchurch, a favorite sideman of Hathaway's who also played on Bob Dylan's new "Christmas in the Heart" album. "Nothing comes close."
Butler, who often used Hathaway as an arranger, asked, "Why do we specify 'written by an African American'? It's a great song. And 'This Christmas' had the audacity to say, 'Hang all the mistletoe / I'm going to get to know you better this Christmas.' The tempo change is what makes that thing so effective. Donny Hathaway was all the genius that people said he was. It was sad that people didn't recognize it before he left here."
Legendary Chicago disc jockey Herb Kent first made a common mistake by including Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song" in the mix of non-white-composed Christmas songs. (Jazz vocalist Torme wrote "The Christmas Song.")
"Donny's is the best," Kent said. "His song has all the elements: iambic pentameter, melody and the meaning. The first two or three notes and you're hooked.
"It's just like Christmas time."
"This Christmas" got its new legs by being included on the 1991 compilation "Soul Christmas," an updated version of the 1968 ATCO records classic "Soul Christmas" that included King Curtis' "Christmas Song" and Clarence Carter's bawdy "Back Door Santa."
During the 1970 Chicago session, Upchurch played electric guitar and Morris Jennings (Terry Callier, Muddy Waters' "Electric Mud" album) was on drums. Ric Powell (Wes Montgomery, Ramsey Lewis) played congas, drums, sleigh bells and bass drum. Hathaway had played in the Ric Powell Trio in Washington, D.C.
Chicago soul cat Willie Henderson was on baritone sax and Louis Satterfield played trombones. Hathaway played Upchurch's keyboard bass, an electric piano that goes down an octave. The keyboard was given to Upchurch by Harold Rhodes, inventor of the Fender Rhodes piano. Hathaway saw the piano in a corner of Upchurch's West Side studio.
"Donny was very upbeat during the session," Powell recalled from his home outside of Miami. "He knew what he wanted to do musically and the impact he wanted to make with this song. Up until then African-American music wasn't represented in Christmas. There was Nat King Cole and Charles Brown's "I'll Be Home for Christmas.' " During the mid-1960s, James Brown was also cutting holiday tracks like "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto," but they were more in the self-contained funky spirit of the Godfather of Soul than Christmas.
"This Christmas" was the first song of the Kuumba Music publishing company formed by Powell and Hathaway under the auspices of ASCAP. "Kuumba" means "creativity" as one of the principals of Kwanzaa.
"Donny was obsessed with getting people in sync," said Powell, who also befriended Muhammad Ali when the champ was living on the South Side. "He wanted to recreate a journey on 'This Christmas.' A lot of people covering that song don't understand the timing in there. He wanted to throw people off and do a little dance. I put the 7/4 rhythmic pattern to his arrangement. The bridge of that song was revamped from 'The Magnificent Seven' starring Yul Brynner."
"All of Donny's sessions were a marvel to behold," Upchurch added. "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." Hathaway collaborated with Jones on the 1972 soundtrack to "Come Back Charleston Blue."
Kent added, "The black music explosion happened in the '70s. It was the best it has ever been. Tyrone Davis, Johnnie Taylor, the Jackson 5 -- and Donny Hathaway was right in there."
Ralph MacDonald has played percussion with Hathaway, John Lennon, David Bowie, Paul Simon and scores of others. "Donny had a different vibe than other people," MacDonald said during a break from visiting his son in Orlando, Fla. "Donny sang from his diaphragm. You heard the note come from deep within. It had different tone. Most singers sing from their throat or their nose. Donny's vocals were a much warmer and truer sound. When Donny played, he moved the spirit. There's two people I've worked with in my career that freaked me out in terms of musicianship: jazz genius Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Donny Hathaway.
"The world will never know how great these two musicians were."
Hathaway left Chicago as in infant to live with his grandmother Martha Pitts (Cromwell) in a St. Louis housing project. At the age of 3, he began singing in a gospel choir with his grandmother. He quickly picked up props as "Donny Pitts, the Nation's Youngest Gospel Singer." Hathaway attended Howard University in the mid-1960s before Upchurch talked him into returning to Chicago.
"I met Donny on a gig with Curtis Mayfield," Upchurch recalled. "I knew he would further his career in Chicago and it would give us a chance to play together. This was around the late 1960s. He played on a couple of my albums: 'Upchurch' with the stirring instrumental 'Black Gold' and 'The Way I Feel.'"
Hathaway cut his chops at Chicago's Twinight Records. He worked with the likes of Syl Johnson as a songwriter, session musician and producer.
"Donny Hathaway -- what a character, what a guy," Johnson said from his suburban studio. Ironically, he was taking a break from recording a 21-year-old Australian singer who was covering Josephine Taylor's hard-driving Twinight hit "Is It Worth the Chance" -- arranged by Hathaway.
"He was inspirational on the keyboards," Johnson said. "His arrangements were every bit as good as Quincy Jones'. His wife could sing, too. He and his wife did background on a lot of my songs. I worked a lot with him. I brought him to Atlantic with my arrangements on Garland Green." Johnson and Hathaway both produced Chicago-based soul singer Green.
Johnson began to hum the Hathaway hook line, "Do da da do do it ... this Christmas ..."
Just like everyone else.
Upchurch said, "No one is coming up with hook lines like that. It was incredible."
It's a challenging song to sing, Michael McDonald said.
"It's taken me quite a while to get to where I feel comfortable doing it live," said the singer. "Typically, you get something under your hands and you stop thinking about it so you can sing it. But that song is a little more difficult than your average song because the structure is more abstract. There's almost different voices in the same chord. That little bit of change is just enough to make the song move in a different direction."
The seasons moved fast for Hathaway.