As the second week of this blog series draws to a close, I can’t help but look back over the composers and songwriters that I’ve highlighted thus far and make some observations. Tell me, do you see what I see? How about a lack of diversity? They’ve all been white, and with one exception, they’ve all been men. (To be even more specific, they’ve mostly been Jewish, but that’s a topic worthy of a blog series unto itself!) That’s what makes today’s entry in the American Christmas Songbook a true gem!
Chicago native Donny Hathaway made his grand entrance onto the soul/R&B music scene with his 1970 debut album, Everything Is Everything (ATCO). After studying music at Howard University here in DC (alongside the legendary Roberta Flack–with whom he would record a highly celebrated duet album in 1972–and his future co-producer, Ric Powell), Hathaway withdrew just before finishing his degree. He had been offered a job by Curtis Mayfield at his record company back in Chicago. After spending two years as a songwriter, studio musician, and producer, he signed with ATCO, a division of Atlantic Records. Vince Aletti of Rolling Stone applauded Hathaway as “…one of the most important black performers to emerge in recent years,” noting that Everything Is Everything “…was a confirmation of Hathaway’s strength and a remarkable, finely-balanced first album.”¹
That same year, Hathaway decided he wanted to release a Christmas song, but not just any song. He wanted his offering to be distinctly black–by and for African Americans. A friend connected him to Nadine McKinnor, a songwriter who happened to already have lyrics and the beginnings of a melody in mind.² Her verse describes the joy of celebrating the season with the one you love:
Presents and cards are here
My world is filled with cheer and you
And as I look around
Your eyes outshine the town they do
Hathaway worked his magic in the studios, and in December of 1970, a single was dropped: “This Christmas.” Unfortunately, it barely got noticed. ATCO was a small label, and releasing it so close to the holiday probably caused it to get lost in the shuffle. Ten years later, it was covered by both The Temptations (Give Love at Christmas, Gordy) and Gladys Knight & The Pips (That Special Time of Year, Columbia), though neither track got much attention. In 1991, ATCO decided to re-release it’s 1968 holiday compilation album, Soul Christmas, on CD. On it, they added “This Christmas,” and a new generation discovered Hathaway and McKinnor’s song. It was quickly covered by a handful of artists, including Stephanie Mills (Christmas, UMG, 1991) Usher (A LaFace Family Christmas, LaFace, 1993), and Gloria Estefan (Christmas Through Your Eyes, Epic, 1993). Jamie Foxx performed the song at the end of the In Living Color Christmas episode in 1992.
Since then, “This Christmas” has been covered over 100 times! If only Hathaway had lived to see his song become such a standard–he passed away at age 33 in 1979. Phil Upchurch, guitarist and friend of the late Hathaway, said of the work: “‘This Christmas’ is absolutely the premiere holiday song written by an African American.”³
³Hoekstra, David. “Donny Hathaway’s ‘This Christmas'” Chicago Sun-Times, 13 December 2009.