13 December 2009

Ultimate Singles Jukebox [Slot 107]

This Christmas
b/w "Be There"
Donny Hathaway
Written by Nadine McKinner & Donny Pitts
Produced by Don-Ric Enterprises
ATCO 7-99956
Released 1970

Flashback to 1979. The only time Christmas themed songs are heard on the radio is on Christmas day, not 24 hours a day for almost two months prior to the holiday on FM stations. And usually these stations will carry a taped loop of canned traditional songs, regardless of their usual everyday format. But during the course of the day, a new concept creeps in: a one or two hour syndicated special that will feature tunes by rock and roll artists. There are stunning standards (Otis Redding's version of "White Christmas") and great originals (Chuck Berry's "Run, Run Rudolph" or Darlene Love's "Christmas [Baby Please Come Home]"). But from a young man's perspective, these records are "old"; in fact, the only recent Christmas cover to create any excitement is almost impossible to find, since it only exists on bootleg: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band's rousing cover of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town."

But then a stunning sound comes through your Advent speakers via the Technics amplifier: joyful horns and the warmest Rhodes piano backing the unmistakably smooth rhythm and blues voice of Donny Hathaway. You know, the guy who had some duets with Roberta Flack that became hits. But where did this come from? Sexy, but sincere; modern, but traditional: Hang all the mistletoe/I'm going to get you know you better/This Christmas.

And then some melancholy sets in: you know why the song all of a sudden has entered the holiday rotation. Hathaway, after suffering from a long battle with paranoid schizophrenia, had perished earlier in the year after falling from a hotel room in New York City.

But you keep listening. The melody makes you happy, combining the soul of Curtis Mayfield with a hip Nat King Cole vibe. And you savor the three minutes and five seconds of that 45 rpm, especially the cool fade out and return, because you know it will be quite some time before you here it again.

The search of record stores for the vinyl single, called "This Christmas," turns out to be futile. The downtown record store, Radio Doctors, only stocks selected holiday 45s in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and then they disappear for another year when the record labels press a limited number for sale to the public - there just isn't money in producing a large number of the records, because they have limited (if at all) airplay on the radio.

But you remember to special order "This Christmas" the following December. (Yes, that blurry photo above is the actual 45 record.) And thirty years later, you still listen to and remember Donny Hathaway.


A wonderfully researched article by Dave Hoekstra on Donny Hathaway and the recording and enduring legacy of "This Christmas" in particular, featuring quotes from musicians that played on the song, including Phil Upchurch and Ric Powell.

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