"This Christmas" - added on November 27, 2001
THE HARDLINE -- Steven Ivory
It is late November--which means folks are generally in a more compassionate mood than just a couple of months before. It also means the temperature in usually warm Southern California will probably dip low enough that I will don a turtleneck or two.
But mostly, late November means that now until Christmas day,
I can relish Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" openly, with abandon and without apology.
It means that if the postman hears strains of the song seeping through my door, he won't think I'm confused--as he probably would in March. It means I won't have to turn the music down when I'm on a stoplight, as I have done in the dead of July.
Hang all the lights and wreaths you want. For me, it really doesn't feel like the holidays until I've heard Nat "King" Cole's version of "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire), Yuletide relics "Jingle Bell Rock," "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree," Elvis's "Blue Christmas," the Carpenters' sappy "Merry Christmas Darling," a bluesy "Merry Christmas Baby"
-- and "This Christmas."
I didn't choose these songs; they chose me. Most of them are ancient and, like the smell of fresh pine, the sight of fruitcakes and TV's "A Charlie Brown Christmas," make up the fabric of the season, forever embedded in our cerebral. But Hathaway's "This Christmas" somehow transcends the holiday. With a dynamic exuberance reminiscent of a soulful Aaron Copland, it is as big and exciting and relevant in June as it is in December. The heart-warming lyric about a cosmopolitan celebration of fireplaces, caroling and romance would seem to strike up a commitment: THIS Christmas is gonna be better than whatever went on last year.
The sheer brevity of Hathaway's career kept huge audiences from seeing him onstage, and even fewer witnessed him perform "This Christmas." But, as fate would have it, I did, and I have Charlotte Lewis to thank. The shy and lovable Charlotte, or "Puddin," as we called her, was like a slightly older sister or, as our families declared, a cousin. In 1972, when she came by with an extra ticket to Hathaway's concert at Oklahoma City's Civic Center Music Center, I didn't know much more about him than his hit, "The Ghetto." But it was December, everyone was digging his new jam, "This Christmas" and at age 16, I reveled simply in the opportunity to hear live music. I was astounded that Hathaway sang so passionately and forcefully while accompanying himself exquisitely on his Wurlitzer electric piano, whose warm sound had already become his trademark. The cozy house of 3,000 who braved snow was so overwhelmingly enamored with "This Christmas" -- and Hathaway so visibly tickled by its reception--that he and his band played it again at the end of his show. Puddin' and me laughed and talked about people and executed the Soul Clap on cue; she showed me a simple and wonderful time.
Years later, living in Los Angeles, at a cocktail party I told a diminutive woman with a glowing personality that she reminded me of a relative who once took me to see a Donny Hathaway concert. She just smiled when I suggested that I was probably one of the only people in the room at that very moment--quite possibly, on the whole block--to have heard Donny Hathaway sing "This Christmas" live. "Not quite," she said. "You saw him, too?" I asked. "Well, you could say that," she chuckled. "I was in the studio in Chicago when he recorded it." My eyes widened as she extended her hand and introduced herself--of all people in the room, in the whole universe--as Nadine McKinnor. Since that fateful meeting, I have written about "This Christmas" somewhere just about every year, and McKinnor and I usually get in touch. Merry Christmas, Nadine.
But listening to "This Christmas" also brings back fond memories of Puddin.' Who knew that 23 years later, in 1995, just blocks from where she treated me to Hathaway's amazing show, Puddin' would meet fate at her desk in the Murrah Federal Building the morning Timothy McVeigh decided to blow it up.
Finally, I think of the troubled Hathaway himself, hoping that when he jumped from the 15th floor of Manhattan's Essex House hotel in January of 1979 at age 33, he was still able to know his work touched people. Despite his brilliance, Hathaway never became the star he wanted to be. Nevertheless, listen to "This Christmas," observe the wondrous amalgamation of music and a man's soaring spirit and ambition and know that, on THAT day, Hathaway knew he'd recorded something truly special. You can hear it in his voice. Donny's most enduring contribution on his own is a song about joy, on a day devoted to joy. Makes sense to me.
Steven Ivory is a Los Angeles-based journalist.