‘This Christmas’: The story of how a Chicago postal worker and Donny Hathaway created a holiday classic

It’s that time of the year again – we’re in middle of the holiday season, with Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa celebrations and parties and the quiet stillness of long Winter nights. The Post Office will hit its peak mail period and postal workers are bracing themselves as they are grinding out long overtime hours and high volume workloads. Most everyone who loves Christmas music will agree that THE great iconic black song of the holiday season IS Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.” There is so tremendous richness, depth and beauty to this song and I am posting it here because I want people to know that “This Christmas” was written by a Chicago postal worker, Nadine McKinnon. Nadine would often to write lyrics and sing songs to her co-workers to keep from getting bored during the daily grind at the Post Office, and she eventually was able to take her song to Hathaway. The rest, as they say, is history…  So during this holiday season I’d like to recognize something beautiful and positive coming from a postal worker – something that has touches the hearts of millions of people every year as we celebrate the wonder of Christmas.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/ct-ent-this-christmas-1221-story.html

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By Christopher Borrelli
Chicago Tribune
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There is a moment every Christmas season when Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” brings water to my eyes.

It doesn’t happen with the Chris Brown version (though many a millennial will insist, disturbingly, that it’s the definitive version). And have you ever heard the John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John cover? It generates tears for other reasons. But on the Emotional Resonance Holiday Scale, the Hathaway original lands a singular blow. It’s almost stealthy in its effect. For years I didn’t see this coming, now I see it’s inevitable: Late in the season, long after exhaustion has set in, just as I’m convinced Christmas is no longer worth the hassle, “This Christmas” seems to waft from the walls.

The rest is clockwork.

A surge of strings, a blast of horns, Hathaway’s honeyed delivery:

And THIS! CHRIST! MAS! / Will be! / A very special CHRIST! MAS!

For me-eeeeee, YEAH!

Cue the waterworks. When it’s over, I often sit back and say out loud like a crazy person: “The best Christmas song.” Not “White Christmas,” not “Blue Christmas.” THIS! CHRIST! MAS!

Apologies for interrupting your holiday, but somebody needs to address this. In fact, Chicago-based music writer Aaron Cohen, finishing up a social history of soul music in Chicago (out in 2018 from the University of Chicago Press), told me, “Well, actually, I consider it the first great Christmas song.”

Lawrence Ware, co-director of the Center for Africana Studies at Oklahoma State University, who recently listened to “This Christmas” and its cover versions for 48-straight hours for a Slate story, said: “ ‘This Christmas’ is the best — it’s original, it comes distinctly from the black experience and it feels like you’re hearing it for the first time, every time.”

See? Me, this guy in Oklahoma, Aaron Cohen and probably Olivia Newton-John agree: “This Christmas,” greatest Christmas song ever.

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” nail the melancholy; Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” has the carefree silliness; and Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas” gets the heart-tugging plea for peace.

Only “This Christmas” captures it all — and a bit of sex.

That the history of the song is nearly as rich — full of promise and longing and loss — is the garland on the tree. That “This Christmas” is also a Chicago song — written by a Chicagoan, performed by Chicagoans and recorded in Chicago — is the star at the top.

Its history speaks to a Midwestern experience in ways you likely never realized. It was written during the Great Blizzard of 1967 by a postal worker with Nat King Cole on the brain, singing to herself and her co-workers to pass the time, soaking in the boredom of sorting mail as Christmas carols are being piped into the office all day.

By the time it was recorded in 1970, intentions had changed: Hathaway wanted “This Christmas” to be the first pointedly black Christmas carol — “a perpetual black standard,” said Ric Powell, Hathaway’s old friend and business partner. Hathaway’s reputation was ascending then, and now, 47 years later, as music writer Emily Lordi puts it, “for an artist to cite Donny Hathaway as an influence signals a kind of understanding, not necessarily embraced by a white music-listening public, of feeling and virtuosity.” Hathaway’s ambitions, and vulnerabilities, are heard in Frank Ocean, Justin Timberlake, Common, Amy Winehouse. And yet Hathaway himself remains overlooked, his legacy uncertain.

Which is nothing new.

Even in 1979, when Hathaway died under murky circumstances, “This Christmas,” now his most popular song, was not mentioned in either his New York Times or Ebony obituaries; the Tribune didn’t even run an obit. The song, like Hathaway, was a cult item, and had fallen into obscurity. Or perhaps, slumber. As Jesse Jackson eulogized at his funeral, geniuses die young but “get there faster, their impact penetrates, goes deeper.”

Arguably, aside from “This Christmas,” these days the best-known thing about Donny Hathaway may be the way that he died. Late on a January evening in New York, after a dinner at the home of singer Roberta Flack, with whom he had performed his biggest hits, Hathaway returned to his hotel on Central Park. What happened next will likely never be entirely explained: Hathaway probably removed safety glass from a window then double-bolted the door. Then, apparently, he threw himself out the window. He fell 15 stories and landed on a second-floor extension. He left no note or will. His manager told the Times only a few days later that Hathaway would not have committed suicide.

His history said differently.

Hathaway was born in Chicago. At three, he was sent to live in St. Louis with his grandmother, Martha Pitts, a renowned Midwestern gospel singer and strict guardian. He was raised in the church and considered a prodigy, performing as “Donny Pitts, the Nation’s Youngest Gospel Singer.” He studied music at Howard University in the 1960s, where he built a reputation as a music nerd, a forward-thinking arranger as comfortable in classical as soul. (Cohen said Hathaway was active in classical study groups long after college.) He played a while in Powell’s jazz trio but moved back to Chicago, to serve as the in-house wunderkind producer/arranger/composer/songwriter/musician at Curtis Mayfield’s Chicago studio on South Stony Island Avenue. “Except Donny eventually felt Curtis wasn’t using his talents fully,” Powell said. Yet by the time Hathaway signed with Atlantic, he had built up so much goodwill from the Chicago soul community — he often did arrangements for free, Cohen said — his first album was a kind of local showcase.

Released in the summer of 1970, “Everything Is Everything” contained “The Ghetto,” his then-ubiquitous jam that would — until “This Christmas,” decades later — be Hathaway’s calling card. Like much of the album, it took a step forward and back simultaneously, seeming “to mock the very concept of the treacherous black ghetto,” Lordi writes in “Donny Hathaway Live,” her recent monograph on the artist’s 1972 live album.

His debut was ambitious, covering Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” and capturing the era’s push for self-determination and Black Power pride without straying far from prayer, all propelled by Hathaway’s moody organ. It suggested new directions for soul music (later expanded by Wonder, who cites Hathaway as an influence). Lordi says that Hathaway became a “proto black singer/songwriter at a moment when black male artists were not doing that — if he was expanding the possibilities of the black male, he was also saying ‘This is my own thing.’”

“This Christmas,” then, might seem a strange follow-up.

For starters, a Christmas song is what a musician tends to record once a career is well-established, a novelty number that (should luck work out) turns into a perennial piggy bank. But in 1970, Hathaway — involved in civil rights politics at Howard, and active in Jesse Jackson’s social justice group Operation PUSH — regarded “This Christmas” as a chance for an Afrocentric take on the Great American Christmas Songbook, a genre then dominated by composers like Irving Berlin and Perry Como (with the occasional mainstream standard from such African-Americans as Nat King Cole and Eartha Kitt).

That said, Hathaway hadn’t intended to record a Christmas song. The song itself was written three years earlier.

Nadine McKinnor, a Chicago postal worker who kept a notebook full of lyrics, would jot down songs as they came to her. McKinnor, who is now 76, lives in Chatham. She said she didn’t have civil rights in mind, and though people hear sex — Hang all the mistletoe / I’m going to get to know you better / This Christmas — she doesn’t hear more than flirtation.

“I loved (Cole’s) ‘The Christmas Song’ and was trying to capture the swirl of music, department store windows, lights on the South Side — Chicago at Christmas,” McKinnor said. “It’s like I’m talking about a love affair with the atmosphere of the holiday. My kids were little then, I was out shopping for toys, enjoying the mood. It’s a romance with the season.”

The line about “Fireside blazing bright” was inspired by the two fireplaces she would sit in front of, shuttling between the homes of her divorced parents. And the line “Gonna get to know you better”? Inspired a bit by slight folk-pop group Spanky and Our Gang, which you might remember from the 1968 AM-radio earworm “Like to Get to Know You.”

She had never heard of Hathaway.

She was hoping Andy Williams would record the song. But a boyfriend at the time who was doing interior design at Hathaway and Powell’s offices overheard them discussing a need for new material; he recommended McKinnor, who offered them a few songs.

“This Christmas” was recorded in early fall at a studio (no longer there) on Ontario Street. “Watching Donny work was like watching a designer,” McKinnor remembers, “someone who weaved threads and colors, though here, sounds and chord changes.”

Hathaway and Powell produced the song. Musicians included such Chicago staples as guitarist Phil Upchurch, saxophonist Willie Henderson and trombonist Louis Satterfield (who later joined Earth, Wind & Fire). Hathaway, who played keyboards and bass on the song, brought a hand-drawn sketch of the song’s architecture. Chicago Symphony Orchestra members provided strings. The jaunty bridge — dun-dun-dun duh-duh dun dun dun duh-duh dah — came from the theme to “The Magnificent Seven,” and Hathaway’s improvised call to “Shake a hand, shake a hand” came straight out of his gospel days.

When Jerry Butler, at the time a hot soul singer (now longtime Cook County Board commissioner), heard about the song, “Let’s say I had doubts. In those days you had maybe two weeks to play a Christmas song, and if you were writing to make money — a lot of people weren’t recording Christmas songs in the spirit of the holiday — considering the promotion and the cost of recording, it just seemed unnecessary. But then again I didn’t think the world needed Stevie Wonder’s ‘Happy Birthday,’ so I have been wrong.”

The result, however, said Lordi, is Hathaway at his peak:

“It gets him on the rise, with a striver’s sensibility. He’s going to pull out all the stops, in a three-minute holiday single — it’s funky but a love song in a way, with strings, horns, and the vocal is sweet. It’s quintessential ambitious Donny — it’s him against the world. Remember, it’s not a very special Christmas for us. It’s a very special Christmas for me ”

Except Hathaway never did get comfortable with a pop career.

At a time when the soul ideal was the sexy confidence of Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes and Al Green, he was self-conscious, insecure. He was heavy-set and referred to himself as a pear. “I think because he was raised in the church he had been told all the time that playing worldly music would send him to hell,” Powell said. “It affected him. He was always apologizing for just being in the world.” He would record a few smash hits with Flack — with whom he became synonymous — including “The Closer I Get to You” and “Where Is the Love.” But after a few more albums and one great live record — none of which made it higher than No. 18 on the Billboard album charts (and rarely broke the top 20 on the R&B charts) — Hathaway slipped away from new solo records.

Accounts of Hathaway from the 1970s describe him as haunted, unhappy, depressed. He lived a while in the LaSalle Towers Apartments near Division Street; neighbors told stories of him leaning out of his 17th floor window to talk with the birds. He passed in and out of mental-health facilities, eventually being diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. He worried often and loudly about white people stealing his sound. In her book, Lordi argues that paranoia has a long history of being used against black people, to suggest they are overreacting. She decides, even with his illness, his fear was a “prophecy.”

At a time in pop history infamously defined by pretense and excess — when a white band like Fleetwood Mac could spend a year on a record — Hathaway was accused by Atlantic of taking too much time in the studio, Powell said. “The truth is they wanted him part of a duo (with Flack) and wasn’t sure if he was commercial enough; after his nervous breakdowns they put him on hold for a while.”

He died at 33.

His Ebony obit called him a “has-been.” Every time I hear “This Christmas,” I listen for a note of agony that must be there. But it isn’t.

The other day McKinnor met me at a Starbucks near her home. She wore a knitted beret, gray dreadlocks and, on her T-shirt, a picture of “Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations.” (“This Christmas” is in it, alongside the lyrics of Bob Marley.) She said she heard the song in the dentist’s office the day before; the day before that, it came on at a lunchtime reunion with old high school classmates in Hyde Park.

Like the rest of us, she hears “This Christmas” constantly.

“I do wonder,” she said, “do you think they play it on the space station?”

Hathaway recorded only two of her songs: “Take a Love Song” (included on his second album) and “This Christmas,” which initially was a flop, charting only on a special Billboard Christmas song count-down (reaching No. 11). McKinnor, who had long left the post office, moved to Los Angeles and was a receptionist for various corporations.

But the song remained obscure — outside of black communities.

By the mid-1990s, Hathaway was a cult influence on a new generation of thoughtful, black singer/songwriters, from Lauryn Hill to D’Angelo. After “This Christmas” was included on a reissue of an old record of soul Christmas classics, the cover versions started coming, most notably from Brown, who recorded it for the 2007 holiday comedy “This Christmas.” Last year, the band Train had a No. 1 (Adult Contemporary) with its version; the year before that, Seal had his own No. 1 cover.

In 1998, McKinnor — previously credited as co-writer with Hathaway on the song — came to a settlement with Warner Bros. and Hathaway’s estate (which jointly hold the rights); she is now also credited as co-publisher on the song. Long retired from her office desk days, she said she makes around $70,000 annually on the song’s royalties.

That’s one good thing to come from the endless covers of “This Christmas,” by Usher, Destiny’s Child, Lady Antebellum, Pentatonix, Mary J. Blige. Lalah Hathaway, Donny’s oldest daughter and a multiple Grammy winner, recently recorded her own version for Spotify. “It’s almost a rite of passage, especially for black singers,” said Ware.

He recently ranked several dozen covers on Slate — no surprise, the original was No. 1 — after a student tried to convince him the Brown version was better. “I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ ” Ware said, “but he was arguing so passionately. I thought ‘I’’m a scholar. I’m going to sit down and listen to them all and decide this for once.’ ”

And of course, now he’ll never be able to listen again?

“Oh, I’ve already listened again. Christmas to me is three songs: ‘Christmas in Hollis’ (Run DMC), ‘Christmas in Harlem’ (Kanye West) and ‘This Christmas’ — but really there is nothing greater than ‘This Christmas.’ I don’t know, man. It just calls my name.”

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

 

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