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aScribe
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Tue Dec-19-17 06:41 PM

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"The Holiday Brilliance of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas”"


          

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-holiday-brilliance-of-donny-hathaways-this-christmas

The Holiday Brilliance of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas”

By Emily Lordi, Dec 19, 2017, 1:28 p.m.

If Donny Hathaway had lived to see “This Christmas” enshrined as the black Christmas anthem—a standard recorded by singers from Aretha Franklin to Usher—he likely would have been pleased, but not surprised. The Chicago-born prodigy, who synthesized gospel, blues, jazz, and classical idioms to create some of the most stunning soul music of his generation, had every intention of making a Christmas classic. While other black artists had recorded memorable versions of Christmas carols (Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby,” Otis Redding’s “White Christmas”), Hathaway’s anthem would be a black-authored, “for us, by us” production—a celebration not just of a season but of a people, and of a particularly Chicagoan brand of black striving and excellence.

“This Christmas,” recorded in 1970, didn’t start with Hathaway but with a songwriting receptionist named Nadine McKinnor. She is now seventy-six and a full-time caregiver; I spoke with her about the origins of the song. Her friend Ron Pulliam, whose family ran an interior-design company (“It was a good time for black business,” she said), was decorating both Hathaway’s home and his office, Studio 77. McKinnor was working as a dispatcher at I.B.M. and was constantly “singing songs in the air—little strange melodies and words and hooks and phrases.” She told me that one day Ron said to her, “ ‘You need to sing these songs to Donny Hathaway.’ I said, ‘Who’s Donny Hathaway?’ He said, ‘He’s got ‘The Ghetto’ on the radio.’ I said, ‘Ohhh-kay.’ So I listened to the radio and I heard him. Ron took me to his office and I sang him maybe five songs out of a spiral notebook.” It was “This Christmas” that caught Hathaway’s ear. “I tore the page out to give him, and I never got it back,” McKinnor said.

By then, Hathaway had signed with Atlantic Records, in New York, which would produce his self-titled album the following year. But he recorded “This Christmas” at Universal Recording, on the North Side of Chicago, close to home. McKinnor said, “The only time I heard him do it live was in the studio. He was telling the strings what to do. It was a very simple situation. It was not complicated. It was just very, very cool.” McKinnor had conceived the song in the style of Nat King Cole’s recording of “The Christmas Song,” but when she heard Hathaway’s final mix she realized that he had transformed her version. “He had done everything: arranged and produced and performed and put the magic in it,” she said. “I believe he was so gifted that he heard around the corner, into today and tomorrow.”

A pickup on the drums kick-starts the song like a parade, thick with vintage brass and syncopated sleigh bells, before an organ lights the way to the first lines: “Hang all the mistletoe, I wanna get to know you better.” McKinnor drew the phrase from one of her nascent love songs, its quickstep rhythm her “answer” to Cole’s conversational opening: “Everybody knows some turkey and some mistletoe . . . ” When Hathaway sings the line, moving it down to the sweet spot of his baritone, he turns the song’s funkified “Nutcracker” vibe toward sensual R. & B. The song, like an intricate snow globe, suspends several musical elements in a dreamy display of Hathaway’s gifts—at its center is a barrelhouse acoustic piano solo christened by elegant strings. “It’s gospel, it’s country, it’s blues. It’s everything good, in a Christmas stew. Donny’s Christmas stew,” McKinnor said. “But my favorite part is that thumping bass drum. That’s not reindeer! That’s not even reindeer with boots on. Your roof is gonna cave in with those up there. That’s African drumming, is what that is.”

A feat of musical syncretism, “This Christmas” blends the spirit of belief with that of worldly ambition. “We wanted to make a song that would become a standard,” the producer Ric Powell has said. No less aspirational than “The Christmas Song” or “White Christmas,” but far more upbeat than either, “This Christmas” predicts a future of what McKinnor calls “blessed fun”:

The fireside is blazing bright
We’re carolling through the night
And this Christmas will be
A very special Christmas for me, yeah!

The expectation that this Christmas will be special not “for us” but “for me” might seem odd in light of the song’s romantic aspirations. But that individual perspective also frees “This Christmas” from the compulsory good cheer of, say, “Deck the Halls,” and other future-oriented songs that cast their wishes or demands in the imperative—Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” or James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.” The song’s hope is both modest and immaterial, McKinnor told me. “There’s no Santa, no Jesus, no turkey, no snow. There’s more mention of light than any of that.” The fire blazes, the lover’s eyes “outshine the town, they do.”

While there’s also no mention of the past (such as the credit earned from good behavior in “Santa Baby,” or the nostalgia of “White Christmas”), the song’s emphasis on this Christmas does hint that other Christmases might not have been so great. That lyrical turn is what makes “This Christmas” a quintessential striver’s anthem. An underdog spirit rings through the title phrase, where the stress on all three syllables denotes a “this is my year” kind of tenacity and the rhyme of “this” with “Chris” shows how everything might click into place.

In this way especially, “This Christmas” is a song of black Chicago, the perennially underrated center of black industry and style that launched Ebony, Jet, Black World, “Soul Train,” and Afro Sheen into millions of homes in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Chicago was also, of course, a site of rage and despair, its short-lived chapter of the Black Panther Party crippled by the police murders of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in December, 1969. “This Christmas” was, in a way, Hathaway and McKinnor’s tribute and gift to the city. The song’s hard-won joy radiates so that what begins with a lover’s kiss under the mistletoe extends to widespread fellowship by the end: “Shake a hand, shake a hand—wish your brother a Merry Christmas, all over the land.”

In more personal terms, the song offers a bright foil to Hathaway’s image as a tortured artist; listening to it, one almost forgets he would be gone within the decade, dead from an apparent suicide, induced by paranoid schizophrenia, at age thirty-three. His own transience highlights the song’s now-or-never conviction: this Christmas will likely be great, but the last one probably wasn’t, and the next one might not be, either. That’s not a new idea, but the song reminds us that present pleasure is sweet because it is fleeting.

These days, McKinnor said, “People learn I wrote (the song), with praise coupled with disbelief. They think, It’s gotta be by someone who’s dead. Who co-writes songs with dead people—and Christmas songs, especially? . . . But it’s still a big thrill to hear it. And I am eternally grateful because (Donny) gave it life—he gave it eternal life. Because people are still singing it in schools, in churches, in different languages. It keeps going and going. There’s a lot of Energizer Bunny in it.”

That ongoingness was built into the very structure of the song, which fades out and back in as it draws to a close. “It’s not supposed to just end—it’s supposed to fade in, fade out, fade in,” McKinnor said. “Donny wanted to give you that lingering love and that energy. It’s like he’s still having a great celebration. Or like he’s walking away, but there’s a lingering light . . . It’s like when you’re talking to somebody and you don’t want to say goodbye: ‘Bye, see you soon, call me when you get there . . . ’ He didn’t want it to end. And maybe that’s where the sing-along comes in, with so many people performing it. Maybe they’re picking up where he leaves off.”

  

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Topic Outline
Subject Author Message Date ID
thanks for posting
Dec 19th 2017
1
Dope Post....Beloved by many, this song! Especially me..
Dec 20th 2017
2
It Came....
Dec 27th 2017
9
What are y'all favorite remakes of it? Shockingly, Chris Brown's
Dec 20th 2017
3
always thought it was dope how the Whispers remade it...
Dec 20th 2017
4
heard a version of cee-lo singing it live, he killed it
Dec 21st 2017
5
there's been some recent ones that i like
Dec 05th 2020
16
the GOAT Holiday song
Dec 24th 2017
6
Hands down
Dec 24th 2017
7
love this post, thanks for sharing it
Dec 27th 2017
8
Upping for 2019!
Dec 20th 2019
10
Unsung hasn't taken this off of youtube for years - uh, they might
Dec 22nd 2019
11
A belated thanks for posting this...
Dec 04th 2020
13
Donny Hathaway - This Christmas (Official Music Video)
Dec 04th 2020
12
Right on time - thanks - nice video!!!
Dec 05th 2020
14
Jet - McKinnor
Dec 05th 2020
15
this might be a good place for my xmas playlist
Dec 05th 2020
17

c71
Member since Jan 15th 2008
11513 posts
Tue Dec-19-17 07:25 PM

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1. "thanks for posting"
In response to Reply # 0
Tue Dec-19-17 07:27 PM by c71

  

          

I just want more and more pieces done on that song, with lot's of details from McKinnor


Yes

  

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RaphaelSoulLee
Member since May 21st 2003
3760 posts
Wed Dec-20-17 10:04 AM

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2. "Dope Post....Beloved by many, this song! Especially me.."
In response to Reply # 0


          

however..this reminds me I haven't had my drunken Chrimuh Soul cry.

It takes all kinds to make up a world, son. -My pops

I just live for the comments -Da wiz

  

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RaphaelSoulLee
Member since May 21st 2003
3760 posts
Wed Dec-27-17 01:21 PM

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9. "It Came...."
In response to Reply # 2


          

>however..this reminds me I haven't had my drunken Chrimuh
>Soul cry.

It takes all kinds to make up a world, son. -My pops

I just live for the comments -Da wiz

  

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-DJ R-Tistic-
Member since Nov 06th 2008
51978 posts
Wed Dec-20-17 01:13 PM

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3. "What are y'all favorite remakes of it? Shockingly, Chris Brown's"
In response to Reply # 0


  

          

is Top five for me, solely because of the build up to it...chords are nasty. Even Danny Boy has a decent version of it.

------------------------------

50+ FREE Mixes on www.DJR-Tistic.com!

Twitter and Instagram - @DJ_RTistic

  

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The3rdOne
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8958 posts
Wed Dec-20-17 03:23 PM

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4. "always thought it was dope how the Whispers remade it..."
In response to Reply # 3


  

          

and then took the same instrumental to do a dedication to Donnie.

This Christmas
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NspCFIijfks

A song for Donnie
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PXT-5ANRe8

  

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shygurl
Member since Oct 08th 2002
12808 posts
Thu Dec-21-17 02:08 AM

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5. "heard a version of cee-lo singing it live, he killed it"
In response to Reply # 3


  

          

His regular version is pretty good too.

__________________________________________

I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald

  

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spitfire
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Sat Dec-05-20 01:27 PM

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16. "there's been some recent ones that i like"
In response to Reply # 3


          

lalah did a version for spotify:
https://open.spotify.com/track/0oYfvGyoq4p3wsK1tB2vdH?si=Uzl4npddQeGv-ihmcjSPRg

and Pink $weats did a 'current' version with some Donny vocals:
https://open.spotify.com/track/1s8KCi8neCwrRSyhREKmcA?si=pxZY-_ZJSPaP6iKQVn5_Rg

There's also Kiana Lede
https://open.spotify.com/track/32bcfFxBKBEQiXlfXuHhmv?si=cHwFMlIkRDWpnCXB8DEAfQ

and Elijah Blake:
https://open.spotify.com/track/10d3Ovnk3TievEqTgMZmS6?si=8csPYYTPQdu70bfe5ztK0A

------------------------------------------------------------------------------
http://vintagesoulmusic.tumblr.com
http://vintagehiphopmusic.tumblr.com
http://onetwann.tumblr.com

  

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mistermaxxx08
Member since Dec 31st 2010
16076 posts
Sun Dec-24-17 04:32 PM

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6. "the GOAT Holiday song"
In response to Reply # 0


          

great write up and its true.

mistermaxxx R.Kelly, Michael Jackson,Stevie wonder,Rick James,Marvin Gaye,El Debarge, Barry WHite Lionel RIchie,Isleys EWF,Lady T.,Kid creole and coconuts,the crusaders,kc sunshine band,bee gees,jW,sd,NE,JB

Miami Heat, New York Yankees,buffalo bills

  

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Boogie Stimuli
Member since Sep 24th 2010
13323 posts
Sun Dec-24-17 06:04 PM

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7. "Hands down"
In response to Reply # 6


          

~
~
~
~
~
"Until you get outta my way, I don't wanna hear what you say aye aye"

  

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Voodoochilde
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3312 posts
Wed Dec-27-17 06:28 AM

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8. "love this post, thanks for sharing it"
In response to Reply # 0


          

love hearing the background details. thanks!

i SO want a full length documentary on Donny, focused on his creativity and creative process, with interviews of fellow musicians & people like ms McKinnor who were there with Donny, who were there involved, witnessing, inspiring or inspired...

  

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aScribe
Member since Jul 13th 2005
805 posts
Fri Dec-20-19 01:56 PM

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10. "Upping for 2019!"
In response to Reply # 0


          

  

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c71
Member since Jan 15th 2008
11513 posts
Sun Dec-22-19 06:59 AM

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11. "Unsung hasn't taken this off of youtube for years - uh, they might"
In response to Reply # 0


  

          

now, but it's a usual "go-to" to see/hear McKinnor.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygcn5dfuX4A

  

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aScribe
Member since Jul 13th 2005
805 posts
Fri Dec-04-20 01:24 PM

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13. "A belated thanks for posting this..."
In response to Reply # 11


          

Hadn't seen this ep in a while. And it's a great complement to the written interview with Nadine McKinnor above.

  

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aScribe
Member since Jul 13th 2005
805 posts
Fri Dec-04-20 01:18 PM

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12. "Donny Hathaway - This Christmas (Official Music Video)"
In response to Reply # 0


          

https://youtu.be/PhKVSZsRxQM

December 9, 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Donny Hathaway's holiday anthem "This Christmas." Get into the spirit with Donny's first ever official music video, an animated special drawn by famed cartoonist Lonnie Milsap. Listen to This Christmas and other holiday favorites here: https://lnk.to/DH-ThisChristmas

Video "premieres" on YouTube Fri, Dec 4, 3pm ET (US).

  

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c71
Member since Jan 15th 2008
11513 posts
Sat Dec-05-20 09:10 AM

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14. "Right on time - thanks - nice video!!!"
In response to Reply # 12


  

          

Got to do some more McKinnor searches for the season.

Yep

  

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c71
Member since Jan 15th 2008
11513 posts
Sat Dec-05-20 10:01 AM

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15. "Jet - McKinnor"
In response to Reply # 0


  

          

https://books.google.com/books?id=DzsDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA56&lpg=PA56&dq=jet+magazine+McKinnor+Christmas&source=bl&ots=dbjf3UtuDD&sig=ACfU3U0uIY9XLWJS_KxNgJZ9FZYlyD-ucg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjp-5CqirftAhWFslkKHSC8DzUQ6AEwGHoECCwQAQ#v=onepage&q=jet%20magazine%20McKinnor%20Christmas&f=false

  

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spitfire
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1375 posts
Sat Dec-05-20 01:29 PM

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17. "this might be a good place for my xmas playlist"
In response to Reply # 0


          

it's been puzzlingly popular this year:
https://open.spotify.com/playlist/1TrVwRdH5dfxxMZUcvZwu9?si=V5g-V8UZT0ifPxi26l3l9Q

------------------------------------------------------------------------------
http://vintagesoulmusic.tumblr.com
http://vintagehiphopmusic.tumblr.com
http://onetwann.tumblr.com

  

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