Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Twelve Days of STL Christmas, Day 1: Donny Hathaway, "This Christmas"

Posted By on Tue, Dec 9, 2014 at 3:00 AM

Donny Hathaway - VIA WIKIPEDIA
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  • Donny Hathaway

Christmas is upon us, and that means inoculating yourself against the relentless onslaught of much of the Christmas carol canon. To save your ears -- and to celebrate the seasonal offerings of some local artists -- senior music writers Roy Kasten and Christian Schaeffer will count down 12 of the finest holiday jams from St. Louis artists each weekday from now through December 24.

Day 1: Donny Hathaway -- "This Christmas" (1970)

See also: The 100 Greatest St. Louis Songs

If Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" wears the crown as the holiday standard most beloved for its message of hope and nostalgia, Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" carries that torch for the soul and R&B community. With the right amount of funk in its step and a generous dusting of seasonal sweetness, the song has been covered countless times but never loses its verve.

Co-written with Nadine McKinnor (with Hathaway taking songwriting credit as "Donny Pitts," his former stage name) and released in 1970, "This Christmas" preceded many of his better-known singles, including his work with Roberta Flack. It's part love song, part celebration of the season, and taken with the arrangement's horn-aided swing, the song speaks to the sense of hope and anticipation that comes with this time of the year.

When we counted down the 100 greatest St. Louis songs a few weeks back, it was a bit of a heartbreak to not include Donny Hathaway on the list. Few soul singers expressed depth of feeling or showed mastery over various genres like Hathaway did in his short lifetime. He was born in Chicago but raised by his maternal grandmother, Martha Pitts, in St. Louis' Carr Square neighborhood. Pitts was a well-known gospel singer, and Hathaway furthered his musical education at Vashon High School and eventually Howard University in Washington D.C. His suicide in 1979 cut short a career that was continuing to bloom.

While Hathaway's star has never really dimmed, the past few year's have brought renewed interest in his work. Rhino Records recently released Never My Love, a four-disc overview, and a 33 ⅓ volume is due on 1972's monumental Live LP. But during the Christmas season, you're pretty much guaranteed to hear this little slice of soul more than a few times.

Notable covers: Diana Ross (1974); Cee-Lo Green (2012)

Further reading: Read Jason Rosenbaum's overview of Hathaway's life and career; get low with Hathaway and Roberta Flack.

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