Years ago I remember hearing "This Christmas," and becoming intrigued with the instrumental breaks right after the chorus, "And this Christmas will be/A very special Christmas for me." The tempo slightly changes, as does the mood. While most of the song lends a romantic spin to the holiday, singer Donny Hathaway segues into a gospel vibe: "shake a hand, shake a hand," he urges over the sped-up beat and odd chord changes. At first I found the effect jarring, as if two songs had been stuck together haphazardly. Gradually I learned to love the song and its exceptional singer.
Despite "This Christmas" becoming a holiday staple, little information exists on its origins. Hathaway co-wrote the song with Nadine McKinnor, and it first appeared on a 1968 Atco Records compilation entitled Soul Christmas. This album was issued shortly after King Curtis brought him to the label, and subsequently Hathaway was signed as a solo artist. Interestingly, the song was originally credited to Donny Pitts, Hathaway's stage name as a gospel singer (see Wikipedia's entry). Atco issued the song as a single in 1970, and then "This Christmas" appeared on his 1971 self-titled album; according to All Music, the single reached number 11 on the Billboard charts in 1972. While he became famous for his hit duets with Roberta Flack ("The Closer I Get to You," "Where Is the Love"), he also recorded soul classics such as "Someday We'll All be Free" and the definitive version of Leon Russell's "A Song for You." But forty years later, Hathaway's Christmas carol still charms listeners.
"This Christmas" seamlessly melds R&B with familiar holiday sentiments. Mistletoe, the fireside, caroling, presents, and cards all appear in the lyrics. But romance enters the picture, too: "I'm gonna get to know you better," Hathaway croons. "And as we trim the tree/How much fun it's gonna be together," he continues, painting a vivid tableau. The chorus emphasizes this warm feeling: "And this Christmas will be/A very special Christmas for me." But right after the refrain, the changed tempo and different chord changes emerge: the "shake a hand" section, along with the line "wish your brother a Merry Christmas" inject spirituality into the song, introducing a different kind of love. Since Hathaway's roots remained firmly in the church—and he began his career as a gospel artist—this spiritual interlude fits perfectly with his influences.
Since its initial release, over 100 covers have emerged, ranging from Christina Aguilera to Gloria Estefan to the Temptations. Sadly, Hathaway did not live to fully experience the success of "This Christmas." After a long struggle with depression, he died of an apparent suicide on January 13, 1979. Yet he left a legacy of groundbreaking recordings that have reached a multi-generational audience. The touching lyrics, unusual chords and tempos, and Hathaway's ethereal voice make "This Christmas" a timeless Christmas classic. "This Christmas" is available on Donny Hathaway (1971) as well as the excellent Donny Hathaway Collection.
This column will be the last "Cutout Bin" for 2009. I will return in January with more hidden gems and unfairly overlooked artists. Happy Holidays!