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How Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" Became An Eternal Holiday Classic

Donny Hathaway

Photo: Stephen Verona/Getty Images

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How Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" Became An Eternal Holiday Classic

Donnita Hathaway, the daughter of the R&B and soul legend, tells GRAMMY.com why the iconic holiday song, which celebrated its 50-year anniversary last month, remains one of the all-time classics in that winter wonderland genre

GRAMMYs/Jan 14, 2021 - 10:07 am

Christmas has always been a time of hope and potential, of love and joy. A time when family comes together and everything else stops so the world can focus on what really matters. And more than any other holiday, a song can evoke that feeling in a single moment. 

Nobody knows that quite as well as Donnita Hathaway, whose father, R&B and soul legend Donny Hathaway, released one of the all-time classics in that winter wonderland genre: "This Christmas," which celebrated its 50-year anniversary last month. "It's absolutely amazing to have 'This Christmas' celebrated every holiday season for the last 50 years," she tells GRAMMY.com. "It's humbling that this original song performed by my father and written by my godmother has that impact every year. And this year, in the midst of a pandemic, it's so special to feel the love from people saying that they're cueing up the song as a way to celebrate."

Born in Chicago in 1945, Donny Hathaway was initiated into the world of music at an early age. Reared by his grandmother, a gospel singer, in St. Louis, Hathaway joined the church choir at the age of 3; he later went on to study piano, eventually earning a scholarship to study music at Howard University. But after working on projects with legends including Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield and The Staple Singers, Hathaway left school to carve out his own voice and pursue a career in the music industry.

Only five months after his widely adored debut album, Everything Is Everything, Hathaway released "This Christmas" as a single in December 1970. Though it has touched hearts all around the world, the track particularly feels like it taps into the core of the Midwestern Christmases of Hathaway's childhood: the warmth of gathering with loved ones around a chimney fire, the twinkle of a special someone's eye underneath the mistletoe, the streetlights reflecting off the mounds of snow out the window. "Fireside is blazing bright/We're caroling through the night/And this Christmas will be a very special Christmas for me," Hathaway smiles as the horn section roars to life.

"This Christmas" was especially important for the distinct leap forward the song took for Christmas music released by a Black artist. "Up until then African American music wasn't represented in Christmas," percussionist Ric Powell told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2009. "There was Nat King Cole and Charles Brown's 'I'll Be Home For Christmas.' During the mid-1960s, James Brown was also cutting holiday tracks like 'Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto,' but they were more in the self-contained funky spirit of the Godfather of Soul than Christmas."

But "This Christmas" could extend beyond any box due to its unabashed sincerity and heart. "Donny was very upbeat during the session. He knew what he wanted to do musically and the impact he wanted to make with this song," Powell continues.

The song didn't necessarily take the world by storm on its initial release, but its appearance on the 1991 Soul Christmas compilation gave "This Christmas" the wider following it deserved. And while Hathaway's version of the song earned its place in the heart of the holidays, "This Christmas" has spread limitless cheer through countless covers. Takes on the track have spread across the decades, with everyone from Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, The Four Tops and Stevie Wonder through to *NSYNC, Christina Aguilera, Usher and Mary J. Blige releasing their own versions. 

"The top artists from so many different genres have covered the song, and it's so gratifying to see his musical peers honor his work," Donnita Hathaway says of her father's iconic song. "But the magic of Donny Hathaway will always make his version essential. There's the technical ability, but then there's the soul of a person that just pierces through and makes you smile, makes you want to be with that loved one. Every time I hear the song, it's almost like I can see him and feel the joy and contentment that are the essence of the holidays."

Within years of releasing "This Christmas," Hathaway's career grew to ever-increasing peaks. His 1972 duet album with Roberta Flack, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, reached No. 3 on the U.S. charts and featured "Where Is The Love," which would go on to earn a GRAMMY for Best Pop Vocal Performance By A Duo, Group Or Chorus at the 15th GRAMMY Awards in 1973. Hathaway's ability to swirl soul, R&B, jazz and more into an undeniable blend—all while standing strong with his trenchant social commentary—made his ascent rapid and powerful. 

That combination earned Hathaway a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019, 40 years after his passing. "When I learned that he was earning that honor, I just jumped for joy," Donnita Hathaway says. "You can't get any higher than a Lifetime Achievement recognition from the Recording Academy. And then [in 2020], Roberta Flack was acknowledged as well, and to have both of them back to back has really been amazing and beautiful."

But even as Hathaway's profile grew in the '70s, he suffered from flares of depression and was eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. After stretches of relative success and struggle with his mental health, Hathaway was found dead outside his New York hotel in 1979, from an apparent suicide having fallen from his balcony.

While "This Christmas" is a massive element within Hathaway's expansive career, so, too, is his family's advocacy for mental health in music and art. In 2015, Donnita launched the Donnie Hathaway Legacy Project, which is devoted to honoring her father's legacy and shining a light on the importance of mental health through art, nutrition, self-care and mindfulness. "I didn't want his life to be in vain," she explained. "If I can help someone, help the mental anguish that someone may go through, then I've done my job. I lost my dad at 2, and I lost my mom at 19. I realized what happens when your heart breaks and you don't heal it. I wanted this to be a worldwide initiative that focuses on holistic tools like music, because music is a healing tool."

As many struggle with mental health over the holidays every year, "This Christmas" can be even more comforting. Donnita Hathaway's plan is to spin off a mental health initiative called Friends Christmas, which urges people to look out for loved ones, friends and even strangers over the holidays to make sure everyone has a "very special Christmas." 

"So many people have lost loved ones, lost jobs, can't be with their family members," she explains. "We need to talk about how we can make Christmas special for everyone. It helps that we can always look at 'This Christmas' as an inspiration, even throughout the year, to make sure everyone is feeling special. And it always comes back to my dad's music, while also acknowledging his life and the things that troubled him as a way to prevent that from happening to our loved ones and friends."

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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ReImagined At Home: Watch Ant Clemons Croon The Cosmic Blues In Performance Of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"

Ant Clemons

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ReImagined At Home: Watch Ant Clemons Croon The Cosmic Blues In Performance Of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"

Singer/songwriter Ant Clemons puts his own spin on Bill Withers' immortal "Ain't No Sunshine" in an exclusive performance for ReImagined At Home

GRAMMYs/Jun 15, 2021 - 08:13 pm

Why has Bill Withers' immortal hit, "Ain't No Sunshine," endured for decades? And, furthermore, why does it seem set to reverberate throughout the ages?

Could it be because it's blues-based? Because it's relatable to anyone with a pulse? Because virtually anyone with an ounce of zeal can believably yowl the song at karaoke?

Maybe it's for all of those reasons and one more: "Ain't No Sunshine" is flexible

In the latest episode of ReImagined At Home, check out how singer/songwriter Ant Clemons pulls at the song's edges like taffy. With a dose of vocoder and slapback, Clemons recasts the lonesome-lover blues as the lament of a shipwrecked android.

Giving this oft-covered soul classic a whirl, Clemons reminds music lovers exactly why Withers' signature song has staying power far beyond his passing in 2020. It will probably be a standard in 4040, too.

Check out Ant Clemons' cosmic, soulful performance of "Ain't No Sunshine" above and click here to enjoy more episodes of ReImagined At Home.

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Recordings By Janet Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Odetta & More Inducted Into The National Recording Registry

Janet Jackson

Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

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Recordings By Janet Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Odetta & More Inducted Into The National Recording Registry

Selections by Albert King, Labelle, Connie Smith, Nas, Jackson Browne, Pat Metheny, Kermit the Frog and others have also been marked for federal preservation

GRAMMYs/Mar 25, 2021 - 02:37 am

The Librarian of Congress Carla Haden has named 25 new inductees into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. They include Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814,” Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” Nas’ “Illmatic,” Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” Kermit the Frog’s “The Rainbow Connection” and more.

“The National Recording Registry will preserve our history through these vibrant recordings of music and voices that have reflected our humanity and shaped our culture from the past 143 years,” Hayden said in a statement. “We received about 900 public nominations this year for recordings to add to the registry, and we welcome the public’s input as the Library of Congress and its partners preserve the diverse sounds of history and culture.”

The National Recording Preservation Board is an advisory board consisting of professional organizations and experts who aim to preserve important recorded sounds. The Recording Academy is involved on a voting level. The 25 new entries bring the number of musical titles on the registry to 575; the entire sound collection includes nearly 3 million titles. Check out the full list of new inductees below:

National Recording Registry Selections for 2020

  1. Edison’s “St. Louis tinfoil” recording (1878)

  2. “Nikolina” — Hjalmar Peterson (1917) (single)

  3. “Smyrneikos Balos” — Marika Papagika (1928) (single)

  4. “When the Saints Go Marching In” — Louis Armstrong & his Orchestra (1938) (single)

  5. Christmas Eve Broadcast--Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (December 24, 1941)

  6. “The Guiding Light” — Nov. 22, 1945

  7. “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues” — Odetta (1957) (album)

  8. “Lord, Keep Me Day by Day” — Albertina Walker and the Caravans (1959) (single)  

  9. Roger Maris hits his 61st homerun (October 1, 1961)

  10. “Aida” — Leontyne Price, et.al. (1962) (album)

  11. “Once a Day” — Connie Smith (1964) (single)

  12. “Born Under a Bad Sign” — Albert King (1967) (album)

  13. “Free to Be…You & Me” — Marlo Thomas and Friends (1972) (album)

  14. “The Harder They Come” — Jimmy Cliff (1972) (album)

  15. “Lady Marmalade” — Labelle (1974) (single)

  16. “Late for the Sky” — Jackson Browne (1974) (album)

  17. “Bright Size Life” — Pat Metheny (1976) (album)

  18. “The Rainbow Connection” — Kermit the Frog (1979) (single)

  19. “Celebration” — Kool & the Gang (1980) (single)

  20. “Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs” — Jessye Norman (1983) (album)

  21. “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” — Janet Jackson (1989) (album)

  22. “Partners” — Flaco Jiménez (1992) (album)

  23. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”/”What A Wonderful World” — Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (1993) (single)

  24. “Illmatic” — Nas (1994) (album)

  25. “This American Life: The Giant Pool of Money” (May 9, 2008)

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Herbal Tea & White Sofas: Why Dead Poet Society's Jack Underkofler Has The "Least Picky" Backstage Rider

Jack Underkofler

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Herbal Tea & White Sofas: Why Dead Poet Society's Jack Underkofler Has The "Least Picky" Backstage Rider

In the latest episode of Herbal Tea & White Sofas, learn why Dead Poet Society lead singer Jack Underkofler is committed to having the world's most reasonable backstage rider

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2021 - 12:26 am

Some artists make larger-than-life demands on their tour riders—hence the classic urban legend about Van Halen requiring the removal of brown M&Ms. 

For their part, Dead Poet Society have decided to take the opposite tack, as their lead singer, Jack Underkofler, attests in the below clip.

In the latest episode of Herbal Tea & White Sofas, learn why Dead Poet Society's Underkofler is committed to having the world's most reasonable backstage rider—including one ordinary pillow to nap on.

Check out the cheeky clip above and click here to enjoy more episodes of Herbal Tea & White Sofas.

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