VIBE Lineage is an interview series with the heirs of Black excellence. Now that their legendary predecessors have gained high regards in their own right, these younger kin are blazing their own trails.
Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” may be the universal start to the holiday season, but Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” is our way to welcome in yuletide cheer. Though many including Usher, Destiny’s Child, Chris Brown, Mary J. Blige, and Pink Sweat$ have all covered the 52-year-old tune, the crooner’s daughter, Lalah Hathaway has finally gifted fans the ultimate cover of his classic record.
When we spoke with Lalah earlier this year about creating posthumous music with her dad, she teased that it was coming “sooner than you think.” What arrived, however, surpassed expectations. The modern, acoustic rendition of “This Christmas” was one that admittedly “chose” her. As she combed through her late father’s archives, an unreleased demo of what’s considered to be “the first Black Christmas carol” surfaced.
“It’s the same song that you know and love, but it’s different. My ear can hear that it’s Daddy working it out to get to where it actually ended up. It’s piano. The rhythm is a little different. The way he’s approaching the melody is a little different. It’s a little slower. There was space for me and I could hear it immediately,” she explained during our fireside chat at VIBE’s NY office.
The original version was written by Nadine McKinnor during the historic 1967 blizzard in Chicago. When she sang it for Hathaway, he “immediately heard the potential,” according to a statement. By fall of 1970, he composed the music and arrangement we know today with the help of top musicians and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
We caught up with Lalah to see if this duet is a forerunner to something more, what her intangible relationship with her father has been over the years, and if there’s a true distinction between being Donny’s daughter and Lalah Hathaway.
Last time we talked, we also talked about you potentially doing a duet album [like Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway]. Is this the teaser/precursor to a full-length project?
I don’t know, because, as you know, there are vaults and who knows what’s in them until people are ready to exploit what’s in them. I don’t know what there is. I don’t know how I will feel about what it is.
But, this is a good start. When you were recording it, how did you feel approaching this song in particular?
At the beginning, I felt entirely out of pocket because it’s such a beloved song. I tend to do covers and my dad tended to do covers. A lot of the songs that people love that they attribute to him are covers. I think the same will be true of my career. But, it’s a hard one to do because so many people love [this] song. It was a hard one, spiritually, to meet because, for me, it wasn’t a conversation that we were ever able to have. I struggled with that a little. But, literally five minutes into the session I was good. I knew it was real, what I heard in my mind and so it worked out.
Do you feel like that was him, his spirit coming into the room being like, “You are good.”
I love that. Does he appear to you in dreams or give you advice?
The first 20 years he was gone, I never dreamt about him. I used to say if I could dream about daddy or talking to daddy, it would change my life. Then I had a little series of dreams. He gave me a song, which was on a record of mine. I haven’t dreamt of him, talking with him, still. I haven’t been able to have a conversation with him. I think part of that is because I was 10 years old when he died. He’s so much with me every day. I think like when your grandma dies and you think about her at Christmas, but my dad is with me every day because of who I am and what I do. He’s never really far away.
I get that. My dad passed away. Even though we’re not on the same career path, he’s still very much a big part of who I am as a person. He’s not here, but he’s here. All the time.
Yeah *smiles* My dad is literally around me all the time. There’s so much of him, so much of his legacy is living. It’s amazing that he’s been gone 43 years now and got sampled yesterday. You understand what I mean? He’s ever present, musically, for me all the time.
Let’s talk about the video, though. For some reason this era, they love holograms and weird things like that. You didn’t need or use a hologram per se in the music video, but this was a different approach, naturally.
It’s animated and it’s illustrated because it’s real and it’s what we had. I don’t have a hologram. That’s a little spooky to me. For me personally, to take some of the stuff that we’ve seen in the same way that we took this song that everyone has heard and just put a new spin on it and place us in the same place because otherwise it would never happen. I feel really happy about the way we represented him. I didn’t want to do something that you didn’t see him at all. I wanted to do as much as I could. Unfortunately, because of where and when my father died, there are limits to what I can control. You know what I mean? We did the best we could with what we had.
But I think you do an amazing job at honoring his legacy. (She smiles and nods.)
Watch the visual for Lalah and Donny Hathaway’s modern take on “This Christmas” below.