Every year we listen to "This Christmas," a modern yuletide standard as essential as "Winter Wonderland" and "The Christmas Song." Dozens of musicians have covered it, from Lady Antebellum and Carole King to Chris Brown and, most recently, Mary J. Blige. It is so ubiquitous that many don't know the man who originally wrote and recorded the song, Donny Hathaway.
Hathaway was a crucial figure in '70s soul music. The pianist and songwriter earned his stripes on session dates for Curtis Mayfield and others in the 1960s Chicago scene before releasing his debut, 1970's Everything Is Everything, which yielded the classic protest song "The Ghetto." Much like his former Howard University classmate Roberta Flack, with whom he made memorable duets like "Where Is the Love" and "The Closer I Get to You," Hathaway sang melancholy yet incisive lyrics in a melodic, gospel-flavored voice, and his compositions mirrored the singer-songwriter pop movement of the early '70s. (He and Flack recorded a hit cover of Carole King's "You Got a Friend.") A former jazz musician, he sustained that connection through live performances, like the ones captured on 1972's Live, where he jammed with players like Phil Upchurch and Cornell Dupree.
Unfortunately, Hathaway suffered from schizophrenia, an illness that silenced him after only four critically acclaimed albums. He recuperated enough to finish a few songs for Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway, but he committed suicide in 1979 before he could finish the project. His legacy lives on thanks to his daughter, the accomplished singer Lalah Hathaway, and the countless artists who cite him as an influence, like Justin Timberlake, John Legend (who often sounds like a descendent of Hathaway) and Alicia Keys (who covered his "Someday We'll All Be Free" during the New York 9-11 concert in 2001). Most importantly, his voice survives whenever we enjoy his music, and when his timeless "This Christmas" returns to comfort us during the holidays.