Last week, I found myself creatively paralyzed for the better part of a day. I’d experienced writer’s block before, but nothing like that since, maybe, the terrorist attacks on our country on 9/11.
Ironically, it was a terrorist attack that would bring my keyboard to a halt a generation later. This time around, it was a bunch of buffoons festooned in MAGA hats and brandishing Confederate flags, storming our nation’s capitol in an ill-conceived, failed attempt to overturn the 2020 president election.
As if we needed a reminder of it, it must be great to be white in America. If you are, you get to stroll up, scale the walls of the Capitol a la Spiderman, smash the building’s windows, unlawfully gain access to it, and take selfies with police officers and security personnel.
Had that mob looked more like me, like most of last year’s Black Lives Matter protesters, we’d have been looking knees on necks.
I’m not terribly patriotic, but I’ve been to Washington a few times, the first of which was when I was still in high school as a part of a organization called Close Up.
I remember being struck by the majesty of the mall’s monuments, as well as by the Capitol and the White House — even though its inhabitant at the time, Ronald Reagan, wasn’t high on my list of politicians. I still had a reverence of sorts for the area, so I was startled by the blatant entitlement of a group that would break into the Capitol, threaten the life of Vice President Pence (at our president’s urging) and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and vandalize so much of the building.
As I write this, several federal law enforcement “authorities” are under investigation for suspected crimes committed at the Capitol last week. Several of the MAGA morons who were dumb enough to post their pictures online have been charged. And just yesterday, the FBI reported that they’ve learned of a plan to host protests at all 50 of our states’ capitols, as well as in Washington DC, during the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Looking forward to next week, I’m more nervous for Biden and Harris than I was for the Obamas in 2008, as they took an impromptu stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House on Inauguration Day. Luckily, they made it safely home. But our country, sadly, is even more fractured than it was then, mostly due to a megalomaniac who won’t just pack his stuff and get out.
According to several news outlets, there’s a call for increased National Guard and Civil Service protection for Biden and Harris next week, in the wake on last week’s insanity. That’s great, but I think we need to go several steps further to ensure the pair’s safety. I’d cancel all outside events, hold a private inaugural inside and with security, and usher our new president and vice president into office safely.
Yes, I said Christmas and I know it’s New Year’s Eve. I will confess to watching the 1964 stop-motion classic Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer all throughout the year and most certainly every July, and to having a framed shot of Rudolph and his elf buddy Hermie — you remember him. He wanted to be a dentist — hanging in my house all year.
I will also confess that I’m writing this as I’m listening to Christmas music, surrounded by the glow of eight Christmas trees in my house. The Queen of Christmas herself, Mariah Carey, says she has six of them in her home this year. Just six? I wonder as I wander: is Mimi even trying?
Speaking of Carey, she’s one of the couple of recommendations: if you’ve not checked out Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special on Apple TV+, do so. I’d expected stirring music and holiday excess from the diva, and she didn’t disappoint there. But I didn’t expect a great storyline from the special, or the self deprecating comedic performance from Carey.
If you’re not an Apple TV+ subscriber, the service is available for only $4.99 per month (or free for a year if you buy an Apple device). Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special features a host of guests including Tiffany Haddish and the entire Peanuts gang. You have to see the side-eye that Carey gives Schroeder for co-opting her “All I Want For Christmas Is You” on his little piano!
The special’s soundtrack is also available on streaming services, and features all new performances from Carey, including a riotous “Sleigh Ride” and a reverent update on her recording of “Oh Holy Night” from over a quarter century ago.
At 50, the old blond mare’s voice ain’t quite what it used to be, but what she’s got left places her head and shoulders over most people singing today, Try as they might, performance partner Ariana Grande couldn’t hang with Carey on “Oh Santa,” even resorting to a battle of the whistle registers while Jennifer Hudson looked on like a reindeer in headlights.
The other recommendation I have for you comes from another streaming giant, Netflix. Mull a little cider or pour a cocktail, gather the family up and watch Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey. Written and produced by David Talbert and featuring music from John Legend (who also serves as the film’s executive producer), the film showcases exemplary actors including Phylicia Rashad, Forest Whitaker, Keegan-Michael Key, Anika Noni Rose, and Ricky Martin.
With a cast like that, you’ll be as shocked as I was by the performance of newcomer Madalen Mills, in the role of Journey. The 11-year-old’s acting impressed me from her first scene, but when she opened her mouth to sing, within seconds I was thinking that we’re looking at the emergence of the next Aretha Franklin. And grab a tissue or two before you watch a scene with Whitaker and Rose.
And that soundtrack’s available too, if you join me in not being willing to let go of this Christmas music just yet!
We’ve been through a heck of a year, so treat yourself to a little more Christmas, right now! We’ve earned it!
The coronavirus isn’t so novel anymore. It was new when it hit us early last year. If you were like me, you thought we’d follow the CDC’s guidance and hunker down, wear our masks, keep our distance, wash our hands, and have that puppy behind us by Memorial Day.
Instead, we’re mourning the deaths of over 335,000 Americans. Over 19 million people in this country have contracted the virus. Worldwide, that number’s over 81 million.
Those numbers could bring even the most optimistic of us down, as will the inability for family and friends to gather safely any time soon. Luckily, I saw the dark cloud coming last spring, and decided to look for the good in a world that has kept me, a lifetime extrovert, largely shut in for the better part of the year.
While I’m in no way suggesting that impacted families should have an easy time with things (my own niece contracted the virus last fall, and scared us all to death), I do think that there’s strength in reshaping the narrative, and not letting COVID-19 run the show.
For example, instead of bemoaning the fact that movie theaters had been shuttered, thereby denying me from a beloved, twice monthly pastime, I decided to bank the hundreds of dollars that my family had been spending at the movies each month. Just before Christmas, I took those savings and had a new flatscreen installed in my great room. CineMike Theatre is now open for business, and that flatscreen’s not just for movies: the Super Bowl is going to look GREAT on it!
And it wasn’t just my movie tab that was shrinking last spring. I quickly surmised that with the bars closed, my cancelled weekly Friday evening happy hour and almost every Sunday afternoon cocktail in downtown Sacramento were fattening my bank account.
Also, I was eating out far less, since take out has never really been my thing. Even after restaurants opened up for dining (being shut down again just two weeks before Christmas), I decided not to be one of the first to head back out to them. Frankly, I was enjoying cooking more from home. My coffers were also being bolstered by the gym membership that I wasn’t spending.
Instead of saving that, too, I decided to escalate the payment of a few bills. I paid off a car last summer, a few months early. With that windfall and the money saved from my restaurant bar and gym tabs, I paid off all credit card debt just before Christmas.
Happy Holidays, indeed!
All kidding aside, this has been a year that’s been unprecedented, at least in most of our lifetimes. Just like the Grinch, COVID-19 tried to stop Christmas from coming. But we, like the inhabitants of Whoville, found that Christmas came. It came just the same.
I’ve always tried to find the good in even the worst of situations, and needless to say, it’s been more difficult that ever during the last year. In lieu of a New Years resolution that you’ll probably abort anyway, I challenge you to find something good in this COVID situation, instead of wallowing in it. It won’t be the easiest thing you’ve ever done, but when we all emerge from this season, it may well be one of the best decisions you ever made.
I’m planning to practice what I preach: now that the coronavirus has improved my financial situation, and while we’re continuing our social distancing and mask wearing, awaiting our turns to take the vaccine and the eventual return to something that resembles a life we called “normal,” I’m going to try to whittle off the rest of my COVID belly before next swimming pool season.
Wish me luck! If COVID can give me that elusive six pack, that’ll beanother “plus” to this virus!
Civil unrest. Unwarranted aggression from law enforcement directed towards black men. COVID-19. With all of that going on, it seems odd to write that things are looking up…but they are.
I’ll paraphrase scripture to drive my point home: weeping may endure for a night, but Joe comes in the morning! And he’s bringing a strong cuppa Kamala with him.
This January, our long national presidential nightmare will end when President Elect Joseph Biden is sworn into office. Biden’s known for gaffs behind the mic — whether live or not! — and he may not be the candidate that everyone wanted. But he’s a damn sight better than Donald Trump, who as I write this is still contesting the results of the election, like a little kid who’d lost a playground contest and just couldn’t admit defeat.
Sadly, that’s not a bad analogy. Sometimes, I think that the last four years have been a game to Trump. But the game’s over. We won the battle for the soul of the nation when we elected Biden and Harris.
Throughout the campaign, Biden spoke passionately about his ability to reach across the aisle and form alliances with people with whom he’d disagreed. But rarely have I seen someone walk the talk as Biden did when he named Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate.
Harris had been Biden’s chief opponent during the early stages of the Democratic primaries. I’m sure you remember that “That little girl was me” moment when Harris challenged Biden’s record on busing back in the 1970s. That was the moment when my support for Harris as the presidential nominee waned. It’s politics, I know, but I thought that was a cheap shot.
Biden went on to secure the nomination, but their relationship, even having been preceded by Harris’s friendship with Biden’s son Beau, was left strained.
Which is why I had to give it to Biden for choosing Harris as his running mate. She was, quite frankly, the best person for the job. The nation agreed with me, to the tune of over seven million votes. And I don’t remember the last time a presidential candidate offered the VP position to his chief rival. Hell, President Obama didn’t do that for Hilary Clinton in ’08! Secretary of State, sure. But not VP.
Harris is making history as the first woman, the first black person, and the first asian person to be elected vice president. To that I can only say this: IT’S ABOUT TIME! Harris showed her mettle when she went toe-to-toe with Mike Pence during their televised debate. I’m surprised that “I’m speaking” hasn’t become a national catchphrase.
California’s former Attorney General has displayed her character on a number of occasions, perhaps most notably when she called Tyler Gordon, a 14 year old artist from San Jose. He’d painted a portrait of her, and his tweet about his work had gone viral.
But who knew that it had gone THAT viral!
“I was overwhelmed with the magnificence and your artistry,” Vice President-elect Harris told Gordon by phone. “You really have a gift — my goodness! I was so touched to see [your portrait]. It’s a very special thing to be an artist like you are. People you’ll never meet will be touched by the work you do.”
The young artist will never forget that phone call. Harris is a class act.
And THAT IS something we haven’t been able to say about the upper echelons of our government in quite some time. It’s been four years, to be exact.
The co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, LaTosha Brown, said it best recently, upon reflecting on 2020.
“If America is ever to live up to its ideals, we must have the courage to build a new nation: one where all citizens are accorded their full rights and are able to realize their full potential,” Brown said. “Until then, the revolution will be live — and in color.”
Our new president and vice president, and the cabinet that Biden is announcing at press time, certainly seem to be pointing in that direction. Biden has nominated Pete Buttigieg as his new Transportation Secretary. If confirmed, he’ll be the first openly gay cabinet member in our nation’s history. He’ll also be a part of the most racially diverse cabinet in our nation’s history.
Congratulations, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. We have your backs, and you have our prayers. Let’s get the virus behind us and get this country back on track!
It’s taken me longer to write this than it’s ever taken me to write anything.
The world lost a musical trailblazer last Saturday when country music’s Charley Pride succumbed to complications due to COVID-19. He was 86 years old. For 48 of those years, Pride’s life and career had a profound impact on me.
News of Pride’s death took me down for a few hours. I wept when I read a text — from my ex-wife, of all people — about his death, tossing my phone aside before even being able to read that the coronavirus had taken him out.
Over a week later, sitting here to write this, I’m still wiping away tears.
I won’t waste time expressing my frustration and anger at the Country Music Association, for holding an indoor, largely mask-less event in early November, during which they gave Pride a LONG overdue Lifetime Achievement Award. As Pride might have said, I’m as mad as a wet hornet about it.
I also won’t waste time giving an overview of Pride’s career achievements. I’m sure you’ve read about them somewhere else over the last week.
Suffice it to say that Pride almost singlehandedly integrated country radio and become RCA Records’ second best-selling artist. Only Elvis Presley sold more, and Pride himself told me, in 2014, that he was very…proud of that accomplishment.
Instead, I’ll tell you what Charley Pride did for me.
Every lucky kid gets to hear, from someone, that they can be anything they want to be. I was certainly one of those lucky kids. It’s one thing to hear that, but it’s another thing to be shown the way.
With his deep baritone paired with his unmistakable country timbre and phrasing, Pride gave me an example of a black man blazing his own trail, independent of what the world told him that he could do.
I recall listening to Pride’s A Sunshiny Day album for the first time with my mother, when I was all of six or seven years old. First and foremost, I loved Pride’s voice. I still do.
Looking for all the world as if he could have been a member of The Temptations or The Four Tops, Pride instead sang songs like “Back To The Country Roads” or “Kiss An Angel Good Morning,” always providing a sharp contrast between his “permanent tan,” as he once famously joked, and the country music he was born to sing.
In doing so, he gave me permission — and courage — to buck bigotry and tradition, becoming one of a very few black students on a Wisconsin college campus in the early 1980s, and the first black employee of a traditionally racist Michigan municipality in 1987, and to strike out on my own in the 90s in Logan, Utah, where I worked for a country music radio station!
Pride, quite inadvertently, gave me permission to love country music as I grew up in a suburban Detroit suburb. If Charley was singing it, I could, too.
I had the great honor and privilege of interviewing Charley Pride twice, first in 2014 when he gave me a quote that I’ll never forget. Upon asking the legend about the mettle it took for a black man to forge a career in country music in the 1960s, he said “Don’t ever tell me what I can’t do.”
Me, either, Mr. Pride.
Two years later, when an independent label began reissuing Pride’s classic albums on CD, I spoke with the singer about it. He was as gracious and kind as he’d been earlier, but at the end of the interview he asked me to help him connect with the label that was reissuing his projects. He wanted to look into whether he was due royalties from the releases, or whether he might be able to buy his own master recordings back.
I got a rare look into the eyes of the businessman behind the country icon.
To this day, I listen to Pride’s music almost weekly, but I’d not heard him in a few weeks, as I’m enjoying Christmas music and am just becoming familiar with his excellent Christmas In My Hometown. When I heard of his death, I recalled that I’d last heard Pride when I watched that CMA Awards show that some believe introduced him to the virus that took his life.
I’m tearing up, again. Let me turn to one of my go-to’s, the title track to the aforementioned A Sunshiny Day album. For me, there is no better recorded musical pick-me-up:
If I wake up in the morning / When I look outside, it’s storming / And it seems the whole world’s covered by clouds of grey
I don’t really mind the weather / Baby, long as we’re together / In my heart it’s gonna be a sunshiny day
So let the howling winds start blowing / Let the raindrops keep on flowing / Every time they touch my face, just kiss them away
Even with the clouds above me / Long as I got you to love me / Every day is gonna be a sunshiny day
The same album includes another song, “It’s Gonna Take A Little Bit Longer,” that pretty much sums up how I’m feeling about Charley Pride today, over a week after his death:
It’s gonna take a little bit longer / For me to ever get you off of my mind
It’s gonna take a little bit longer / ‘Cause I’ve been loving you a long, long time.
A LONG, long time, Mr. Pride. 48 years, to be exact. And there will never be another like you.
Fans of the Winans family can only imagine how they typically spend the holidays. Can you imagine the music in that house?
With such a strong faith base, one can envision the 10 siblings gathered around a piano, singing contemporary gospel classics like “The Question Is” or “Lost Without You,” or traditional hymns like they learned growing up in Detroit. In my mind’s eye, their mother, Delores “Mom” Winans, is at the fore, keeping it all on pitch and in key!
As this writer has wondered for years about the “behind the scenes” of a Winans family holiday gathering, I decided to call the matriarch herself and ask her about how her family is spending the holidays this year.
“They want to come get me and bring me down to Nashville for Christmas,” Mom Winans, 84 EXCLUSIVELY told me of her children’s holiday hopes, by phone from her home in Detroit. “But with COVID numbers being what they are, I may just stick around here. We certainly don’t want to do anything to bring it on.”
“Even though we’re trusting in the Lord and He said that He would watch over us, we still have to do our part and not act like [the virus] is not out there, [and] not tempt the Lord. We probably better stick close to home and do something virtually.”
With such a large family, that type of gathering will be an adjustment for the musical clan.
“They usually all get together and see who can out cook each other,” Winans laughed. “I’m out of it now. I told them they can cook everything, but they still like me to make the potato pies, the lemon pies…so I’ll do that. But I’ll let them make the rest of the food! Maybe we’ll have a contest and see who has the best looking food!”
Winans’ description of her family’s holiday cooking matches those of many families during the holidays. But with her brood, there’s a distinct difference. While they’re all cooking, they’re probably employing some of the greatest voices the world has ever known.
That’s right: all 10 of Mom Winans’ children are musical, having made their mark in gospel, R & B, pop, and jazz. 1981 brought us the landmark album Introducing The Winans, and we’ve been blessed by the clan ever since. Subsequent generations are following in their footsteps, with Winans’ granddaughter Deborah Joy Winans having just wrapped up a successful stint as Charity Greenleaf on OWN.
At one point, even Mom Winans and her husband, David “Pop” Winans, enjoyed successful recording careers!
“My husband and I got married at a very young age,” Winans remembered. “I was 17 and still in high school, and he was 19. For awhile, I thought I was going to be a nurse, but after finding out what that was all about, I decided that that wasn’t for me!”
“I did get into the business world a little, but I never really had dreams of a career. I really thought that I wanted to be a housewife and a mother — but I thought that maybe I would have two children — not 10!”
Winans laughed heartily with that revelation, much as she probably laughed upon hearing of the pending arrival of each of her 10 children, including The Winans (twins Marvin and Carvin, Michael, and Ronald), BeBe & CeCe, Angie & Debbie, and Daniel Winans. They were all fairly young when she and her husband realized that their kids had special gifts.
“We had a piano in our home,” Winans recalled, “and the Lord just gifted them to play the piano and different instruments, and also to write songs — something that I’ve never done! We’ve always loved music, and especially gospel music. We raised our kids in church, and we encouraged them to participate in the music programs that the church would put on — the Christmas programs, the Easter programs.”
“They never had any lessons, but very early on, I’d say when they were four or five, they’d sit down at the piano, like kids will do, and they started making up their own songs. A lot of them came from the songs they loved in church, or the sermons they heard in church. Especially Marvin.”
“A couple of the kids played guitar because my husband played guitar,” Winans continued. “I never gave them lessons, although I used to play piano quite a bit. They just picked up music. It was amazing to me!”
Music fans were equally amazed, as the various subsets of the Winans family went on to sell millions of records and perform before standing-room-only audiences all over the world. With so much musical output from the family, I had to ask Winans a variant of the question that every parent dreads:
“Does Mom Winans have a favorite?”
“They all want to say that they’re my favorite,” Winans laughed, “but I don’t know that I have a favorite project of theirs. I love to just sit here and go over some of the things that they’ve done, all down through the years.”
“I know when BeBe & CeCe started singing, their songs were a little more contemporary and different, but they still had an anointing on them, because they always had Jesus in their songs. They might not have been expressing His name, but we knew who they were talking about. I can just sit here all day long and just enjoy every one of their projects.”
I wondered whether being able to listen to her children’s music made being physically separated from them during the pandemic just a little easier.
“Absolutely,” Winans said. “Even the one who died, Ronald. I can just put on his music and remember everything, and just have a ball and enjoy it all.”
With over 300,000 families have lost loved ones during the coronavirus pandemic, I asked Winans whether she had any words of encouragement for those weathering a loss this holiday season.
“When I hear about families losing loved ones to COVID, I pray that they know the Lord,” Winans said. “I don’t know how we would have made it though losing Ronald if we hadn’t known the Lord, and knew that Ronald knew Him and that he was ready to go meet the Lord. That’s what got me through.”
“When you lose a child — when you lose anybody — it takes a lot. As many years as I had known the Lord, I was shocked at how much He can intervene and mend your broken heart. He can take away the sorrow. He can make you remember the good things. I know that it was His peace that He gave me — it wasn’t anything I could have done. So I pray for families that they come to know the Lord and the peace that I knew, so that they can get through, too.”
“I never had any symptoms or anything, praise God,” Winans said. “BeBe had a light case of it, because he was able to stay home. Marvin got really sick and was in the hospital for awhile, and they kept telling him that it was getting worse. I was so happy to see him get better and get out, and we haven’t had any other family members who were seriously ill with it, and I’m grateful for that.”
I couldn’t let Winans get away without mentioning my favorite of her own recordings, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” her 1995 Grammy and Dove Award-winning duet with her daughter CeCe from her Alone In His Presence album. The song minsters to me even today, as we weather the pandemic.
“That is one of my FAVORITE songs,” Winans said. “When CeCe told that she was going to do it, and that she wanted me to sing it with her, that was just great to me! I was just elated to sing that with her. We’re still singing it today!”
That led me to ask whether we could look forward to new music from the Winans family matriarch.
“I don’t like to do albums any more,” Winans said. “To get them done, you have to stay in the studio so long, and you’ve got to get everything right. My son-in-law, Angie’s husband Cedric Caldwell, was the one who did one of my albums. He jokingly asked me once ‘Do you want me to bring the mic to your bed?’ So no, I have no plans to do any albums!”
“I’m going to try to do a song, a hymn, for a friend of mine, Bishop Barr,” Winans continued. “At 84 years old, my voice doesn’t always do what I want it to do! Hopefully it will come out alright.”
I’ve pretty certain that it will come out alright, Mom Winans. Everything you’ve ever recorded did…as did everything that your children recorded.
And that reminds me: in addition to Winans’ 10 kids, she is the grandmother of 24 and great-grandmother of 12! Her 13th great-grandchild is due any day now.
“We’re just waiting,” Winans enthused. “The baby’s supposed to be due December 23rd, I think it is.”
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the baby came out singing!
Eleven years ago, classical music phenomenon Andrea Bocelli blessed the world with My Christmas, his first holiday album.
Even if classical music isn’t your “thing,” Bocelli’s album, with guests Mary J. Blige, Natalie Coleman, Reba McIntyre, Katherine Jenkins, and The Muppets — they sing “Jingle Bells” with him! — is guaranteed to put you in the holiday spirit.
Bocelli promises to bring that spirit to the world once again on December 12, with a virtual holiday concert, Believe In Christmas. In addition to his once in a lifetime tenor, he’s promising “special guests” will join from the stage in Italy.
I have a feeling I know who one of those guests is!
Last year, a dream came true when I was granted a rare interview with Bocelli, as he promoted a December 5, 2019 appearance with the San Francisco Symphony. During that interview, I asked him whether he’d consider reuniting with the producer of My Christmas, the equally phenomenal David Foster, for a sequel to the critically acclaimed album.
“David is a dear friend and an extraordinary professional,” Bocelli EXCLUSIVELY told me. “Our partnership is well established and prolific. Every time we share the stage…we are in perfect harmony and, more than anything else, we have fun.”
“As to our next collaboration,” Bocelli continued, “It is undoubtedly not a case of ‘if’ but ‘when,’ because for me it is and always will be a pleasure.”
The day before I connected with Bocelli, I’d spoken with Foster as he was prepping for a show in Modesto. I wondered whether he’d reunite with Bocelli for a second volume to the Christmas classic. Foster had retired from music production, but I took a deep breath, crossed my fingers and toes, and asked the question.
“When I walked out of the [recording] studio three years ago,” Foster EXCLUSIVELY told me, “Andrea was one of the first people that I talked to. I told him that I wasn’t making albums anymore. He’s moved on from me, so we’re still friends, but I don’t think I would be on his list to call right away to do it.”
“But we SHOULD do it,” Foster continued. “I would go back into the studio to do some bonus tracks for a Christmas album with him, for sure.”
So the stage has been set. Maybe this year’s Bocelli Christmas performance will bring the two legends back together, and pave the way for a new holiday album in 2021. Even if it doesn’t, the December 12 concert is a must-see event for any Christmas music fan.
And even if you don’t live and breathe Christmas a la Mariah Carey, but you just need a little Christmas right now, pick up a ticket to Bocelli’s December 12 virtual holiday concert. At $25, it’s a fraction of what it costs to experience him live. I’ve still not recovered from his performance with the San Francisco Symphony last year.
The “Band Of Gold” legend discusses her new duet with The Voice Of Romance, her upcoming, long-awaited memoirs, her recent knee replacement surgery, and her thoughts about the next president of the United States. The 78 year old also shares her love for hip hop group Outkast!
R & B star Freda Payne couldn’t have picked a better duet partner for her return to jazz than the Gershwin classic “You Can’t Take That Away From Me.” The singer beautifully warbles with the incomparable Johnny Mathis on the new single.
“One of the songs that I always loved Johnny singing was “Maria” from West Side Story,” Payne, 78, EXCLUSIVELY said by phone. “It’s luscious, especially at the end when he goes up. He’s in so much control on that song…and that VOICE!”
As it turns out, the new project’s mastermind, producer Rodrigo Rios, is responsible for finally getting the two legends together. While Payne has known Mathis for years, “You Can’t Take That Away From Me” is their first collaboration.
“Rodrigo approached me about doing an album and about doing a few duets,” Payne recalled. “He gave Johnny several songs from which to choose, and Johnny chose that one because he had never recorded it.”
“I was the producer on the project, and also the drummer on the sessions,” Rios said via email. “We had a blast at Capitol tracking these beautiful songs with Freda and special guests.”
Special guests, Rios says. That has to be the understatement of the year. In addition to Mathis, Payne and Rios have recorded new duets with Kenny Lattimore, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Kurt Elling.
As Payne and Mathis recorded “You Can’t Take That Away From Me” in June of 2019, long before COVID would have kept them apart, Payne shared a handful of incredible stories about standing “elbow to elbow” with “The Voice Of Romance” in the studio at Capitol Records in Los Angeles.
One of those stories will stand out for any fan of the typically masterful Mathis — and anyone who knows about his love for a good game of golf. As it turns out, Mathis is, indeed, human. He’s also a consummate professional.
“I cut three duets that day,” Payne remembered of that June 2019 recording session. “First, Kenny and I cut ‘Let There Be Love’ in a little more than an hour. Johnny was next, and he walked in, right on time, with his cap turned backwards. I could tell that he had come right from the golf course.”
“He sang his part and I sang my part, and he was OK, but he wasn’t…let’s say pristine,” Payne continued. “At first, Rodrigo and I were wondering whether we should say something, and whether maybe he’d be open to cutting the song again.”
“Before we could decide what to do, Mathis’ people called Rodrigo and told him that Johnny wanted to come in and do his vocal again,” Payne continued. “We booked it two weeks later, this time in a smaller studio. That time, Johnny came in clean, and his vocals were on point!”
“Afterward, he told me that he’d noticed a little frog in his throat on his way from the golf course, and that he couldn’t quite get rid of it that day. Johnny listened to that first take and said ‘You know what? I can do better than that!’ He is the ultimate professional!”
Along with the four duets, Payne has recorded a solo version of “It’s Alright With Me” for the new album. She may record another tune or two for the project before releasing it sometime early in 2021.
While Payne hasn’t settled on a title for the album yet, she guarantees that it will place her squarely in the genre with which she’s most comfortable.
“I’m more at home with jazz than I am with R & B,” the “Band Of Gold” singer said. “That’s for real.”
“You Can’t Take That Away From Me” couldn’t be a more welcomed Christmas gift for discerning music fans who have been battered by a challenging year.
“You can say that again,” Payne laughed. “It has been hard! But two things happened this year that made me feel a little better and that I could lean on. First, I’ve been writing my book, and then I got total knee replacement surgery done in June — so I didn’t have an excuse any more to just lay up and not do anything!”
Like the new album, Payne’s memoir is due out during the first half of next year.
While she was writing her book last spring, Payne did an interview with a west coast ABC affiliate during which she referenced our country needing change “from the top.” I had to ask her how she was feeling this fall, after having witnessed the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
“Exhilarated, that’s how I felt,” Payne said of her feelings post-election. “It’s like I can exhale now.”
As we wrapped up our chat, Payne told me that she’s always gotten a similar rush from great music.
“Music heals your soul,” she said. “There’s a genre of music for every kind of emotion. If you want to be more energetic, there’s music for that. If you’re depressed or you feel dejected, there’s music for that. And believe it or not, even if you’re feeling down, music can help you get through whatever you have to get through.”
While Payne may feel most at home with jazz, her musical tastes extend far beyond that genre, and farther than some might think!
“You know the group Outkast? When I hear that song, it just thrills me! It just lights me up,” Payne surprisingly said as she started singing “Hey Ya!”
“I just start wiggling in my seat if I’m sitting,” she enthused, “and if I’m standing, I start dancing!”
Careful now, Ms. Payne. Don’t wear that new knee out prematurely. We need a few more decades of music from you!
The new Johnny Mathis / Freda Payne duet, “You Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Is available on iTunes and Spotify.
“I lost my boys. They were good boys,” said the teens’ father, Dewayne James Sr. “I brought them a long way from Louisiana, we’ve been here a year. I took my kids out of that type of environment to bring them here to something bigger and better.”
“I love Sacramento. Don’t get me wrong, but there’s a big hole to my heart now. Because my boys lost their lives under my watch here,” he said.
Correction, Mr. James. You lost your boys under our watch.
The victims’s aunt broke my heart during the press conference on Saturday, asking whether the whole thing had been a sick joke. She also called on the community to come forward and help identify the shooter, who hadn’t been arrested at that time. News of his arrest broke just yesterday. Again, the shooter was just a boy, too.
All three families are enduring the unfathomable today, and the extended Thanksgiving weekend will never be the same to them.
As if, after COVID-19 and Donald Trump, we needed something else, some other trauma, to manage right now.
Sacramento mayor Darrell Steinberg said it best, immediately following the shooting: “A gun is never the answer.” Reportedly, the three boys were continuing a dust up, a confrontation that had occurred before, many times.
It’s a conversation that has now ended, with the bodies of two boys headed into caskets, and a third boy facing his best years behind bars.
I have renewed resolve to do what I can to get all of the excess, unnecessary guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. And our children certainly shouldn’t have them.
We owe it to our children to do better. We have failed them.
We checked in with the legend, previewed his upcoming duet with Freda Payne, and remembered Christmases gone by. Mathis also shared his thoughts about the prospect of recording a Christmas duet with Mariah Carey!
Most would agree that 2020 has been a year that we’ll not soon forget. As we continue sheltering in place as much as we can, wearing masks when we can’t, and limiting get-togethers to those in our households, the phrase “home for the holidays” takes on new meaning this year.
That said, can you imagine a Christmas season without Johnny Mathis?
It sounds like something that the Grinch himself would have cooked up!
With COVID restrictions shuttering performance venues and concert halls nationwide, this will be the first holiday season in decades that Mathis won’t be thrilling fans with his seasonal favorites. Of course, we’ll always have his music, but there is nothing like experiencing Johnny Mathis live at Christmastime.
I decided that if never before, we NEED a little Christmas right now! So I called Mathis, just to check in on him. Luckily, I caught him just before he headed out for his second favorite pastime.
“I’m fine and in good health,” the 85 year old Mathis assured me, “which is a great thing for someone like me who sings all of the time. And I still have my inclination for golf, which I ALWAYS look forward to! It’s been a great getaway from EVERYTHING! It’s quite wonderful.”
“So that’s what I’ve been doing, answering the phone when it rings, and wondering who I’m gonna play golf with today!”
For those who enjoy Mathis’s dulcet tones, be not dismayed. He was giddy as he talked about his upcoming single, “You Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and the opportunity to revisit his jazz roots. The duet with Freda Payne (“Band Of Gold,” “Where The Boys Are”) is scheduled to be released on Payne’s label on December 4 — so we’ll get to hear new Mathis music this yuletide season after all!
The legend’s boyish exuberance and charm haven’t faded with time or the COVID cares of the day. He sounded great during our chat — and he even serenaded me with an impromptu chorus of “Friends In Love,” his 1982 hit with his “girlfriend” Dionne Warwick.
Yeah, he really did. Hand to God. And I almost passed out.
I wish I could brag that I had been Mathis’s muse that morning. He gloriously broke into song as he reflected on his decades-long love for Warwick and his upcoming December 12 appearance with her. Mathis recorded a new version of “White Christmas” that is scheduled to air during Warwick’s online event, in celebration of her 80th birthday and the holidays.
“We see each other and talk to each other all of the time,” Mathis warmly said of Warwick. “We love each other absolutely beyond music. She’s a wonderful, wonderful person…”
Don’t you just love how Mathis repeated the word “wonderful” there, echoing one of his beloved hits?
“…and I’m so grateful to have her in my life. I live maybe 10 minutes away from Dionne.”
Another famous neighbor of Mathis’s is yet another crooner for whom Christmas is more than just a passing fancy: Mariah Carey, thanks to her ubiquitous chestnut “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” As Carey’s fans consider her “The Queen Of Christmas,” I asked the holiday’s undisputed King to share his thoughts about “the elusive chanteuse.”
“She has a great voice,” Mathis said of Carey. “She’s a great musician. She’s everything that anyone would ever want.”
“And she’s pretty,” Mathis wryly chuckled.
I wondered whether Mathis would consider recording a Christmas duet with the “pretty” Carey, perhaps one that she’d write expressly for the duo?
“That’s the way things have happened for me,” Mathis reminisced. “Someone says ‘Hey, why don’t you try this?!’ We singers are always looking to share our little gifts that God gave us with each other. It’s usually just a matter of circumstances that keep us apart.”
“Hopefully, maybe Mariah and I will be singing together sometime. We live very close together, too. It could happen!”
You heard it here first! I’ve a message to Mimi and her Lambs: The King Of Christmas is waiting for a call. To echo one of Carey’s early hits, make it happen!
Like old pals who hadn’t spoken since the pandemic hit, Mathis and I casually chatted for awhile. I haven’t seen him since February, so it was good to hear that he’s doing well. Whenever we talk, he makes me feel like an old friend. Fans of his music, which dates back seven decades, know how he draws you in. There’s a reason that Mathis’s dozens of hits, from “Misty” to “The Twelfth Of Never” aren’t often covered by other artists. No one else could sing them as intimately as he does.
There’s also a reason why we all return to Mathis’s Christmas music each year. His sublime tone and delivery are warm, cozy reminders of days gone by. This year, more than any other in memory, a dose of Mathis’s holiday cheer is just what the doctor ordered.
As Mathis and I wrapped up what’s become our annual “fireside chat,” I asked him how he was spending the holidays this year, as he wouldn’t be able to do what he loves most: sing for his fans from stages the world over.
“I come from a large family, and so many of my brothers and sisters are gone now. There are three of us left,” Mathis wistfully said. “The holidays were always a big deal for us, being from such a large family. We always shared the holidays, and relished in the fact that we were together.”
“With them gone, I’m grateful to have so many wonderful friends that I’ve made over the years, though my music. So I’ll pick up the phone, and I’ll appreciate an opportunity to share the holiday season with them that way.”
“I do miss the wonderful audiences that I sing for. I love singing, and I love to surprise my audiences onstage,” Mathis said. “COVID has brought things like socializing and performing to a complete stop. Everyone is cloistered.”
Quickly, Mathis bounced back to the buoyant exuberance we’ve all come to love from him. With a twinkle in his eye that only St. Nick can rival, he chuckled:
“But I’ve still got my golf! Now let me get to that course, Mike! I’m outta here!”
But not before the man who’s been adored all over the world, since 1956, allowed this writer to have the ultimate holiday gift. Just four words to a living legend did it for me: