R&B Star Returns With Christmas Album

Howard Hewett, former front man for the R&B group Shalamar, sings the holiday classics on his new album, A Howard Hewett Christmas. Hewett reflects on the inspiration for his newest album and his expansive career in the music business.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

Rhythm-&-blues singer Howard Hewett crooned many chart-topping songs when he led the group Shalamar in the 1980s. You may recall his smooth sound on "Second Time Around" or "Make That Move" or "This Is for the Lover in You." And then there's this one.

(Soundbite of song "Night to Remember")

Mr. HOWARD HEWETT: (Singing) Celebrations and my heart could stay united, And there's nothing in this world to come between me and you. We're together, and it keeps me so excited To think of what the power of love can do. Ooh.

And I'm filled with a love...

CORLEY: That, of course, a "Night to Remember." Hewett went on to a solo career for awhile, worked with jazz artists, and a few years ago recorded his first full gospel album, "The Journey." And now he's offering his first Christmas release, a collection of holiday music that will get your foot tapping. And he's here to tell us more about this new project. Welcome, Howard Hewett, and congratulations.

Mr. HOWARD HEWETT (R&B Singer; Lead Vocals, Shalamar): Thank you, Cheryl. I'm glad to be here, honored to be here, definitely.

CORLEY: Well, thank you. So, first, let's talk about this Christmas release. What inspired you to do one?

Mr. HEWETT: Every year my wife, you know, this is, like, our Christmas, our holiday. You know, Christmas time is, like, our holiday. And you know, every year we get the old Christmas CDs out, and every single year she always says, you know, since we've been together, she says, you should do a Christmas album, a Christmas CD. And I say, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I'll do one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEWETT: But you know, the thing about Christmas CDs is that you have to hand them in to the company, or to whoever your distribution situation is with, at a certain time in order for them to get it into the system. You know what I mean?

CORLEY: You mean doing this in April, right?

Mr. HEWETT: Yeah, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEWETT: And you're, like, you know, recording Christmas music in May, June, July, August or whatever, and it just doesn't seem right. It's not, like, the most prominent thing on your mind at that time, to get your mind wrapped around "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" in June or July, you know what I'm saying? So - but it was something that I've always wanted to do, and it turned out some of the best vocal performances and production performances that I've done on a lot of different projects.

CORLEY: Well, you collaborate with some great musicians for this project, including Stevie Wonder, for the classic "The Christmas Song." Let's take a listen to that.

(Soundbite of song "The Christmas Song")

Mr. STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) Although it's been said Many times, many ways Merry Christmas to you. He-he-he-hey...

CORLEY: Now, Howard, why this song in particular for a Stevie Wonder collaboration?

Mr. HEWETT: I've always loved "The Christmas Song." I never knew what - you never really knew what the name of the song was because they always say, "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," but...

CORLEY: Right.

Mr. HEWETT: It's "The Christmas Song."

CORLEY: Right.

Mr. HEWETT: And I've loved that - loved the Nat King Cole version forever, you know, of that song.

CORLEY: Oh, absolutely.

Mr. HEWETT: And KJLH is Stevie's station, here in L.A.

CORLEY: Uh-huh.

Mr. HEWETT: And he does, when he's in town, he always does a Thursday morning, early morning shift, you know, himself. Stevie calls and asks if I would come on and do, you know, a couple of hours with him on this - on his show he was doing that next Thursday. So I said, sure, you know, I'll come in. And so I came in - I went in, rather - and Stevie says, you know, Howard, I'm going to do the Hollywood Bowl, he said. And I want you, if you can, you know, I'd love for you to come sit in with me, you know? We're on the air, this is on the air, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEWETT: And so I said, hey, man, Stevie, man, I'd love to come sit in with you, you know what I'm saying. But let's make this a bartering situation, I said. I'm getting ready to do my first Christmas album. And I said, I will come sit in with you at the Hollywood Bowl, you know, on a couple of tunes, if you come and sing and play a harmonica solo on "The Christmas Song ( Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)."

CORLEY: Ah, you had him, huh.

Mr. HEWETT: I had him, I had him, with millions of listeners as my witnesses, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEWETT: So, he got it done, and it's wonderful.

CORLEY: Well, you grew up singing gospel with your sisters.

Mr. HEWETT: Yes.

CORLEY: And one song on the album has a bit of a gospel feel, "O, Come All Ye Faithful," which you did with George Duke. And here's a little bit of that one.

(Soundbite of song "O, Come All Ye Faithful")

Mr. HEWETT: (Singing) Oh, yes, Lord we bring Thee On this happy morning Oh Jesus, to Thee be All glory given...

CORLEY: So, Howard, tell us about this one and why you included this song. We talked - you know, I mentioned that it has this gospel feel to it.

Mr. HEWETT: That's basically I think what I wanted to convey at the time. With George - you know, George is one of my best friends and one of the most, I mean, prolific, legendary, fantastic - I can't say enough...

CORLEY: Absolutely.

Mr. HEWETT: As far as him as a producer. And I'm totally, totally honored to work with him on anything that we do.

CORLEY: Well, if you are just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Cheryl Corley, and I'm speaking with singer Howard Hewett about his new Christmas release. You know, before we talk more about the Christmas CD, let's revisit your time, just a bit, with Shalamar, from 1979 to '85, if I have that right.

Mr. HEWETT: Mm-hmm.

CORLEY: I'm wondering whether your music is still associated with the group, or have you been able to break out during your solo career?

Mr. HEWETT: You know, it's funny, because when I do my shows - I do a lot of personal appearances through the years and stuff. And you have people that come to the show that are, you know, diehard Shalamar fans. And then they, fortunately, you know, transitioned into, you know, Howard Hewett fans. And then you have people that come and they were - they're just strictly into the Howard Hewett stuff, because I've been doing that a lot longer than the Shalamar stuff. I mean, Shalamar stuff, there was - I mean, great, great stuff, like you said earlier, like, you know, "Second Time Around," "Night To Remember," "Make That Move," "For the Lover in You," all that stuff. But then, you know, the solo stuff is, you know, "Show Me," "I'm for Real," "Say Amen," "Stay," you know, and on into the newer stuff. And I mean, all of it to me, though, represents wonderful times in my life.

CORLEY: Keep in touch at all with Jody Watley or Jeffrey Daniel, the other folks in the trio?

Mr. HEWETT: Well, Jody and I don't really stay in touch that often, that much. You know, she's doing her thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEWETT: But I mean, Jeffrey and I stayed - Jeffrey and I still do shows overseas. We'll take another girl with us. We'll do stuff in Asia and Africa. We were just in Africa a couple months ago. And people have approached me about, you know, doing something here in the States, you know, with Jeffrey and myself and the girl we take, a very, very talented singer. Her name is Carolyn Griffey, a talented singer. She has a great voice and great look and everything. We'll take her with us.

But if I was to do it here in the States, I wouldn't feel right doing it unless it was me, Jeffrey, and Jody. We did an article in Jet Magazine a few weeks ago. I think it was released about three or four weeks ago. And at the end of the article, they asked each of us, you know, if, you know, we would ever do a Shalamar reunion. And Jody said, well, I'm not really committed to it, blah, blah, blah, right? And Jeffrey says, well, if it happens, it'll be fun. And they asked me, and I said I think it would be a great thing. I think it would be a blast.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEWETT: I think the audience would have a great time, and that's the most important thing.

CORLEY: Let's go back to the Christmas album. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is another of the familiar holiday tunes. And you gave this one a bilingual twist with...

Mr. HEWETT: Yes.

CORLEY: Guest artist, Jasselle. Let's listen to that.

(Soundbite of song "Baby, It's Cold Outside")

Mr. HEWETT: (Singing) Baby, don't go.

JASSELLE: (Singing in Spanish) No me cuerpo que va.

Mr. HEWETT: (Singing) But baby, it's cold outside.

JASSELLE: (Singing in Spanish) Me tengo que ir.

Mr. HEWETT: (Singing) It's really cold outside.

JASSELLE: (Singing in Spanish) Esta noche asi...

Mr. HEWETT: (Singing) Been hoping that you...

CORLEY: I'm moving in my chair, Howard. I just want you to know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: So, why did you go this route? What did you want to have happen with this one?

Mr. HEWETT: Well, with "Baby, It's Cold Outside," I mean, I've always loved the song, you know?

CORLEY: It's a great song, isn't it?

Mr. HEWETT: It's a great song, and you can either do it - one thing, as far as the female - especially the female part, you can either do it - the female part can be played, either you're really sexy, or tongue in cheek, you know, type of, like, you know, comedic type of thing. And as I listened to certain things, I said, you know, but everybody's done - and Monty Seward, he and I produced this together.

Monty and I go all the way back to - the first song we ever wrote and produced together was "Say Amen," which is, like, the classic inspirational song that's lasted 20-something years now. And he was working with this Latina artist, Jasselle. And we started talking about the song, and then we said, you know what? What if we do, like, a little flip, like a Hispanic, you know, Spanish/English, bilingual flip on this whole thing, where, you know, the female part is done in Spanish and the male part is done in English - and answered - it's answered in English. I said that would be great. And he said, well, I'm working with this girl, you know, Jasselle, who's done a lot of stuff on Telemundo, has a nice little following in the Hispanic market. And he said - he sent me some - he mp3-ed me some of her work, and I loved her voice. She has a great voice and stuff. And I said, well, let's, you know, give it a whirl, let's see what's happening and see how this whole thing fits. And we went in and did her part. I mean, sometimes I don't even know what she's saying, but it sounds so good, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEWETT: You know, it just fell, you know, fell into that whole sexy vibe. It's just - you know because, I mean, the Spanish language is such a beautiful language anyway - Spanish, French and all that - and it's something I felt would be very, very interesting and very entertaining to the listeners, to people as an addition to the Christmas album.

CORLEY: Well, Howard Hewett, it has been wonderful talking to you.

Mr. HEWETT: It's been great.

(Soundbite of song "Christmas Time")

CORLEY: Yeah. Howard Hewett joined us from member station KCLU in Thousand Oaks, California. His latest CD, "Howard Hewett Christmas," is available in most stores. And for more information on Howard Hewett, visit our website at npr.org/tellmemore. Howard, thank you and happy holidays to you and your family.

Mr. HEWETT: Happy holidays to you, too, Cheryl. God bless.

(Soundbite of song "Christmas Time")

Mr. HEWETT: (Singing) Christmas time is here, Happiness and cheer, Fun for all That children call Their favorite time of year...

CORLEY: And that's our program for today. I'm Cheryl Corley, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of song "Christmas Time")

Mr. HEWETT: (Singing) Candles everywhere Olden times and ancient rhymes of love and dreams we share. Sleigh bells in the air, Beauty everywhere, Yuletide by the fireside, And joyful memories there...

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