Chris Varias, Special to Cincinnati Enquirer
On their new Christmas album, “Let It Snow,” 98 Degrees put their spin on several holiday favorites. One of the tracks, a sentimental ballad with an R&B feel called “Please Come Home for Christmas,” has a connection to 98 Degrees’ hometown.
Nick Lachey, one-fourth of the vocal-pop group, was raised and schooled here and owns an Over-the-Rhine bar bearing his name. He says the first version of “Please Come Home for Christmas” he heard is the one by the Eagles, who released it as a single in 1978. It peaked at No. 18 on the Billboard chart.
What Lachey didn’t know was that, just like 98 Degrees itself, “Please Come Home for Christmas” is rooted in Cincinnati.
“I had no idea, honestly,” he admits.
“Please Come Home for Christmas” was written by Charles Brown, an R&B singer and pianist who charted several hits in the 1940s and ‘50s, including another soulful Christmas classic, “Merry Christmas Baby.” In 1999, the year of Brown’s death, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
According to local-music historian Brian Powers, Brown got stuck in Cincinnati at a point in his career when the hits had stopped coming. He was supposedly a horseplayer. Newport’s gambling racket saw its opportunity and compelled Brown to commit to an extended engagement performing in mobbed-up nightspots.
In 1960, Syd Nathan, the owner of Cincinnati’s King Records, asked Brown to write a Christmas song. Nathan was hoping for another hit along the lines of 1947’s “Merry Christmas Baby,” and that’s what he got. Brown recorded “Please Come Home for Christmas” at the King studio in Evanston. It became a holiday-season smash that year and lives on through versions by the Eagles, Willie Nelson, Bon Jovi and many others.
“Smokey Robinson recorded a version this year,” Powers says. “The song has got staying power.”
Lachey isn’t the only “Please Come Home for Christmas” crooner that didn’t know the Cincinnati angle. Don Henley, who sings lead on the Eagles’ version, didn’t know, either.
In an e-mail written earlier this month, Henley explains how the Eagles picked up the song.
“I first heard Charles Brown’s recording of ‘Please Come Home for Christmas’ when I was a teenager, living in my little hometown in northeast Texas,” Henley writes. “The song was a hit for Mr. Brown in 1960, but not every radio station was playing it. I only heard it on what was then a powerful, 50,000-watt AM radio station, WNOE, located 340 miles to the southeast in New Orleans. At that time, WNOE was a Top-40 station, but the playlist was not rigid and also included local and regional music. Charles Brown was born in Texas City, Texas, a small city located south of Houston, on Galveston Bay. His career later took him to Los Angeles, but he also spent some time in New Orleans and did some recording there. I wasn’t aware that he had recorded ‘Please Come Home for Christmas’ in Cincinnati.”
Henley continues: “When the Eagles were recording ‘The Long Run’ album in Miami, we needed a break from the daily routine. So, I suggested that we record a Christmas song, and I went on to suggest this song that I had remembered from my teenage years. The band members, and our producer, welcomed the idea. I think we recorded the whole thing is just a day or two.”
From a studio in Evanston to a radio station in New Orleans to a studio in Miami to a studio in Los Angeles, where 98 Degrees recorded their version – there’s no reason to think this 57-year-old tune will stop marching through time.
“We just loved the record,” Lachey says. “But the fact that it has a little bit of tradition rooted there in Cincy – I’m gonna use that little tidbit moving forward.”