Vanessa Williams brings a pioneering career and deep roots in Christmas traditions to her shows with the Spokane Symphony

click to enlarge GILLES TOUCAS PHOTO
Gilles Toucas photo

If you ever had any question about how powerful a woman Vanessa Williams is, consider the fact she made Arnold Schwarzenegger cry without even laying a finger on her Eraser co-star.

It was a few years after that action flick had made friends of the singer, actress and former Miss America Williams and actor-turned-politician Schwarzenegger. His then-wife Maria Shriver asked Williams to pop into a Christmas party toward the end of his stint as California governor and surprise him with a song. And Shriver mentioned that "Silent Night" was always Arnold's favorite carol.

"I was talking to one of my friends I went to college with, and he said, 'Why don't you do it in German,'" Williams recalled in a phone call from her New York home. "I go, 'Oooh, you're right,' so I sang 'Silent Night' in German. Of course, I had my index cards with the German written out, I didn't memorize it. But he got really emotional and Maria's like, 'How did you make him cry? I can't even make him cry!'

"That was probably the most effective Christmas song I've ever done. Making the Governator tear up."

It shouldn't really come as any surprise that Williams has the kind of voice to bring the manliest of manly men to tears with a song. The daughter of two music teachers, she had serious musical chops well before becoming a pop star and well-known actress, having studied dance and a variety of instruments growing up, in addition to singing. She went on to become a musical theater major in college before leaving school when she became the first African-American Miss America in 1983.

That naturally led to opportunities acting on TV and in movies, and recording a radio-friendly brand of R&B that gave her No. 1 hits ("Save the Best For Last"), platinum albums ("The Right Stuff," "The Comfort Zone") and an Oscar-winning song from the movie Pocahantas, "Colors of the Wind." As her music career continued beyond the '90s, she expanded her sound into jazz, gospel and pop. After early movie successes like Soul Food, she more recently starred on Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives on TV, and on Broadway in The Trip To Bountiful and Hey, Look Me Over.

Throughout Williams' long and varied career, Christmas has popped up repeatedly. She's recorded a couple of albums packed with holiday favorites, and added her voice to a star-studded (Patti LaBelle! Eartha Kitt! Gregory Hines!) animated TV movie called Santa, Baby! In 2001, and starred in the memorable A Diva's Christmas Carol as "Ebony Scrooge."

This time of year, Williams hits the road to perform holiday tunes with a wide array of groups, including the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center and, this weekend, the Spokane Symphony.

"It's kind of my busy time of the year, for tree-lighting ceremonies and stuff like that," Williams says. "I try to get the house decorated by Dec. 1 and then it's catch as catch can in terms of being at home and relaxing and trying to do any kind of Christmas shopping."

Williams grew up with the kind of Christmas traditions that most of us only get to see in movies. Westchester County in New York is just a half-hour or so from New York City, "so we would go in for the annual Christmas show at Radio City [Music Hall] and see the Rockettes and all that stuff, go see the tree at Rockefeller Center. We used to have hot roasted chestnuts so, yeah, a very traditional upbringing."

And it's something she was able to share with her own kids later since Williams moved back 27 years ago to the town she grew up in. Her kids went to the same schools she did, and her parents lived just one town over, so many of the traditions of her childhood kept going until her own kids grew up and moved out on their own.

"Our church would have a Christmas pageant where everybody would kind of dress up, and they'd recreate the Nativity scene," Williams says. "I would cook a lasagna beforehand, and once we finished mass, we'd all come home and [the kids] were allowed to open one present and we'd have lasagna on Christmas Eve. Now, it all depends on people's schedules and where they are in the world."

While the homey touches might be harder to come by for her, Williams' concerts around the country during the holidays are no doubt parts of her fans' own Yuletide traditions. At the Spokane shows this weekend, expect the symphony to do a set followed by Williams joining them for a mix of carols and her must-have hits (I'll be the first one to riot if she doesn't do "Save the Best For Last").

You probably won't hear Williams do "Jingle Bells," but she'll likely hit on another popular favorite that seems to strike a chord consistently with the audience.

"[From] Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, I covered 'Silver and Gold,' which Burl Ives had done, but I do have a very sentimental 'Silver and Gold' and a lot of people connect to that because it brings back childhood memories," Williams says. "A sentimental favorite." ♦

Spokane Symphony Holiday Pops with Vanessa Williams • Sat, Dec. 21 at 8 pm and Sun, Dec. 22 at 2 pm • $33-$92 • All ages • Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox • 1001 W. Sprague • spokanesymphony.org • 624-1200

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About The Author

Dan Nailen

Dan Nailen is the managing editor of the Inlander, where he oversees coverage of arts and culture. He's previously written and edited for The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City Weekly, Missoula Independent, Salt Lake Magazine and The Oregonian. He grew up across the country in an Air Force family and studied at...