When I said to Steve Lawson: “Tell me about Jews and Christmas music,” he said exactly what I hoped:
“I have two words for you: Irving Berlin.”
Berlin, of course, was the composer of the iconic popular Christmas song, “White Christmas.” Lawson and his wife, Debbie, have become the creators of another, local, musical icon, the Christmas in the Northwest benefit music CD.
“Not that I’m comparing myself with Irving Berlin,” Steve says, “but I get that question a lot.”
So how did a boy who grew up in the bosom of Seattle’s Orthodox community end up producing 10 Christmas albums over the past 20 years?
The story goes like this. The Lawsons’ daughter, Alex, became deathly ill at age 2 with E. coli and was treated at Children’s Hospital. In turn, the Lawsons wanted to do something to benefit the institution that had saved their daughter’s life. The owners of a recording studio at the time, producing an album seemed a natural fit, plus they felt a Christmas album would “bring the biggest bang.”
“One of the nicest things about Christmas CDs is that they are ‘evergreen,’” explains Steve. “There’s a notion of creating something that will last a long, long time.”
The Lawsons harnessed the creative energies of some of the Northwest’s biggest musical names over the years, including Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, Steve Miller, Kenny G, the Total Experience Gospel Choir, and a wide variety of other local talent.
“I’ve been asked many times to change the name to Holidays in the Northwest,” says Lawson. He says has lost sponsorship dollars because of his refusal to do so. “‘Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel’ doesn’t go well with ‘White Christmas.’ It doesn’t go with a targeted project,” the best possible fundraising source for Children’s, and other regional children’s hospitals, that the project now supports.
Steve has been busy producing the fourth television special of the same name, featuring artists from the CDs (see www.christmasinthenorthwest.com/index.asp for airings around the Northwest). This year, Steve wrote the song, “I Wanna Be Blake, I Wanna Be Sanjaya,” and got Sanjaya Malakar of American Idol fame to appear on the special.
Lawson started in radio in his teens, and worked his way through college with various radio jobs. He then worked for both the KING-AM and FM stations before starting his own recording studio in 1979. That studio eventually became Bad Animals, in partnership with the Wilson sisters, and produced many of the Northwest’s most famous grunge rock bands before the studio was sold in the late 1990s. Steve is now a corporate communications consultant and does voice-over work. (Until recently, he was the voice of Playhouse Disney in Asia and he is currently the voice of KAR television in Minneapolis.)
Steve credits his dad for his love of music.
“We had some old 78s featuring hazzans [cantors] from all over,” that he would play over and over, he says. His dad also loved to hear the choir and hazzan at the “old” Bikur Cholim on 17th and Yesler and frequently took the family to the symphony.
Steve and Debbie now belong to Temple B’nai Torah in Bellevue and Alex, now a married woman working in real estate (Alex herself is hosting an upcoming event through a new group called Young Jewish Professionals — see the announcement on page 23), worked with her dad on the Christmas project this year.
Scott Selfon has lit his own musical light against the darkness with a Hanukkah composition that you’ll find on the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra’s Holidays of the New Era, Volume 2. Released on ERM last month, Scott calls it, “the sole Hanukkah piece among a sea of Christmas works.”
Titled “Chanukah Glow,” it is a new arrangement of time-honored melodies “pulled from some traditional folk tunes and some more modern pieces,” he says. Performed once locally, “I thought that was it,” for the piece, he says, so he was surprised when the radio symphony accepted it.
Scott played viola with the Sammamish Symphony for many years.
“They always had a holiday concert and they would always do a Hanukkah piece, but it was always one of the same two pieces,” he says.
He and the few other Jewish orchestra members would laugh, but “on the inside we were, maybe, cringing a bit,” so he decided it was time to create something different.
“My music has a lot of Jewish inspiration,” he says. “It informs the way that I compose.”
For many years Scott arranged for, and conducted, an a cappella group from UW Hillel’s JConnect program. His wife, Meredith, sings in Seattle’s Balkan women’s chorus, Duneva, and he has arranged for them as well. An original composition in honor of his father, “Remembrances,” was premiered by the Puget Sound Symphony shortly after his father’s untimely death from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease earlier this year.
Originally from Detroit, Scott moved the Seattle area in 1998. He is a senior audio specialist at Microsoft. He and Meredith have a four-month-old son, Zachary, who is the current focus of Scott’s creative energies.
“My composing is for him at this point, creating silly little songs that we sing for him,” Scott says. “It’s very different writing for an audience of one.”