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Steinberg: ‘O Holy Night’ reveals an unexpected Christmas wonder

Harry Chapin | Sun-Times file photo

Saturday is Christmas Eve, and while I don’t usually write Saturdays, this fell in my lap. It isn’t quite a Christmas miracle, more of a Christmas wonder, as you’ll see if you bear with me to the end.

An acquaintance asked if I were doing anything for Christmas. Yes, I replied, as always, on Christmas Eve, I’ll play Tevin Campbell’s version of “O Holy Night.”

“It isn’t celebrating Christmas, like having a tree,” I sheepishly explained. “Just a pretty song.”

If you like that, my friend said, you should hear Jennifer Nettles sing it. He sent me a link.

Wow. Tevin Campbell has been topped.

As I listened, I wondered: there are lots of carols, many quite beautiful. Why “O Holy Night”? I pulled at the thread, and immediately realized: Harry Chapin.

When I was a teenager, I was a big fan. He had a couple hits — “Cats in the Cradle,” “Taxi” — but of all his songs, the one that really got to me was “Mr. Tanner,” a dry cleaner from Ohio who, as the song goes, “also was a baritone, sang at local shows.”

Goaded by his friends, Mr. Tanner goes to New York and holds a recital. Chapin recites the scathing review that sent Mr. Tanner back to pressing clothes in shame:

“Mr. Martin Tanner, baritone, of Dayton Ohio, made his town hall debut last night. He came well prepared, but unfortunately his presentation was not up to professional standards . . . ”

In the song, bassist Big John Wallace sings the refrain of “O Holy Night,” a soaring counter-melody.

So that’s where “O Holy Night” came from, pressed into my mind by Mr. Tanner.

But why is “O Holy Night” in the middle of a pop song about a cleaner from Dayton? Harry Chapin died in a car accident in 1981. But I found an interview in a Chapin fan publication from 2004 where Wallace is asked that exact question. He replies:  “It was spliced together because it was operatic, and Harry knew it from Grace Church. It came from a review he read about Martin Tubridy and is the actual review.”

Tubridy was not a cleaner. He was not from Dayton. But he was a baritone who sang at local shows, good enough, at least in his own mind, that he rented Carnegie Hall and put on a performance. The New York Times sent a music critic. Its single paragraph backhand March 28, 1971, on page 63:

“Martin Tubridy, a New York bass‐baritone, made his local debut in Carnegie Recital Hall on Friday night with Mitchell Andrews at the piano. His performance of two Purcell songs and Schumann’s ‘Liederkreis’ cycle was not up to professional standards, lacking tonal steadiness and adequate phrasing.”

That’s what inspired Chapin to write the song. After Wallace outed him, people began calling Tubridy, asking: was he Mr. Tanner? Was he from Dayton? So he was a little frosty when I phoned. But once he realized I wasn’t one of those people, he warmed.

He hadn’t been a Chapin fan, he said, or had any idea he might have been the inspiration of the song until a decade ago.

“I fell in love with his music once I found out about him,” he said.

He’d kept singing, despite the negative reviews, and didn’t want to be associated with Mr. Tanner.

“I knew about this, but just wanted to push it out of the back of my life,” Tubridy said. “Only when Howie Fields called did I realize what it means to people.”

Fields is the drummer of the Chapin family band. He called, wanting to know if Tubridy, now in his 70s, would perform the “O Holy Night” parts in “Mr. Tanner” at a concert last month raising money for the Harry Chapin Foundation.

“The man just gave and gave and gave,” said Tubridy. “I decided to do the performance.”

You can see the Nov. 12 performance on YouTube.

“It was surreal,” Tubridy said. “It doesn’t seem like this could actually happen. A standing ovation. Incredible, really.”

There really is only one thing left to say:

Mr. Martin Tubridy, baritone, of Weston, Conn., sang the ‘O Holy Night’ counter melody in ‘Mr. Tanner’ with a fullness, strength and conviction which, while at one point hard to hear over the audience cheering, was consistently interesting.”

Particularly, at the very end, when the lyrics are, “He did not know how well he sang, it just made him whole,” but you hear Tubridy shift to, “it just made me whole.”

Music will do that. Critics pan and the years pass. But if you stick with your dreams long enough, keep singing, and are lucky, maybe, just maybe, you’ll get to perform for people who cheer and critics who rave.