I first heard Donny Hathaway when I bought a copy of Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway at a thrift store. This album blew me away. It was a long time before I realized the pattern on the cover was made from handprints.
Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack were both promising piano players with gospel roots, who received scholarships to Howard University, where they first met. Donny didn’t graduate, as he was inundated with job offers, one of which was a role as in-house producer for Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label.
How can you not love this this album cover?
Hathaway’s first solo album was released on the Atco/Atlantic label in 1970. Everything Is Everything was critically praised but not a best-seller. Mixing themes of black pride, spirituality, hellish city life, and love- and utilizing the entire pantheon of African-American musical styles- Hathaway’s album was too unconventional for mainstream radio. In terms of “music with a message”, Donny was a forerunner. Everything Is Everything was released a year before Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On. It’s also impossible to think that Stevie Wonder didn’t draw greatly from Everything Is Everything, as his sound and and spirituality had richened in the early 1970s beginning with Music Of My Mind, which was released two years after Donny’s debut.
Donnie had a minor hit on the album with “The Ghetto,” a seven-minute long song with few lyrics. He describes the problems of the inner-city (de-intrustrialization, lack of jobs, poverty, violent crime) with screams, hollers, and an occasional moan. It’s a funky dirge.
“Tryin’ Times” is in a similar vein to “The Ghetto,” with lyrics by Leroy Hutson, a frequent collaborator, who later became lead singer in The Impressions after Curtis Mayfield began concentrating on solo efforts.
Roberta Flack did a version of “Trying Times” a year earlier, on her debut album First Take. She recorded the whole album in 10 hours, a testament, I think, to her musicianship. Once again, love the cover.
Hathaway’s second album, Donny Hathaway was less critically lauded, and he was not the primary songwriter. It’s not my favorite, but he did perform an amazing cover of Leon Russells’s “A Song For You.” Forget versions by Willie Nelson or The Carpenters, this is the one. Great piano opening.
Also, a nice cover of The Hollies’ ode to brothers returning from Vietnam crippled and maimed.
1972 was a busy year for Hathaway, as he released a soundtrack, live album, and studio album.
Come Back, Charleston Blue was the soundtrack to the Godfrey Cambridge-starring film, which was a sequel to the crime author Chester Himes’ novel Cotton Comes To Harlem. I haven’t seen this film, but I saw and read Cotton Comes to Harlem, both great, about the travails of two charismatic cops in Harlem, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger. This was “supervised” by Quincy Jones, all music by Hathaway, however.
Donny Hathaway killed it live. This is an amazing album all the way through. The energy of the audience in this club parallel’s the vivacity of the audience on Sam Cooke’s Live At the Harlem Square Club, which is saying a lot. The audience totally freaks out during “The Ghetto.” Also, a mind-blowing version of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” I love the way he says “didn’t” when he sings “I didn’t mean to hurt you, and I’m sorry I made you cry….”
Sam Cooke deserves his own posting (a daunting prospect), but here’s “Bring It On Home to Me” at the Harlem Square Club in Miami so you know what I’m talking about. It’s like there’s a fire in there.
In 1972, Donny also recorded his first duet album with Roberta Flack. Here they are looking happy on the inside gatefold sleeve.
Among my favorite tracks are “I (Who Have Nothing)” and a cover of James Taylor’s “You’ve Got A Friend.” Other versions of “I (Who Have Nothing)” seem overblown compared to their bluesy version. Interestingly this song, first made big by Ben E. King in 1963, was based on a 1961 Italian hit song, with English lyrics by Lieber & Stoller.
Extension Of A Man came out in 1973. “Someday We’ll All Be Free” is my favorite song off this album. It’s akin to The Beach Boys’ “Surf’s Up” or “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” for me. When I was twenty or so, I felt this spiritual connection with Brian Wilson. I just felt all screwed up in general, and I’d listen to his songs and felt better that young Brian felt as out of place in the world as I did.
Edward Howard, the lyricist of “Someday We’ll all Be Free” said that he wrote the words for and about Donny, who was experiencing depression and probably undiagnosed schizophrenia. Howard said: “What was going through my mind at the time was Donny, because Donny was a very troubled person. I hoped that at some point he would be released from all that he was going through. There was nothing I could do but write something that might be encouraging for him.” The lyrics begin, “Hang on to the world as it spins around/ Just don’t let the spin get you down.”
Extension Of A Man was Donny Hathaway’s last solo album. In the mid-seventies he continued to produce for others, but was plagued by depression and repeatedly hospitalized to fight it. Many of his friendships were damaged during this period, including with Roberta Flack, but by 1978 they had reconciled and recorded the slow-burner “The Closer I Get To You,” off her album Blue Lights In the Basement.
The success of that song inspired them to begin recording another album of duets. By all accounts Donny seemed to be feeling better, which made it more shocking when a body, found on the sidewalk in front of The Essex House on Central Park South in NYC on January 13, 1979, turned out to be Donny Hathaway. He had been residing at the hotel. The glass in the window in his apartment had been carefully removed and there were no signs of foul play. Earlier that day Hathaway and his manager had had an amicable dinner with Roberta Flack at her home.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson eulogized Hathaway at his funeral, which was attended by Flack and Stevie Wonder, among other notable musicians.
Roberta Flack released Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway, which included a few of their completed duets, in 1980.
In tribute to Donny, The Whispers recorded a song using the melody from “This Christmas,” Hathaway’s hit Christmas single from 1972.
Speaking of tribute songs, I can’t help but post these two from 1984. The Commodores sans Lionel Richie recorded “Nightshift” for recently deceased Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye. Diana Ross recorded “Missing You” for Marvin, former labelmate, collaborator, and lover.
A Diana Ross video for “Missin’ You”:
Doing research for this post, I was excited to find out that Donny Hathaway was born three days before my mother, and was also a fellow Libran. My spiritual soul brother.