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Donny Hathaway

A soul original with a voice sweeter than an angel, Donny was primarily known for his hits with ROBERTA FLACK and a star solo track, `The Ghetto’, one of the most enduring gauges of post-Civil Rights Afro-America. If one could wrap the vocal cords of STEVIE WONDER, MARVIN GAYE and BOBBY WOMACK into one imaginary ball, then one would arrive at the versatile Mr. HATHAWAY. Almost three decades after his tragic but mysterious death in January 1979, HATHAWAY’s star refuses to dim, his legend kept alive in the lyrics and grooves of NAS, JOHN LEGEND, ANTHONY HAMILTON and others, and popularised by unlikely American Idol performances.
Born October 1, 1945, Chicago, Illinois, Donny was raised in St. Louis by his gospel-loving grandmother; a very young Donny began his singing career at her Baptist church at the tender age of three; he duly played piano at school. Subsequently attending Howard University in Washington, he met ROBERTA FLACK, who’d become his future foil in the early and late 70s.
Prior to their pairing (as “June & Donnie”), June Conquest and HATHAWAY were part of CURTIS MAYFIELD’s congregation of rising soul stars at the Curtom imprint, albeit with one summer ’69 single, `I Thank You Baby’ (b/w `What’s This I See’). Prior to this still, in 1964, Don augmented the Ric Powell Trio, a cocktail jazz combo that underlined the said drummer, but introduced a hell of piano player. In 1967, while still a student at Howard Uni, he married Eulaulah.
On the recommendation of KING CURTIS, session man to the stars Donny signed to Atlantic Records subsidiary, Atco. Featuring his classic R&B chart hit, `The Ghetto – Part 1’ (`Part 2’ was its flip-side), from late the previous year, HATHAWAY’s impressive debut album, EVERYTHING IS EVERYTHING {*8}, emerged in 1970. This was a powerful, intelligent collection that swiped the carpet from under STEVIE WONDER’s soul shoes on numbers like RAY CHARLES’ `I Believe To My Soul’ and NINA SIMONE’s `To Be Young, Gifted And Black’. While The Ghetto’s black consciousness soul/funk was on a par with the likes of GIL SCOTT-HERON and the newly-politicised MARVIN GAYE, Donny would increasingly concentrate on more romantic material upon his pairing with FLACK.
1971 saw the release of both his eponymous second album, DONNY HATHAWAY {*6}, and the first of his duets with FLACK: a hit cover of CAROLE KING’s `You’ve Got A Friend’. Due to its over-abundance of gospel re-interpretations, including works by LEON RUSSELL (`A Song For You’), BILLY PRESTON (`Little Girl’), VAN McCOY (`Giving Up’), GEORGE CLINTON (`She Is My Lady’) etc., the album showed there were different sides to Donny.
As his friend and musical confidante FLACK hit the big time with her own interpretation of folk song, `The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, it looked from the outside looking in that her musical sparring partner was cashing in on her parade. But this was not the case. On the back of a cuddly Top 5, `Where Is The Love’, a whole album’s worth of duets was released as `Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway’, but at least his name was now a household one as the seductive set sailed into the Top 3.
1972 was also the year that legend of the mixing desk, QUINCY JONES, commissioned HATHAWAY to write the score for the Blaxploitation flick, Come Back Charleston Blue.
Less talked about that any other soundtrack of its genre, and released several months after his seminal concert set, LIVE {*8} – which featured the Chicago man’s versions of MARVIN GAYE’s `What’s Going On’, CAROLE KING’s `You’ve Got A Friend’ and JOHN LENNON’s `Jealous Guy’, along with extended takes of `The Ghetto’ and `Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything)’ – COME BACK CHARLESTON BLUE {*7} was a diversion from the safer soulful pop he was playing at times.
Rather than rarify the 60s pop GALT MacDERMOT had conceived for the original, the stylistically erudite singer-songwriter composed a lengthy series of cues at least partly drawn from vintage big band/jazz; not so surprising given Quincy’s role as supervisor and his own unique interpretation of the jazz aesthetic. The main theme – in keeping with the title – was unadulterated ragtime in heel-kicking two-step, while both the self explanatory (Count) `Basie’ and `Come Back Basie’ paid classy homage to the legendary jazz pianist.
The reason one really needed this album, though, was `Little Ghetto Boy’, the studio version of a song premiered on his live set a few months earlier. It’s classic HATHAWAY, conscious, imploring, redemptive, shining its wildflower possibility into the vacuum left by Martin Luther King’s death four years earlier (perhaps it’s a blessing Donny didn’t live to hear `The Message’, GRANDMASTER FLASH’s gut-wrenching riposte to `…Ghetto Boy’s potential a decade on).
`Tim’s High’ strained for more hallowed ground, a sinner’s entreaty borne on teardrop-piano and seraphic harp. HATHAWAY also offered some wordless testifying (even his humming was soul-deep) on `Harlem Dawn’ and performed the closing title with Southern soul diva Margie Joseph, herself newly signed to Atlantic to fit in with ARETHA FRANKLIN and the composer’s sometime singing partner FLACK.
In between there was plenty of standard, Quincy-patented big band chase (a predatory, recurring motif most impressive on `Hearse To Graveyard’ over some atonal, MILES DAVIS-esque keys), soul bossa and harmony-muted parp, but the pair really flew on `Liberation’, emancipating themselves from instrumental slavishness with a bouncing bomb of a bassline, attention-deficit flute and glad-bursting rhythm guitar in a HERBIE HANCOCK/Bob Dorough bag. Just dandy.
Featuring modest hits `I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know’ (penned by AL KOOPER) and `Love, Love, Love’, 1973’s EXTENSION OF A MAN {*7}, was his previous record’s antithesis. Ambitious as it encompassed blues ballads, gospel grooves, smooth soul and jazz, Donny and his team’s performances were tight, although in `Come Little Children’ and `The Slums’, comparisons were made with GAYE’s `What’s Going On’ opus.
Amid personal problems and severe bouts of depression (if he didn’t take his medication), both HATHAWAY’s partnership with FLACK and his own solo career were put on ice throughout the mid-70s; the man instead setting up his own production company. When the pair resumed their mercurial partnership in 1977 for her solo `Blue Lights In The Basement’ LP, they subsequently scored their most successful duet with the delicate `The Closer I Get To You’. An album of other duets was booked and underway after the single almost hit the No.1 spot in spring ’78. There were reports from session people that Donny’s paranoid schizophrenia had reared its ugly head again, but with strong medication he was said to be fine.
Tragedy struck, however, as Donny died in mysterious circumstances after falling from the fifteenth floor of his New York hotel room on January 13, 1979; the police verdict was suicide, although those close to the singer believed otherwise. Whatever his untimely death was down to, it was a huge loss to the black music community at large, and especially to FLACK, who’d been working so hard with him to complete another record. Painstakingly pieced together for release in March 1980, the album `Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway’ was a poignant epitaph to a much underrated career, featuring as it did `You Are My Heaven’ and a climactic and extended version of their other attendant hit, `Back Together Again’.
A posthumous live album, IN PERFORMANCE {*6}, emerged later in 1980, proving that the soul man was still more than capable of turning on his audience under the spotlight. Donny was survived by his wife Eulaulah and daughters, LALAH HATHAWAY (now a solo artist), Kenya (American Idol backing singer) and Donnita, the latter from another relationship.
© MC Strong 2000-2008/GRD-LCS-BG // rev-up MCS Oct2016

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