A tribute and exploration into the life and career of the late, great Donny Hathaway, one of the most important and poignant voices in soul music history with a truly timeless musical oeuvre.
Donny Hathaway was a singer, songwriter, arranger and pianist whose sound was most often forged from a sensual blend of traditional jazz, gospel and soul music with strong active links to the sacred African-American traditions that inspired them. His legendary recordings fused and weaved a moving mixture of soul, gospel, R’n’B, Jazz and pop influences.
A prolific master of soul, musically and spiritually, Donny Hathaway's career would see him work alongside the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Roberta Flack, Minnie Riperton, the Staple Singers and Aretha Franklin. His solo work is considered as foundational American soul music, influencing the likes of D’angelo, Common, Lauryn Hill and George Benson. David Ritz quotes Stevie Wonder as exclaiming: "When Donny sings any song, he owns it.”
Despite his undeniable influence and immense levels of praise from a great deal of musical legends, his timeless catalog of work is often left out and overshadowed by popular music historians. Amy Winehouse once stated that Donny Hathaway was her favourite musician of all time, and she herself attempted to capture something of Donny’s legacy in her hit Rehab, singing...
'Cause there's nothing / there's nothing you can teach me / That I can't learn from Mr. Hathaway…’
It speaks to the kind of essence that Donny was known for embodying throughout his intense and often rather troubled life. A universal empathy and joy, marred by the conditions of society and pushed to the brink by the mental instability that deep emotional perception often pertains to.
Born in 1945, Chicago, Illinois, Donny would begin vocal and piano training at the age of 3, his grandmother ensuring that he became an essential part of the local church’s gospel choir. He became something of a child prodigy and by his late teens his piano chops won him a prestigious scholarship to Howard University in Washington DC. Here, he would meet his future wife Eulalah Hathaway, along with future musical partner Roberta Flack.
However, Donny would ultimately never finish his degree; shortly before graduating, the music industry was already calling with offers he could not refuse… from a young age it was clear he was destined for greatness.
By the late sixties, Donny began working as a session musician, songwriter and producer for Curtis Mayfield’s label Curtom records. Here he would arrange commercial soul hits like The Beginning of My End (for The Unifics) and quickly go onto work for the likes Curtis Mayfield himself.
In 69’ he released his first single 'I Thank You Baby,' a duet with singer June Conquest. Soul strings and brass accompany a duo of emphatic vocals complementing each other in a classic soul duet style, as they chorus ‘you really got a hold me, I thank ya baby…’:
In ‘68 Donny married his wife Eulalah and they moved to Chicago, where Donny’s work for Curtom records was based. Their circle of friends included Ramsey Lewis, Maurice White (Earth, Wind & Fire), and Minnie Riperton. At home, they listened to gospel, classical, and jazz, and wrote countless commercial jingles together. Donny himself was reportedly influenced by soul legends such as James Brown, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, along with Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin amongst a host of other musical greats.
In late 1969, Donny would sign to Atco records (then a division of Atlantic records) after being spotted by King Curtis at a trade convention. He soon released his first single of commercial and critical acclaim, The Ghetto, Co-written by Leroy Hutson, (soon to be lead singer of the Impressions).
The track features Hathaway playing a Wurlitzer electric piano and singing chants, ad libbing over lengthy, jazzy instrumentals underpinned by the distinctively Afro-Cuban beat of Congas. His wife Eulalah Hathway accompanies him on backing vocals. Opening with a deep bassline on the piano, it sweeps into Hathaway's first falsetto, before soul claps and fragments of speech kick in: “Leave her alone, man,” someone says. Someone else says, “Pass the joint.”, as the groove builds.
With a patiently soulful intensity, the song vividly denies the two-dimensional image of the poverty-stricken inner city that was pushed by American academics in the wake of urban riots in the sixties. Instead, it hints that the ghetto was not at all what they told you, but rather a place of intricate emotion, unsung truths and unwritten rules. More representative of humanity than any million dollar mansion or penthouse high-rise could ever be...
Donny’s critically acclaimed debut LP, Everything is Everything (July, 1970) was a nine track album was the start of Donny's legacy and included other socially conscious tracks like 'Tryin Times’ and a lilting rendition of Nina Simone’s 'To Be Young, Black and Gifted'...
His eponymous second studio album, Donny Hathaway (1971) consisted mainly of covers of contemporary pop, gospel, soul and jazz tunes. It features Donny’s take on Leon Russell’s 'A Song For You,' which is a prime example of a cover which goes so far as to surpass the original recording.
While studying at Howard University, Donny came into contact with Roberta Flack. She would become a lifelong collaborator. Flack wrote in an email
“Donny was a tremendous talent…not only a singer, but an arranger, composer, conductor and teacher. His vocal quality was complex. In the studio, Donny and I had an artistic pairing unlike any other for me, before or since.”
The third studio album from Donny saw the two record a number of duets, including the hits 'You’ve got a friend' and ‘Where is the Love.’
Roberta Flack would go on to have her own highly successful solo career, releasing a number of hits albums including her undeniable classic FIRST TAKE, featuring 'Compared To What,' 'The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face', 'Killing Me Softly.' and a rendition of Donny's Hathaway's Trying Times.
Hathaway’s most influential recording was the ‘72 album Live, which was recorded at two concerts: side one at the Troubadour in Hollywood and side two at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. It includes personal favourite 'Little Ghetto Boy,' a searing exploration of a young man growing up surrounded by the dark side of the ghetto and the difficult choices he faces. Also featured is the beautiful 'You’ve got a Friend’ along with covers of the classic Marvin Gaye song ‘What’s going on' and John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy'. Check out this chilling and powerful rendition of 'We're Still Friends'...
Throughout his life Donny suffered with severe bouts of depression and melancholia, it eventually became clear that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Strong daily doses of medication were used in attempts to control his mental illness, however by the seventies his mental instability was wreaking havoc upon his personal life and repeatedly saw him hospitalised.
The effects of this would drive a wedge between Donny and Roberta Flack’s friendship and musical partnership and they would not reconcile until just before Donny’s death. His final studio album, Extension of a Man (1973) explored an eclectic range of styles, extending beyond his soul and gospel roots to include elements of Latin jazz, disco and honky-tonk.
It included the classics 'Love, Love, Love' and 'Someday We'll All Be Free.' The extended symphonic styled instrumental piece 'I love the Lord, He heard my Cry‘ briefly explores Donny’s classical influences.
An incredible final album from the maestro.
On January 13th 1979, fellow musicians reported that Donny was behaving irrationally and acting extremely paranoid causing recording to be cancelled for the day. Hours later, Donny Hathaway was tragically found dead on the sidewalk, below the window of his 15th story room at a hotel in New York City. His death was ruled a suicide. Despite his repeated omission by musical historians, Donny deserves a place among the fallen greats, Joplin, Hendrix, Redding and much later his own spiritual student, Amy Winehouse.
A retrospective book from Bloomsbury (Donny Hathaway Live, by Emily J Lordi) offers a unique insight into his life and work:
“This is the image of someone with a deep well of almost ancestral feeling; someone deeply vulnerable to love, struggle and musical beauty; someone who trusted himself as a musician; and someone who can seem, in retrospect, to have sensed that he wouldn't have much time to do his best work with and for his fans.”
Donny Hathaway was driven by a kind of desire for musical freedom that allowed him to fuse his ideas and emotional perception in the lived moment, mesmerising live audiences and thus making each performance a new act of artistic creation in itself, explore the intricacies of human nature.
“When I think of music, I think of music in its totality, complete. From the lowest blues to the highest symphony, you know…” - Donny Hathaway
- PSYCHIC GARDEN