The first time I heard Donny Hathaway and knew who I was hearing, I was 18 years old. It was 1993, and I was crate digging in an old jazz record store on Chicago’s Gold Coast, one no longer in residence. The song the store played overhead was “For All We Know” and I, transfixed from the moment it came on, was brought to tears. I immediately purchased every Hathaway album I could get my hands on, all three solo studio albums, two duet albums, and the then only live recording available, and would quickly learn that I knew much of his work as a child coming up, but hadn’t known the man by name. “This Christmas,” “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” “A Song For You,” “Where Is The Love,” “Back Together Again,” “You Are My Heaven” and “I (Who Have Nothing)” – the last four duets with Roberta Flack, for whom Hathaway’s voice will be forever linked, urban and oldies station gold that overshadowed much of his solo output.
The first time I heard Donny Hathaway and knew who I was hearing, I was 18 years old. It was 1993, and I was crate digging in an old jazz record store on Chicago’s Gold Coast, one no longer in residence. The song the store played overhead was “For All We Know” and I, transfixed from the moment it came on, was brought to tears. I immediately purchased every Hathaway album I could get my hands on, all three solo studio albums, two duet albums, and the then only live recording available, and would quickly learn that I knew much of his work as a child coming up, but hadn’t known the man by name. “This Christmas,” “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” “A Song For You,” “Where Is The Love,” “Back Together Again,” “You Are My Heaven” and “I (Who Have Nothing)” – the last four duets with Roberta Flack, for whom Hathaway’s voice will be forever linked, urban and oldies station gold that overshadowed much of his solo output. My parents had played Donny Hathaway In Performance so much that it simply became background noise in my childhood, but a hunger once I’d matured and reminisced on its sounds. I loved Donny Hathaway before I knew I loved him. Many of us Generation Xers did, those of us too young to know Hathaway as he was revealing his gifts to the world before he tragically committed suicide in 1979 at the transformative age of 33. In the decades since, Hathaway’s memory and legacy, like that old Chicago record store, still enduring in spirit, if not in body.
New material has been hinted at by Rhino Records since those crate-digging years, with only the occasional drop of available vault work and rare finds. The “Come Back Charleston Blue” duet long only available on a Quincy Jones box set, then finally released as part of the original soundtrack that birthed it. The bonus track of the teasing, but unsatisfying “The Dream” on a Hathaway album reissue, another morsel that hinted at what was behind those mythical “vaults.” The 2004 full release of the Donny Hathaway These Songs For You LIVE import, with its previously unreleased covers of The Beatles’ “Yesterday,” Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” and Bobby Scott and Bob Russell’s “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” (none of which are on this box set from those particular recordings). The three demos of the unreleased “No Other One But You, “The Essence of Destiny” and “Make It On Your Own” on the imported Someday We’ll All Be Free box set in 2010. Nothing however has come close to the bounty of unreleased Atlantic Records material as the four-disc Never My Love: The Anthology, with its extensive liner notes from music journalist Charles Waring and quoted interviews from Roberta Flack, Leroy Hutson, Arif Mardin and Jerry Wexler.
Of course, there are the requisite greatest hits packaged here from the three solo studio recordings and two duet albums: Everything Is Everything, Donny Hathaway, Extensions of A Man, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, and Roberta Flack featuring Donny Hathaway. These are largely the “singles version” of material not heard in this form since their original 45s. But the real treasure trove is the rarities and unreleased. The super early, almost pre-Donny Hathaway exuberantly retro singles of Donnie & June (Conquest), “Just Another Reason” and “I Thank You Baby” are spritely present, unseen since the late ‘60s. So is the wistful Margie Joseph duet of “Come Back Charleston Blue” from Hathaway’s lone film score for the movie of the same name. Also present is an entire concert recording, Live at The Bitter End, from which only a few tracks have been made previously available. Despite their perfections, they are generally more performances of songs already available from the three prior Donny Hathaway live recordings, including Live, In Performance, and These Songs For You LIVE. The lone exception might be the original song, “Hey Girl,” from Hathaway's Bitter End show, which has heretofore gone unheard, and everything unheard is what makes this worth the price of its hefty $50 ticket.
With “Hey Girl,” there are 14 completely unreleased tracks available, 13 of which are studio recordings. Here might be a good time to say that Lalah Hathaway, a celebrated vocalist in her own right and daughter of Donny Hathaway, has publicly come out on social media against the release of these songs, essentially saying they are likely unfinished and the family was not rightly consulted by the label on these releases prior to this once-in-a-lifetime packaging. To listen to them with an objective ear, rather than that of a love-starved fan of the Hathaway canon, one must grudgingly agree in most instances that Ms. Hathaway is on to something here. That is not to say that there is not an embarrassment of riches here for the completist seeking to own all things Hathaway; there is. But they all don’t meet the level established by those songs that did get Hathaway’s final stamp for public consumption. On haunting instrumentals like “The Sands of Time and Changes” and “Zyxygy Concerto,” one can’t help but feel there are elements missing, instruments yet recorded, arrangement tweaks unmade, that little something extra that made Hathaway one of the most enduring composers, arrangers, and vocal interpreters of his generation.
There are exceptions to these sentiments, as with the languid title track of this anthology, “Never My Love,” which is why the piano ballad is currently getting the most Internet radio airplay and podcast adds. In terms of effectiveness, right on its heels is “Memory of Our Love,” which in its matter-of-fact honesty and pitch perfect drum and guitar work broaches the timelessness of the venerable tunes that have earned Hathaway his legend. With a more plaintive guitar and subdued drums, the atmospheric “Sunshine Over Showers” is Hathaway at his purest and most straight-ahead, if prolonged. But even here there are hints of more personality (especially at the unexpected uptick in tempo at the bridge) that left a similarly spare rarity, “The Dream,” a limp affair by comparison. There’s also the energetic Motown backbeat of “Always The Same” which undeniably works as a B-side, but there is the sense that this is a reference track for a future retake or post-production work. The percussion and horn driven go-go of “Don’t Turn Away” reads of Stevie Wonder (who completely emulated Hathaway from Talking Book on) during his latter Ivy Hunter co-collaboration days, which couldn’t be different from the time leap made from Motown soul pop to Van McCoy disco on “After The Dance Is Done,” whose tempo feels a tad faster than needed to fully appreciate what is an otherwise pleasing melody line. For a cut that would’ve fit the swinging gospel blues of Everything is Everything, “Let’s Groove” would’ve been right at home, but after the first chorus one gets the suspicion that it too was not fully fulfilling its promise, but rather in the middle of Hathaway’s genius process before being abandoned. Still, you’ll be hard pressed to find more rollicking and assured key work. Yet another genre jump, fully equipped with a regional twang, comes in a bit of ol’ time country with a rather ironic name, “A Lot Of Soul”; it's a well-done oddity in the Hathaway canon that offers further example of his range and musical interests.
About half of the unreleased cuts are instrumentals that, like the vocal performances, are of their era, pioneers in fusion and pre-cursors to the smooth jazz era to come. Each is admittedly workmanlike in comparison to “Valdez in the Country” or “The Ghetto,” but has its own personality and value. Which is to say in their joys and disappointments, they are like the heretofore unreleased vocal cuts.
Whether some of these songs should have been released to the public as is, without further tweaking from maybe Lalah Hathaway or some of today’s younger, more trust-worthy producers, is up for debate. Obviously, anything newly heard from a talent like Donny Hathaway is something precious to be treasured, but placed against the songs that could cause an 18 year-old city kid to openly weep in a record store, they don’t quite touch the soul. And at his very best, Donny Hathaway could do nothing less. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson