Though his recording career was quite brief, Donny Hathaway has continued to be one of the most influential soul artists of the last half century. The longevity of and increase in his popularity is due in large part to the rare combination of gifts he possessed: He was a talented songwriter with the ability to write songs that provided, in a secular format, the depth of the most heartfelt Gospel music; and he was a remarkable song stylist who defined (or redefined) nearly every song he touched. His death by an apparent suicide was news in 1979, but it has loomed ever larger since then, and one wonders whether his already strong influence on R&B would have been truly singular if he had lived through the entirety of his creative cycle.
Raised in St. Louis and reared in the church, Hathaway was a child prodigy, singing and playing piano at a very young age, and achieving notoriety as "America's youngest Gospel singer" at age four. By the time he attended Howard University, he was already a seasoned musician, and immediately became a celebrity on a campus filled with budding musical stars -- including his future singing partner, Roberta Flack. After leaving school, he developed into a sought-after keyboardist and songwriter, ultimately settling in Chicago and working at Curtis Mayfield's Curtom Records, as well as performing with the Ric Powell trio. Also around this time, he and his wife Eulaulah had their first daughter, Lalah, who would ultimately be one of the great female Soul/Jazz singers of the 90s and 00s.
Hathaway penned two songs for Flack's debut album and shopped another composition, "The Ghetto," trying to obtain a record deal. Atlantic Records honcho Jerry Wexler, fresh off of working with Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, knew he had found what he called the "third genius" for the label.
Hathaway's first recording session for Atlantic became legendary within the company, and resulted in the 1970 debut album, Everything Is Everything. It was the world's first exposure to the plaintive, emotional, velvety singing style that would make Hathaway one of the most revered soul singers ever. "The Ghetto" was his coming out hit, and his version of Nina Simone's "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" became an instant, chilling classic. The album was a modest commercial success, but it established him among his peers as a musical force to watch.
Hathaway followed Everything the next year with an eponymous album of cover songs that highlighted his uncanny song selection skills and his formidable ability as an musical interpreter. While not as essential as his debut, it includes very nice covers of Leon Russell's "A Song For You" and Van McCoy's "Giving Up."
In 1972, Hathaway teamed with Roberta Flack for an album of duets that would be the most popular album either would record, and the first major crossover work of his career. It was another wonderful combination of new compositions and definitive covers, and the blending of the two voices was magical. Their version of James Taylor's "You've Got A Friend" was a smash, only to be surpassed by the follow-up, the stylish "Where Is The Love," one of the year's biggest soul songs. Arguably the album's highlight, though, was Hathaway's solo cover of the standard, "For All We Know," maybe the most beautiful ballad he ever recorded and certainly the most memorable version of that great song. Later that year, Hathaway released an excellent live album, a disc the importance of which - like Hathaway - has grown over time.
By 1973, Hathaway was battling depression, but he nonetheless released the powerful Extensions of a Man, an appropriately titled album that showed Hathaway extending himself in many directions, most well beyond the pop/soul format that many of the listeners of his duets with Flack expected. It included many fine cuts, none better than his seminal piece, "Someday We'll All Be Free," an expressive, hopeful ballad that has become one of the most important Soul songs of all time. It was covered by Alicia Keys in the famous 9/11 concert special.
Unfortunately, mental illness robbed Hathaway of the next four years, as he spent time in and out of hospitals and self-imposed seclusion. He would never record another full album. Hathaway reunited with Flack in 1978 to record the great Mtume/Lucas composition, "The Closer I Get To You," which became another chart topper for the duo. They had begun working on a second full album of duets at the time of Hathaway's tragic death; he fell to his death from a New York hotel room in 1979. Roberta Flack released the two finished cuts as part of her 1980 album Roberta Flack featuring Donnie Hathaway.
For an artist who only recorded three solo studio albums, Hathaway left an incredible mark on soul music. Another generation of soul artists, from India.Arie to Frank McComb to Alicia Keys to Kenny Lattimore, consistently list Hathaway as among their principal musical influences, and his imprint on their music is clear. He was a perceptive and powerful songwriter and clearly one of the greatest Soul voices ever. Any one of his albums is worth obtaining. For newer fans, his posthumous compilation release, A Donny Hathaway Collection, is a wonderful overview of his best music.
by Chris Rizik