Have you ever woke up in a mood where you knew before the day was done you had to hear a particular singer and no substitutes would do?
I woke up today wanting to hear some Donny Hathaway.
Donny Hathaway is perhaps one of the greatest singers most people know nothing about. He ranks right up there with his contemporaries of the time, Marvin Gaye, Al Green and even Stevie Wonder, but due to his short recording career and tragic death, he has been largely ignored and undiscovered by the public.
If they’re cruising down the radio dial, maybe they’ll stumble past “The Closer I Get To You” or “Where Is the Love,” two of his duets with Roberta Flack. During the holidays they may even be strolling through one of the hipper malls and Hathaway’s classic, “This Christmas” is being piped through the sound system. They may even know Donny’s daughter, Lalah Hathaway has enjoyed some success as a vocalist. Unfortunately, for far too many that’s where their knowledge of Hathaway ends.
When my father brought Everything Is Everything home and started playing it, Hathaway’s voice grabbed me first and then how brilliantly a song like “The Ghetto” took me along with him on a trip through some pretty mean streets. “The Ghetto” should be the flip side of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” Both capture the frustrations and to a lesser extent, the pleasures of life on the edges of polite society.
Hathaway was both blessed and cursed. Blessed with a rich and expressive voice that poured out deep, heartfelt, soulful sentiments that could deliver soul, blues or gospel. Hathaway was a gifted songwriter and pianist as well. The curse was he suffered from depression and debilitating mental illness that required hospitalization. This is in part why Hathaway’s discography is limited to three studio albums and a pair of live recordings. The best starting point for anyone curious about this immensely talented, but troubled artist is the 1990 compilation, A Donny Hathaway Collection from Atlantic Records.
I have serious problems with this compilation, but it’s a good enough starting point before diving into Hathaway’s solo recordings. I agree with All Music Guide that Everything Is Everything and Extensions of A Man are his best work. The go-to place for his duets with Roberta Flack is The Very Best of Roberta Flack, but after 22 years, Hathaway is long overdue for a better anthology of his music. There is a four-disc import from France, Someday We’ll Be Free, that is pretty exhaustive, but is still missing the music from his collaboration with Quincy Jones for the movie soundtrack, Come Back, Charleston Blue. It’s probably as good as it gets for the committed collector like me, but it’s far too much for the casual listener. Time for someone at Atlantic to step up their game and put together a better introduction to the greatness of Donny Hathaway.
In 1979, Hathaway either fell or jumped to his death from a hotel room in New York. He was in the process of recording a new album with Flack. The two completed songs ended up on her 1980 record, Roberta Flack featuring Donny Hathaway. He was 33 years old. That’s a lot of potential lost far too early.
Mental illness has destroyed its share of troubled souls in music. Hathaway and the late Phyllis Hyman, who ended her life at 45 with a drug overdose. Talent and acclaim were not enough to pull them out of their downward spiral. The same could be said for the late Amy Winehouse, who gave Hathaway a shout out in her breakthrough hit, “Rehab.”
They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no, no, no
Yes I’ve been black and when I come back, you’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time
And if my daddy thinks I’m fine
Just try to make me go to rehab I won’t go, go, go
I’d rather be at home with Ray
I ain’t got seventy days
Cos there’s nothing,there’s nothing you can teach me
That I can’t learn from Mr Hathaway
All lists are by nature, purely subjective and subject to be rejected by the reader, but Rolling Stone ranked Hathaway at #49 on their list of the 100 Greatest Singers. I can’t argue too strenosuly when I’m glad Hathaway was remembered at all. The rock n’ roll magazine said of Hathaway, Donny Hathaway died in 1979, but his warm, suave soul has never been more influential. He’s been name-checked in songs by Amy Winehouse, Nas, Common and Fall Out Boy (the new “What a Catch, Donnie”), and Justin Timberlake calls “(Another Song) All Over Again,” from FutureSex/LoveSounds, “my homage to Donny Hathaway.” It’s easy to hear why Hathaway still appeals to modern-pop and neo-soul singers alike. He was equally comfortable with smooth ballads (“The Closer I Get to You”) and rolling funk (“The Ghetto”). He was a master of melisma (while never overdoing it), and his smoky voice wrapped superbly around his female duet partners, most notably Roberta Flack. No wonder Timberlake calls him “the best singer of all time.”
I won’t go as far as Justin Timberlake and declare Donny Hathaway the best singer of all time, but he’s certainly in the conversation of who the best singer is.