Donny Hathaway: If Not the Best, He’s In the Conversation.

A brilliant artist waiting for his renaissance.

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.

Where is the love? Right here with Roberta and Donny.

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.

The Rolling Stone Misguided Guide to the Greatest Guitarists

The 70th Best Guitarist in action.

All “best of” lists are subjective and only based upon someone’s opinion.  ALL of them. Yours, mine and certainly any put together by the pointy-head critics at Rolling Stone.   I  read through their choice for the 100 Greatest Guitarists and when I finished wanted to open a window to let out the smell of bullshit. 

This is Rolling Stone’s Top Ten Guitarists:

  1. Jimi Hendrix
  2. Duane Allman
  3. B.B. King
  4. Eric Clapton
  5. Robert Johnson
  6. Chuck Berry
  7. Stevie Ray Vaughn
  8. Ry Cooder
  9. Jimmy Page
  10. Keith Richards

 Not a bad list, but there are some questionable inclusions. We could have an all day argument about who shouldn’t be anywhere near the list of the 10 greatest guitarists, but for my money, I’d kick Keith Richards, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Ry Cooder and B.B.King right to the curb.  No disrespect intended and without question Richards has played on some of the greatest rock songs of all time as part of the Rolling Stones, but I don’t find him a particularly imaginative or innovative guitarist.  Stevie Ray had a great sound, but if you’ve got Hendrix at the top, you don’t need a Hendrix soundalike six places behind.  

I know Ry Cooder by reputation.  I don’t know a thing about his music, so I’ll kick him down the list based upon my ignorance.  The same goes for B.B. King.  Maybe he’s good, but third best good?   Not for me.    

The most conspicuous absence in the Top 10 is a guy whom should be somewhere in the thick of it or just hovering outside of it in the Top Twenty, and that’s Eddie Van Halen.   Van Halen probably earns demerits due to all the lead singer drama the band has undergone over the years,  Still, there’s a lot more teenage boys that have rocked out with air guitars trying to shred like Eddie on “Eruption.”  Yet, not only is Van Halen nowhere near the Top Twenty, he’s banished to the nether regions as Rolling Stone named him #70th on their list.  .

"I'm right on your ass, Eddie."

 There aren’t 70 guitarists better than Eddie Van Halen in the whole world, but according to the dopes at RS he’s just barely ahead of Joni Mitchell (#72) and behind Zoot Horn Rollo (#62) from Captain Beefheart. 

Zoot Horn Rollo? 

Mr. Rollo might be a very nice man and even play some mean guitar, but I can guarantee he hasn’t inspired rocked nearly as many teenagers as Mr. Van Halen to pick up a beat-up six-string and learn how to play it.

Here’s some of the other guitar slingers Fast Eddie is looking up at.  Jerry Miller (#68) of Moby Grape (and if you can name two Moby Grape songs you have me at a disadvantage),  Lou Reed (#52),  Jack White (#17), ?Johnny Ramone (#16),  Dave Evans a.k.a. The Edge (#24) of rock’s most overrated band, U2, and Kurt Cobain at #12 who is both overrated and dead. 

Here’s a cute trick RS likes playing with their list.  They name a few bands featuring dual guitarists and include both of them, but the funny thing is they come from bands that are darlings of music critics. This explains how Ed O’Brien (#59) and Jonny Greenwood (#60) of Radiohead and Lee Ranaldo (#33) and Thurston Moore (#34) of Sonic Youth make the cut, while Aerosmith’s Joe Perry (#48) gets a bone thrown to him and poor Brad Whitford isn’t even mentioned.

Of course there are plenty of guitar slingers who are shut out.  Among the unworthy are Ted Nugent, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Slash, Alex Liefson of Rush, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibson, Lindsey Buckingham, Robin Trower, Mick Taylor, Alvin Lee, Todd Rundgren, Nile Rodgers and Prince.  Angus Young of AC/DC barely squeaked in at an anemic #96. 

Only two women make RS’s list, Joni Mitchell and Joan Jett (#87) .  Apparently formidable slide guitar skills weren’t enough for Bonnie Raitt to qualify. 

Only one jazz guitarist was selected and that is former Miles Davis sideman,  John McLaughlin (#49).   Where are George Benson,  Al Di Meola, Mike Stern, John Scofeld,  Jonathan Butler, Stanley Jordan, Pat Metheny, Allan Holdsworth, Larry Carlton or Wes Montgomery?  Sucking hind tit behind Kim Thayil of Soundgarden (#100) and Greg Ginn (#99) of Black Flag. 

The nicest surprise on Rolling Stone list was the inclusion of Funkadelic guitar wizard, Eddie Hazel (#43).  Hazel on his good days could coax sounds out of his axe that would make better-known shredders whip their head around in awe and wonder.

Like I said, all lists are subjective and if I took 20 guitarists off of Rolling Stone’s list (and I could without thinking twice about it) to replace them with 20 guitarists I believed were more deserving  it would still only make me happy and piss off everybody else.  

  1.  Jimi Hendrix
  2. Eric Clapton
  3. Jimmy Page
  4. Eddie Van Halen
  5. Jeff Beck
  6. Wes Montgomery
  7. Carlos Santana
  8. Duane Allman
  9. Kirk Hammett
  10. Al Di Meola

That’s my list and I like it just as much as the critics at Rolling Stone likes theirs.  Is it a better list?   Well it’s better as far as I’m concerned but really it’s only different.

Which brings us right back to where we started about lists and opinions and how subjective they are.   

Still dead. Still better than anyone alive.