DONNY HATHAWAY SHOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN IN the studio that rain-lashed January afternoon. But, buoyed by a recent Grammy nomination for The Closer I Get To You, his 1978 hit duet with Roberta Flack, he had been discharged from the New York hospital where he was being treated for symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia to begin sessions on a follow-up album with Flack. Initially, all was going to plan. Hathaway and Flack had put down the finishing touches to You Are My Heaven, an uplifting sophistifunk piece composed by their friend Stevie Wonder and producer Eric Mercury. Their performance was intense, powerful and brimmed with possibility, recapturing the sense of rapture and devotion the pair had conjured on their exquisite 1972 smash, Where Is The Love. However, as they prepared for their next vocal take, Hathaway became agitated, distressed. He told the arranger James Mtume that he heard voices in his head. White people were trying to kill him and have his brain hooked to a machine to steal his music and his sound. He began to scream, then to sob. The session was halted. That evening he went to Flack’s house for dinner. By now he was calm again and sat at her piano to play a new song. They ate cornbread Flack had baked, and afterwards Flack drove him to the Essex House hotel on 160 Central Park South where he was staying. With Sunday their planned day off, they arranged to meet back in the studio on Monday. But as Flack slept a call came into the Midtown North police department in New York City. A man had jumped to his death from a 15th floor window of Essex House. Donny Hathaway, aged 33, had taken his own life. “The ripples were felt throughout the music industry,” the producer and Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler told me in 2005. “Everyone was rocked to the core when it was announced. No one could quite believe he was gone. A little bit of soul music died that day.” Forty years later, a part of Donny Hathaway survives – the part that inspired Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Amy Winehouse and Donny’s daughter, Lalah Hathaway. The part that echoes in recordings of a voice charged with vulnerability, sensuality and honesty. The part we hear in songs that fuse blues, jazz, gospel and classical music, vibrant with a social conscience taken up by ’70s soul stars, ’90s rap heroes and beyond.
DONNY EDWARD HATHAWAY WAS BORN IN CHICAGO to home-maker Drusella Huntley and serviceman Hosea Brown on October 1, 1945. When his parents split up, he was just three and went to live with his grandmother, the gospel singer and guitarist Martha Crumwell-Pitts, in St Louis, Missouri’s Carr Square housing project. She had a piano and that year he began lessons after telling her he could hear music in his head that he could not play. He also sang his first solo, How Much I Owe Love Divine, at his local Trinity Baptist Church. “He was just squirming in his seat,” his mother told Ebony magazine in 1979. “He just wouldn’t sit still. I asked him what was wrong and he said, ‘I want to go up there and sing with grandma.’ I said, Go ahead. That was the beginning.” The following year with his grandmother, he performed around the American Midwest as Little Donnie Pitts, the nation’s youngest gospel singer, wearing a sailor suit and playing ukulele. From then until high school graduation, life was strict. Church, school, piano – at which he excelled, playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto in a note-perfect performance
in his senior year. “He would play so intensely that perspiration would come streaming down his face,” recalled his mother. In 1963 Hathaway won a scholarship to study fine arts at Washington’s Howard University, where he roomed with singer Leroy Hutson, later of The Impressions. Hutson played him Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Motown. At the same time, Washington DC provided its own musical education. “Jazz groups gravitated there,” said Ramsey Lewis, whose jazz trio recorded their 1965 The In Crowd album live at DC’s Bohemian Caverns. “Sold out audiences going wild for you. They’d be shouting, whooping, cheering, whistling from the moment you hit the stage. We’d be on one week, the following week the Duke [Ellington] would be playing, the one after that Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff…” Hathaway was soon following Lewis’s lead, joining classmate and drummer Ric Powell’s trio, playing piano and singing in supper clubs and cocktail lounges. Hathaway started going out with Eulaulah Donyll, a classical voice student a year above him at Howard. When she graduated, they married, he dropped out and in 1968 they moved back to Chicago where he got a job at Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label. His new boss was immediately impressed. “You could just talk to him over the phone and play him a piece of music, and he could call out every chord and every movement and where the fifth was and the augmented and tell you what key it was in,” said Mayfield. Hathaway became The Impressions’ live musical director and arranged their 1969 album The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story. That year he also made his recording debut. When LC Cook, Sam Cooke’s brother, failed to show up to record I Thank You Baby, a duet with June Conquest, Hathaway took his place. Billed as June & Donnie, their joyous string-laden ballad made the US R&B Top 50.
TWO MILES SOUTH OF CURTOM, at Chess Records, Hathaway was also getting noticed as an in-house musician. Chess songwriter and producer Sid Barnes remembers him as “shy, quiet, dedicated to family and religion.” Their relationship extended beyond business. Barnes hung out at Donny’s house, “playing with his kids, chatting with his wife. I even went with them to church one Sunday so I got to hear him play.” Hathaway was one of a group, including Charles Stepney, George Clinton, Minnie Riperton, Chaka Khan and Maurice White, who gathered at Barnes’s high-rise near Chicago’s art district, under the banner of the Sidney Barnes Workshop. It was something of a soul salon: “Donny and his friend Ric Powell spent hours sitting and talking about music, record companies, our goals, our plans,” recalls Barnes. Unlike Mayfield, who wanted to sign him as a soloist under Mayfield’s direction – Hathaway wanted creative control – Chess’s owners were reluctant to put him centre-stage at all, preferring to reap the benefit of his backroom knowledge. “That bothered Donny,” says Barnes. “He felt he had what it took to be taken serious, and he did.” Yet as much as Hathaway sought the limelight, it troubled him. “In the space of about two years I had come from being simply a gospel singer and musician into all of this,” he’d tell John Abbey. “I was feeling confused, tired and somewhat bewildered.” Barnes saw the tension from the start: “Donny was super talented but he was not a great looking
stud-type guy and he was overweight. He suffered with a lot of self doubt and I spent a lot of time reassuring him, telling him he just needed that one song to get him noticed.” That song turned out to be The Ghetto. Almost seven minutes long, its saturnalia of inner city life mixed elements of blues and jazz with post-civil rights era consciousness and the spirituality of the black church. It presaged the shift in soul music that would come the following year with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. “Donny came along and made us feel proud of where we came from,” says Dyana Williams, the black American broadcaster. “He glamorised the ghetto, made it sexy and fun. He was a soul brother, with his ’fro and applejack cap, and gave us a sense of belonging, of validation.” When Barnes heard it, he was overwhelmed. “Donny brought the finished recording to my place and we cried together. It was such a moment hearing it finished.” Issued on Atlantic’s Atco, after label boss Jerry Wexler was tipped off to Hathaway by sax player King Curtis, The Ghetto hit Number 23 in the US R&B chart and Donny began a three-year run of unprecedented creativity. His three solo albums – 1970’s Everything Is Everything, 1971’s Donny Hathaway and 1973’s Extension Of A Man – foregrounded black community and culture, peaking with Extension…’s Someday We’ll All Be Free – a prophecy of emancipation both political and spiritual. “Keep your self respect – your manly pride,” sings Hathaway, borne on a luxuriant blanket of fluttering keys, horns and strings. As the song’s lyricist, Ed Howard, would later note, it was a plea addressed in part to the singer himself. “What was going through my mind at the time was Donny, because Donny was a very troubled person,” said Howard. “I hoped that at some point he would be released from all that he was going through. There was nothing I could do but write something that might be encouraging for him.” When he first heard the playback of the track, Donny wept.
WHILE HATHAWAY’S MENTAL HEALTH was already creaking, his gifts were unimpeachable. At a time when soul music was achieving unforeseen levels of sophistication, he was the full package: a rich and dramatic vocalist who could arrange for a 40-piece orchestra. “When I think of music,” he said, “I think of music in totality: complete. What I’d like to do is to exemplify each style of as many periods as I can possibly do, from the lowest blues to the highest symphony.” “Donny’s musical mind was complex,” wrote Jerry Wexler in his 1993 autobiography. “He studied Les Six, the French modern masters… all of whom adored Erik Satie. Donny could play Satie; he could play anything… He was different from many of his pop composer colleagues. His constructions were never simplistic but were based on complex jazz chords.” “He was incredible,” says sessioneer Bobby Lewis, who played trombone on Everything Is Everything. “He only had to hear something once and he could sit at the piano and play it perfectly. We were in awe. In the studio, he gave us his charts. There was no deviation, we played it as he had written it, those punctuated horn lines. I’d never heard anything like that before. He could hear things and envisage things others couldn’t.” “What he wrote was always perfect,” reiterates
The fateful Essex House hotel, New York City; debut album Everything Is Everything, 1970; Donny’s 1972 hit duet LP with Robert Flack.