Mojo (UK) - - Presents -

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.

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