There are a handful of records that I can instantly recall my first time hearing. Where, when, with who…the specific details are all there. Donny Hathaway Live is one of those records. I was out of college and a British co-worker (of all things!) put it on. He told me how great it was, and we pretty much stopped working and just listened. There’s a good shot I went by Tower Records on my way home and picked up a copy that very night. What was it about this record that stopped my in my tracks 30 years ago, and what keeps it in such heavy rotation today?
Emily J. Lordi offers some answers to many of those questions in her entry in the 33 1/3 Series for Donny Hathaway Live. Lordi also serves up a mini-biography of Hathaway, that is — astonishingly — the only such book (at least that I have found) on the man and musician.
Hathaway’s musical journey began in the church, and he would be guided into the gospel circuit at FOUR years of age. That training would inform his work for the rest of his life. He earned a scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C., and, eventually, play out in the supper clubs of the city. Before graduating college, Curtis Mayfield would offer him a job as producer and A&R man of Mayfield’s CurTom label. Hathaway took the offer, and moved to Chicago.
Soon, of course, Hathaway would be on his way, and it’s the musical bits of Lordi’s book that I really dug into. She explains many musical techniques employed by Hathaway, both in his singing and playing and it helped explain what was so unique in Donny Hathaway’s music. She breaks down his 1970 album Everything Is Everything, 1971’s Donny Hathaway, and the duet album with Roberta Flack that followed and was a massive success. Songs from each of those records would appear on the upcoming Live album.
Since Live was my first exposure to Hathaway, it was the cover songs that really impacted me. The opening track of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” — a song that up until that point I might have argued should NEVER be covered — is simply mind-blowing, and perhaps bests the original. Likewise, as Lordi writes, John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” is a “brilliantly recasting” and “exposes the central irony” of the song. But it is his brilliant performance, with ample help from the audience, of Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” that is the centerpiece of the performance. The women in audience respond with the first two or three notes, and after completing the first verse , Hathaway lays out and lets the audience take the chorus over. It is pure communion and absolutely joyous. One of my favorite musical moments ever. Take me to church, indeed. Lordi offers some great insight into Hathaway and the relationship with this fans, particularly the women.
Lordi also spends a good bit talking about the venues (each side of the record is different) and the production. All of it is excellent reading, but the most interesting part of the book is where the author talks about Hathaway’s aforementioned skill interpreting other people’s work. Hathaway was an excellent songwriter, and a collaborator at heart, but it is the interpretations of work by Leon Russell, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, The Beatles, and others that confirm what an extraordinary and unique talent he was.
It’s impossible to talk about Donny Hathaway without addressing a life cut way too short. At the peak of his career, Hathaway was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. At 33 years old, Hathaway apparently committed suicide by jumping from his 15th floor room at New York City’s Essex House hotel; the safety glass had been removed, and his door was locked from the inside. There have long been rumors, conspiracy theories and doubt surrounding his death. Lordi touches some of those theories; a fall while being “neglected,” or from leaning too far out a window, singing as he sometimes did. Ultimately, she advances a very interesting notion that maybe he took his own life to spiritually “fly home” before his music was stolen from him, by the record label (as he believed) or perhaps his illness Whatever the case, it’s a tragic, lonely end to a man who had a unique gift to bring people together in song. Donny Hathaway Live is a singularly great record and if it’s on your favorites list (and it should be), Emily Lordi’s book should be right there too.
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