Donny Hathaway led a tough life. Born in Chicago, but raised in a housing project in St. Louis by his grandmother he struggled until he found music. He began singing in the Sunday gospel choir with his grandmother and later received a fine arts scholarship to study music at Howard University. It was there that he struck up a friendship and future partnership with Roberta Flack. When the offers started rolling in he left school to become a songwriter and session musician.
He succeeded in getting a contract from Atco head King Curtis. When he got a little older he diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. So long as he was on his meds, he was ok, but like many with such a diagnosis he was lax on that front. After four studio albums, one soundtrack and one live album, Hathaway removed the glass from his 15th story window and jumped to his death. He was 33 years old. He left behind an undefined legacy. He could’ve been the next Stevie Wonder had his demons not gotten the best of him.
My feeling is that he is a severely underrated artist. His musicianship along with his amazing voice really stands out. Coming from that school of Blaxploitation rock like Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack, Hathaway spoke of things like living in the ghetto and the plight of the 1970’s African American that weren’t by the outrageous laws of the Jim Crow era, but still were relegated to second status among the American elite. If it weren’t for artists like Hathaway their plight could have been even worse. If you don’t think music makes a difference Hathaway would tell you how wrong you are.
It’s part of the reason that I’ve decided to jump into Donny Hathaway Live for my next installment of Liner Notes.
This album was recorded at live at two different establishments on two different coasts. One was The Troubadour in Hollywood and the other was The Bitter End in New York. Members of the band are: Donny Hathaway – vocals, electric piano, piano, organ. Phil Upchurch – lead guitar (on Side One). Cornell Dupree – lead guitar (on Side Two). Mike Howard – guitar. Willie Weeks – bass. Fred White – drums. Earl DeRouen – conga drums.
I include that because the band is very important within the context of these performances. There is a definite jam band, even jazzy feel to some of the songs. On a few songs there is even a sound reminiscent of the Doors with Hathaway’s play on the organ and electric piano being the biggest source of that feeling. Let’s get into it.
1. What’s Goin’ On (By Marvin Gaye, Alfred Cleveland & Renaldo Benson)
Hathaway leads off with this one but takes it in a different direction than Gaye does. It has a little more edge to it and almost sounds like it’s Stevie Wonder singing it. His voice is high and the music definitely has more of a jazz flair to it. He has way more runs in his voice than Marvin does and while there’s nothing like the original this is a very good cover.
2. The Ghetto (By Donny Hathaway & Leroy Hutson)
At 12 minutes and 18 seconds this Latin jazz infused classic is the first of the two jam songs. It gets a little bogged down in the rally, but still this is a killer jam. Less jazz than the other, “The Ghetto” is kind of a free for all. A soul jam that encompasses just about the entire song and leaves little room for much else than individuality.
3. Hey Girl (By Earl DeRouen)
Earl’s writing is prevalent on this record. This is a good jam, but nothing special. This one has a bossa nova style to it with a Stevie Wonder piano hook to it. Saying it’s the worst song on the record would be to imply that it is a bad song, but really it’s just not as good as the other songs on the record.
4. You’ve Got a Friend (By Carole King)
Covering this Carole King or James Taylor song is quite a coup for the young Hathaway. The best part of this song and there are many, is the crowd singing along to the chorus. This seems like an odd fit for a soul artist, but really is it? If the greatest singer of all time, Sam Cooke, can cover “Tennessee Waltz”, a borderline country song then turning a folkish song like this one into a soulful sing-a-long isn’t that much of a stretch.
1. Little Ghetto Boy (By Earl DeRouen & Edward Howard)
The first time I ever heard even a snippet of this song was when Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg (as he was known before he graduated to Lion status) sampled it for The Chronic. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that their song isn’t more powerful or at least more of a tale of what goes wrong within the streets of the ghetto. They speak to modern gang warfare while Hathaway or DeRouen moreover speak to what is killing the black youth of 1972, drugs, crime and stupidity. While it has more of a soulful feel it still gives off that vibe of “what are you thinking, young buck?” Still love this jam.
2. We’re Still Friends (Donny Hathaway & Glenn Watts)
Think of Mississippi in the summer, a hot night, a pretty woman and nothing but trouble. That’s what this song reminds me of. A soulful song that is typical of Hathaway’s style.
3. Jealous Guy (John Lennon)
A vicious song that epitomizes John Lennon and even Hathaway’s own schizophrenia. Being the shortest song on the album it is the most memorable. This is the best song on side A or B and the best version of this song. Hathaway’s range on this song is better than on any other of the songs and he totally kills it. This song is the reason you buy this record.
4. Voices Inside (Everything is Everything) (Richard Evans, Phillip Upchurch)
Just your basic 13 minute and 40 second soul jam. Yeah, that’s all. This is the second of the two jams I spoke of earlier. This one wayyyy more funky than the first with writing credits going to lead guitarist Phillip Upchurch. His steady staccato guitar work is prevalent throughout. Later to be known as the porn guitar, here it’s just keeping time like a drum. This is a great soul album, from an extremely underrated soul artist whose life was cut short by the dysfunction of his own brain. Those don’t come around too often.