DONNY HATHAWAY-DONNY HATHAWAY

DONNY HATHAWAY-DONNY HATHAWAY

After listening to Lala Hathaway’s album Where It All Begins, I thought that I’d revisit her father Donny Hathaway’s eponymous second album, Donny Hathaway. Previously, I’ve written about Donny’s stunning debut album Everything Is Everything, released in July 1970. On its release, the critically acclaimed Everything Is Everything reached number seventy-three in the US Billboard 200 and number thirty-three in the US R&B Charts. Considering the quality of music this must have been slightly disappointing for Donny. However, his next album Donny Hathaway was much more successful, when it was released.

Having released such a well received album, the pressure was on Donny to record his second album. Recorded at the Atlantic Recording Studios in New York, during 1970 and 1971, were nine songs. With Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Donny producing the album, these nine songs were mostly cover versions of soul, gospel and pop music, which Donny gave his own unique twist. With an all-star band accompanying him, that included a rhythm section of Cornell Dupree and Chuck Rainey on bass, drummer Al Jackson Jr and guitarists Phil Upchurch and Cornell Dupree and the unique sound of tenor saxophonist King Curtis gracing the album, nine tracks were soon recorded. Adding backing vocalists were two of The Sweet Inspirations Cissy Houston and Myrna Smith, while Myna Summers and a number of other backing vocalists accompanied Donny. With the album recorded, it was scheduled for release in April 1971.

April 1971 saw Donny’s second album Donny Hathaway released. With songs by Van McCoy, Leon Russell, Billy Preston and Mac Davis on the album, plus one song co-written by Donny with Nadine McKinnor, the album was well received by critics. On its release, it reached number six in the US R&B Charts and number eighty-nine in the US Billboard 200. Sales of Donny Hathaway surpassed Everything Is Everything, although it’s considered to be Donny’s finest album.

Having released what was his second critically acclaimed and commercially successful album, Donny would enter one of the busiest times of his tragically short career. In 1972, he released a trio of albums, two of which were huge commercial successes. Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway reached number three in the US Billboard 200 and number two in the US R&B Charts, while his Live album reached number fourteen in the US Billboard 200 and number four in the US R&B Charts. Both were certified gold, having sold over 500,000 copies. The only album from this trio that failed commercially, was the soundtrack album Come Back Charleston Blue, which reached number 198 in the US Billboard 200. Little did anyone know it, but after this Donny would only release one further album, before his life ended in tragedy.

The final album of Donny’s career was Extension of A Man, released in June 1973. Recording of the album had taken place between 1971 and 1973, and featured some of the most memorable music of Donny’s career, including the brilliant and powerful Someday We’ll All be free. When the album was released, it didn’t sell as well as it’s predecessor Donny Hathaway, only reaching number sixty-nine in the US Billboard 200 and number eighteen in the US R&B Charts, After this, Donny would release no new albums, only a Greatest Hits album in 1978, which reached number fifty-one in the US R&B charts. 

Sadly, tragedy struck for Donny and his family, when in January 1979. Donny became unwell during a recording session with Roberta Flack. Having become paranoid and delusional, the recording sessions were stopped and Donny sent back to his hotel. Later he committed suicide, by jumping out of the fifteenth floor of his room at New York’s Essex House Hotel. After his death, his wife Eulaulah thought that over time, Donny had gradually become less careful about taking his medication. Tragically, the problems with mental illness that caused him problems throughout his career resulted in him taking his life. That day, music lost one its most talented singers whose musical influence is still felt over thirty years after his tragic death. One ofthe three critically acclaimed albums he released during his lifetime is Donny Hathaway, is a stunning album which I’ll now tell you about.

Donny Hathaway opens with Giving Up a song written by Van McCoy, the singer, songwriter, arranger and producer, best known for his hit single The Hustle. Giving Up had originally been sung by Gladys Knight and The Pips, but Donny transforms Van’s song, with a gospel tinged rendition of the lyrics. Not only is this a beautiful song, but one that’s hugely powerful. Against a dramatic arrangement, where a piano, rasping horns, rhythm section and searing guitars combine to accompany Donny’s vocal. Quickly, the arrangement returns to a more understated, but still dramatic sound, as Donny’s voice soars emotively, with a gospel influence present in his vocal and the arrangement. Gradually, the beauty and emotion of the arrangement, reveals itself, with flourishes of piano, powerful drums, lush, shimmering, quivering strings and King Curtis’ saxophone drenching the arrangement with its sad yet, gorgeous sound. The song continues for nearly six and a half magnificent and majestic minutes, during Donny and his band deliver the definitive version of this deeply moving and powerful track.

After such an outstanding opening track, you get the feeling that Donny set the bar high by opening the album with Giving Up, and how will A Song For You Compare? The answer to that is simple, and that’s by producing a quite inspirational version of this Leon Russell penned track. With Donny’s fingers cascading down the piano, the track opens, before giving way to his gentle, thoughtful. As he sings the lyric, “we’re all alone and I’m singing this song for you,” that’s what it feels like. There’s a sense of intimacy, with just the combination of Donny and piano, and it seems like he is indeed singing the lyrics just for you. You become enthralled, before the  strings, bass and woodwind enter. They combine beautifully with Donny and the piano, the sound subtle, so much so, you can’t bear to miss a second of the track. There’s a beauty to the lyrics when Donny sings tenderly about love and his relationship and feelings, and then when sings “when my life is over”, there’s a sense of poignancy in the lyrics. Behind him, there’s mostly, a classical sound to the arrangement, but sometimes, a bluesy sound and feel. One thing that’s constant however, is the inherent beauty of both Donny’s emotive and heartfelt arrangement and the understated and thoughtful arrangement. They combine beautifully, resulting in one of the album’s highlights.

Little Girl was written by Billy Preston, who was one of a few people who worked with both The Beatles and Rolling Stones. This is a lovely slow track, with a combination of piano, wailing organ and backing vocals opening the track, before another emotional vocal from Donny enters. With the rhythm section playing slowly and carefully, there’s some clever interplay between Donny and the backing vocalists, before the song opens out. A sad sounding Donny asks why his “little girl” had to leave him, asking “where did you go.” By now, the slow arrangement builds and builds, with the emotion and sadness tangible in the song. Donny’s delivery of the lyrics is outstanding, with the emotion rising as she sings “you don’t know how it’s been without the baby.” Adding to the sense of emotion and loneliness are blazing horns, which punctuate the track. This is just the finishing touch to a song that Donny brilliantly to life, delivering thoughtfully and emotionally.

Having heard many indifferent versions of He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, it’s a welcome change to hear the song sung so beautifully. With a piano, chiming guitars and rhythm section subtly accompanying Donny, he tenderly sings the lyrics about brotherhood, with bells subtly used to augment the arrangement. They combine perfectly with the piano and later the drama laden strings. Again, Donny succeeds in bringing the lyrics to life like no other singer I’ve heard can. What is usually an overblown, middle of the road standard, is transformed into something quite beautiful, and almost spiritual. One thing that helps the song is the slow, with a mostly understated arrangement. Combined with a gentle, tender vocal from Donny the song’s transformation is complete, becoming a thoughtful, moving and quite beautiful song, that closes side one of Donny Hathaway.

Side two of Donny Hathaway opens with Booker T and The MGs drummer Al Jackson Jr providing the heartbeat to Magnificent Sanctuary Band, while Donny almost raps about the thrill and excitement of seeing a good marching band live, not on television. With handclaps, rhythm section and backing vocalists barking out 1-2-3-4, Donny remembers the excitement of seeing the marching band for the first time. Horns rasp behind him, while flourishes of piano and supremely, soulful backing vocalists accompany Donny’s sweet vocal. Although very different from the other tracks on the album, this is a really uplifting, joyous and catchy track, especially when Donny and the backing vocalists unite, transforming the song into an almost swinging, spiritual track with a gospel flavour.

When you hear the stunningly, beautiful She Is My Lady, you wouldn’t imagine that this was written by George Clinton. It’s the diametric opposite of George’s Funkadelic and Parliament music. Instead, it’s a beautiful, slow ballad with backing gospel tinged backing vocalists accompanying Donny. From the opening bars, you realize that you’re privileged to hear something as special as this. A piano gently plays, before Donny slowly and thoughtfully sings of his love for the woman who makes his life worthwhile and meaningful. Gradually, the arrangement builds, with strings sweeping in, before the rhythm section and piano add a sense of drama. They give way to the gospel tinged backing vocalists who add to the sense that this song’s roots are an in the church. They help the song to grow, as do rasping horns and lush strings, which combine perfectly with the piano and add a sense of drama. As the song grows and grows, the emotion and beauty grows, reaching a dramatic and gospel drenched crescendo.

I Believe In Music was written by Mac Davis, who also wrote In the Ghetto. Again, the song features some gospel inspired backing vocals. With the rhythm section, piano and  backing vocalists accompanying Donny, he sings about his belief in music to stop conflict and inspire people. Quivering, shivering strings enter, as Donny’s voice soars, while the backing vocalists contribute a combination of soul and gospel styled vocals. Later, a flute floats briefly above the arrangement, and is replaced by tambourine and flourishes of piano, while Donny and his backing vocalists joyously deliver the lyrics. 

Just a combination of piano and rhythm section opens Take A Love Song, the only song written by Donny, with Nadine McKinnor. The lyrics are beautiful, Donny’s delivery thoughtful and filled hope and emotion. Behind him, the arrangement grows to include shimmering strings, rasping horns and backing vocalists, whose united voices soar impressively. With Donny playing piano with a flourish, and his voice emotive and powerful, he combines perfectly with the female backing vocalists, as the arrangement builds and builds, strings and horns at the heart of this dramatic arrangement. 

Donny Hathaway closes with the spiritual Put Your Hand In the Hand, which features an understated arrangement with just Donny, piano and arrangement combining. The only time the arrangement grows is when the backing vocalists sweep in, with their gospel influenced vocals combining perfectly with Donny. This understated and sympathetic arrangement seems totally in keeping with the religious lyrics. It’s a joyful and uplifting way to end what’s been a stunning album, one of the best soul albums of 1971, which was great year for soul music.

To me, Donny Hathaway’s eponymous second album, Donny Hathaway is one of these rare albums, that doesn’t have a bad song on it. This is unusual, as usually, there’s a song that lets an album down. Not here. There are neither any bad songs, nor any filler, just nine great tracks. These tracks demonstrate how hugely talented a singer and musician Donny Hathaway was. Although he only released three studio albums as a solo artist, there’s more quality in these three albums than there is in twenty albums by other artists. From the opening bars of Donny Hathaway until the final notes, you’re enthralled, taken on a stunning and magical musical journey that encompasses soul and gospel music, with Donny as your guide. You find yourself transfixed, awaiting the next song with anticipation, listening to every subtlety and nuance. When the album ends, you can’t help but listen again, just in case you missed anything the last time. What happens is that each time you listen to the album, the more you grow to love it. It quickly becomes like a trusted friend, and you’re drawn to it time and time again. That’s what’s happened to me. Over the years I’ve grown to cherish Donny Hathaway, and his two other albums Everything Is Everything and Extensions of A Man. On this trio of albums is some of the best, most healing and uplifting music that you’ll ever be privileged to hear. If you’ve never heard Donny Hathaway, or any of Donny’s other albums, then now is the time to let his stunning music enter your life. Once you’ve done so, you’ll never regret it, and like me, cherish the music of the late, great Donny Hathaway, a true legend of soul music. Standout Tracks: Giving Up, A Song For You, She Is My Lady and I Believe In Music.

DONNY HATHAWAY-DONNY HATHAWAY

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