Popular belief is that singer-composer-arranger Donny Hathaway is perhaps best known for his duets with singer Roberta Flack, but the body of solo work he left behind when he died 30 years ago is part of the foundation of American soul music. Truth is that he is best known for the unique musical expression that he share with the world using his voice as an instrument he played like only he could. His songs have influenced performers from R&B singer Alicia Keys to rapper Common to singer-guitarist George Benson.
Donny Hathaway’s voice was clear and powerful, and his piano-playing was remarkable in its own right. He exercised uncanny control over both of his instruments. Contemporary singer-songwriter Raul Midon — often compared to Hathaway — says Hathaway not only had an incredible voice, but also the technique of a classical singer.
Hear The Music
“He’s just the strongest soul singer that ever existed,” he says. “Call it gospel. Call it soul. Call it whatever you want. That tradition of singing…Black singers, African-American singers. He came from that tradition.”
Hathaway was born October 1, 1945 in Chicago IL, but was raised by his grandmother in a St. Louis public housing project. By the age of three, he was already a professional gospel singer. His piano chops earned him a scholarship to attend Howard University and eventually landed him work as a producer and arranger for the likes of Aretha Franklin and the Staple Singers. In 1969, he signed with Atlantic Records and released his first single, “The Ghetto, Pt. 1.”
“When I hear him, it’s like somebody who has something to say, and you must hear it,” says producer and arranger Joe Mardin.
Like any genius he was in a league of his own.
Mardin’s father, Arif, produced many of Hathaway’s albums and was responsible for the lush arrangement that cradles Hathaway’s voice in “A Song For You.” He scoffs at the number of people who claim they were influenced by Hathaway. Not that it isn’t nice to see Hathaway get some props, he says. It’s just that most singers and musicians just aren’t in Hathaway’s league.
“I think there are very few people that come even close to singing the way Donny did,” he says, “or having the depth of sound and emotion in his singing.”
Mardin says many don’t realize that in addition to Hathaway’s extraordinary voice, he was a skilled writer, arranger and conductor. He points to “I Love The Lord; He Heard My Cry (Parts 1 and 2)” — with its symphonic arrangement — from Hathaway’s final solo album, Extension Of A Man.
“Nobody could write a song like that,” says legendary guitarist Phil Upchurch. “You receive it. You wake up in the middle of the night, and God talks to you and says go write this down.”
Upchurch often performed with Hathaway and says he’s never met another musician that touched his heart and sensibilities more, a sentiment that many claim.
“The clarity and feeling could actually raise the hair on your arms and make you cry and give you chill bumps all at the same time,” he says.
The eclectic range of Hathaway’s final solo album extended beyond his soul and gospel roots to include Latin jazz and honky-tonk. Such breadth may have been difficult to grasp for a music industry used to selling strictly segregated genres. Hathaway’s range was also remarkable considering that — by that point in his career — he was battling depression and schizophrenia. Unfortunately those around him did not know and even if they did they did not understand the disease especially because he masked it as part of what being a musical genius is– the mood swings, the isolation and so. So people left him alone to work through his moods.
Producer Eric Mercury was with Hathaway in January 1979 for what would become his last recording session. Mercury still speaks reverently of Hathaway’s talent, and the rare ability he had to hear a piece of music as a completely finished work — in his head.
“He hears the music, he hears the strings, he hears the production, he hears the drums, he hears the lyrics all at the same time,” Mercury says. “Donny Hathaway intimidated famous singers.”
In a 1973 interview included on an album called, These Songs for You, Live!, Hathaway himself spoke of the way he viewed music.
“When I think of music, I think of music in its totality, complete,” he said. “From the lowest blues to the highest symphony, you know, so what I’d like to do is exemplify each style of as many periods as I can possibly do.”
But Hathaway never got the chance. On January 13th, 1979, his body was found outside New York’s Essex House below his 15th floor hotel room. His death was ruled a suicide. He was just 33 years old.
Play wright Kelvin Roston Jr. with a little help from friends will showcase his production of “Twisted Melodies,” a biographical theatrical piece about Donny Hathaway the artist, the musician, the man suffering from schizophrenia. He Had Soul & Schizophrenia, and he was one of the most prolific musical artist/genius’ of his time. The play is directed by Samuel G. Roberson Jr. and choreographed by noted dancer choreographer Joel Hall.
Presented by Congo Square Theatre
Saturday, April 11 at 8 p.m.
Witness the powerful and intense portrayal of the renowned jazz, blues and soul singer, composer and songwriter, Donny Hathaway. In this one-man show, Kelvin Roston Jr., shows us the schizophrenic experience through the eyes of a tortured artist in the ’70s. Hathaway’s influence lives on through the music of such artists as Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder, John Legend and many more.
6:30 p.m. Listening Party $20 featuring food from Flavor Restaurant. Listen to Donny’s music and the music of the artists he inspires to this day. Call the box office at 708.235.2222 for menu details.
Funded by The Chicago Community Trust