Donny Hathaway



I’ve found the following essay about Donny Hathaway while cleaning my hard drive. I’ve copied this some years ago from the internet. I don’t which site this originates from and I haven’t found any site via google, yahoo, msn, vivisimo or all the web that could’ve helped me to find the author. Since I think this is an interesting bio of Donny Hathaway, that shouldn’t get lost, I’ll include it on jazz-not-jazz. As I’ve said, I’m not the author of the following. If you’re the one who has written this or know the person, please let me know so that I can give him or her full credit or remove the article if desired.

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He’d been acting strangely all evening. Sometimes he’d sit there talking in weird voices, asking no-one in particular preposterous questions… then answering them himself with ever more unintelligible ramblings. Or he might move to the piano and spiral off into some classical composition that he’d been working on, shooting out at gospel and jazzy tangents as his muse dictated. Occasionally he’d get up and walk out of the studio altogether, until the fresh air brought him back to something like lucidity.
That night they managed to get one complete vocal from him - to You Are My Heaven, a melodic, midtempo Stevie Wonder/Eric Mercury co-composition - and a couple of verses of Back Together Again, later built into a sumptuous piece of horn-driven, funky soul by writer/producers James Mtume and Reggie Lucas. Within a couple of hours Donny Hathaway would be discovered dead on a second floor balcony at the Essex House Hotel, overlooking New York’s Central Park. He had obviously fallen from a considerable distance. The fact that his room on the 15th floor was locked from the inside led the police to believe that he had committed suicide. Thus on January 15, 1979 we lost potentially one of the greatest musicians of the modern age.
Artist and songwriter Eric Mercury still recalls that last night with crystal clarity: ‘That album, what became Roberta Flack featuring Donny Hathaway, was intended to be duets all the way through. But Donny was so sick he really shouldn’t have been expected to do it. I guess he suffered from one of the greater ills we have in America - that you can only be sick if you can afford to be. Anyway, the nurse he had with him didn’t ultimately save his life.’
‘The same morning we did the vocals to You Are My Heaven and Back Together Again, Donny went back to the hotel and jumped outta the window. In the studio, he’d been talking to us in one voice and answering himself in another - the effect of the drug he was under, I guess. Maybe it was just too much pain for him to stay alive. Maybe, in the end, it was better.’
There’s little doubt that, towards the end of his 33 years of life, Donny was in some considerable mental turmoil. Trouble is, no-one who knew him seems clear about its cause. Long-time friend and sometime writing partner Leroy Hutson puts it down to some kind of physical/chemical imbalance, perhaps caused by vitamin deficiency, though he readily admits that the man’s evident paranoid state was made worse by his drugs intake. Roberta Flack, meanwhile, reveals that Donny’s father, about whom we know virtually nothing, was at one time committed to hospital with mental problems of his own (yet why this should affect his son is unclear.)
But there is no doubt that, whatever the cause, Donny Hathaway had been diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic by the end of 1973. Speaking publicly for the first time since her husband’s tragic demise, Donny’s widow Eulaulah Hathaway recalls the difficulty of understanding and ultimately accepting Donny’s condition.
‘Initially I thought he might recover. At that time, I had hardly heard of the words to describe his illness, so I was hopeful. But after he was admitted into hospital in New York I went up every Friday and had a chance to talk with his doctors. They clarified what the illness was about. So I knew there was a chance of some slight recovery, but he would never be rid of it. It’s there to stay. You can be medicated and counseled, but you’ll always be a paranoid schizophrenic.’

Donny’s mental stability was not helped by the difficulties of reconciling his strict church background with his vast creative abilities and interests, and the commercial demands and rewards of the mainstream pop industry. Eulaulah Hathaway witnessed that conflict first hand throughout her life with Donny.
‘He thought about it a lot. His grandmother and step-grandfather were very devout believers. He had to adhere to what they said. He told me at one time, when we were getting ready to go to St Louis, he wanted to tell them something, but he knew it would create a whole big argument. And it did. They told him, ‘Unless you want to talk about this subject in the way that we taught you to talk about it, then we don’t want to talk about it at all.’ But he wanted to say to them that he had been out there in life and had found that sometimes what they had told him wasn’t true. They argued for about two hours. It bothered him he couldn’t just sit down and debate with them properly.’
Leroy Hutson, with whom Donny shared a room for a year-and-a-half while at Washington’s Howard University, explains how Donny’s immense talent caused him to live life at such a pace that he became prone to making unwise decisions.
When I met Donny he was already part of The Mayfield Singers, a group put together by Curtis. I’d been at Howard 18 months by then and we hit it off right away. But, although we wrote together and were pretty close friends, we never really hung out too much around town. He became part of The Ric Powell Trio - Ric was a drummer also at the university - and as his popularity grew and I became busier too, we began to lose touch.’
‘Then, in his senior year, Curtis asked him to come out on the road with him. I was very disappointed about that, because it meant he never got to graduate. I tried very hard to change his mind over that. He moved to Chicago and I remember making several calls and a couple of trips out there to try and dissuade him from his course. Donny always seemed to be impressed by the wrong kind of people and Ric Powell… well, let’s say Ric was a better talker than he was a drummer. Frankly, Donny took to him in a way that disturbed us all.’
While Eulaulah Hathaway shares Leroy’s low opinion of Powell’s influence upon her husband, she was less concerned about his decision to quit Howard: ‘At the time he left there really wasn’t too much more the school had to offer. He didn’t go to school as it was and still made straight ‘A’s. He’d been working in the Mayfield Singers and did little weekend gigs already and I think perhaps Curtis had a need for Donny’s talents.’
Later Donny would sign with an attorney out of Atlanta who proved unreliable enough for another his clients, Roberta Flack, to resort to suing him. The prolonged behind-scenes wrangling, coupled to later frustrations at being more commercially successful with his duets with Roberta than with his solo work, did little to help his state of mind.
Though born in Chicago on October 1, 1945, Donny had been raised in a poor part of St Louis, Missouri by his grandmother, Martha Crumwell, herself a well known gospel singer of the time. Aged only three he was able to accompany himself on the ukele well enough to generate a local reputation as ‘Donny Pitts - The Nation’s Youngest Gospel Singer.’ Though his grandmother, a paraplegic, undoubtedly loved him, she always did her best to steer the young Donny’s musical interests away from the secular, never allowing him to listen to pop and R&B radio in the house during his teenage years. It wasn’t surprising, then, that he saw a three-year Fine Arts course at Howard as the shackle-loosening experience he’d been aching for.
Recalls Leroy Hutson: ‘I remember one time, maybe a month into us being roommates, he came home one day and I was playing Miles Davis’s Porgy & Bess album - the one with the elaborate arrangements by Gil Evans. He sat down on the couch and listened for a while. Then he began moving the needle around from cut to cut. After that he sat down at the keyboard and rearranged the whole thing as it was playing! He stretched the chords and made it all his own. It was an incredible thing to witness.’
According to Hutson, Donny didn’t make a habit of attending classes. But when he did, he generally took over. ‘The instructors in our theory classes would always get up from the keyboard as soon as he walked in the room and let him conduct the classes. He would mesmerize us for that hour or so.’
Donny met his wife-to-be at Howard too, probably in the practice areas where the young musicians would jam together and generally take the opportunity to show off their licks. Eulaulah had been majoring in classical voice for a year by the time Donny strolled confidently into her life. They were married two years later, as soon as Eulaulah left to attend graduate school.
The very first song that Donny and his buddy Leroy wrote together would prove to be their best known. ‘That was The Ghetto. And I can remember it so clearly. I was sitting at the keyboard one Tuesday evening when he came in from rehearsing with Ric. When he came upstairs I was playing the basic structure for the song. He heard it and said, ‘No, Hoss,’ - ’cause that’s what he called me - ‘it should go like this.’ So he took the bassline I was playing and it became what is now the classic bassline you know to The Ghetto. An hour-and-a-half later we had the whole song on tape. When we finished we both knelt at the window, put the song on and listened to it as the rain came down. All the cars swept by, almost as if they were moving to the rhythm of the song. It was a very spiritual happening.’
Not long thereafter Curtis Mayfield, on the lookout for new talent at his recently launched Curtom Records, ran into Donny during one of his club gigs and immediately recognised his gifts. Once he moved to Chicago, initially as a staff writer, Donny was given his head start by Curtis as an arranger and producer too. As Mayfield recalls: ‘To see him there in the studio at about 21 years old, directing all these real big session guys like he’d been doing it for years, was a tremendous sight to see. But he always believed in himself. He always believed in his talent. He wasn’t conceited about it, but he knew he could do anything these guys could do and almost certainly better. I’d have loved to sign him as artist, but it wasn’t to be.’
Instead, after a fertile spell as in-house provider for such as The Impressions, Holly Maxwell and The Five Stairsteps, plus a brief duet flirtation with June Conquest (the first version of their widely known I Thank You hit was cut in ‘1969), a chance meeting at a record fair with saxophonist and band leader King Curtis ledhim to Atlantic Records. At first his compositions surfaced through Roberta Flack, whom Donny had met back at Howard because her former husband had played in the same band. Trying Times, written by Hathaway/Hutson and Our Ages Or Our Hearts (credited to Hathaway/Roy Ayers but actually by Donny and Leroy) emerged on Flack’s first LP. By 1970, though, Donny at last began recording for himself.
Everything Is Everything, according to the sleevenote produced by Donny and the aforesaid Ric Powell, began a three-year period in which the Hathaway name would be stamped onto the sleeve of five different albums and had the considerable boost of a hit 45 in The Ghetto as well as the first introduction to Donny’s dramatic, deeply soulful way with ballads. Eulaulah, sang background on Je Vous Aime, the track on the LP dedicated to her. He already sounded much older than his 24 years. The following year’s Donny Hathaway wasn’t quite as good, but it did include the definitive version of A Song For You, a wonderful song of commitment penned by rock oddbod Leon Russell, and an incredibly intense cut of Van McCoy’s Giving Up.
1972 saw the arrival of a much celebrated live set and Donny’s own contribution to the blaxploitation soundtrack craze in the Quincy Jones overseen Come Back Charleston Blue. More commercially significant, however, was his duet LP with Roberta Flack, which spawned the international hit Where Is The Love. But already Roberta could see for herself that her studio partner was aching to break out into new areas.
‘That really came to fruition with the Extension Of A Man record, which he released the following year. We’d learned about writing a tone poem as the opening to a piece of music at college. Black people were not supposed to do that in their music - still aren’t. But he put it right there as the opening track on that album with I Love The Lord (He Heard My Cry). One of my other favourite performances of his is on that same record: Come Little Children, which he takes in 5/4. It’s basically a call ‘n’ holler song, like the slaves in the fields would do. Well, Donny made it 5/4. That’s not a rhythm you associate with Afro-Americans at all. You see, this was Donny. His scope and vision were huge. He didn’t want to be contained.’
Yet he could never escape the gospel training - both vocally and intellectually - of his childhood. And while, on the one hand, this instilled his music with righteous soul power, it also kicked against what his grandmother had brought him up to believe. And Roberta could see that too.
‘He’d always been told it wasn’t right to take religious sounds and apply them to popular music. Yet he didn’t want to lose that religious element either. I know he felt that conflict all along. Even during his best, most direct love songs, he performed them in such a way that they wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a church. Like, when he sings Je Vous Aime, those lines, ‘I just wanna say/I love you/I love you’, he sings it in a way that he would have been used to from the black churches.’
By this time Donny was 27 years old. In an era when Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone and The Isley Brothers were leading the way for black artists prepared to stir a little rock, jazz and pop into the soul pot, he really should have been set fair for a middle-seventies period of creative and financial fulfillment. But it never happened. According to some, the contrast between his devout, sheltered upbringing and the sudden wealth, public acclaim and endless opportunities for mischief offered by the music business was something the immensely gifted but socially naive artist found impossible to come to terms with. Others say Donny simply fell ill. Eulaulah remembers the deterioration only too well. ‘I think he was getting worse. Like all people who take medication, he began to think that if he felt better he could go it alone. And he couldn’t. He got off his medication and it didn’t make it better at all. He was ill all through the last five years of his life.’
Aside from session work on Aretha Franklin’s Let Me In Your Life album (he played keyboards on the hit Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do), Donny released only one more solo album during the last six years of his life, and that, In Performance, a collection of out-takes from the Live album.
Leroy Hutson, himself a successful recording artist both as Curtis Mayfield’s replacement in The Impressions and later as a solo artist for Curtom, saw little of his friend during that time. But he does recall how, shortly before Donny died, they began to work together again. ‘I hadn’t seen him in years and so I had no idea how sick he’d become. But I attended a performance of his in Chicago just before the end and I realised he was obviously very paranoid. Between shows he would go out and pace up and down in the street. So I tried talking to him. As a result - and very few people know this - but I talked him into letting me help him on his last album project. He was desperate to make another solo album - he wanted to call it Make It On My Own - but Atlantic was pushing him into doing the duets. So he would come over to my house on Saturdays and we’d work on songs: he brought charts and so on, and it seemed like it might be going good. Then the infamous Mr. Powell stepped in again and made something ugly out of it, and it never happened. I did have about five songs though, the outlines, that no-one ever heard. In the end, I just sent them to his wife.’
After his death Atlantic rushed out Back Together Again and it hit massively. Like the similarly underwritten I’ll Take You There by The Staple Singers, it’s actually little more than a couple of verses and a chorus, but Mtume and Lucas somehow made it work without one of its main characters around to develop the theme. The album, Roberta Flack featuring Donny Hathaway, contained a ‘hand-written’ message of tribute from Roberta on the back and, since Donny had killed himself before the proposed sleeve shoot, a not very inspired Hélène Guètary illustration on the front. In it Donny’s eyes are closed. As to the essence of his genius, Flack is insistent it began with one thing: ‘His honesty. He was as honest in his emotions as he was in his music. He knew the keyboard so well he never had to look at it when he was playing. He was clearly one of the few who could successfully blend the church voice with the secular. He kept all those original gospel nuances when he sang, whatever he sang. To the record company’s credit, they let him get on with it and didn’t make him sit on top of some ‘rose garden’ typa strings, like RCA did with Sam Cooke. It makes me mad when I think what the world lost when Donny died.’
For Leroy Hutson, it was also about communication. His ability to sit in front of you and just mesmerize you was extraordinary. He had the ability to entrance an audience in live performance. He was a great keyboardist and a great musician in the true sense of the word, so he could play from his heart. Y’see, a lot of people write great songs and play well, but they just don’t have that hook-up from the heart to the head that makes you understand the true measure of their talent.’ ‘It’s true that his albums were never great from start to finish. But I know he knew that and he was working on it. In fact, one of the reasons he left here so early was probably that he never got the recognition he sought as a songwriter. And he always had a very dark side: a lot of his best music had a sense of forboding. He was on a quest to be better at everything he did, to be recognised for his songwriting and his performance as one of the very best around. He’d have made it too, had he lived.’
Donny Hathaway: Born October 1, 1945; Died January 15, 1979

12 comments

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  5. Steve Marshall

    This article is from “The Independent” in the UK- February 26, 1999

  6. Ric Powell

    Mr. Marshall,

    Controversal material of any kind that is UNSOURCED or Poorly SOURCED should be removed immediately, especially if potentially libelous. As my relationship with Donny Hathaway was both nurturing and supportive, I see no reason why I should be depicted as a negative influence in the life and development of the great Donny E. Hathaway (deceased). There is quite a bit of erroneous information written in this “essay,” and I suggest that you verify and substantiate your facts prior to website publication.

    Ric Powell

  7. Anonymous

    Mr. Powell should be ashamed of himself…..”For all we know” you could have helped to save Donny. Shame.

  8. Kees

    I seem to remember it is written by Echoes Magazine editor Chris Wells

  9. Anonymous

    Being born the in the seventies era. The world has lost a great person, a genuis, who in fact helped the musicians of today get to where they are. R.I.P. Donny you are missed, but you live on in your music……………. E.H.

  10. Phil

    Thank you very much for this article. This has greatly expanded my knowledge of Donny the man. Its such a shame that true geniuses are often tortured souls. The music he left, particularly the “Live” album is, simply, astonishingly good.

  11. Paul Brown NY

    I wish someone would release Donny’s unreleased Music, i know it’s out there’ — cause i even Googled ‘’Unreleased Donny Hathaway'’ and found on itunes a song that never made onto ‘’Extension of a Man'’ called ‘’What a Woman really means'’ there’s also the Cd ‘These songs for you’ but i also have two versions of ‘’Love love love'’ Live,,that i got from a bass player i work with, and a different version of ‘’Little Ghetto Boy'’ live,, one that wasn’t released also a different version of ‘’What’s goin on'’ Live,, where his voice sounds much better and clearer than what was released, he was actually hoarse on the that one,, when you compare it’s very clear that this is true, i also got,, a few years before it was released on ‘’These songs for you'’ a longer version of ‘’Superwoman'’ a 9min version as apposed to the 6min one on ‘’These songs for you'’ they cut it where he’s singing in a way that I’d never heard him sing, right after his Piano solo he’s belting real loud, i never knew he had that kind of power'’ he opens up almost like an Opera singer, his voice sounds huge ,,i also have a DVD that i got on eBay, Donny on the Flip Wilson show with an entire comedy skit Donny does with Flip,Just before he sings ‘’Put your Hand in the Hand'’ that you see online but they never show the skit, i got that before it was on cable TV or online, On this DVD there’s a number of snippets of him in concert live, one has him doing a completely different ending to ‘’For all we know'’ i know those entire concerts are out there,, Atlantic must have tons,, TV One just did Unsung,, one episode was Donny’s story, And the Post I’m responding to has some nice info also,, I’m a Vocalist in the business for over 30 years and listening to Donny and having my mind blown by him for over 30 years, and I’m almost brought to tears still every time hear his voice,, i studied voice, & i still can’t quite understand what I’m hearing when i hear his Beautiful Instrument ,,it just goes so deep inside of you that you can’t put your finger on any one thing, you just have to shake your head and think'’ ‘’God is amazing'’ to create and give out talent like that to one person, Donny,s story to me is so sad, it seems like this young Man never really had a chance to truly be happy and enjoy life and just live,, i met Donny in Boston at ‘’The Jazz Work Shop'’ a tiny jazz club on Boylston st dowtown Boston mid late 70’s'’ the things he did that night were just like everything I’d read or have seen on TV about him, people were even walking out on him,, at one point he looked up at the audience and said’ ‘’What’s the matter? nobody wanna see Donny Hathaway anymore'’ It was obvious he was very very sick'’ I knew something was wrong when we walked in, at 1st when i saw him i didn’t know it was him’ he didn’t wear his Apple Jack, he was balding on top and looked older and drained,, also because i had never seen him without his hat, i didn’t recognize him until he said something to the audience.The next day a Boston Paper called ‘’The Phoenix'’ explained everything, it said that, that was his 1st concert after being released from the hospital,, even though his voice that night had a beautiful tone & sound it wasn’t the voice i was use to, so— i never got the treat of the whole Donny experience, like some of you did- live,, he died not to long after,, and that has frustrated me all these years because i always wanted that unbelievable experience like others had,, BUT i did get to talk to him & shake his hand and that still blows me away,, i was 18 years old then– now I’m 52,, But every time i listen to Donny, it’s a Concert and i Lesson.

  12. Joel Bryant

    i got all the albums but can’t listen to them. i just love him too much. it’s TOO emotional. the definition of soul

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