Who is Donny Hathaway? His name may not be as recognizable as other soul singers from the 70’s, but you’ve heard him. If you’ve heard Roberta Flack singing “Where Is The Love?” or “The Closer I Get To You” with a satin-voiced man at any point in the past thirty years, you’ve heard him. If this past December you heard the R&B infused “This Christmas” on the radio, you’ve heard him.
Born in 1945 in Chicago and raised in a St. Louis housing project by his grandmother, Donny Hathaway got his start as a gospel singer and choir member at the age of three. After high school graduation Hathaway attended Washington D.C.’s Howard University on full scholarship, studying music and fine arts. It was there that he met Roberta Flack, forging a musical partnership that would last, albeit with some intermissions, for the remainder of Hathaway’s life.
Hathaway’s contributions to soul music were not always in front of a mic and before a large audience, but his influence in the genre cannot possibly be overstated. Along with his clear, honey-toned voice came virtuosity on the piano, and exceptional skills in writing, arranging and conducting.
In addition to the work he did on his own five albums between 1970 and 1979 and a standout album of duets with Flack, Hathaway’s talents were present in his soundtrack work, including the theme song for the TV show Maude. His skills were in demand by some of the biggest names in the business. Those whose recordings he graced as composer, arranger and performer include: Willie Nelson, Don Ho, Curtis Mayfield, Lena Horne, Diana Ross, Joe Cocker, and the Average White Band. Donny’s stamp was everywhere.
For all of his adult life and throughout all of his creative endeavors, Donny Hathaway battled schizophrenia and depression so deep he was occasionally hospitalized. It was during one of these periods that he lost contact with Roberta Flack, a hiatus to their partnership that lasted several years. His struggles with mental health and ensuing addiction limited his contributions and his ability to play to large audiences in the mid-1970’s.
In his voice and in his compositions, one hears optimism, one hears pain, one hears disappointment, one hears struggle. There seemed to be nothing that Donny didn’t feel deeply. One comment I came across said of Donny, “He sang as if tears were welling up in his eyes.”
On January 13, 1979, while in the midst of recording sessions for another duet album with Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway committed suicide by jumping out of a 15th floor window of a New York City hotel. He was 33 years old.
Here we have his first single, “The Ghetto, Part 1”, released in 1970.
And also, “A Song for You”, released in 1971. Here, you get a sense of his talent on the piano.