Born in Chicago, Illinois on October 1, 1945, Donny Hathaway was mostly raised by his grandmother, Martha Pitts, in the Carr Square Housing Project in St. Louis, Missouri. As he was raised by a woman who was also a professional gospel singer, Hathaway’s introduction to music as young as three years old led him to sing in the church choir and learn the piano. After graduating from high school in 1963, he studied music at Howard University in Washington, D.C. This is where he met Roberta Flack.
While there, he formed a three-man jazz group. In 1967, just shy of graduating from university, he left after receiving job offers in the music industry. It was also while attending Howard University in 1967 that Donny Hathaway met and married fellow music student, Eulaulah Vann. The two have since birthed two daughters, Lalah and Kenya, both of whom embarked on successful musical careers of their own.
Let the Music Play
While at Curtom Records in Chicago, Donny Hathaway worked as a producer, session musician, and songwriter. He arranged music for the Unifics, including the hit singles “Court of Love and “The Beginning of My End.” He also took part in musical projects featuring Jerry Butler, Aretha Franklin, the Impressions, and the Staple Singers. Also, since Curtom Records was owned by Curtis Mayfield, Hathaway also worked directly with him. Eventually, Hathaway also began to record his own music at the label’s studio. In 1969, he recorded a couple of duets with June Conquest. “I Thank You, Baby” and “Just Another Reason” were both recorded and released on a forty-five record. It was also at this time a certain college student named Bill Futterer promoted Curtom Records in 1968 and 1969, helping the label gain recognition, as well as all the talent that came from there. This included Hathaway. NFL fans may recognize Bill Futterer as the former president of the Cleveland Browns.
Thanks to his success with Curtom Records, Hathaway was able to sign up with one of Atlantic Records’ subsidiary labels, Atco Records. This is where he released his first single, “The Ghetto, Pt. 1.” The successful 1969 recording appeared on Hathway’s debut album, Everything Is Everything, which was released in 1970. This was followed by a self-titled album that featured an impressive list of cover songs from the genres of contemporary pop, gospel, and soul. 1970 also witnessed the year Hathaway released “This Christmas” as a song that became more than a smashing success for the recording artist. It has since become a Christmas standard that’s been covered by a long list of artists as an all-time favorite holiday season tune.
Donny Hathaway’s third album was a collaborated recording with Roberta Flack. Not only did the two attend the same university but also became record label mates. Released in 1972, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway was an album featuring duet recordings by both artists and it served as Hathaway’s big breakthrough on the pop charts. The album also featured the two covering a number of previously recorded hits, including Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and Aretha Franklin’s “Baby I Love You.”
1972 also marked the year of another album, Live. According to some music critics, it was one of the best live albums ever recorded. The recording took place during two different concerts. The one side of the album featured the concert Hathaway held at the Troubadour in Hollywood, California. The other side came from Greenwich Village, Manhattan’s The Bitter End. The influence of Hathaway’s music during the 1970s was immense as the prolific singer-songwriter as he also wrote the theme song to Maude, a popular television series that ran from 1972 until 1978. He was also the man behind the music for 1972’s Come Back Charleston Blue and its soundtrack.
In 1973, Donny Hathaway recorded and released his final studio album, Extension of a Man. This was an album that revealed the spiritual side of Hathaway like never before. “Love Love Love” and “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” became hits on the music charts while “I Love the Lord, He Heard My Cry” was an instrumental piece that beautifully illustrated Hathaway’s ability as a talented musician.
Despite a successful career in the music industry, Donny Hathaway experienced bouts of depression and unusual behavior that would be discovered in 1971 as paranoid schizophrenia. He was put on prescriptions to deal with the medication and was faithful to the treatment regimen in the beginning. However, he became less vigilant about it once he began to feel better. There were times he stopped taking the medication, which resulted in Hathaway’s mental stability becoming compromised. From 1973 until 1977, these were the darkest years of his life that came with several hospital visits. It was during this time frame friendships were compromised, as well as his career.
It wasn’t until 1978 that Donny Hathway would appear on the music charts again. Teaming up with Roberta Flack for a second time, the two performed “The Closer I Get to You,” a hit recording that was featured on her album, Blue Lights in the Basement. After this, he produced another single, “You Were Meant For Me,” which served to be his last. On January 13, 1979, Donny Hathaway’s body was found on the pavement below the window of his Essex House hotel room, which was located on the fifteenth floor. Hathaway was in New York City, scheduled to record a series of duets with Roberta Flack but his mental condition at the time met with challenges that the man wasn’t able to overcome. When Roberta Flack learned of Hathaway’s death, the devastated songstress released the few duets she already recorded with him on her album, Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway. The final recording from Hathway was “You Are My Heaven.”
Donny Hathaway Legacy
In 1979, the Whispers recorded “Song for Donny” as their musical tribute to Hathway. It became a number twenty-one hit on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. That same year the song was arranged to cover Hathaway’s “This Christmas” for their Christmas album, Happy Holidays to You.
In 2019, Hathway was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. On January 28, 2020, the International Film Festival Rotterdam premiered Mister Soul – A Story About Donny Hathaway. It was a documentary all about the infamous musical artist who earned the right to be called a soul legend.
Donny Hathaway’s legacy includes a series of recording artists admitting he was their key source of inspiration as one of the talents who shaped the foundation of American soul music. Aaliyah, Alicia Keys, and Justin Timberlake have each recognized Hathaway as one of the best singers and most powerful soul artists of all time.
Top 10 Donny Hathaway Songs
# 10 – I Love the Lord, He Heard My Cry
The six-minute symphony-style instrumental, “I Love the Lord, He Heard My Cry,” was performed by an inspired Donny Hathaway who admitted he always wanted to write pretty music similar to what he studied while he was a student at Howard University.
This song was arranged and orchestrated for forty-five musicians by Hathaway himself as a song that applied the buoyant optimism of George Gershwin’s legendary classic, “Rhapsody in Blue,” to a religious context. Hathaway was raised by his grandmother, who was a professional gospel singer.
Her influence played a major role in Hathaway’s life and belief system. This was the standout recording from his album, Extension of a Man. Released in 1973, it was the final studio album recording of his career. As a man dealing with personal demons that ultimately took his life in 1979, Hathaway was at his musical best with this number. Although he didn’t vocally perform in this song, the genius behind his work speaks for itself.
#9 – You Are My Heaven (featuring Roberta Flack)
“You Are My Heaven” was a duet Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway performed together shortly before his death in January 1979. Released posthumously as one of the tracks from Flack’s album, Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway, it became a number eight hit on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart in 1980. It also charted as high as number forty-seven on the US Billboard Hot 100.
This was the final song Hathaway recorded before his death. It, along with “Back Together Again” was the only two songs that were completed as recordings, which were intended for a collaborative album between Flack and Hathaway. Instead, circumstances dictated it otherwise. This romantic easy-listening number seemed to develop even more meaning for Flack as the sudden death of her close friend hit the songstress rather hard.
# 8 – A Song for You
Originally recorded as a rock number in 1970 by Leon Russell, “A Song for You” became an equally soulful number when Donny Hathaway performed his own version of it in 1971. Russell’s incredible song about pleading for forgiveness and understanding from a lost lover became one of the best-known songs of his career. Several artists were so moved by the quality of this ballad that they recorded versions of their own, just like Hathaway did.
According to Stevie Wonder’s opinion of Donny Hathaway’s singing ability, the moment the man would pour his heart and soul into a song he performed it would be as if he owned it. “A Song for You” seemed to be more than just a song covered by Hathaway. It also served as a reflection of his own soul as his personal demons often interfered with the relationships he had with his closest family members and friends. “A Song for You” was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame as of January 17, 2018.
#7 – For All We Know (featuring Roberta Flack
The song, “For All We Know” was originally published in 1934 by J. Fred Coots and Sam M. Lewis. That same year saw Skinnay Ennis and Hal Kemp make it popular, as well as Isham Jones and Joe Martin. Since then, several artists have recorded their own versions of this incredible number, including Donny Hathaway.
His version was actually a duet performed with Roberta Flack as part of their track list on the 1972 collaborative album, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway. When a talented artist sings this song on their own as a what-if number, it’s powerful enough. When performed by two talented vocalists as a duet, “For All We Know” became even more dramatic. To this day, it remains as one of the standout versions ever performed.
#6 – You’ve Got a Friend (featuring Roberta Flack)
“You’ve Got a Friend” was a song written by Carole King, then performed as one of her signature hits in 1971. James Taylor also released this as a single in 1971 and it not only gave him a number one hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 but a Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. For King, “You’ve Got a Friend” earned her a Grammy Award for Song of the Year.
Several artists have since recorded their own versions of this song, including the duet performance shared by Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack. Their 1972 version became a number eight hit on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and a number twenty-nine hit on the US Billboard Hot 100.
What made this song a standout favorite as a Hathaway classic was his real-life friendship with Roberta Flack. The two met while attending the same university together before working together as label mates shortly afterward. At the time of this duet’s recording, Hathaway was taking medication for his paranoid schizophrenia condition. Flack stood by him until Hathaway decided to stop taking the medication and became erratic. Flack had no choice but to keep her distance from the man.
The friendship between the two wasn’t restored until Hathaway went back on the meds. The two recorded another single together in 1977 and were scheduled to produce a second collaboration album in 1979. Unfortunately, Hathaway’s suicide jump on January 13, 1979, prevented that from happening. “You’ve Got a Friend” was one of the many duets Hathaway and Flack performed together on their first collaborative album, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway.
#5 – The Ghetto
In 1969, Donny Hathaway’s “The Ghetto” may have been a modest hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 at number eighty-seven but it was a jazz-flavored anthem that served as a source of inspiration during an era that was loaded with socially conscious material. For nearly seven minutes, this song focused on the life of living in a neighborhood of people living in a less-than-ideal environment.
The sound of the baby crying came from Hathaway’s daughter, Lalah. The men talking in the background added drama to a song that was even more popular on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart at number twenty-three. “The Ghetto” has been a favorite for other recording artists to either sample its music in hip-hop songs or as altered versions such as “The Ghetto 74” by Leroy Hutson.
#4 – Where Is the Love (featuring Roberta Flack)
“Where Is the Love” was a duet Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack performed together in 1972 for their collaborative album, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway. Not only did it become a number five hit on the US Billboard Hot 100, but it also became a certified gold seller by the RIAA.
On the US Billboard Adult Contemporary Songs chart and the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, “Where Is the Love” became a number one hit. This was one of three hit singles from the 1972 collaborative album, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway.
It also won the duo a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. Since their musical question about the subject, several artists have also recorded their own versions of “Where Is the Love.”
#3 – The Closer I Get to You (featuring Roberta Flack)
The romantic ballad, “The Closer I Get to You,” was one of many duets performed by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. It was released in 1978 from Flack’s album, Blue Lights in the Basement, and became a big crossover hit. On the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, “The Closer I Get to You” peaked at number one.
It was a number two hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. It was the first time since 1972 that Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway worked together as recording artists. It was also a big international hit, peaking in the top ten music charts belonging to Canada and France. It became certified gold by the RIAA, as well as the duo’s signature hits as a duet.
Interestingly enough, “The Closer I Get to You” wasn’t originally meant to be performed as a duet. However, it was rewritten by Flack’s manager, David Franklin, as he wanted to include Donny Hathaway. After Hathway’s death, the song became a dedication to the man and his family.
#2 – Someday We’ll All Be Free
The incredible ballad, “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” came from Donny Hathaway’s final studio recording, Extension of Man. When the playback of a song during a final mix is powerful enough to make a grown man cry, then it has firmly established itself as a powerful number.
Born and raised as a man with faith, it was one of the most endearing qualities of Hathaway that made him so cherished among the fans and his peers. Despite his personal troubles, he managed to prevail as more than just some recording artist in the music industry with talent. The song served as a form of release, loaded with truths and encouragement that make this an easy choice as a fan favorite.
#1 – This Christmas
Recorded and released in 1970, “This Christmas” became one of Donny Hathaway’s signature songs. What started out as a single he co-composed and performed became a holiday favorite that’s since been covered by a flurry of recording artists, regardless of genre. At first, this song was barely noticeable on the main US Billboard charts but it did peak as high as number eleven on its Christmas Singles chart.
Twenty years after its release, the increasingly popular ‘This Christmas” peaked at number thirty-nine on the US Billboard Hot 100. Despite its slow rise to become a hit, “This Christmas” was still impressionable enough to stand the test of time. Its popularity first sprung up again in 1991 when Atco Records revised a previous album edition of Soul Christmas.
It was a collaborative album that had “This Christmas” included in its track collection. Since then, it has become a Christmas song standard with the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers upon learning it was among the most performed holiday songs of all time. For Hathaway, he felt this was a song that served both God and the celebration of Christmas in a just manner. In 2020 and 2021, Hathaway’s “This Christmas” continued to make US Billboard chart impressions.
The highest chart peak it had achieved so far was at number six on the US Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Streaming Songs in January 2021. For a tune that’s now over fifty years old that can still serve as a solid hit on the biggest music charts, it appears Donny Hathaway’s suggestion this was a God-anointed song seems to be true.
Top 10 Donny Hathaway Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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