Donny Hathaway - Biography
By Lee Hildebrand
Singer, pianist, songwriter, and arranger Donny Hathaway received his greatest public acclaim for a series of duets with his one-time Howard University classmate Roberta Flack, including the R&B chart-toppers “Where Is the Love” in 1972 and “The Closer I Get to You” in 1978. His success as a solo artist was more modest, although his album Live (1972 Atlantic)—recorded both at the Bitter End in New York City and the Troubadour in Los Angeles—reached #4 on Billboard’s R&B chart and #18 on the pop chart. Hathaway battled depression for most of his adult life, but his unmistakable influence, especially as a vocalist, exceeded his popularity. He introduced into the African American pop mainstream a vocal tonality that derived from gospel music and rung with bell-like clarity, and over the years his voice would greatly affect the styles of such other tenors as George Benson, Peabo Bryson, Jeffrey Osborne, Bobby Caldwell, Luther Vandross, Freddie Jackson, Brian McKnight, Ruben Studdard, Elliott Yamin, and even the already well-established Stevie Wonder. His sudden death in 1979 at the age of 33—dubbed a suicide—sent shockwaves through he R&B world, and truncated a career that has endless potential.
Donald Edward Hathaway was born to Drusella Huntley in Chicago on October 1, 1945, but was raised in St. Louis by his grandmother, Martha Pitts, a gospel singer-guitarist known professionally as Martha Crumwell. He began touring with her at age three, billed as “Donny Pitts, the Nation’s Youngest Gospel Singer,” later playing ukulele as part of the act. He took classical piano lessons as a child, mastering the works of Bach, Greig, and Handel, and he idolized Liberace. While attending Vashon High School, where he also became a wrestling champion, Hathaway began studying music theory at Washington University in St. Louis. In 1963, with so musical prowess, he received a fine-arts scholarship at Howard University in Washington, D.C.. While there, Hathaway formed a jazz trio with drummer and fellow student Ric Powell and began performing for the first time outside of church. He would be inducted into Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and, while still at Howard, he met his future wife, Eulaulah.
Hathaway dropped out of college after three years and returned to his native Chicago. Over the next four years he maintained a busy schedule as a pianist, songwriter, arranger, and/or producer for such artists as The Impressions, Five Stairsteps, Unifics, Jerry Butler, Syl Johnson, Carla Thomas (another old Howard cohort), Pops Staples, Betty Everett, jazz bandleader Woody Herman, saxophonist Ben Branch’s Operation Breadbasket Orchestra and Choir, and gospel singer Albertina Walker. As a vocalist, he recorded an unsuccessful version of the Curtis Mayfield song “I’ve Been Trying” before following it up with a better-received duet with June Conquest, “I Thank You Baby,” for Mayfield’s Curtom label. The latter peaked at #45 on the R&B charts when issued in 1969 and at #41 when reissued three years later in the wake of his success with Flack.
At the recommendation of saxophonist King Curtis, Hathaway was signed to Atlantic Records in 1970 and placed on the Atco label. His debut album, Everything Is Everything (1970 Atco), featured Hathaway’s soaring vocals over his rippling Fender Rhodes electric piano accompaniment and surging horn charts, bringing together his gospel, classical, jazz, and pop influences into a brilliant, seamless pastiche. Everything Is Everything reached #33 on Billboard’s R&B chart and #73 on the pop chart and the song “The Ghetto (Part 1)”—a largely instrumental track from the disc—became a #23 R&B, #87 pop hit. Another 1970 single, “This Christmas”—a song originally composed by Nadine McKinnor but rewritten by Hathaway—didn’t chart, but it became a perennial holiday favorite. As a tribute to Hathaway after his tragic death in 1979, The Whispers revived the song in “A Song For Donny.” The Whispers also recorded the Christmas version, as have a number of other artists such as Aretha Franklin, Gloria Estefan, Bony James, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Chicago, and Cheetah Girls. Teen heartthrob Chris Brown can be seen performing the song in the 2007 motion picture, This Christmas.
Atlantic vice president Jerry Wexler—who coined the term rhythm & blues—and Arif Mardin produced the next album, Donny Hathaway (1971 Atco). The namesake album was a more pop-oriented effort for Hathaway, and it rose to #6 R&B, while falling well short of the company’s crossover expectations, stalling at #89 pop. Donny Hathaway featured Hathaway’s highly emotive, now-classic treatment of the Leon Russell ballad “A Song For You,” which wasn’t released as a single. Another ballad from the album—the Van McCoy composition “Giving Up”—did come out as a single and hit #21 R&B and # 81 pop in 1972.
In 1971, Hathaway began recording with Roberta Flack, who had already been including his songs on her albums since 1969, and his voice finally reached the mass audience Atlantic had been hoping for. Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway (1972 Atlantic), the only complete album the two made together, contained three hit singles: a cover of Carol King’s “You’ve Got A Friend,” a treatment of the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” and the #1 R&B/#5 pop Ralph McDonald/William Slater song “Where Is The Love.” The album itself was an enormous success, charting at #2 R&B and #3 pop. In late 1972, Hathaway collaborated with Quincy Jones in scoring the motion picture Come Back, Charleston Blue, but, by comparison, the Atco soundtrack album had minimum impact. That same year Hathaway produced a little-noticed album titled First Taste of Sin (1972 Reprise) for the San Francisco band Cold Blood, which featured vocalist Lydia Pense.
Following his Live album, on which Hathaway was backed by such players as guitarists Phil Upchurch and Cornell Dupree, bassist Willie Weeks, and drummer Fred White, he recorded the vaguely autobiographical, Mardin-produced Extension of a Man (1973 Rhino). The album boasted three notable singles, the Al Kooper-penned “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” the J.R. Bailey-Ken Williams song “Love, Love, Love,” and the Hathaway original “Come Little Children.” Extension of a Man, the R&B singer’s last full studio album, made it to #18 on the R&B chart and #69 on the pop charts. Two more live albums were issued posthumously: In Performance (1980 Atlantic) and These Songs for You, Live! (2004 Atlantic/Rhino).
After singing the theme for Norman Lear’s hit television sitcom Maude and playing electric piano on a couple of Aretha Franklin albums, depression won the upper hand and Hathaway disappeared from public sight. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he began taking in excess of a dozen different pills several times day in order to control the disease. He spent the next few years in and out of mental hospitals.
Hathaway finally resurfaced and reunited with Flack—whom he had fallen out of favor with over the past couple of years—with the Reggie Lucas/James Mtume composition “The Closer I Get to You.” The song was from Flack’s Blue Lights in the Basement (1978 Atlantic), and climbed to #11 R&B/#2 pop. Hathaway had been hospitalized at the time and received a temporary discharge to do the session. A solo Hathaway single, “You Where Meant for Me,” also appeared in 1978. Reconciled, Flack and Hathaway began working early the next year on what was intended to be their second album together. Two songs were recorded, but Hathaway began having problems during a third song and the sessions were cancelled.
On January 13, 1979, Hathaway’s body was found atop a second-story extension below his room on the 15th floor of New York City’s Essex House, a luxury hotel where he had been staying during the sessions. The glass on the room’s window had been carefully removed, leading authorities to rule his death a suicide, although his family and many friends and fans disputed the finding. Hathaway was only 33 years old. His funeral was held in St. Louis, officiated by the reverends Jesse Jackson and Cleophus Robinson and attended by such friends as Flack and Stevie Wonder. The initial completed tracks from the ill-fated duet sessions that Flack and Hathaway were recording at the time of his death—“You Are My Heaven” (written by Wonder and Eric Mercury) and the “Back Together Again” (by Mtume and Lucas)—were released on Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway (1980 Atlantic).
Soul singer Lalah Hathaway, the eldest of the late musician’s three daughters, emerged as a recording artist in 1990 with the #3 R&B hit “Heaven Knows” and has maintained an active career ever since. Another daughter, Kenya Hathaway, performed the song “Touch the Sky” on the soundtrack of the 2001 animated film Trumpet of the Swan and has worked since 2003 as a backup singer on American Idol, the hit television talent show on which contestants Ruben Studdard, Elliott Yamin, Chris Richardson, and Chikezie have performed songs associated with her father.
Hathaway’s name has been referenced in recent years in songs by numerous artists, such as Brother Ali, Common, Fall Out Boy, Jim Jones, Talib Kweli, Nas, Scarface, Soul Position, and Amy Winehouse. Bay area Rapper Too $hort based the music for his 1990 hit “The Ghetto” on Hathaway’s song, and Common and Jay-Z have sampled his recordings. Hathaway’s short life of work continues to inspire people to this day.
Fifteen of his best-loved performances are gathered on A Donny Hathaway Collection (1990 Atlantic.)