Bedeviled by paranoid schizophrenia, Donny Hathaway, nonetheless, became a soul legend, according to Rolling Stone. Yet, he is so often excluded from the histories of American popular music. Hathaway was one of the brightest new voices in soul music in the ’70s, achieving his greatest commercial success as Roberta Flack’s duet partner of choice.
Hathaway, born October 1, 1945, in Chicago, began singing in church with his grandmother at three having moved to St. Louis. He took to the piano early on, and while in high school, he was so impressive to the extent that he won a full-ride fine arts scholarship to Howard University to study music in 1964.
He tasted live performance with a cocktail jazz outfit called the Ric Powell Trio while in college and when offers in the record industry began pouring in, he left school after three years.
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Hathaway first worked behind the scenes as a producer, arranger, songwriter, and session pianist/keyboardist supporting the likes of the Staple Singers, Aretha Franklin and Jerry Butler.
He joined the Mayfield Singers, a studio backing group that supported Curtis Mayfield’s Impressions. Hathaway thus became a house producer at Mayfield’s Curtom label, and in 1969 cut his first single, a duet with June Conquest called “I Thank You Baby.”
He signed with Atco as a solo artist and released his debut single, the inner-city lament “The Ghetto, Pt. 1,” which still ranks as a classic soul message track, sampled by numerous hip-hop artists.
Hathaway’s acclaimed debut LP, Everything Is Everything, got released in early 1970. In 1971, he released his eponymous second album and recorded a duet with former Howard classmate Roberta Flack, covering Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”
It was a significant hit, reaching the Top Ten on the R&B charts, and sparked a full album of duets, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, which was released in 1972. The soft, romantic ballad “Where Is the Love?” topped the R&B charts, went Top Five on the pop side, and won a Grammy with the accompanying album going gold.
Also in 1972, Hathaway went into soundtrack work, recording the theme song for the TV series Maude and scoring the film Come Back Charleston Blue.
Despite things falling in place for the gifted entertainer, Hathaway battled severe bouts of depression, which occasionally landed him in the hospital. His mood swings also affected his partnership with Flack, which began to crumble in 1973, writes allmusic.com. He, nonetheless, released one more album that year, Extension of a Man, and then left the spotlight.
In 1977, Hathaway ironed out his differences with Flack and temporarily left the hospital to record another duet, “The Closer I Get to You,” for her Blue Lights in the Basement album. The song became a hit, and in 1978, it became the pair’s second R&B number one and also made it to number two on the pop charts.
But suddenly on January 13, 1979, Hathaway was found dead on the sidewalk below the 15th-floor window of his room in New York’s Essex House. The glass had been neatly removed from the window, and there were no signs of struggle, leading investigators to rule Hathaway’s death a suicide, though there were rumors that he may not have killed himself. Just 33, his apparent suicide stunned friends and associates.
He is, however, still loved by many black listeners and singers. His songs including “The Ghetto”, “This Christmas”, “Someday We’ll All Be Free”, and “Little Ghetto Boy,” remain on the palates of music lovers. After all, he recorded some of the most beautiful and funky music of the late twentieth century.
And who knows better his staying power than Hathaway himself who told a reporter for the UK newspaper Disc and Music Echo in August of 1971 “My ambition is to get standing ovations everywhere I play. I’m working to have a performance so effective as to really carry the audience on a ride.”
According to Atlantic Records publicist Barbara Harris, after a show, fans would come up to him, and “people were just kind of … speechless. They couldn’t believe what they had just heard.”
There’s a book on the 1972 soul album Donny Hathaway Live touching on the music, the showmanship on stage, and the man behind it all. Hathaway got a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2019.
In 1990, Hathaway’s daughter Lalah launched a solo career but she had a taste of being on a record in 1969 when her father’s hit “The Ghetto,” was being recorded alongside her mother Eulaulah Hathaway who is on that record too.
Decades on, Lalah is an acclaimed singer and Grammy winner, earning one in 2017 for Lalah Hathaway Live. Her Honestly album also earned a Grammy nomination for Best R&B. Lalah has five Grammys already.
She is hailed for her “astonishing ability to sing chords” and also her “sensual, inventive approach to melodies.”