Singer, pianist, songwriter, and arranger Donny Hathaway was one of the brightest new talents in soul music at the dawn of the 1970s. As a session musician and producer at Curtis Mayfield‘s Curtom Records in Chicago, he arranged multiple hit songs for various soul, gospel, jazz, and blues artists and took part in recordings by Mayfield, Aretha Franklin and The Impressions, among others. After being named the studio’s house producer, he also began recording his own music, which quickly became his main focus. He began to generate buzz in 1969 with the premiere of “The Ghetto Pt. 1”, the first single off his debut LP Everything is Everything, and vaulted to prominence the following year when the album premiered to critical acclaim.
Donny Hathaway — “The Ghetto (Part One)”
After releasing his self-titled second album in 1971, Hathaway began working with lauded vocalist Roberta Flack. In 1972, the pair released Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, an album of pop, soul, and gospel duets that went on to sell over one million copies. That same year, Hathaway released Donny Hathaway Live, perhaps the brightest gem in his impressive catalog. The album has been called one of the greatest live albums ever recorded, and has been covered and cited as an influence by John Legend, D’Angelo, Luther Vandross, Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, Justin Timberlake, John Mayer, and Amy Winehouse (who proudly referred to Donny as her favorite artist and even name-checked him in her hit song “Rehab”). You can listen to Donny Hathaway’s Live in full below:
While he was successful in his professional life, Hathaway was haunted in his personal life. During the prime of his career, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was forced to maintain an intensive medication regiment to maintain his sanity. As the ’70s wore on, his mental state worsened, and he was hospitalized on several occasions. His condition also brought tension to his personal relationships and caused a falling out with his close collaborator, Flack.
Things appeared to be looking up when the two reconciled and began work on a new duet album, Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway, in late 1978. However, the two would not get the chance to finish the project. After being sent home from a session on January 13th, 1979 by the producer after an episode of paranoid delusion, Hathaway returned to his room at The Essex House hotel in New York City. Later that night, his body was found on the sidewalk outside, right below his 15th-floor window. Donny Hathaway’s death was ruled a suicide. He was 33 years old.
Though devastated, Flack went on to finish the album they started, including “You Are My Heaven” (co-written by Stevie Wonder), Hathaway’s final recording. You can listen to the upbeat love song in all its painful irony below:
Roberta Flack w/ Donny Hathaway — “You Are My Heaven”
[Video: Roberta Flack]
RIP, Donny. Decades after your death, your influence still looms large over the world of music.
[Originally published 10/1/17]