“When I think of music, I think of music in its totality, complete. From the lowest blues to the highest symphony.”
Spoken by 1970’s soul musician Donny Hathaway, this quote aptly sums up both his approach to music and the man himself. An artistic genius, once likened to Mozart by his long-time collaborator Roberta Flack, blessed with the ability to hear fully formed compositions in his head. And also a deeply troubled individual who struggled through the deepest, most soul-crushing lows accompanied by soaring highs.
Donny’s voice was extraordinary. It had a supreme clarity and laser-sharp focus, but remained chock-full of heart-wrenching feeling. Both technically and emotionally perfect. Alongside Flack he won a Grammy award for 1973’s ‘Where is the Love’, which showcases his impressive range and vocal power, as well as a sweet sensitivity and gentle delicacy. His arrangements were equally spell-binding. A classically-trained composer, he studied music on a fine arts scholarship at Howard University. This extensive schooling was apparent in the complex orchestral production of nearly all his tracks, from mainstream hits like ‘The Ghetto‘ to lesser-known cult classics.
Tragically, the soul singer’s extraordinary talent came with far too high a price. Following the release of his debut album ‘Everything is Everything‘ in 1970, Donny began to suffer from violent mood swings and wildly dark periods. With the encouragement of his wife Eululah, Hathaway sought medical advice and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He was prescribed medication, but it’s thought the St Louis native neglected to take them consistently.
In January 1979, as Donny started work on his ninth album of duets, fellow musicians noted his increasingly erratic behaviour. According to R & B artist James Mtume, Hathaway feared a conspiracy involving ‘white people’ trying to steal his music. Hours after an aborted session, he jumped to his death from a building in New York.
A distressing end, and in some ways, a sadly predictable one. Donny was known to discuss the idea with friends of taking his own life, and a book about suicide can even be seen atop a piano in one of his recorded performances. One can’t help but feel that with modern medication and professional know-how, he may have been able to fight on a little longer.
But Hathaway lives on through his music. Here are my three favourite tracks. These aren’t necessarily his most critically-acclaimed, political or popular, but they’re regulars on my iPod. Each combines funk and feeling in equal measure, and are a good starting point for anyone looking to delve deeper into his catalogue.
I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know
There’s a pained angst to the melody which offsets the loving lyrics, giving you a sense that Donny’s depth of emotion here actually make his life a struggle. This song is so brilliantly constructed, and just packed with desperate longing. It showcases his typically multi-layered approach to soul music, and I love the bass lines. A fantastically moody love song.
Love, Love, Love
There’s a line in this which sums up the feeling of the entire track: “believe me girl, I really need you”. Again, as above, this is a love song with an undercurrent of desperation. It features a much lighter, more uplifting tone though. It has a sweet and sunny Motown feel, with added depth given by Donny’s voice and production. A delicate tune filled with goodness, positivity and subtle power.
Little Ghetto Boy
Donny’s deep-rooted awareness of social injustice is exemplified by this live track. He displays understanding and empathy for ghetto youths in desperate need of guidance, seemingly trying to lift them single-handedly out of the gutter. As he croons “you’ve got to believe in yourself”, it’s hard even for a middle-class, university-educated listener not to feel inspired. My favourite part of the song is the last minute or so, where the instruments really come into their own as Donny and his backing band repeat the mantra “everything has got to get better”. The track’s also wickedly funky and boasts a toe-tapping momentum.
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