Donny Hathaway possessed a talent that really couldn’t be contained by the studio. Listening to any of Hathaway’s studio recordings, particularly Everything is Everything (1969) and Donny Hathaway (1970) you hear soul literally busting at the seams in search of a freedom that can only be found in live performance or any old pulpit in any old church in Soul America. Thankfully the good folk at Atlantic Records, like Jerry Wexler, Joel Dorn, and Arif Mardin also understood that Donny Hathaway’s spirit needed to be loosed, thus his 1972 recording Donny Hathaway Live represents the best that Hathaway had to offer. The same could be said for Hathaway’s contemporary Laura Nyro. For all the quirky brilliance of Nyro’s early recordings like Eli and Thirteenth Confession (1968) and New York Tendaberry, she was often in constant battle with male producers who often challenged her vision of what her music should sound like. These Songs for You, Live! (Rhino/Atlantic) and Spread Your Wings and Fly: Live at the Fillmore East(Sony Legacy), capture Hathaway and Nyro-two of the most soulful voices of their generation-in their prime and without the constraints of the recording studio.
Donny Hathaway Live was drawn from a series of performances that Hathaway gave at The Troubadour in Hollywood, CA and New York’s Bitter End in the summer and autumn of 1971. A second live set In Performance (1980), which was released in the aftermath of Hathaway’s untimely death in January of 1979, also included tracks from those 1971 concert performances. These Songs for You, Live! attempts to collect the best of those performances included several tracks that were unreleased, notably a live version of Hathaway’s standard “Someday We’ll All Be Free” and a thoughtful rendition of the second movement (“Where Were You When I Needed You”) of Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman” that was recorded at UCLA in may of 1972.
Hathaway’s sense of musical genres was fluid-his esoteric Extensions of a Man (1973) being the best example-thus if the studio wasn’t gonna contain his talents, he certainly wasn’t going to be limited by genre. “Flying Easy”, “Valdez in the Country”, and “Someday We’ll All Be Free”, the opening tracks from These Song for You, Live capture Hathaway’s range. All three tracks, which are from Extensions of a Man, were recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1973 as part of the Newport in New York-a NYC version of the longtime Newport Jazz Festival. Whereas “Flying Easy” captures that easy going pop sound that translated into cross-over hits with Roberta Flack on “Where is the Love” (1972) and “The Closer I Get to You” (1978), “Valdez in the Country” displays Hathaway’s Hard-bop and Soul-Jazz sensibilities. Though the sheer beauty of Hathaway’s string arrangement on the studio version “Someday We’ll All be Free” could not be captured live, indeed the performance here dutifully captures his most enduring and thoughtful melody. Notably, the trumpet solo that was featured on the studio version is replaced by a plaintive piano solo that gives the song a sense of restraint that the more optimistic studio version doesn’t.
In his liner notes, long-time music critic A. Scott Galloway notes that the audiences at The Troubadour and The Bitter End were quite different. The New York set, from which “Little Ghetto Boy” (a studio version appears on the soundtrack of the film Welcome Back, Charleston Blue, which really needs to be re-issued) and “I love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” (a remake of Al Kooper’s Blood, Sweat and Tears’ classic) are taken from, was much more reserved,. Ironically it’s the LA audience that really brings Hathaway’s music to life-the audience is in full call and response mode as Hathaway plays the intro to Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and sings heartily along with him on the song’s chorus. Hathaway would eventually do a studio version of the song with Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin, likely inspired by Hathaway’s live version (he appears on her 1973 set Let Me in Your Life), did a stirring rendition of it, conflating the song’s melody with Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord.”
Hathaway’s first live recording was the best selling album of his career. Though it is primarily remembered for his show-stopping 12-minute version of “The Ghetto”-a performance that stands alongside Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry”, Aretha and Uncle Ray’s version of “Spirit in the Dark,” Aretha’s “Amazing Grace” and Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover” as the definitive live recordings from that era of soul-it is largely with his handling of ballads that Hathaway’s interpretive genius is most on display. For example Donny Hathaway Live featured Hathaway’s rollicking version of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”, but he also performed a version of Lennon and McCartney’s “Yesterday” during the Troubadour dates. Hathaway’s take on the Beatles’ classics rivals other soulful versions of the song (and I’m not discounting the original here) including those by Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye.
It is Hathaway’s take on two sad ballads, both by white songwriters, that speak most powerfully to the depth of his spiritual presence. The original version of “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” (written by Bob Russell and Bobby Scott and recorded by Bobby Goldsboro, among others) is rife with “Great Society” era clichés (think book titles like A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich), but Hathaway’s version of the song bares little resemblance to the original. Hathaway’s version is one-part funeral march, particularly the opening segment, and one-part Gospel anthem and no doubt it resonated among black audiences as something much more that a call for “brotherhood.”
Leon Russell “A Song for You” was the pop standard of the 1970s. But Hathaway’s version of the song arguably wrests it from its formidable composer. Beginning with a tear-drop piano intro, Hathaway’s “Song” (which inspired the title of this live re-issue) plods deliberately along, seemingly picking up energy packs with each note that he plays. And then he starts to preach-“remember, remember, remember, remember, remember, we were alone and I was singing this song to you”-offering up this performance as a living testament of the love shared between one performer and his audience.
Though Laura Nyro never became a household name like some of her singer-songwriter peers-Carole King and James Taylor come to mind-she did have a committed following. Indeed Nyro’s best known compositions were recorded by others-The Fifth Dimension (“Wedding Bell Blues”), Blood, Sweat and Tears (“And When I Die”) and Streisand (“Stoney End”) being prime examples. But Nyro’s faithful always held out for her unique approach to a song-jagged edges on melodious confections. When Nyro took the stage at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East in May of 1971, it was her third appearance at the venue (her first was on a double bill with Miles Davis) and one of the last performances at the venue before it closed its door for good a month later.
Spread Your Wings and Fly features some Nyro originals, drawn from Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (1970) with some of her earlier classics “Save the Country” and “Emmie”, several medley’s of well known Soul and Doo-wop and two tracks, “American Dove” and “Mother Earth”, which are being released for the first time. The collection’s title come from the chorus of “American Dove” (“spread your wings and fly/American dove”), a song which is on par with the best of Nyro’s early compositions, but inexplicably was never recorded for studio release.
At the time of the Fillmore East set Nyro was working through ideas for a tribute to what New York Times journalist Stephen Holden called “New York Street Music”. Those ideas would ultimately become Gonna Take a Miracle, Nyro’s groundbreaking collaboration with the trio Labelle. Nyro’s renditions of “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing/(You Make Me Feel Like ) A Natural Woman” and “Ooh Child/Up on the Roof” thoughtful and seemingly heartfelt. But she breaks through some of the sentimentality of those renditions with her versions of “Spanish Harlem” and in particular “Dancing in the Street” (with “Walk on By” as an intro), which both end up on Gonna Take a Miracle. Nyro is clearly pushing against boundaries on “Dancing in the Street” trying to make the protest politics always rendered implicit in the song lyrics, more lucid.
The audience reserves its most giving applause for Nyro’s “Emmie”. Originally recorded for Eli and the Thirteenth Confession the song often resonated with those who viewed the song as a loving wink to same-sex desire (“Emily you ornament the earth for me”)-a reading that gained more credence when Nyro was “outed” by Michelle Kort (Nyro’s eventual biographer) after her death. In this regard “Mother Earth” the track that closes the Fillmore East set portends both the musical and lyrical terrain of Nyro’s career after she reemerges after a five-year hiatus in 1976 and lends her voice to struggles over women’s equality, environmental concerns and animal rights.
Donny Hathaway and Laura Nyro were both products of an era when Soul music had a transformative power and These Songs for You, Live! and Spread Your Wings and Fly capture their singular talents in the context most befitting of their power as artists and spiritual beings.