The Ballad of a Natural Man: Soul Survivor is to be Found with Donnie Dontcha Dontcha Know
16 May 2002: S.O.B.'s New York
In a storied postwar lineage stretching from Billy Eckstine, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, James Carr, Ron Isley, Otis Redding and Howard Tate to Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Eddie Kendricks, Eddie Levert and Maze’s Frankie Beverly, the black male song stylist has represented the quintessence of Soul (Re Re, Gladys & Mavis being the noted diversions). Most often saddled with the mantles of Stevie Wonder and namesake Donny Hathaway, our era’s greatest (“new classic”) soul star Donnie is more palpably the heir of some less-celebrated masters: Richie Havens, Dobie Gray, Ronnie Dyson, Carl Anderson. Certainly—though no ways oriented towards cabaret—our Donnie could be the third in a holy trinity including Anderson and the late Dyson. And the stirring, soaring qualities of his voice invoke the gospelized passion of Havens and the rootsy warmth of (underrated) country genius Gray.
Donnie, a native of Lexington, Kentucky based in Atlanta, brought his indelible version of down-homespun truths to lower Manhattan’s Sounds Of Brazil and met with an ecstatic audience starved for his bounty. Supported by a three-piece band dispensing fluid, deep grooves and a subtly powerful choral trio—all hailing from Dixie and the Midwest—Donnie, veteran of the FunkJazz & Yin Yang café, proved anew why he is the toast of Hot’lanta. Of course, his appeal has justly spread as far as Los Angeles and London, where he’s recently moved sold-out crowds. Wizard DJ Bobbito got the room’s climate just right, priming the brothers and sisters for the true King of R&Bs arrival with a steady stream of sonic biography flowing from Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata” to Rufus’ “Hollywood”. By the time Donnie’s Afro rose above the furiously bobbing heads, the young master took the stage in a light positioning him as seamlessly anointed by his 1970s progenitors. Swiftly, the assembled throng realized they were witnessing the ascension of not just a legend, rather an immortal.
Cultural Critic Nelson George has written that the aforementioned Beverly, a retro-nuevo soul singer of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, was truly the last in the tradition gathering Gaye and Green. Many fans of the soul and R&B genres would argue there hasn’t been a great voice in the field since the latter met with a scalding pot of grits. The landscape of urban music (what used to be called “black” or “race” etc.) is currently overcrowded with so-called nu-soul aspirants such as (the overrated & muddled) D’Angelo, Maxwell (who thinks it’s sufficient to hire Leon Ware), (the murky) Raphael Saadiq, (the prematurely anointed) Bilal and (the decent and winning) Musiq Soulchild—- plus the (potentially criminal) ‘90s holdover/Isley idolater R. Kelly and assorted lightweight Puffy protégées like Carl Thomas. The majority of these players sully the project to strengthen black expression with whiny crooning about trifling soul mates or dubious radio-ready paeans to fetishized/despised parts of the black female anatomy. None has the farsightedness and inventiveness of the misunderstood Seal. Down on this mundane plane, Donnie alone has the chops and innervisions to appeal to the vast black audience alienated by too canny paeans to Hendrix and odes to dolphins.
“Happy to be nappy,” short in stature but giant in revolutionary humanism, Donnie has only these rivals within the genres he explores in his work: Meshell NdegeOcello (message and musicianship), N’Dambi (voice) & Joi (persona). A clever promoter would contrive a show starring N’Dambi, Rufus Wainwright, Galt MacDermot & Donnie right away. Stylin’ and sweaty in tailored black shirt and tuxedo trousers to his rabid fans delight, Donnie strutted the stage as if touched equally by the hands of God and Wilson. Several listeners sat on the lip of the stage (some obviously up from the ATL), lustily singing along with every song, although Donnie’s debut will not be released on Giant Step until the fall. The criminally short set featured songs from his previous EPs, (the hard to find) 1st Impression (EarthSeed Music) and (currently available) Excerpts From The Colored Section (Giant Step): “You Got A Friend”, “Do You Know (I Can’t Be Sweatin’ You)”, “The Colored Section”, “Cloud 9”, “Our New National Anthem”—- and his early masterpiece “Heaven Sent” (written, I believe, when he was but eighteen).
All of the songs are arresting, affecting and grab your ear as if they will never let go. Donnie’s evolving uvre is a collection of rhapsodies in inspirational revolt. Live, they additionally take on the air of being works-in-progress in the sense that they are earthy and approachable, as if one just walked off the street into the band’s practice room at Moonshine Backline or elsewhere in Atlanta and caught them mid-rehearsal, endlessly refining the arrangements. It would seem that certain tracks, “Cloud 9” for instance, beg the full Stax/Volt, Memphis Horns treatment but all good things come in time. With luck, the day awaits when you can catch Donnie on such an august stage as that of the Fabulous Fox, backed by the electrifying big band.
Just as Dyson’s subtleties and colors refuted the macho bombast displayed by a Wilson Pickett in soul’s heyday, Donnie, today, differs greatly from such rivals as D’Angelo due to his beautiful, unforced melodies, lack of posing and affectation and non-ambivalent message of uplift. Every note he utters seems to signify the “lift as you climb” ethos that characterized blackfolks’ strivings for much of the 20th century. The song that may have connected most strongly with the SOB’s audience was Donnie’s last, “Our New National Anthem”, which he prefaced with an account of his own wrestling with the demons, racial and otherwise, that America fosters in her spawn.
Before returning to slay the clamoring crowd with Leon Russell’s classic “A Song For You” (a standout of the Hathaway songbook & Jerry Wexler’s production oeuvre) done a cappella as encore, Donnie proved himself an eternal seeker who already in his mid-20s has gained a semblance of enlightenment. Like his peer Meshell, he seems to recognize how blacks and whites can only endure by finding ways to co-exist in peace. As did the Allman Brothers Band before him who brought glory out of the Southeast, Donnie communicates across boundaries, sometimes effortlessly. His ambitions for the first album are stated thusly:
“The effects of slavery have never left the African American community,” he says. “This is the reason we act the way we do. I am getting over racism by recording this album.”
Our pursuit of Liberty can only come to fruition when we divest our hearts of hatred for our enemies/oppressors and learn to love everybody. All of the music proclaims that he’s “Black and Proud” showing a heartening lack of the crippling self-hatred that oppresses black America and his breeding in the Hebrew Pentecostal church would demand some sustained spirituality. But Donnie goes farther, guided by the church boys that preceded him (especially Hathaway and Gaye), bravely eschewing the bling-bling poses that have too much currency in Urbania to espouse a notion so un-sexy and simple as “only connect.”
Having waited three years to catch his act again, this critic was duly impressed and then some at the singer’s growth. From slaying agape alternative music fans at the Dark Horse Tavern in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highlands district to seducing middle-aged women come to see Al Green work his silky magic at the Tabernacle, Donnie and his music never ceased to work a miracle. It was not merely being serenaded with “A Song For You”, “What’s Goin’ On” and other soul standards at the Tabernacle that kept me under his spell during the intervening years I spent exhorting my Yankee colleagues to seek him out at all costs. Nor even being turned on by his sartorial splendor in flares, dashiki and plumed opera hats Russell would envy. Donnie’s is a presence that haunts you because his music continues to be courageous and innovative, while there is the very real sense that he recognizes something greater than himself. He appears to be on a mission of salvation—- of soul, flesh, hearts and minds—- and won’t let nobody turn him ‘round. Donnie’s soul stirring is essentially to my way of being.
Y’all got a friend indeed, come to take you floating away on a jazz-tinged cloud. Behold: the gilded firmament where the colored section is naught but a polychrome pastoral where you’ll discover Donnie’s many-hued human family at play.
// Notes from the Road
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