Donny Hathaway: A Donny Hathaway Collection

[20 February 2003]

By J.Victoria Sanders

Listen to the Melody; My Love Is in There, Hiding . . .

Maybe it’s part of being a woman and a girl, this admiration for love that I have. It could be the elements—the gravity of emotion, the density of relationships, and too much heartbreak—that make me overanalyze my feelings and sob over gaping emotion wounds from years back. But it wasn’t until I heard Donny Hathaway that I learned how to mourn a relationship gone bad and how to imagine a different kind of love and sweetness, irrespective of affections lost.

The reality of love, the mechanics of heartbreak, the sweetness of healing wounds and the torture of giving up—they were all narratives of Donny Hathaway’s music. He was a conduit for everything I’d ever felt, from bliss to hopelessness, during the short 33 years of his life, lived long before I would hear his earnest pining. His songs about God and sadness, taught me how to listen for poems in music and what to expect from a love song.

Donny made it seem okay for a smooth cat to fall in love, for a black man to say he was ready to give up and mean it—with regards to love or the world, but not in that order. His music resonated with me because, even now, black men are not supposed to be depressed by pop culture standards. They are meant to be stronger than the strongest—maybe too strong for their own good, which how they end up in prison or wielding guns or slinging crack and survive anyway. They are presented as thugs or comedians, rarely simple men with professional jobs and sturdy families. They are not meant to profess love in song unless there are sexual undertones, or they are named Stevie Wonder or Al Green. Mainstream media outlets and prime time television would have us believe that the absence of popular black love can be blamed on a deep inadequacy in black men that makes them resist revealing themselves as whole people, as men who love in exchange for healing or reciprocation just like anyone else.

It’s hard not to love a man who sang “To Be Young Gifted and Black” with such lush passion. Donny was the archetype for black male vulnerability and romance, earnest tenderness and delicate touches on the small of his lady’s back. No bumping and grinding on his records, simply ballads to hold hands to or make babies to. Maybe what he needed, in the end, was to have someone holding his hand, telling him not to go. Maybe he had told us what we needed to know about taking the biggest risk the human heart can and he couldn’t find a way to apply all that sweetness to himself.

That might be why Donny was so ahead of his time. He was a real, whole black man, in and out of the studio. He was the kind of man who liked to sing into the breeze from his seventeenth story window in Chicago, but perhaps more famously, he was also a man who talked often about committing suicide and flirted more with thoughts of death than love. He found his voice in the mid-‘70s, as the antithesis to the down home blues of Otis Redding or the electric sensuality of Jimi Hendrix. He sang about the ghetto as the lyrical place he found God with his grandmother in Chicago and St. Louis, and when he sang, “I Believe In Music”, he truly did—maybe he believed in nothing else quite as much.

After all, he developed his love for music while listening to his grandmother, a professional gospel singer, singing about divine love in the church, and that’s how he started singing at the age of three. The first song he sang at the age of three was “How Much I Owe, Love Divine”, then he went on to start a professional singing career of his own as Donny Pitts. He entertained becoming a minister later on in life, but destiny had other plans for Donny—he got a fine arts scholarship to Howard University, where he met Roberta Flack. He dropped out after three years, to join the Rick Powell trio and begin working with Aretha Franklin and the Staple Singers, among others.

Though he produced and sang for most of his life, he never created a cohesive body of work. Everything is Everything was as uneven as Donny Hathaway and Extension of a Man. He was ambitious but unfocused in his musical compositions on each, and the only place his legacy is concise and completely effective is on A Donny Hathaway Collection.

His greatest compositions and songs are here, from beginning to end—from “The Ghetto” to “For All We Know”. Evidence of the perfect blend of his voice with Roberta Flack’s on “Where Is The Love” (which earned them a Grammy in 1972) and “The Closer I Get to You” is confirmed. The man that Rolling Stone called a “major new force in soul music” after his death provided his most insightful performances on his solo ballads.

His rendition of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You”, is one of the best remakes of our time, the raspy melancholia of “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” is a reference point for raw emotion in soul music. Donny was not a super black man—he had no cool pose to speak of on record—there was just him, his emotion, and the music. Only indifference was missing in his romantic admissions and constant encouragement in songs like “Someday We’ll All Be Free”. The same way Elvis could captivate an audience with his gyrations or James Brown could own a stage with his outrageous screams, Hathaway sang with his soul on his sleeve each time he put his voice to music. There was so much sadness and sweetness in his song, so few glimpses of sunshine and optimism—but he was a master of nuance, sounding as if he could collapse and cry without missing a beat.

When he jumped from the fifteenth floor of the Essex house one chilly morning in 1979, he was by no stretch of the imagination, a superstar. But no one could dispute that he had a gift for revealing the complexity of human emotion with the smooth riffs of his powerful voice, that he could say how we’ve all felt with such elegance—whether he was talking about reconciling or holidays or pain.

Anyone who can blend those emotions evocatively is at risk of being thought of as a legend—since there are so few of us who can pick a side, emotionally or otherwise. And music fans tend to make legends out of singers who die untimely deaths. There’s something not quite right about young singers who die in plane crashes or with anonymous bullets lodged in their flesh. It forces young folk to face their mortality, beyond the sheer shock of unexplained events—and in some cases, it reminds us that there is a human being behind those voices and words, a human being who might be in real pain or danger, whether we see it or not.

Even as he was singing “You Are My Heaven” and “Back Together Again” with Roberta Flack, with no sign of deep confusion in the timbre of his voice, he could have been thinking of the peacefulness of death. Those songs, also a part of the collection, were released posthumously in 1980.

The myth about great artists and geniuses is lived over and over again in America, as far as we know. That they are tormented, but part of what makes their gift and talent so incredible is that pain and confusion and sorrow. Overwhelmingly, we attach these things to them because they are an extension of the strange, beautiful things we mull over, the things that make us cry in the dark silence of our evenings. I’ve leaned on Donny’s voice so many nights, glass of wine in hand, pondering his simple and profound wisdom. Between each bar, it seems, he seems to be saying, “Love hard or not at all. Plan for the worst, expect the best,” and much, much more.

If he was still alive, there’s no telling how Donny Hathaway could have changed the legacy of balladeers. He was both a product of soul music’s heyday in the mid-‘70s, even as he was repeatedly hospitalized for his depression. Perhaps it was as a product of his troubled spirit that he sang so desperately about sweetness and pain and love. Maybe, in following the myth of artists as moody and tormented yet gifted, he was simply a symbol of what happens when people believe, as he put it, “Tomorrow was made for some / Tomorrow may never come / For all we know”. I hope he’s found the heaven he created for black love; I can still hear whispers of it around, calling his name, waiting for some of his spirit to recreate soul music as he probably envisioned it.

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