Donny Hathaway: Someday We'll All Be Free
Someday We'll All Be Free
Critical opinion has not always been kind to the singer Donny Hathaway, who died in 1979 at the age of 33. Some have decried an alleged bourgeoisification of soul; but more cruel, perhaps, is the general neglect of critical and commercial attention in which Hathaway's records languish. Rarely is heor indeed, was he, during his lifetimementioned in the same breath as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder or Al Green, beautiful singers, all of them, but also complex, accomplished R&B musicians to whose artistic status Hathaway clearly aspired.
What this four-CD box set contains is the full content of the three studio albums Hathaway released during his lifetime: Everything Is Everything (Atco, 1970), Donny Hathaway (Atco, 1971) and Extension Of A Man (Atco, 1973). A single track arranged by Quincy Jones from the soundtrack to the blaxploitation flick Come Back Charleston Blue is likewise included. There is also the live record he released (Live, Atco, 1972), as well as second disc of live performances culled from the same concerts at the Troubadour in Hollywood in August 1971 and the Bitter End in New York in October 1971, released posthumously (Performance, Atlantic, 1980). To these are added alternative tracks that have been added to CD reissues over the years. The quotient of never-before-heard material in this new collection is relatively low: five studio tracks and two June 1973 live tracks from Carnegie Hall never before released.
This is not as exhaustive an accounting of Hathaway's output as might be suspected, however. Even those only casually aware of the singer will miss his duets with Roberta Flack ("Where Is The Love?," "The Closer I Get To You"), unquestionably his best-known recordings. Moreover, the informative liner notes refer to his extensive work as an arranger for Chess, Stax, Twinight, RCA and especially Curtis Mayfield's Curtom label. It would have been useful to include some of the highlights of these arrangements (like the version of "Valdez In The Country" recorded with Lydia Pense and Cold Blood). And where is Hathaway's first single, the Mayfield- penned "I Thank You," sung in duet with June Conquest in 1969?
The five hours of music included in the box set can be provisionally grouped into four categories....
Tough, complex soul: "Giving Up" (grown-up soul with all the maturity of Shirley Horn's "Where Do You Start"), "Voices Inside (Everything is Everything)," "Someday We'll All Be Free," "Come Little Children," "The Ghetto"these songs feature singing and arrangements both aggressive and expressive. Some take unexpected harmonic turns; in this way Hathaway stood in relation to his early-1970s contemporaries in the Top 40 much as Duke Ellington did to fine but less innovative bandleaders like Jimmie Lunceford in the 1930s. Many of these songs sound best live, and arguably the best part of this collection is the disc and a half of live recordings that it ends with. But the odd thing is that the live versions don't make sense unless you've heard the studio originals first.
Gospel: Like Al Green in the same time period, Hathaway peppered his albums with unabashedly devotional material. This is not surprising for someone who sang in public at the age of four, billed as "Little Donnie Pitts, the Nation's Youngest Gospel Singer." Moreover, the gospel numbers make clear the gospel inflections of Hathaway's singing (and often, his piano playing) on the non-sacred songs.
Breezy jazz manqué: "Valdez in the Country," "Nu-Po," "No Other One But You," "Flying Easy" and others are the kind of songs that led some critics to accuse Hathaway of putting on airs, seeking to add a patina of jazzy sophistication to his R&B. Such criticism seems largely irrelevant today. These songs sit securely in the company of other musically talented non-jazz performers like Earth, Wind & Fire and genuine jazz contemporaries like Detroit's Tribe Records collective.
The middle of the road: There are more than a few duds in this category, some Hathaway originals, others misguided covers (like the cloying "Magdalena"). But here, too, Hathaway pulled out some distinctive successes: the live version of Leon Russell's "A Song For You," for example, which expertly milks the responsive crowd's anticipation, pausing and then inserting a long, cascading Lisztian piano figure before taking up the song again. Also live, Stevie Wonder's "Superwoman" works exceptionally well even up against the original (in fact, despite what he tells the crowd, Hathaway only sings the second half of Wonder's composition, the "Where Were You When I Needed You" half).
There are good and bad numbers that fall into all four of these categories, and at least one masterpiece that spans the first three categories: the gospel number "Thank You Master (For My Soul)," which features great soul horn charts and happens to have a fine jazz-influenced piano solo. This might be the best song on the four discs.
Hathaway suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, severely so near the end of his short life, and his premature deathhe fell from a 15-story window at the Essex Hotel in New Yorkwas ruled a suicide. In the wake of novelist David Foster Wallace's suicide in 2009, his friend the author David Lipsky wrote that suicide has "event gravity": "Eventually, every memory and impression gets tugged in its direction." In Hathaway's case, having died an early death certainly casts a pall over the music compiled on this box set, and particularly over the relative lack of chart success it garnered.
What is striking, though, is how little mental illness and suicide color this music retrospectively. Hathaway had his quirks, it's true: he had a penchant for covering material that was beyond redemption (what good can possibly come of Mac Davis's "I Believe In Music"?), for example, and was given to some overblown but not unsuccessful experiments ("Magnificent Sanctuary Band," "A Dream," "I Love The Lord, He Heard My Cry"). Perhaps more significantly, he was singularly concerned with spiritual salvation. But what emerges from this music is a sense of competence, professionalism, hard work. Hard work that pays off, if rarely, in a unique brand of transcendence.
See C.N. Harold's exhaustive AAJ tribute to Hathaway for more information on this artist.
Tracks: CD1: Voices Inside (Everything is Everything); Je Vous Aime (I Love You); I Believe To My Soul; Misty; Sugar Lee; Tryin' Times; Thank You Master (For My Soul); The Ghetto; To Be Young, Gifted And Black; Giving Up; A Song For You; Little Girl; He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother; Magnificent Sanctuary Band; She Is My Lady; I Believe In Music. CD2: Take A Love Song; Put Your Hand In The Hand; I Love The Lord, He Heard my Cry (Parts I & II); Someday We'll All Be Free; Flying Easy; Valdez In The Country; I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know; Come Little Children; Love, Love, Love; The Slums; Magdalena; I Know It's You; Jealous Guy; No Other One But You; The Essence of Destiny; Going Down; Make It On Your Own. CD3: This Christmas; Little Ghetto Boy; A Dream; Be There; Lord Help Me; You Were Meant For Me; What A Woman Really Means; What's Goin' On; The Ghetto; Hey Girl; You've Got A Friend; Little Ghetto Boy; We're Still Friends; Jealous Guy; Voice Inside (Everything Is Everything). CD4: To Be Young, Gifted and Black; A Song For You; I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know; We Need You Right Now; Sack Full Of Dreams; He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother; Yesterday; Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You); Flying Easy; Valdez In The Country; Someday We'll All Be Free; Nu-Po; Love, Love, Love.
Personnel: Donny Hathaway: vocal, piano, electric piano, bass, Fender piano bass, organ, arrangements; Philip Upchurch: guitar, bass; Cornell Dupree: guitar; David Spinozza: guitar; Keith Loving: guitar; Hugh McCracken: guitar; Mike Howard: guitar; Richard Tee: organ; King Curtis: tenor saxophone, guitar; Gil Silva: guitar; Joe Newman: trumpet; Ernie Royal: trumpet; Marvin Stamm: trumpet; Wayne Andre: trombone; Garnett Brown: trombone; Paul Faulise: trombone; Dominick Gravine: trombone; Tony Studd: trombone; Don Butterfield: tuba; Louis Satterfield: bass; Marshall Hawkins: bass; Chuck Rainey: bass; Steve Novosel: bass; Stanley Clarke: bass; Russ Savakus: bass; Willie Weeks: bass; Basie Saunders: bass; Charles McCracken: cello; George Ricci: cello; Kermit Moore: cello; V. Abato: clarinet; Hubert Laws: flute; Jim Buffington: French horn; Julius Watkins: French horn; Tony Miranda: French horn; H. Schuman: oboe; Romeo Penque: reeds; Seldon Powell: tenor sax, clarinet, reeds; William Slapin: reeds; Phil Bodner: alto sax, tenor sax, clarinet; Emmanuel Green: violin; Harry Lookafsky: violin; Julien Barber: violin; Noel DaCosta: violin; Sanford Allen: violin; Theodore Israel: violin; Morris Jennings: drums; Al Jackson, Jr.: drums; Grady Tate: drums; Ray Lucas: drums; Fred White: drums; Rick Marotta: drums; John M. Sussewell: drums; Ric Powell: percussion; Henry Gibson: conga; Leslie J. Carter: congas; Ralph MacDonald: percussion; Earl DeRouen: percussion; Vashonettes: background vocals; I. Stone: background vocals; S. White: background vocals; Lilian Tynes: background vocals; Myrna Summers and the Interdenominational Singers: tambourines, background vocals; Cissy Houston: background vocals; Sylvia Shimwell: background vocals; Myrna Smith: background vocals; Margie Joseph: background vocals; Judy Clay: background vocals; Deidre Tuck: background vocals; Sammy Turner: background vocals; J.R. Bailey: background vocals; Ronald Bright: background vocals; Gene Orloff: concertmaster; Quincy Jones: arrangements.