Few artists in Soul music incorporated the rhythms, technological interventions, and spiritual ethos of American jazz more fully than the late Donny Hathaway. Over the course of his recording career, the Chicago soul legend produced music which reminded many listeners of the fusion work of Donald Byrd, Bobbi Humphrey, Archie Shepp, Alice Coltrane, and Yusef Lateef. Connecting Hathaway with these and other jazz artists of the late sixties and seventies was his efforts to provide an aural landscape of black inner city life, his explicit spirituality, and his embrace of various musical genres. An ambitious artist constantly searching for new ways to articulate musically the complexity of the human spirit, Hathaway was never afraid to stretch rhythm and blues into previously unheard shapes, textures, and sounds. Schooled in the rich traditions of African American music, the gifted musician fused jazz, classical, gospel, and of course the blues into his particular brand of soul music. Far too often, jazz critics interested in 1970s fusion focus solely on jazz musicians' forays into rock, soul, and funk, but Hathaway's career forces us to consider the ways in which the black musical landscape was enriched as a result of rhythm and blues musicians' borrowing of jazz styles and idioms.
Sixty-one years ago, on October 1, 1945, Donny Hathaway was born in the culturally vibrant city of Chicago, Illinois. Moving to St. Louis, Missouri as a young child, Hathaway was steeped in the religious tradition of the black church. A fine arts scholarship eventually led the Chicago native to Howard University, where he benefited immensely from the rich musical scene on campus and in the city's black enclaves. Anyone strolling down the popular streets of DC could enjoy the sounds of Edward Kennedy "The Duke Ellington, Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, among other frequent visitors to the thriving metropolis. Quite possibly, Hathaway also absorbed the sounds of the Ramsey Lewis' Trio, which contributed significantly to the popularization of cocktail lounge jazz during the sixties. Only one year after Hathaway's arrival in DC, Lewis recorded The In Crowd at the Bohemian Caverns in May, 1965. Serious about honing his talent, Hathaway started playing in a trio led by another Howard student, Ric Powell. Eventually, Hathaway's reputation as an incredibly gifted musician extended beyond the nation's capital. Leaving Washington, D.C, for Chicago in 1968, Hathaway distinguished himself as an excellent pianist and arranger on recording sessions for Phil Upchurch, Jerry Butler, and of course, the prodigious singer-songwriter, Curtis Mayfield. Fully immersing himself in Chicago's music scene, Hathaway arranged Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions' Young Mod's Forgotten Story, which was released in 1969 and climbed to #21 on the Rhythm and Blues charts. The recording benefited immensely from Hathaway's strong harmonic sense, and Mayfield was definitely impressed by the young man's talent: "This fella, you could just talk to him over the phone and play him a piece of music, and he could call out every chord and every movement and where the fifth was and the augmented and tell you what key it was in. Self-taught, Mayfield had a tremendous amount of respect for Hathaway's expansive musical knowledge. "He really baffled me, Mayfield later admitted. "I always admired people that could do that because I never had that kind of learning. It was just amazing. Even though Hathaway was classically trained, the soul singer never underestimated the power of emotion and feeling. "He had a lot of learning in him, Mayfield perceptively noted, "but he was instilled with a lot of depth of the religious feeling of black music.
Such depth and brilliance brought the twenty-four year old to the attention of record executives and musicians at Atlantic Records. Signed to Atlantic's subsidiary, Atco, in 1969, Hathaway excelled as a singer, arranger, producer, and session player. Over the period between 1970 and 1973, Donny Hathaway released five albums: Everything is Everything , Donny Hathaway, Donny Hathaway Live, Comeback Charleston Blue , and Extension of A Man. None were more impressive than his debut release, Everything is Everything .