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1 October 1945 – 15 January 1979
Donny Hathaway was born in Chicago, but was raised in Missouri
by his loving grandmother Martha Crumwell, a respected gospel singer.
Donny learned to play the Ukulele at the tender age of three and
accompanied himself during performances. In fact he was good enough
to gain the respect from the local community and was afforded the
stage name 'Donny Pitts the Nation's Youngest Gospel Singer. Though
Donny was exposed to the pop & R 'n' B of the time as a teenager,
his strong willed grandmother discouraged him from further exploration.
The possibility to enter into a three year Fine Arts study program
at Washington's Howard University was seen as an opportunity to
'spread his wings' and experience life. Donny also found love at
Howard University, meeting his wife to be ‘Eulaulah’,
who was studying classical voice at the time.
Leroy Hutson and Donny became close friends after
sharing a room at Howard for a year and a half. He recalls how Donny's
immense talent was immediately recognised by friends and tutors
at the university, but this immense talent also caused much internal
turmoil throughout his life.
Hutson recalls, Donny was not a regular face in class, but when
he did attend many theory tutors would stand to one side, allowing
Donny to lead the class on the keyboard.
I remember playing Miles Davis Porgy and Bess
album, recalls Hutson. Donny came into the room after a gig and
sat down listening intently. Donny then began moving the needle
around sampling different parts. He then sat down at his keyboard
and rearranged the whole track stretching the chords etc while still
listening. He managed to make it his own.
Donny and Leroy also shared ideas and wrote together while sharing
their room. The first song they penned was the classic “The
Ghetto”. Hutson recalled how the song was born;
I was playing the basic structure at the keyboard one Tuesday evening
when Donny came in. He immediately took an interest saying. “No
Hoss”, (his nickname for me). “It should go like this”.
Donny took the bass line I was playing and rearranged it into the
bass line structure we all know today. The whole song took an hour
and a half to complete. We watched the cars drive by out of the
window as the rain started to fall. The cars seemed to be moving
to the rhythm of the song.
By this time Donny was already part of ‘The Mayfield Singers’.
A group formed by Curtis Mayfield.
Donny would later meet Ric Powell at university and become part
of the ‘Ric Powell Trio’. With such busy schedules looming,
Donny and Leroy would see less of each other as time progressed,
eventually they would loose touch altogether.
Hutson did contact Donny in his senior year in an attempt to dissuade
him from going on the road with Curtis Mayfield, as it meant Donny
would not graduate. Huston felt that Donny was increasingly impressed
by “the wrong kind of people”, (in particular Ric Powell).
As far as Hutson was concerned, “Ric was a better talker than
he was a drummer. Frankly Donny took to him in a way that disturbed
Donny’s wife, Eulaulah shared Leroy’s low opinion of
Ric Powell’s influence over her husband’s decisions.
Yet she felt the decision to quit school was not necessarily a bad
one. Eulaulah felt school did not have anything further to offer
her husband. In her opinion he was already skipping lessons. And
still making straight ‘A’s!
Donny moved back to Chicago to share his talent with Curtis Mayfield
on his newly born Curtom label. Initially he was given the title
‘staff writer’, but Curtis was so impressed by the twenty
one year olds genius and confidence, he would soon give Donny the
opportunity to arrange and produce material for acts. He was able
to influence artists such as The Five Stairsteps, The
Impressions, Holly Maxwell and
even performed the duet “I thank you” with June
Conquest in 1969.
It was the formidable King Curtis who introduced
Donny to Atlantic Records after they met by chance at a record fair.
Initially Donny’s compositions would be heard through Roberta
Flack, whom Donny had previously met via her former husband
who played in the same band with Donny back at Howard University.
The Hathaway / Hutson penned classic “Tryin’ Times”,
(which was a major cut on Hathaway’s first solo set “Everything
is Everything”), initially saw life on Flack’s first
In 1970 Donny Hathaway’s landmark album “Everything
is everything” was released. An album which would spawn the
hit 45 “The Ghetto”, as well as highlighting Donny’s
deep, dramatic gospel drenched ballads, such as “De vous Aime”,
which is dedicated to his wife Eulaulah, (who also contributed on
background vocals). Donny was still only twenty-four years old.
A year later Donny’s second self-titled album was released,
which contained the wonderfully reflective “A song for you”,
written by Leon Russell and the heart wrenching “Giving up”,
penned by Van McCoy. “Come back Charleston blue”, Donny’s
contribution to the growing ‘blaxploitation’ era was
also released in 1972. Donny’s live performances where also
beginning to stir much interest by this time. So it was not unnatural
to see the release of what would become the first of his celebrated
The following years were definitely significant for many reasons.
Donny would join forces with Roberta Flack. Their first duets album
would spawn the commercially successful “Where is the love”.
Such commercial success would normally bring a certain level of
contentment, but Donny was definitely not content with commercial
success gained in this way. He was continuously torn between his
strict gospel teachings and the trappings of success, as well as
the constant yearning for recognition for ‘his own’
material. By 1973 Donny would be diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic.
Initially, Donny’s diagnosed illness did not halt his creative
genius and exploratory impulse. The release of “Extension
Of A Man” certainly highlighted such traits. “Come little
children” was written in 5/4. A rhythm not normally associated
with modern ‘black music’. It’s basically a call
and holler song, similar to what the slaves in the field would sing.
Donny just did not want to be limited by what was seen as the ‘norm’,
or constrained by ‘music fashion’ in any way. Yet the
constant pull of his strict religious upbringing would never be
too far from his thoughts. And though it was clear to those who
listened and absorbed his music that such ‘religious training’
radiated from deep within his soul. Whatever the subject matter,
the intent was clear. Songs such as “Someday We’ll All
Be Free”, “I love you more that you’ll ever know”
and Love, love, love are no less than jaw dropping spiritual, soul
Donny was twenty-seven years old when artists such as Stevie Wonder,
Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone and the Isley Brothers were mixing many different
flavours into their soul sessions. Many thought that Donny should
have been at the top of the pile, or at least ‘mixing it up
with them’. But for whatever reason his mental health continued
to deteriorate. Some say he never came to terms with ‘relative
success’ and the many ‘negative offerings’ that
were on offer within the business. Coupled with his strict religious
upbringing, the two distinctly opposite elements seemed to be on
course for constant collision.
Though Donny continued to do session work while on and off his
medication, he released only one ‘solo album’. “In
Performance” was a collection of outtakes from the first live
album. This would turn out to be his last.
Hutson recalls how he had witnessed evidence of Donny’s illness
first hand at a concert in Chicago.
… Donny obviously was very paranoid. Between shows he would
go out and pace up and down in street.
Hutson was able to persuade Donny into letting him assist on another
solo project, which Donny had started working on. Unfortunately
Atlantic Records had a different agenda (more duets). So work on
Donny’s solo album would continue at Hutson’s house
when time allowed. All seemed to be progressing at a steady pace.
The outline of five songs was laid down before the negative intervention
of Ric Powell put a stop to further progression. Out of respect
and courtesy, Hutson sent these unheard, unfinished potential gems
to Donny’s wife after his death.
By the time Donny had started work on compositions for inclusion
into the album “Roberta Flack featuring Donny Hathaway”,
his illness had reached a point where he required a nurse to accompany
him. This album was initially set out to have Donny singing duets
all the way through, but his illness slowed production.
Flack recalls the events leading up to his death;
Donny had been acting strangely for some time. He’d be talking
to us in one voice and answering himself in another. He would occasionally
sit down at the piano completely absorbed into a classical composition
he was working on, drifting into gospel or Jazzy tangents. He would
leave the studio for a while, returning in a more settled mood.
On January 15, 1979 we managed to complete “You are my heaven”
and a couple of verses of “Back Together Again” before
the night ended. A couple of hours later Donny was discovered dead
on a balcony at the Essex House Hotel, which overlooked New York
It has been reported that Donny Hathaway was actually in love with
Roberta Flack and he was distraught over not being able to have
her as his own (she was already married). Reports state that he
threw himself out the window (with Roberta Flack in the room at
Despite the varied theories and cofussion after the incident, the
police concluded suicide. Mainly due to the fact that the door to
his room on the 15th floor of the hotel had been locked from the
I was a scrawny five years old in 1970, the year Donny Hathaway’s
Everything is Everything was released. A year later Donny’s
self-titled second album was released. Though both of these albums
were not part of the family collection, my sister was a regular
visitor to the many soul / dance clubs in the London area, such
as Crackers, Global Village and Tiffany’s. Donny Hathaway
& Roberta Flack’s singles were regularly aired in such
clubs. We would also listen to the likes of Roy Ayres, Deniece Williams
and Slave etc I still remember discussing Donny’s tragic death
with my sister in 1979. Atlantic had rush released the ‘Roberta
Flack featuring Donny Hathaway’ album with the classic “Back
Together” track released as a 12” single. Though I did
not really understand or comprehend the significance of Donny Hathaway’s
contribution to music. I sensed from the vague and scattered news
reports that his death was a great loss.
I later bought the best of Donny Hathaway in the early 80’s,
but still naively concentrated on his duets with Roberta flack.
It was in the 1990’s that I started to explore the rest of
that album and became mesmerised. Not only by his limitless emotion
filled voice, but also by the immense vulnerability which was so
clearly evident on many tracks such as “A song for you”
and “Some day we’ll all be free”. I cannot understand
why I had missed such gems before and could not believe it took
me so long to ‘just understand’! I do remember listening
to interviews with specific vocal artists such as Jocelyn Brown,
George Benson, Leo Sayer. (yep I did say Leo Sayer) a few years
prior to my discovery. All three artists praised Donny Hathaway
and acknowledged Donny as a major influence in their lives. I recently
heard the likes of Justin Timberlake paying homage to Hathaway.
I have conversations today with knowledgeable journalists and
music lovers whose ears stand to attention when the name Donny Hathaway
is mentioned. It is so refreshing to exchange thoughts, memories
and the joy this man’s music brings into our lives.
© Michael Valentine Studio Ltd.