DONNY HATHAWAY

OVERVIEW:
A great singer, with some incredible tracks. But he never really pulled together a classic record, and he died too young to reach his true potential. Get the debut, and listen to the LIVE album, and you’re pretty set.

THE ALBUMS:

Everything Is Everything *
Donny Hathaway
Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway
Live *
Extension Of A Man

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EVERYTHING IS EVERYTHING  (1970)

B+

Donny’s debut towers over the rest of his (way too brief) recording career and output. It’s the most inspired, joyous, and Earthy album in his catalog, not as self-serious and preachy as some of his later recordings. There’s a lot of variety and great playing, and the material is mostly exciting. And damn – Donny’s voice was one of the greatest instruments in soul music history. He’s also a killer keyboardist (as would be evidenced on his Live album). This album opens with the title track, an uber-classic of uplifting soul. The horn parts are incredible, the groove rules, the vocal hooks are exuberant. The same goes for “I Believe To My Soul,” especially as regards the horn arrangements. The most famous track on here is the 7 minute jam “The Ghetto.” Incidentally, that’s one of the only originals on the album. Donny is a great interpreter of other people’s material, and his albums are usually packed with strong and creatively sung/arranged covers. But that also stops him from getting anywhere near “Stevie Wonder” level in my eyes. Things start to drag a bit on Side 2 of this record – there are some lengthy slow gospel-tinged soul covers that point the way to the follow-up self-titled album (which I’m not a fan of). But overall this is a solid piece of work with some major highlights,  and it’s the obvious go-to Hathaway record.

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DONNY HATHAWAY  (1971)

C

The 2nd album is a gigantic step down for Donny – to an almost confusing degree. Save for one song, this is all covers – and mostly slow, overlong, gospel-y covers. Donny is a phenomenal vocalist, and this album definitely puts the emphasis entirely on his awesome soul voice. But the instrumentation is far less varied than on the debut, the playing generally straighter, and as a result large portions of this record are dreadfully dull. The best cut is easily the only truly joyous and upbeat one – the rousing “Magnificent Sanctuary Band.” That’s the only tune that recalls the energy and spirit of “Everything is Everything.” Donny is a fully committed and passionate singer on all of these tracks, but save for some powerful moments (opener “Giving Up” has a nice groove and atmosphere), the rest of this record does basically nothing for me.

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ROBERTA FLACK AND DONNY HATHAWAY  (1972)

(no grade)

ZZZZZZZZZZZZ. This is one boring record. I don’t know much about Roberta, but Donny DESTROYS her vocally throughout this thing. This is the precursor to those dreadful 80s/90s soul duets by people like Pebo Bryson – it’s totally commercial, totally lame, and has not very much soul. It retains none of the grit and humanity of Donny’s solo records, and just sounds like a cash-in. There’s an OK cover of the corny Carole King song “You’ve Got A Friend,” a terrible version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” and a bunch of unmemorable filler. This was a hit for both of these artists, and possibly generated the biggest exposure of Donny’s career.  But it ain’t good!

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LIVE  (1972)

(no grade)

Now THIS is more like it. Cut from two different live shows, Donny’s only official live album showcases an incredibly gifted backing band, an incredibly gifted lead singer and keyboard player, and a hilariously uproarious audience. There’s a lot of jamming on this record, but the band is great and there’s tons of non-stop energy coming from both the players AND the crowd. This album achieves the impossible and actually presents a decent arrangement of “You’ve Got a Friend,” a Carole King composition I usually find impossibly corny. But Donny sells it, and makes it sound like a good song!!! The best track, however, is the Lennon “Jealous Guy” cover. Donny completely re-invents the song, with a bouncy groove and some rag-like keys. It’s a good enough cover to rank right up there with the classic original, and I’d pair it up with Stevie’s “We Can Work It Out,” another genius soul cover of a Beatle composition. Everybody seems to like the bass solo at the end of the extended “Everything Is Everything” jam session – it’s definitely striking, but also a little silly and overdone. I’m not a huge fan of the tone. Any fan of Donny needs to hear this album though – it’s a real document of his immense talent.

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EXTENSION OF A MAN  (1973)

B

Donny’s final record is routinely called his “most ambitious,” and yet it doesn’t seem to have earned much of a reputation otherwise. It immediately earns that ambitious tag with the opener – an extended and very dramatic orchestral instrumental. This leads into the album’s most fully realized original composition, the gorgeous “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” Donny is riding a major Stevie vibe on this album, both vocally and as regards the material. There are far more original songs this time out, and this seems to be positioned as a sort of major artistic statement for the artist. The problem is that it’s all just solid and “nice,’ but nothing really stands out as genuinely brilliant. The singing is once again stellar (and even more Stevie-like and professional) – there’s a lot more variety and entertainment value than on the previous studio album. Other highlights include the slow gospel-closer “Lord Help Me” and the bouncy music-hall pop of “Magdelena.” There’s a heavier jazz influence now too. The lengthy Blood Sweat & Tears cover falls flat for me (that song is somehow much better with relative “non-singer” Al Kooper at the mic). “The Slums” is a weaker spin-off of “The Ghetto.” As a whole, this record is an enjoyable but unremarkable listen. Donny definitely sounds like an artist with enough raw talent and ambition to have eventually made a classic. But we’re left instead with some good but not particularly exemplary records – worth hearing for soul and pop fans, but not until they’ve fully digested all of their Stevie albums.

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