“Funk in excelsis” from the late legend.

To hear Donny Hathaway in concert was to understand his fullest potential as a performer and interpreter of songs. One special, rarely-heard album showcases these talents in full: Live at The Bitter End 1971, now available digitally as part of Rhino’s Black History Month celebrations.

For many, Hathaway’s most accessible album was Live, a 1972 release that captured excerpts from shows at Manhattan’s The Bitter End nightclub as well as the legendary Los Angeles venue The Troubadour. In those grooves could be heard a man with unparalleled control of his vocal instrument and an ironclad hold on his audiences. With a crack band that included guitarist Cornell Dupree (who played on nearly all of Hathaway’s self-titled sophomore album), legendary session bassist Willie Weeks and drummer Fred E. White (who’d later join his brothers Maurice and Verdine in Earth, Wind & Fire), Hathaway deconstructed and reconstructed the works of Marvin Gaye (“What’s Going On”), Carole King (“You’ve Got a Friend”) and John Lennon (“Jealous Guy”) in his own image while delivering powerful versions of his own works like “Voices Inside (Everything is Everything),” “The Ghetto” and “Little Ghetto Boy.” It outcharted all his solo studio albums, reaching the Top 20 of the Billboard 200.

While outtakes from those shows had made the rounds on posthumous releases, the 10 tracks heard on Live at The Bitter End 1971 did not see release until 2014, as part of a career-spanning box set. Here, the flow of an actual Hathaway live set is preserved, and the line-up even features some songs that didn’t make the final album, like “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” and “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”

“The musicianship is fantastic,” said Arif Mardin, the Atlantic Records legend who co-produced the recordings. “I love all the solos and the energy.” His producing partner Jerry Wexler concurred. “I would call it ‘funk in excelsis,'” he said. “It’s very James Brown-ish, and it’s got the unexpected syncopations that make for great funk.”

Hear Live at The Bitter End 1971 and rediscover the voice that galvanized everyone 50 years ago.