Donny Hathaway: Reassessing His Musical Life
By David Nathan
September 1973, Park Lane Hilton Hotel, London
The brief visit of Donny Hathaway was initially unheralded and unexpected – mainly because the man was here solely as a visitor as part of a vacation he's taking in Europe. It was hardly to be expected that Donny would publicize his arrival too much (...would you?) and courtesy of Atlantic Records, this writer took just a small amount of his time to ask him about his career in general.
Practically anyone with any interest in Mr. Hathaway will be aware of how he started out and how he came to the attention of Atlantic through the late King Curtis. What motivated him to move from purely studying music (and possibly, in consequence, teaching it) to entertaining full-time? "Money!" was the reply, and although I had expected it to be a bit more because of the need for artistic expression, he reiterated that the major consideration was "that there was more money in it".
After some time as Curtis Mayfield's right-hand man, Donny felt the need to move on because "like Curtis, I was an innovator and I needed to say certain things which weren't possible whilst we were together."
Everyone knows how Donny made his initial impact with 'The Ghetto' and his first album really had a strong impression in the soul world. That led him on the road to his teaming with Roberta Flack (with whom he'd studied music at university) – in itself a logical progression. The duet produced two big hits, 'Where Is The Love' and 'You've Got A Friend', as well as being a big-selling album together. Since then, silence from the two. Why?
"Well, no one's said we're not going to work together again – it's just that we haven't." There is apparently nothing at all in the can on the duo but Donny doesn't rule out the possibility of working with Roberta again.
Following that successful streak in his career came Donny's next studio-recorded album (a live one had been put together in between this and his first Atlantic album) and this once more affirmed his vocal and composing capabilities. His new album, Extension Of A Man has just been released on both sides of the water and it differs from the others in that it has no one musical theme but is rather a conglomeration of different styles and moods.
This was quite intentional since, in his own words, "I want to show what I can do" and he's rebelling in his own way against musical categorization. In consequence, a percentage of the album shows Donny's very strong classic training. "I always liked pretty music and I've always wanted to write it." He declined to give one particular influence or inspiration but said that Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky were amongst whom he studied.
He stated that the first track on the album, 'I Love The Lord: He Heard My Cry' is a direct result of influence from such diverse sources as Ray Charles, Curtis Mayfield and Rachmaninoff – with some Donny Hathaway thrown in!
From the album comes what looks like his biggest hit, J.R. Bailey's 'Love, Love, Love' which was suggested by a New York publisher for inclusion on the album. What does Donny think of hits as such?
Without a moment's hesitation his eyes lit up – which really answered the question in itself! He stated that he often records things with the express purpose of having hits and he's hoping 'Come Little Children' will be pulled of the album in the future as it was written specifically for "the kids who dance".
Future projects for Donny include getting together a concerto he's written, entitled Life. It took just three weeks to write and deals with his musical life as such. After it's recorded (so that he can get an idea of exactly what it will sound like) Donny is hoping to have the Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra play it, with himself conducting, which should be quite something.
Donny says that he'd like to use his classical background in writing the soundtrack for a biblical movie, for Come Back Charleston Blue. On the subject of the soundtrack, Donny revealed that Valerie Simpson was originally scheduled to do the vocals, but contractual difficulties prevented this and Margie Joseph was substituted.
Right at this time, Donny says he's making a re-assessment of his musical life and he intends to carry on diversifying his style. On that note, we concluded our chat and although I must in all honesty confess that Donny wasn't the most communicative of the people, we were grateful that he'd given up some of his own time to speak with this writer. Anyway, he's hoping to get back here [to London] – to work this time – some time during next year. That should be something for his fans to look forward to.