The Closer They Got: Donny Hathaway & Roberta Flack's Incredible Collaborations

Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack in 1970
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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway teamed up for their self-titled album of duets in 1972, it was in no way the first time the two had encountered each other: they’d actually gone to school together at Howard University and had remained friends ever since. They also weren’t neophytes in the studio, having both been pursuing solo careers for a fair while at that point. At the time, however, Hathaway was the bigger star, so when Atlantic Records bigwig Jerry Wexler suggested that the two might benefit from teaming up for an album’s worth of songs, it was definitely a big deal for Flack.

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By the time their version of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” made it into stores, James Taylor’s version had already climbed all the way to the top spot of the Billboard Hot 100, but it didn’t stop the version by Flack and Hathaway from making headway. Their version ultimately made it to No. 29 on the chart and provided the duo with a Top 10 R&B hit, climbing to No. 8. If there’s a most notable accomplishment to their recording, though, it’s that it was Flack’s first-ever appearance on the Hot 100.

Like we said, it was definitely a big deal for her, but now you know just how big.

In addition to scoring an additional minor hit – comparatively speaking, anyway – with their version of The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” Hathaway and Flack went on to score their first No. 1 hit as a duo: “Where Is the Love.”

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Hathaway and Flack having been friends since college, a history which served to create a comfort level which was evident when they were singing together, but Hathaway’s struggle with depression – later diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia – led to estrangement between him and Flack at various points during their careers. It wasn’t until 1978 that they recorded together again, resulting in the duo’s second No. 1 hit, “The Closer I Get to You.”

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Because of the success of their new duet, the twosome moved forward on a plan to record another full album of duets, but fate ended up dealing them – or, more specifically, Hathaway – a very different hand. After completing only two tracks, both of which had incredibly ironic titles (“You Are My Heaven,” written by Eric Mercury and Stevie Wonder, and “Back Together Again,” composed by Reggie Lucas and James Mtume), Hathaway died after falling from the window in his room on the 15th floor of the Essex House hotel in New York, with his death ruled a suicide by investigators.

Given their original plans, Flack chose to remember her late friend and collaborator by giving it a title which paid equal tribute to Hathaway, but for those who don’t know his tragic story, it often causes confusion among those who’ve discovered the duo’s second album long after the fact. If you’re one of those individuals, then now you know why, despite only containing two songs featuring both singers, it bears both their names.

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“Back Together Again,” which featured background vocal arrangements from Gwen Guthrie and Luther Vandross, was a Top 10 hit on Billboard’s R&B Singles chart, hitting No. 8, but it was an even bigger hit across the pond, where it climbed all the way to No. 3 on the U.K. singles chart. It’s nothing short of tragic that it was the last time Flack and Hathaway would hit the charts together, but at least they went out on a high.

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