It's hard to pick just a handful of songs to define Donny Hathaway, the soul legend born on this day in 1945. "When Donny sings any song," Stevie Wonder once said, "he owns it." Indeed, while his best-loved tunes have been covered or sampled by many artists well into the '90s, '00s and beyond, so many of them found their way into our lives organically, without a lot of radio play or single sales. Here are five great performances that never reached the charts - but stay within our hearts.
"To Be Young, Gifted and Black" (1970)
While more than half of the songs from 1970 debut Everything is Everything were penned by Hathaway, he was just as home as an interpreter of song. His rendition of "Young, Gifted and Black" - a song written by Nina Simone in tribute to the late Lorraine Hansberry, author of A Raisin in the Sun - helped the song gain a sadly unending resonance in the ongoing struggle for civil rights and an end to systemic, racial oppression.
"A Song for You" (1971)
Another dynamic cover of a song - this one by Leon Russell - Donny brought the drama to this impassioned lover's plea. His incendiary phrasing, and that descending piano riff to match Russell's legendary keyboard skills, helped propel Hathaway's sophomore album to the Top 5 of Billboard's R&B charts. This dramatic rendition was a clear influence on later versions by Whitney Houston, Ray Charles, Amy Winehouse and Herbie Hancock with Christina Aguilera.
"I (Who Have Nothing)" (with Roberta Flack) (1972)
It was Hathaway's deeply romantic duets that earned him his largest commercial notice: their first duet album together was his only Top 5 pop album, and their duets gave him his only two Top 5 pop singles as well - 1972's "Where is the Love" and 1978's "The Closer I Get to You." Not to be overlooked on Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway - which features "Where is the Love" as well as renditions of "For All We Know" and "You've Got a Friend" - is the gorgeous opener "I (Who Have Nothing)." The duo's harmonies were in sync from the start, and the instrumental flourishes (including producer Arif Mardin's sumptuous string arrangements) dazzle to this day.
"Someday We'll All Be Free" (1973)
Hathaway endured many personal struggles in his brief but influential career, and many saw "Someday We'll All Be Free," off 1973's Extension of a Man - the final solo album released in his lifetime - as a direct expression of his trials. (He reportedly cried when he heard the final mix.) Over time, artists came to interpret it as another statement of equality, as interpreted by Aretha Franklin, Alicia Keys, Bobby Womack and many more.
"Never My Love" (1973)
Thirty-five years after his passing, a new chapter in Hathaway's legacy opened up with the release of the box set Never My Love: The Anthology. This collection featured all of his original single A-sides, unreleased live cuts, all his duets with Flack and a trove of unheard studio material, including this blissful cover of The Association's sunshine-pop masterpiece "Never My Love," which gave the collection its title. Again, Hathaway's chops are unbelievable here - feel how he bends the entire rhythm of the song around his voice - and it's yet another testament to what beauty he could find in the songs of others.