Donny Edward Hathaway (October 1, 1945 – January 13, 1979) was an American jazz, blues, soul, and gospel vocalist and musician. Hathaway contracted with Atlantic Records in 1969 and with his first single for the Atco label, "The Ghetto, Part I" in early 1970, Rolling Stone magazine "marked him as a major new force in soul music." His collaborations with Roberta Flack scored high on the charts and won him the Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for the duet, "Where Is the Love" in 1973. At the height of his career Hathaway was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was known to not take his prescribed medication regularly enough to properly control his symptoms. On January 13, 1979, Hathaway's body was found outside the luxury hotel Essex House in New York City; his death was ruled a suicide.
Hathaway, the son of Drusella Huntley, was born in Chicago but raised with his grandmother, Martha Pitts, also known as Martha Crumwell, in the Carr Square housing project of St. Louis. Hathaway began singing in a church choir with his grandmother, a professional gospel singer, at the age of three. He graduated from Vashon High School in 1963. He then studied music on a fine arts scholarship at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he was a classmate and close friend of Roberta Flack and a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He also formed a jazz trio to work around the local area with drummer Ric Powell while there, but during 1967 left Howard without a degree, after receiving job offers in the music business.
Donny Hathaway worked as songwriter, session musician and producer. Working first at Chicago's Curtom Records, he later did the arrangements for hits by the Unifics ("Court of Love" and "The Beginning of My End") and took part in projects by the Staple Singers, Jerry Butler, Aretha Franklin, the Impressions and Curtis Mayfield. After becoming a "house producer" for Mayfield's label, Curtom Records, he started recording there. He recorded his first single under his own name in 1969, a duet with singer June Conquest called "I Thank You Baby". They also recorded the duet "Just Another Reason", released as the b-side. Former Cleveland Browns president Bill Futterer, who as a college student promoted Curtom in the southeast in 1968 and 1969, was befriended by Hathaway and has cited Hathaway's influence on his later projects.
That year, Hathaway signed to Atco Records after being spotted for the label by producer/musician King Curtis at a trade convention. He released his first single of note, "The Ghetto, Pt. 1", which he co-wrote with former Howard roommate Leroy Hutson, who became a performer, writer and producer with Curtom. The track appeared the following year on his critically acclaimed debut LP, Everything Is Everything, which he co-produced with Ric Powell while also arranging all the cuts.
Donny Hathaway with Roberta Flack.
His second LP, Donny Hathaway, consisted mostly of covers of contemporary pop, soul, and gospel songs. His third album Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway was an album of duets with former Howard University classmate and label mate Roberta Flack that established him, especially on the pop charts. The album was both a critical and commercial success, including the Ralph MacDonald-penned track "Where Is The Love", which proved to be not only an R&B success, but also scored Top Five on the pop Hot 100. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA on September 5, 1972. The album also included a number of other covers, including versions of Carole King's "You've Got a Friend", "Baby I Love You", originally a hit for Aretha Franklin, and "You've Lost That Loving Feeling".
Perhaps Hathaway's most influential recording is his 1972 album, Live, which has been termed "one of the best live albums ever recorded" by Daryl Easlea of the BBC. The album can also be found on the British online music and culture magazine The Quietus' list of "40 Favourite Live Albums". It was recorded at two concerts: side one at The Troubadour in Hollywood, and side two at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, Manhattan.
Donny Hathaway is also known as the co-composer and performer of the Christmas standard, "This Christmas". The song, released in 1970, has become a holiday staple and is often used in movies, television and advertising. "This Christmas" has been covered by numerous artists across diverse musical genres, including The Whispers, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Alexander O'Neal, Christina Aguilera, Chicago, Harry Connick, Jr., Dru Hill, *NSYNC, Gloria Estefan, Boney James, The Cheetah Girls, Chris Brown, Anthony Arnett (First Baptist Bracktown Christmas Celebration), Patti LaBelle and Mary J Blige (A Mary Christmas, album 2013).
Hathaway followed this flurry of work with some contributions to soundtracks, along with his recording of the theme song to the TV series Maude. He also composed and conducted music for the 1972 soundtrack of the movie Come Back Charleston Blue. In the mid-1970s, he also produced albums for other artists including Cold Blood, where he expanded the musical range of lead singer Lydia Pense.
His final studio album, Extension of a Man came out in 1973 with two tracks, "Love Love Love" and "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know" reaching both the pop and R&B charts. However, it was probably best noted for his classic ballad, "Someday We'll All Be Free" and a six-minute symphonic-styled instrumental piece called "I Love The Lord, He Heard My Cry". He told UK music journalist David Nathan in 1973, "I always liked pretty music and I've always wanted to write it." Added the writer, "He declined to give one particular influence or inspiration but said that Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky were amongst whom he studied."
He returned to the charts in 1978 after again teaming up with Roberta Flack for a duet, "The Closer I Get to You" on her album, Blue Lights in the Basement. The song topped the R&B chart and just missed the number 1 spot on the Hot 100 (reaching #2). Atlantic then put out another solo single, "You Were Meant For Me" shortly before his sudden death.
Liner notes for later releases of his final solo album explain: "Donny is no longer here, but the song "Someday We'll All Be Free" gathers momentum as part of his legacy... Donny literally sat in the studio and cried when he heard the playback of his final mix. It's pretty special when an artist can create something that wipes them out." Edward Howard, lyricist of the song, adds, "It was a spiritual thing for me... What was going through my mind at the time was Donny, because Donny was a very troubled person. I hoped that at some point he would be released from all that he was going through. There was nothing I could do but write something that might be encouraging for him. He's a good leader for young black men".
Hathaway met his wife, Eulaulah, at Howard University. They had two daughters, Eulaulah Donyll (Lalah Hathaway) and Kenya. Lalah has enjoyed a successful solo career, while Kenya is one of the three backing vocalists on the hit TV program American Idol. He also had another daughter, Donnita Hathaway.
essions for another album of duets were underway in 1979. On January 13 of that year, Hathaway began a recording session at which producers/musicians Eric Mercury and James Mtume were present. Mercury and Mtume each reported that although Hathaway's voice sounded good, he began behaving irrationally, seeming to be paranoid and delusional. According to Mtume, Hathaway said that white people were trying to kill him and had connected his brain to a machine, for the purpose of stealing his music and his sound. Given Hathaway's behavior, Mercury said that he decided the recording session could not continue, so he aborted it and all of the musicians went home.
Hours later, Hathaway was found dead on the sidewalk below the window of his 15th-floor room in New York's Essex House hotel. It was reported that he had jumped from his balcony. The glass had been neatly removed from the window and there were no signs of struggle, leading investigators to rule that Hathaway's death was a suicide. However, his friends were mystified, considering that his career had just entered a resurgence. Flack was devastated and, spurred by his death, included the few duet tracks they had finished on her next album, Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway. According to Mercury, Hathaway's final recording, included on that album, was "You Are My Heaven", a song Mercury co-wrote with Stevie Wonder.
Hathaway's funeral was conducted by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Later in 1979, the Whispers recorded the tribute song, "Song for Donny", for their self-titled breakthrough album. The song reached #21 on the R&B chart.
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