The late Donny Hathaway is a soul legend, his huge influence acknowledged by stars who aspire to his fluid, deeply heartfelt way with a song. His ability to connect with generations of fans is all the more remarkable when you realise that he released only three solo studio albums in his all-too-brief time on Earth. But while his soulfulness was beyond doubt, to call him a soul singer places limits on an artist who didn’t recognise musical boundaries. As the best Donny Hathaway songs prove, his vision was not restricted to any genre. He was influenced by (and worked with) Curtis Mayfield, for example, but he also felt an affinity for Debussy and other classical composers. He wrote a laudably authentic soundtrack for a movie set in the 30s, and his albums saw him straddling sweet soul, gritty funk, gospel music and contemporary jazz. Donny Hathaway could do it all.
An icon of 70s Black music, Hathaway, who was born on 1 October 1945, studied music at Howard University, in Washington, DC, as well as playing sessions in his Chicago hometown and working as a producer at Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom Records. Donny signed to Atlantic’s Atco label in 1969, released his debut album a year later, followed it up with a second in 1971, and issued his final solo album in 1973. There was also 1972’s Live, frequently lauded as one of the greatest live albums of all time.
That year also saw the release of the duets record Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, which sold a million copies; this inspired musical union with the elegantly soulful Flack was the principal way the wider world became aware of Hathaway’s talent. But there was much else to investigate: earlier duets with June Conquest; sessions for Phil Upchurch’s two remarkable rock-influenced late-60s albums for Cadet; Hathaway’s wonderful seasonal song, This Christmas; production work for Jerry Butler and Voices Of East Harlem. Hathaway was even a key contributor to a pioneering Moog synthesiser album, Moogie Woogie, credited to The Zeet Band. Little wonder that stars as diverse as Justin Timberlake, Stevie Wonder and Amy Winehouse, who namechecks the singer on Rehab, declared their love for this remarkable musician.
Perhaps the one person in the music business who didn’t fully appreciate Hathaway’s brilliance was Donny himself. He suffered a long struggle with mental health, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and is frequently described as “troubled”. His illness eventually put an end to what appeared to be a promising return to form in the late 70s, while he was recording a second album with Roberta Flack and working on sessions of his own in New York City. Hathaway fell to his death from a 15th-floor hotel window, on 13 January 1979. He was just 33.
To celebrate a career cut tragically short, here are the ten best Donny Hathaway songs. His soul is heard in every one.
Listen to the best of Donny Hathaway here, and check out our best Donny Hathaway songs, below.
10: The Ghetto (from ‘Everything Is Everything’, 1970)
An unfussy Latin-funk groove. A sense that everything is just flowing. The vocals are mostly asides and wordless expressions, yet Hathaway’s 1969 debut release for the Atco label transmits more about the pains and joys of ghetto life than any number of learned essays and heated discussions could convey. Co-written by fellow young Chicagoan soul talent Leroy Hutson, who released his own version in 1974, The Ghetto still rings with authenticity more than half a century later.