Donny Hathaway: Never My Love: The Anthology [Box Set]
A new box set of CDs by gifted musician and powerful singer of pop and R&B hits Donny Hathaway. Michael Hicks reviews for Louder Than War.
I, like many others, came to Donny Hathaway’s music through his duets with Roberta Flack. Well, one song called The Closer I Get To You. It was included on a Flack compilation I had recently bought. His voice just floored me. He sounded like a smoother Stevie Wonder. But the fact is – Stevie Wonder sounded like him. Donny’s debut album had a huge effect on Stevie’s singing. Listen to the change in Wonder’s vocal delivery from 1970 onwards. The Motown genius was so impressed with Hathaway’s debut – he bought a number of copies and gave them as gifts to friends, family and those in the industry.
During his short life, Donny Hathaway released only three solo studio albums. His debut, Everything Is Everything, from 1970; 1971’s Donny Hathaway, and Extension Of A Man, which appeared in ’73. As timeless as these studio recordings are, the one album that cemented the Donny Hathaway legend is his Live album from ’71. Recorded at The Troubadour in LA and The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, it’s essential to every music lover’s collection. His music is gaining new disciples with each reissue – and rightly so. Now we have Never My Love: The Anthology [Box Set]. What does it offer? The answer is quite a lot!
We get selections from his three studio solo albums plus his OST for Comeback Charleston Blue. Included is Leon Russell’s A Song For You, a number, which is Donny’s calling card, and a song, which has been reacted by every soul tinged performer on American Idol since the show’s incarnation. The studio version of Little Ghetto Boy. A social commentary on 1970s young America. Love, Love, Love, one of Paul Weller’s favourite Donny Hathaway songs, which is always a joy to hear – no matter its home. Marvin Gaye shook up the music world with his ’71 LP What’s Going On, that influence can be heard and felt on this song. The beautiful orchestrated strings and voices at the midpoint – sends shivers: “Every time you smile, it goes through me.” Hathaway, again, did not compose this, but it shows his magical ability of turning everything musical into his own. He wasn’t an interpreter of other’s work – he was the natural owner. I Thank You Baby and, its original B-Side, Just Another Reason, his duets with June Conquest, are another great inclusion. Anything involving Curtis Mayfield is worth owning.
The biggest draw, to this new set, is the unreleased material on the second disc. Never My Love is a fully realised ballad. Originally written and performed by baroque pop group The Association. Donny’s voice soars and his piano playing blends every genre. Hathaway was a music lover – irrespective of genre. A music scholar. From the lowest blues to the highest symphony. This belief in the totality of music is evident on the second song, A Lot Of Soul. This is country soul Donny. Not many performers in the 1970s were blending these musical movements, maybe the exception of Ray Charles a decade earlier. Memory Of Our Love is a somewhat bare bones of a song, a work in progress. Although when he sings, “Don’t worry about tomorrow …” it sounds like a fully formed human being. His phrasing is magical. He pierces the soul from the most unexpected musical angles. Sunshine Over Showers is sublime. In the wrong hands, a song like this can come over as saccharine but Hathaway’s warm embrace of a voice mesmerises. Nobody sang like this in 1975. Nobody sings like this in 2013. A great voice isn’t about how many trills, runs and licks you can perform; it’s about serving the song, bleeding some words – healing others. I’ve had this song on a loop. “But once a tear has all but fade/A bright rainbow is made.”
The earliest material here predates his debut album. Don’t Turn Away and Always The Same, would get even Stephen Hawking heading to the Wigan Casino. Both are a slice of euphoric loveliness. Elsewhere, Brown Eyed Lady is an instrumental, but you just know it wasn’t intended to be left that way. With Hathaway’s vocal on top – something special could have happened. The same could be said of The Sands Of Time And Changes. Zyxygy Concerto, the final slice of Donny on the unreleased disc, may very well be where he was heading. If he had lived longer – this could’ve been his musical landscape. Of course, he not only had the voice of a god, but could also arrange and compose like one. There’s a train of thought that previously unreleased recordings remain just that, unreleased, because they lack quality. That’s not the case with the best of the material here.
Disc three, again, offers unreleased music. This time in the form of live recordings. These cement his mastery as a pianist and vocalist. A Wurlitzer never sounded sweeter. A voice rarely sounding as perfect. He takes on What’s Going On and John Lennon’s Jealous Guy and sprinkles them with fairy dust.
As I said earlier in this piece, my love affair with Donny Hathaway began with Roberta Flack. This set’s fourth, and final, disc closes with 13 of these duets and collaborations. I’ve been transported back to a teenager. Although through years of owning the majority of both’s solo work, it’s my view that, on their own – they created better music. That’s not to say they didn’t create beautiful music when together, because they did. For All Me Know, Where Is The Love and The Closer I Get To You are timeless songs, but other material did tend to veer into middle of the road territory.
Over four discs, Never My Love: The Anthology [Box Set] offers all the evidence needed to present Donny Hathaway as one of the greatest singers god put breath in. His past, and maybe what would have been his future – is here.
Donny Hathaway can be found on Facebook.
All words by Michael Patrick Hicks. More work by Michael can be found in his Louder Than War archive.