Donny Hathaway - vocals, piano, electric piano; Gil Silva - guitar; Chuggy Carter - congas; Bassie Saunders - bass; John Sussewell - drums
A smooth soul singer who injected rhythmic complexity, harmonic sophistication, and a jazzy sensibility into his ambitious arrangements, Donny Hathaway was a bona fide superstar during the '70s. A romantic crooner capable of sanctified intensity on some of his more cathartic gospel flavored originals, Hathaway reached his commercial zenith as Roberta Flack's duet partner on popular hits like "Where Is The Love?" and "The Closer I Get To You." Unfortunately, his ascending career came to a tragic demise with his apparent suicide in 1979 at the age of 33. Hathaway's appearance at Carnegie Hall for the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival in New York caught the multi-talented soul singer-composer-arranger-keyboardist at the peak of his powers, performing material from his ambitious new release, Extensions of a Man.
Hathaway opens with the ebullient "Flying Easy," an appealing precursor to smooth jazz which sounds like it might've served as the template for George Benson's Breezin', the guitarist-vocalist's platinum-selling album from 1976 for Warner Bros. Records. Interestingly, the next tune on Hathaway's set list, his inventive jazz fusion instrumental "Valdez in the Country," was covered by Benson on his 1977 album, In Flight. Guitarist Lee Ritenour also covered the tune on a 1976 compilation presented by Guitar Player magazine and released on MCA Records. Clearly, Hathaway had his share of fans in music circles, as well as the general public.
Switching from electric piano to grand piano, Hathaway next delivers the transcendent message song "Someday We'll All Be Free" with spine-tingling, gospel inspired majesty. His lovely, Latin flavored instrumental "Nu-Po" (a slang reference to Newport) is a tune he wrote especially for the festival. Hathaway stretches out here and improvises in daring fashion on electric piano while his rhythm section cooks up an infectious Afro-Cuban groove underneath. Returning to his Extension of a Man album, Hathaway and his crew turn in a soulful rendition of his infectious "Love, Love, Love," which sounds remarkably reminiscent of Marvin Gaye's soul anthem from 1971, "What's Goin' On." They close out the set with "The Ghetto," a driving instrumental from Hathaway's debut album, Everything Is Everything, that allows each of the members of his band to stretch out on this heated jam.
Born in Chicago on October 1, 1945, Hathaway grew up in St. Louis, where he began singing in church. He took up piano at an early age and by high school was a promising talent, winning a scholarship to study music at prestigious Howard University in Washington D.C. During his college years, Hathaway began playing in jazz trios around town. He eventually dropped out of school to work professionally as a session pianist and keyboardist, supporting the likes of Aretha Franklin, Jerry Butler, and the Staple Singers. He became a house producer at Curtis Mayfield's Curtom label and in 1969 cut his first single, a duet with June Conquest called "I Thank You Baby."
After signing as a solo artist with the Atlantic Records subsidiary label, Atco, he released his debut single, "The Ghetto, Pt. 1," a socially conscious paean to hard times in the inner city. His debut album, Everything is Everything, was released to wide acclaim in 1970, and the following year he released his self-titled followup album, which included a cover of James Taylor's "You've Got a Friend," performed with his former Howard classmate Roberta Flack. Their easy chemistry quickly caught on with the public, sparking an entire album of duets on 1972's Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, which featured the chart-topping, Grammy Award winning romantic ballad "Where Is the Love?" Hathaway followed up with 1973's ambitious Extension of a Man before going into a kind of self-imposed exile, during which time he battled severe bouts of depression which occasionally required him to be hospitalized.
In 1977, Hathaway returned to the scene to record another duet with Flack, "The Closer I Get to You," for her Blue Lights in the Basement album. That song became a smash hit on both pop and R&B charts, paving the way for a proposed second album of duets between the two partners. That project was scuttled when Hathaway was found dead on the sidewalk outside New York's Essex House on Central Park South on January 13, 1979. Since the glass on Hathaway's 15th floor room at the Essex had been removed and there were no signs of struggle, investigators ruled Hathaway's death a suicide. Two duets that he had completed with Flack for their projected album - "Back Together Again" and "You Are My Heaven" - were released posthumously on 1980's Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway. (Milkowski)