Donny Hathaway Live
Atco Records, 1972
REVIEW BY: Michael Broyles
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/31/2008
Some artists, like Oscar Peterson, are known for their brilliant piano work. Others, like Marvin Gaye, are remembered for their amazing vocal ability and interpretation of melody. Still others, such as James Brown, are known for their electric stage show and magnificent ability to lead a band. Donny Hathaway is known for all three, as brilliantly displayed in his 1972 live album Donny Hathaway Live, recorded at the Troubador in Hollywood and the Bitter End in New York. In Live, Hathaway’s voice and keys soar over one of the tightest rhythm sections ever recorded, which includes the famous Willie Weeks, the Hathaway-proclaimed “baddest bass player in the country.”
Consisting mostly of cover songs, Hathaway, a prolific composer in his own right, chose to showcase the talents of fellow songwriters such as Carole King (“You’ve Got A Friend”) and the aforementioned Marvin Gaye (“What’s Going On?”) with interpretations that would be unjustly considered in terms of being worse, better, or equal to their original but should only be described as uniquely Hathaway’s and supremely beautiful. Consequently, Hathaway and his crew are able to master the art of the jam with their renditions of “The Ghetto” and “Voices Inside (Everything is Everything),” which, despite being over ten minutes long, never cease to be interesting. The jams become particularly poignant during Hathaway’s extended Rhodes keyboard solos, which are reminiscent of the greatest jazz keyboardists of the 20th century. The highlight of the album is Hathaway’s rendition of “Jealous Guy,” where he turns John Lennon’s somber ballad into a funky yet tearful gospel-inspired lament that lucidly conveys the regretful nature of its lyrics.
The album is not perfect, though. Its token ballad, “Hey Girl,” tends to drag. It starts out like any other R&B ballad and morphs into a somber and ultimately boring rendition. But the rest of the music is so electric, so energizing and so soulful that this mistake slides by almost unnoticeably. The album achieves a mastery of flow rarely seen and the songs, handpicked by Hathaway, speak to people’s most cherished concerns: their community, their livelihood and the ones they love. Recorded seven years before his tragic suicide, Donny Hathaway Live stands as a testament to the power and ferociousness of one of soul music’s most influential pioneers.