This Christmas, there's new music from Donny Hathaway

A big fan of both Donny Hathaway and daughter Lalah is James Poyser, keyboardist for Philly's The Roots.
A big fan of both Donny Hathaway and daughter Lalah is James Poyser, keyboardist for Philly's The Roots.
Posted: November 27, 2013

AFTER more than 30 years, the soulfully robust voice of music icon Donny Hathaway is making a comeback to some stereo speakers near you.

Earlier this month, Rhino Entertainment released a four-disc collection, "Never My Love: The Anthology," that includes 23 previously unreleased tracks, among them 13 studio recordings.

Hathaway died in 1979 after leaping from the 15th floor of the Essex House in New York City. He had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and was known for bouts of depression. His suicide cut short a run of jazz, pop, gospel and soul music that was passionately executed and spiritually engaging.

In live recordings Hathaway boldly raised the bar on fellow icons, like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, with his spectacular renditions of hits such as "What's Going On" and "Superwoman."

The St. Louis-born singer greatly influenced the likes of Musiq Soulchild, John Legend, Anthony Hamilton and, most notably, his daughter Lalah Hathaway, a brilliant and versatile singer in her own right.

Two-time Grammy nominee Eric Roberson, who recorded a duet with Lalah in 2009, "Dealing," is among a long list of performers who credit Donny Hathaway for inspiring their style.

"I'm 40 years old, and I've been searching for Donny Hathaway music and video clips for 25 years," said Roberson. "Every time I find something new I start looking for more, so speaking strictly as a fan who has studied Donny Hathaway, this fan is very happy right now."

Included in the collection are Hathaway's duets with Howard University classmate and longtime collaborator Roberta Flack. Their classic, "The Closer I Get to You," made it to No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1978.

Patty Jackson, of WDAS-FM, has played the departed singer's music throughout her career, which spans more than three decades in Philadelphia.

"It's exciting to hear that there is new music, because he died way too soon, and I don't think we had a chance to experience the true greatness of him as an artist," said Jackson.

Hathaway's family reacts

While fans are dancing in the aisles at the thought of new Donny Hathaway music, not everyone is so thrilled. The departed singer's family was reportedly not involved in the new release.

Lalah Hathaway took to social media after the anthology came out to express her disappointment. She wrote on her Facebook page, "so torn . . . I want you to have this experience, but record labels really suck. Truly Shady. But . . . I'm sure the record is genius. As soon as I - or anyone in my family gets one - I'll let you know for sure. May this be the last Tupac'ing exploitation they ever sneak out without promoting it."

The following day she posted a note written by music journalist A. Scott Galloway. Galloway has written liner notes for more than 300 musical releases, including four previous Rhino releases of Hathaway's classic music.

"The contention here [with "Never My Love"] is that these recordings were demos or rehearsal tapes or things he was just working on," Galloway wrote. "Because Donny was so talented, a basic ear may think they are great enough to put them out even after forty years. I don't think they should have been released for sale, especially without the family's permission. Maybe in a classroom setting or music forums for listening and learning purposes, but not for sale."

Rhino did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Jackson said that she is not surprised that previously unheard music has been issued.

"The record business is just that, but underline the word 'business,' " said Jackson, who still gets on-air requests for Hathaway's music. "As fans, we do have the right to feel some ownership of his music, and the record company is going to see how they can make a dollar from that."

Inside the new set

Five studio recordings included in the new release are instrumentals - among them a 20-minute concerto. Hathaway's remarkable voice is undoubtedly what sets him apart from others, but it does not stop there.

James Poyser, keyboardist for The Roots, has spent countless hours studying the singer, but not so much for his singing.

"He is one of the forefathers of soul music, and, of course, everybody sees Donny as an innovative singer. But don't get it twisted. He is also one of the most innovative and creative musicians of all time," said Poyser, himself a three-time Grammy winner. "A lot of people have taken from his style and arrangements."

Poyser was excited at the news of more material but thought that the record label should have included the family in the process.

"I'm sure they wanted to capitalize on the legacy of Donny Hathaway, and part of that legacy is his family, so why not include his family and make the release of the new material even sweeter?" said Poyser. He named Lalah Hathaway as one of his favorite singers.

Soul-music fans will have the final say on whether the material should have been released or left in the vaults. In the meantime, some are satisfied just to get another glimpse at Hathaway's genius.

"Even his unpolished is polished," said Roberson. "It sounds incredible to me, although I will admit that the thirteen new studio recordings don't sound like they would have been put together for one album, but more like random recordings over a period of time. Even still, I have no complaints."

Mister Mann Frisby is a former features writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, where he sometimes tortured co-workers by singing Donny Hathaway songs out of key while he worked.

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