This time of year, it’s nearly impossible to spend much time on a holiday music station without hearing the familiar, resonant voice persuasively imploring, “Hang all the mistletoe/I’m gonna get to know you better/This Christmas!” Donny Hathaway’s 1970 single “This Christmas” has become one of the most frequently-sung latter-day Christmas standards, recorded in recent years by everybody from Carole King to Mary J. Blige. In a too-short life that was tragically curbed at 33 in January 1979, the soul singer proved himself a gifted interpreter of the songs of others, as well as a songwriter of no small skill (see: “This Christmas,” for one). He didn’t reinvent the wheel of R&B, but took his place in a line of soul men with the power to deliver messages of hope, love, loss, and empowerment. Rhino has recently surveyed Hathaway’s short but vibrant career in a new four-disc box set entitled Never My Love: The Anthology.
Never My Love follows Someday We’ll All Be Free, a similarly-designed box from Rhino Music France which was released in 2010. That career-spanning, 61-song retrospective premiered seven previously unissued tracks across its four discs; live material occupied half of the third disc and all of the fourth. Never My Love, named for The Addrisi Brothers’ hit for The Association which Hathaway made his own, takes a different approach via its 58 songs. The first CD is a straightforward “best of,” with mono single versions sprinkled into the mix. A second disc introduces another thirteen previously unissued studio recordings, and the third presents an entire unreleased live performance from 1971 at the Bitter End. The fourth and final disc brings together Hathaway’s duets with Roberta Flack including the all-time classics “Where is the Love” and “The Closer I Get to You.” When all is said in done, the box contains a substantial portion of Hathaway’s core solo ouevre, which consists of just three studio solo albums, a duets set with Roberta Flack, three live albums (two released posthumously) and one soundtrack...plus “This Christmas,” of course.
After the jump, we’ll take a closer look at Never My Love: The Anthology!
There’s a world apart between “I Thank You Baby” and “Thank You Master (For My Soul),” the first and fifth tracks on the introductory disc. The first song was co-written by Hathaway and the great Curtis Mayfield, an early mentor, and recorded as a duet with June Conquest. Hathaway had played piano and sung with the Impressions frontman’s Mayfield Singers and served in the A&R department at his Curtom label before going solo for Atlantic Records. By the time he arrived at Atlantic, he was already an accomplished vocalist, writer, arranger and musician. “I Thank You Baby” b/w “Just Another Reason” is a delectable slab of brassy Chicago soul, but Hathaway aimed for a more provocative style as a solo artist, as evidenced by “Thank You Master (For My Soul),” heard here in a promo edit. In the song championed by saxophone great King Curtis, a booming Hathaway uses his church-trained voice to offer “Thank you, Master, thank you for my soul/You gave me food to eat, you put shoes on my feet, and you kept me...Lord, I know I haven’t been so good this week/But you continue to bless me...” The song, with its gospel piano chords and insinuating, low brass, is as chilling as the love duet of “I Thank You Baby” is boisterous.
All sides of Hathaway can be sampled on the first disc. A strong current of social awareness runs through Hathaway’s work, not just on “Thank You Master” but on songs like his sharply funky debut single “The Ghetto” (included in its two-part mono single version), “Tryin’ Times” (co-written by Hathaway and Leroy Hutson but introduced by Roberta Flack), “Little Ghetto Boy,” and a stunning reworking of Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Vocally, Hathaway carried the torch of the great gospel and soul singers before him with a voice that could be tender one moment and booming the next, graced with an elegant tone so frequently compared to velvet. Musically, his compositions and arrangements had a jazz man’s invention and creativity, not to mention a contemporary immediacy that balanced his classic vocal style. Hathaway also elevated the art of the “cover” with his renditions of songs such as fellow piano man Ray Charles’ “I Believe to My Soul,” Van McCoy’s thunderous, dramatic “Giving Up,” Al Kooper’s “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” (first recorded by Blood Sweat and Tears, and influenced by Otis Redding and James Brown) and especially Leon Russell’s “A Song for You.” Hathaway’s voice oozed passion and sensuality over Arif Mardin’s stately, majestic arrangement. Others have plumbed the depths of this exquisite song – Russell, with his heartfelt croak, or Karen Carpenter, with her beautiful yet pained lilt, just to name two – but for many, Donny Hathaway will always own “A Song for You.” It, too, is included in its original mono single version here.
The inclusion of rare mixes makes the first disc a notch above the traditional “best-of” overview, but for many, the second disc with its thirteen previously unissued tracks will likely be the raison d’etre to purchase Never My Love. Building on the five cuts released in 2010, these thirteen songs (including both vocals and instrumentals) answer the question of exactly what Donny Hathaway was recording between Extension of a Man, his final studio album in 1973, and his final two recordings with Flack which were released in 1980. The earliest of the newly-excavated songs is 1968’s “Don’t Turn Away,” a storming slice of soul-funk with a percolating groove and prominent horns. Likely from the early seventies is “Always the Same,” with a similarly big, brassy sound and a more pronounced Detroit influence. “Never My Love” from 1973 is a slow-burning, emotional take on Dick and Don Addrisi’s shimmering song, with Hathaway’s searing lead vocal making up for the lack of those trademark Association harmonies.
Even more fascinating, though, are the stylistic diversions undertaken by Hathaway, of which there are many. Despite its title, “A Lot of Soul” is a loping country ballad, complete with tinkling piano and steel guitar. Hathaway: Country-Style? It could have happened! So could have Donny at the Disco, based on “After the Dance is Done.” This breakneck circa-1978 track sounds unfinished based on the spare instrumentation, but the tight vocals (both lead and the cooing backgrounds) and command of the beat show that Hathaway could have ruled the dancefloor, too.
A number of tracks showcase the jazzier side of Hathaway. The lightly swinging and insouciant “Let’s Groove” boasts a fine Hathaway piano solo (and another solo from an unidentified guitarist), and the only tell-tale sign that the track was unfinished is its abrupt ending short of the seven-minute mark. The electric-piano-driven fusion of “Latin Time” is cut from the same cloth as “Tally Rand,” with both of these instrumentals recorded in 1974. From this period, we also get Hathaway’s original song “Memory of Our Love,” a wistful look back at a love affair set to a breezy, jazz-inflected tune.
1975’s “Sunshine Over Showers” is one of the more experimental tracks here. The track’s sad, soft and beguiling melody somehow recalls both Stevie Wonder and Leon Russell before picking up the tempo for a brief, unusual interlude. It returns to its original, mellow shape and sound, and it’s complemented by another undated track, “Brown Eyed Lady.” This instrumental, with its Todd Rundgren-esque piano and soft pop feel, is more about atmosphere than melody, suggesting that it might have been a backing track for a song that was never completed. The same goes for the tantalizingly-titled “The Sands of Time and Changes,” and its acoustic piano and organ textures and slow tempo place it in a more haunting vein. Hathaway’s most unusual and ambitious composition, though, is 1973’s “ZYXYGY Concerto” (or “Life Pts. 1-4” as indicated on the original tape box). This majestic long-form piece for piano and full orchestra runs nearly twenty minutes in length, shifting mood, tempo, melody and style. Stately piano, swooping strings, ethereal harp, bold horns and crashing drums meld in Hathaway’s quasi-classical vision. Clearly the artist’s ambitions as a composer couldn’t be contained within the traditional confines of albums and singles.
Following all of these new discoveries, the third disc adds mightily to the canon of Hathaway live performances with a set recorded in 1971 at New York’s iconic Bitter End. Hathaway’s five-night residency at the club yielded some of the material used for 1972’s Live album, and the tapes were further tapped for 1980’s posthumous In Performance and 2004’s These Songs for You, Live!. Now, ten more performances are receiving an airing, all expertly recorded by co-producers (and Atlantic legends) Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin. These include just one Hathaway original – the climactic “The Ghetto” – plus a number of reinterpreted tunes from the contemporary songbook like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” and Bobby Scott and Bobby Russell’s “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” (“Hey Girl” is not the Goffin/King song but a tune penned by Hathaway’s drummer Earl DeRouen.) If possible, Hathaway is even funkier in a live setting, allowing for solos and band interplay, and a rapport with the audience. The line-up here would make a fine live album in its own right. Though songs are repeated from those past live albums, none of these performances have been aired before.
Much as rhythm goes together with blues, R&B has always loved a duet team. And Donny Hathaway’s recordings with Roberta Flack remain among his most cherished and indeed, among the most cherished in soul music. The entirety of 1972’s Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway is included on the fourth disc of this collection, along with 1977’s smash hit reunion “The Closer I Get to You” and the two duets completed by the singer the day of his untimely death and released on Flack’s 1980 Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway. The ’72 album, co-produced by Arif Mardin and Joel Dorn, stands up as a perfect expression of the meeting of two kindred spirits with equal foots in R&B and jazz (and the occasional nod to pop). Though Ralph McDonald and William Salter’s catchy and sensual “Where is the Love” was the hit single, Flack and Hathaway’s combined pipes also wrapped beautifully around the likes of “You’ve Got a Friend,” the standard “For All We Know” and even a smoldering “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”
The spark in the musical relationship between Flack and Hathaway never extinguished, and in Charles Waring’s new liner notes, Flack frankly reflects on their partnership and her difficulty, even today, in discussing his death. She also reveals that the romantic “The Closer I Get to You” was recorded long-distance with the partners in separate studios. The box set ends on a high note with the two final recordings made by Hathaway on that fateful January day: Stevie Wonder’s upbeat “You Are My Love” and the sleek, modern “Back Together Again” from the “The Closer I Get to You” team of James Mtume and Reggie Lucas.
Never My Love’s simply but effectively designed package (a DVD-sized digipak) contains a 28-page booklet with Waring’s detailed and informative notes on all four discs’ repertoire. Charles Benson has handled remastering duties for producers Mason Williams and Steve Woolard. “When I leave this life, I will be forgotten,” Donny Hathaway sang on “A Lot of Soul.” “The things I’ve done will never last forever/But didn’t I do them all with a lot of soul?” Not only did he do them with a lot of soul, but thanks to presentations such as Never My Love: The Anthology, there’s no chance that Donny Hathaway’s immense artistry and vital contribution to soul music won’t last forever.