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Donny Hathaway's Sack Full of Dreams
The great musician dazzles the crowd at the Troubadour and the Bitter End in 1971
Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions’!
This edition’s essay discusses one of the great musicians of 20th century American music: Donny Hathaway. Few embraced as wide a breadth of music or put forward more persuasively the argument that labels in music obscure the art as the reflex to categorize Hathaway as a soul singer barely even scratches the surface of his work and his contribution as an artist.
While I focus on a live recording released in 1972 of his engagements at the Troubadour in Hollywood and the Bitter End in New York, pretty much everything Hathaway recorded is worth discovering and loving. He was a soulful and beautiful musician.
Before I dive in, one warning: my essay discusses Hathaway’s death by suicide in New York on January 13, 1979 at several points and his struggles with paranoid schizophrenia and depression. Thankfully, our approach to mental health, particularly as it applies to Black men, has evolved since then and initiatives such as the Donny Hathaway Legacy Project harness his incredible and important legacy to encourage anyone struggling that there is no shame in seeking help, and that hope and healing can be found, in part, in Hathaway’s music.
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To get from the Bitter End to the Essex House in New York by train, there are a few options. The most efficient is to walk west from the Bitter End on Bleecker Street and then south on Sixth Avenue to hop on an uptown A, B or C train at the West 4th Street-Washington Square station to travel through Manhattan to Columbus Circle. After getting off the train, it's just a short stroll east along the south side of Central Park South to the Essex House, a hotel that is now part of the Marriott chain.
What’s the significance of such a trip? If the streets of New York, like any great metropolis, throb with the ghosts of the past, travelling from the Bitter End to the Essex House is to be up close with Donny Hathaway at a moment of one of his greatest triumphs and at the moment in which his legacy is framed, a musical superhero trying to beat off the devil of mental illness but ultimately unable to conquer it.
That a musician whose omnivorous tastes and ambitions were unrivaled among his peers and whose music, at its best, radiated a joy that was existential eventually took his own life on a January evening in 1979 in New York brings a poignant and heart-breaking urgency to his music. It may explain the fervour that Hathaway inspires. Like Laura Nyro or Judee Sill or Sam Cooke or Eric Dolphy or David Crosby, to feel a predisposition towards his work, to feel it working within you, to feel a kinship with Hathaway’s openness to American music in almost all its forms, is to feel a very personal bond with him, a connection that is highly individualistic (in essence, that no one feels Donny Hathaway’s music quite like I do) and sacred.
The end to Hathaway’s story is known but hearing Hathaway, especially during the time between 1969 and 1973 when he was an active recording artist is to hear him transcend it to become one of the most honest, direct and beautifully vulnerable artists that ever was in music.
When he was recording what turned out to be his final album, Extension Of a Man, and it was clear that he was struggling mightily with paranoid schizophrenia, songwriter Edward Howard took a piece of music that Hathaway composed to write the lyrics to ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free,’ which became the emotional centrepiece of the LP that is, in many ways, Hathaway’s magnum opus and the fullest realization of his panoramic view of music.
Hathaway’s voice, an unmatched instrument of purity and power, soars as he reaches the beginning of the second verse: “Keep on walkin’ tall / Hold your head up high / Lay your dreams right up the sky / Sing your greatest song / And you’ll keep going on, going on.”
“Sing your greatest song”! In discussing the song, Howard once said, “I hoped that at some point he would be released from all that was going through. There was nothing I could do but write something that might be encouraging to him.” Hathaway’s wife, Eulaulah, described how “Donny literally cried when he heard the playback of his final mix [of ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free’]. It’s pretty special when an artist can create something that wipes them out.”
“He hears the music, he hears the strings, he hears the production, he hears the drums, he hears the lyrics all the same time. Donny Hathaway intimidated famous singers.”
Producer Eric Mercury
It was while Hathaway was a student at Howard University on an arts scholarship in the mid sixties that he first met two key collaborators: drummer Ric Powell and singer-pianist Roberta Flack. But, even more critically, it was at Howard that Hathaway, reared almost exclusively on classical and gospel music, was exposed to jazz, soul, pop and the blues—all key ingredients of the Hathaway melting pot (country music was also something that piqued his interest and for which, like everything else, he had an instinctive feel).
With Powell, Hathaway formed a trio. He split Howard for a job with Curtis Mayfield’s new label, Curtom, in 1968. Behind the scenes, both at Curtom and outside of it, he enlivened recordings by acts like Roberta Flack, the Impressions and Woody Herman too as a musician, arranger and songwriter. After a year at Curtom, Hathaway signed to Atco Records on the recommendation of King Curtis.
His first single for Atco, the two-part ‘The Ghetto,’ co-written with Leroy Huston, another key contact Hathaway made at Howard and produced by King Curtis, remains daringly original. Less of a song than a groove eliciting a vibe, it’s immersive in its evocation of the projects—someone says “pass around the joint,” a baby is heard crying and Hathaway pieces together various elements with the most hypnotic being a bass voice repeating “the ghetto” over and over again and the most dynamic being Hathaway’s indelible improvisation on electric piano. It formed the heart of his first album Everything is Everything.
Somewhat buried on the LP was ‘Sugar Lee’. Harkening back to Hathaway’s trio days at Howard—Powell is on drums and Marshall Hawkins is on bass here—it is a mélange of a whole mess of things: the atmosphere of Cannonball Adderley’s live-in-the-studio recordings, the block-party jazz of Ramsey Lewis’ trio and the irreverence of Pigmeat Markham’s ‘Here Comes the Judge.’ It’s what happens around the jazz funk that Hathaway, Hawkins and Powell generate that makes it an exemplar of a certain way of life, radiating a resilient joy. Hathaway exclaims “let’s have church tonight,” a female lasciviously coos “I want sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening, Sugar Lee” and Hathaway calls out “Ricordo, Ricordo” as a sign for Powell to let loose with some heavy syncopated funk on the skins. Amidst the urban soul of the title track, the galloping and prescient ‘Tryin’ Times,’ and the affecting and affirming closing benediction of a cover of Nina Simone’s ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black,’ ‘Sugar Lee’ may seem like a frivolity but its infectious, participatory energy distills the essence of perhaps Donny Hathaway’s greatest gift.
“Donny Hathaway should be heard.”
Don Heckman, The New York Times
In 1971, Hathaway played the Troubadour in Hollywood from August 24 to 30 and the Bitter End in New York from October 26 to November 1. At both engagements, the tapes were rolling. By then, he had released his second album, titled simply Donny Hathaway. It included his legendary interpretation of Leon Russell’s ‘A Song for You.’ Just as notable, to these ears at least, was a slow, ringing version of ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,’ transforming it from the Hollies’ overly sentimental hit version by dialing the tempo way back, bringing the full weight of Bob Russell and Bobby Scott’s song to bear and including a coda that raises it to heavens. There was also the release of ‘This Christmas’ for the 1970 holiday season and his first collaboration with Roberta Flack—two of the touchpoints Hathaway had with commercial success.
The album that resulted from the Troubadour and Bitter End shows: Donny Hathaway Live is not simply a documentation of what transpired on the stages of both clubs, it transports the listener into the room to feel the energy, to feel the force of Hathaway’s talent and most critically, to feel the love in the room.
He had recorded ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ with Flack early in 1971, scoring his first top 40 hit. At the Troubadour, the crowd, on cue, takes over on the chorus after the first verse as Hathaway affirms “you sound awful good tonight.” Sensing the magic in the moment, Hathaway lifts his band—Phil Upchurch and Mike Howard on guitar, Willie Weeks on bass, Fred White (Maurice’s brother) on drums and Earl DeRouen on congas—into the coda as he urges the crowd on, keeping the vibe beautiful, as he exclaims “this might be a record here” and Carole King’s song has morphed from an ode to friendship to an anthem to brotherhood and sisterhood.
The give-and-take between Hathaway and his public is something to behold. Not for nothing is he pictured on the cover—eyes closed, left hand raised as if in a moment of prayer or worship. As Hathaway’s electric piano burbles at the beginning of ‘The Ghetto,’ he begins to testify “gettin’ ready to talk about the ghetto” and as he switches to one of the song’s primary riffs, the crowd begins a soul clap—someone shouts out “all right, this is it”—Hathaway announces to his flock, “ain’t nothin’ but a party going on. This is the ghetto, sho’nuff now” and ‘The Ghetto’ groove switches on. He plays a solo of building intensity, chord clusters creating a thicket of sound—“yes sir”—White moves to the ride cymbal, Hathaway gets lost in a repeating oh-so-funky figure using it as a springboard for a two-fisted opus (shades of Horace Silver here) that resolves with a glistening passage—“God bless y’all”—leading to a solo by DeRouen—“you got it, Earl”—underneath a repeating figure by the rest of the group—“talk about the drums, y’all”—which Hathaway accentuates by picking up a cowbell—“one, two, three, four”—and then it becomes an Afro-cuban duet between the two—“Earl DeRouen, y’all. Earl DeRouen”—before Hathaway brings back the rest of the band, building a sound of ferocious intensity—“can we get a little soul clap out there, please”—to lead into the resumption of the main groove that prefaces an extraordinary sequence with Hathaway as choir director asking the females in the crowd to sing “talkin’ about the ghetto”—“sounds all right to me”—and the men to sing “the ghetto” (recreating the layering on the studio recording)—“just a little bit louder”—allowing the moment to linger before Hathaway kicks things into high gear—“The Ghetto!”
Hathaway’s charisma, charm and spirit of camaraderie make him here the most passionate of preachers—his music a lifeline, a pathway to salvation. His spirit infuses his cover of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On,’ colouring his own comment on it, both in terms of his vocal—Hathaway improvises all around the lyrics and melody of the song—and the changes—in the spirit of the modal exercises of jazz in the late fifties and early sixties—bring a cyclical feel to his improvisation, a feeling that he could have continued long beyond the performance captured on record of just over five minutes. If Gaye’s recording wasn’t already so iconic and indelible (Hathaway’s version was taped about seven months after Gaye’s was released), one might think ‘What’s Going On’ came from Hathaway’s pen.
He was as much a piano player as he was a singer. ‘Hey Girl,’ written by DeRouen and the last of the four tracks on the album from the Troubadour, has shades of Stevie Wonder and a Hathaway solo bursting with ideas.
Moving to the Bitter End, it’s the same band with Hathaway save for Cornell Dupree in place of Upchurch. They tackle ‘Little Ghetto Boy’ from Hathaway’s score (the song is co-written by DeRouen and Edward Howard) to the Blaxploitation picture Come Back Charleston Blue and a hymn to positive agency and the belief that “everything has got to get better.” ‘We’re Still Friends’ has a unique take on the trope of former lovers bumping into each other and Hathaway also takes on John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’ and injects a hefty staccato beat into the verse and some soul into its resolution. It’s not as dynamic a cover as ‘What’s Going On’ but still illustrates how Hathaway could make other people’s songs seems as his own.
Befitting an album that’s centered around feel, it concludes with an extended jam on ‘Voices Inside (Everything is Everything).’ Just before the band locks into the groove, Hathaway tells the crowd “if you feel like clappin’ your hands, stompin’ your feet, shoutin’, go ahead.” Treating what happens next as a soul symphony, Hathaway announces each solo as a movement and it’s all a build up for Weeks’ extended turn in the spotlight, spliced in from the Troubadour gig. Hathaway sets the table by calling him “the baddest bass player in the country.” Perhaps the best moment of Weeks’ improvisation is when he gets lost in a triplet figure, moving up and down the bass and finally dispensing with it by locking into a quote of ‘Shortnin’ Bread.’
A conundrum when writing about Hathaway is what emphasis should be given to his mental illness and how he eventually was unable to be a working musician—from the end of 1973 until sometime in 1977, he wasn’t heard on record or really anywhere and when he reappeared, recording his part of ‘The Closer I Get to You,’ a duet reuniting him with Roberta Flack, it was clear that the toll schizophrenia and depression had taken on him was significant. It was an attempt to record a full album with Flack, a sequel to their first paring from 1972 in which the two memorably travel all across the musical spectrum—that brought Hathaway to New York at the start of 1979 to work with Eric Mercury and Mtume. It was clear he was not well and well, we know what happened next.
“Streets filled with laughter and toy balloons
And people with hearts that care
Who listen for love
Wanting to sing, wanting to care,
Wanting to share all my dreams for the world.”
from ‘Sack Full of Dreams,’ written by Gary McFarland
Almost an extra two hours of the recordings made of Hathaway at the Troubadour and the Bitter End in 1971 have been released in the subsequent years. They add further dimension to what transpired at both venues—for example, when Hathaway played ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ at the Bitter End, he urged, to little avail, to get the crowd to join him in on the chorus as they did at the Troubadour.
Perhaps the finest gem of the previously unreleased material is a languid interpretation from the Bitter End of ‘Sack Full of Dreams,’ written by the gifted composer Gary McFarland. Hathaway introduces the song by saying, “I don’t know what’s going on but this is what I’d like to see go on.” Over the song’s two verses, Hathaway weaves that vision and in the chorus, he speaks of others singing, “can they learn to understand the world of love I’m dreaming, the world of love.”
Love. There is a lot of love in the music that Donny Hathaway made. It blossoms throughout just about everything he recorded, but especially so when he could give love and receive it back in kind live.