Coming off a string of three highly successful albums, Donny Hathaway speaks with John Abbey about the beginnings of his career, including his associations with Curtis Mayfield and Roberta Flack
There have been a handful of new talents in the 70's who are now beginning to have a serious influence on the path of our music for this decade. Bill is one of them; Roberta Flack is another, finally achieving her goal with the chart topping "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and album from whence it came, "First Take", currently among the Top 10 albums in the pop charts in the States for a second time.
Another artist who falls into this category is Donny Hathaway, a gifted musician, songwriter, arranger and singer who already has three highly successful albums to his name. The interesting thing to note about Donny's hat-trick of hit albums is that each one has sold progressively more than its predecessor.
Twenty-six year old Donny was born in Chicago, though he spent much of his childhood growing up in St. Louis. His musical background is totally derived from his gospel roots; he was brought up by his grandmother, Martha Crumwell, a noted gospel singer in her day. Even in his early years, though, he was fervently interested in music — rumour has it that at the age of three, young Donny would sing and accompany himself on ukelele.
His teenage years were spent mainly studying music without really testing his own capabilities and it wasn't really until he went to Washington D.C. to study at their famed Howard University — from whence came Carla Thomas and Leroy Hutson, of the Impressions, both of whom were at Howard during Donny's stay — that he really first became interested seriously in any music form outside of gospel. The University actually banned any other form of music other than classical but Donny became aware of most types in his first year there.
He started out at Howard as a piano major, though he later switched to studying the more broader horizons of music education. His musical education ended up though with him concentrating on music theory, which consisted of the study of harmony, chord structure and orchestration. Certainly, this is where his roots were formed once the musical seed had been sewn by his spiritual upbringing.
It wasn't however, until 1967 that Donny first really came out of his shell. He found that he needed some extra money to live on whilst he was studying and he quite naturally considered his musical knowledge could help him through: "Until this time, I had been singing and playing piano in a church in Washington and I hadn't really seriously considered venturing outside of what I knew. I was totally undecided once I came up with the thought. I considered my background and the religious way in which I had been brought up; and then I considered how I really needed to earn some money to continue my studies. So, I convinced myself that I was only doing it for the money and so I joined a trio, the Ric Powell Trio, and we played the local supper clubs and cocktail lounges.
"It was really a light form of jazz and I'd play piano with the trio. We certainly didn't venture outside of this music and steered well clear of Rock or even R&B.
"It really was the first stage of my professional career and now that I look back, I realise how important it was that I came in this way. At the time, I was just beginning to seriously dig Aretha and Ray Charles and the Motown acts, though I was still sticking with the standards for the act."
Donny's frustration grew and he left Howard University and went down to Tampa, Florida, for a while. He really couldn't afford to support himself in his studies and decided that he simply didn't have the money to further his musical education. After a while in Florida, he returned to Washington and it was here that Curtis Mayfield got in touch with him and persuaded him to come home to Chicago and become A&R producer for his then-newly-formed Curtom Records.
In Donny's latter days at Howard, he had become pianist and vocalist with the Mayfield Singers, who had been formed by Curtis and who recorded for his Mayfield label, the predecessor to Curtom. The seven piece choir also included Leroy Hutson at that time. Anyway, Donny accepted Curtis' offer and went back. He started working on arrangements. However, his own recording future was only just around the corner at the time although he didn't know it. He arranged a session for Curtom on June Conquest and L.C. Cook but L.C. didn't make the session. So they recorded June and, later, Donny came back and added his voice to the tapes, thus beginning his recording career.
It's interesting to note, though, that when the record was originally released on Curtom, it credited June and Donnie (note the -ie) simply without surnames. Now, with Donny's new found success, the record has been re-released on Curtom and credits Donny Hathaway and June Conquest. Originally, the topside was known as "I Thank You Baby", whereas now it's simply "I Thank You".
At the time, Donny was also musical director with Curtis and the Impressions on the road. It was very tiring to say the least, especially when he had to do musical scores for recording dates, too, and so Donny reluctantly gave up his post as A&R Director for Curtom.
To afford himself some peace and quiet, he signed on with Chess as a staff musician: "I really wanted to stay in town and find myself again. In the space of about two years, I had come from being simply a gospel singer and musician into all of this and I was feeling confused, tired and somewhat bewildered. Phil Upchurch recommended me to Chess and at the time they were especially busy in their studios in Chicago.
"Leonard Chess was still alive at the time and the company was very active in making local recordings with local artists. They paid me a basic salary and for that I had to be on hand for any sessions they might require me for. But after a little while it all became a little dull and Curtis was asking me to do arrangements for him. Now, I realised my loyalties were to Chess and so I always put them first but, frankly, the arrangements for Curtis meant far more money to me. So, I decided to quit the studio job and make a try for myself.
"So, I got in touch with my old partner Ric Powell and we formed a company, Don-Ric Enterprises Inc. and a publishing business, Don-Pow Music. Then I started work for Curtis on arranging the material for what became the Impressions' "Young Mods Forgotten Story" album and that was probably when I first made my name. People were extremely aware of my arrangements and I was suddenly making it.
"Around the same time, I did some arrangements for Lovelace Watkins, by the way — he recorded "Gone Away" first and I did another thing for him. They were for Uni Records and then I did "Court Of Love" for the Unifics and that was my first big hit. I got that job through Guy Draper, who was the producer for the group and Kapp Records and who had been in the Mayfield Singers with me. Then I went on to do some sides on Carla Thomas, the Staple Singers, both for Stax."
It was about this time that Donny got to know King Curtis better and it was he who introduced Donny to Atlantic, where Curtis was so happy for the final years of his life and career. Much of Donny's first album for Atlantic was already in his head or, in some cases, down on paper: "I'd written, for example, "Thank You Master For My Soul" back at Howard. The message was a combination of what I believed in at that time — and basically my beliefs now, I guess — and how I wanted to relate it with the world I was living in. It really only took me thirty minutes once I had formulated the actual idea. "The Ghetto" was written at around the same time — 1967 — but the companies that I took it to turned it down because they thought it might incite a riot! But it was and still is nothing but music. Curtis was the one who introduced me to the other Curtis, King Curtis. And King liked my songs, especially "Thank You Master", so I cut the first album, "Everything Is Everything", for Atlantic."
However, as a songwriter and arranger, Donny stands supreme for his work with another of Atlantic's super-talents, Roberta Flack: "I knew Roberta way back when I was with the trio. You see, the trio consisted of me, my business partner, Ric Powell, and Steve Noussel, who was Roberta's husband. Anyhow, Roberta was about to be presented to Atlantic — this was before I joined the company — and Steve suggested I might do some songs and arrangements for her. Naturally, I was overjoyed and so I went down to Washington and presented my songs.
"We were impressed with each other immediately and, for my part, I've never stopped being amazed at Roberta. On that first album, I had two songs but for the second one, I was also doing some of the actual arrangements for the sessions. I did "Reverend Lee", which was Roberta's first hit, and "Gone Away". In fact, the background vocals on "Gone Away" feature King Curtis, Eugene McDaniels — he wrote "Reverend Lee", by the way — Roberta and me."
One of the most important stages of Donny's career, though, was the teaming up of Roberta and he: "That was Jerry Wexler's idea. We'd been getting closer, Jerry and me — he produced my second album and the 'Live' one, too — and he thought that Roberta and I could come up with some good ideas together because he knew how well we had worked. We've done well so far and there's an album about to be released next month."
Meanwhile, Donny's 'Live' album is still high on the American charts and now released in Europe. It's certainly his biggest seller so far though, in typical Donny Hathaway style, he's far from happy with it: "I'm naturally happy with the sales but the album itself isn't as good as I would have liked it. I've got to polish myself up for the next one and I'm sure that it will be of a better quality. I'm always striving for something higher than my last so that I've always something to aim for.
"I think that over the last year or so, I've not been thinking as commercially as I should have done. I think I went back a few years to Howard, where 'pop' music was simply taboo, and I started getting too involved in black classical music. I'm writing new material now for the next album and I think it will be in a slightly different direction. I've really got to catch up with my own concept."
There is now every possibility of Roberta and Donny coming to Europe together this summer. Plans are already advanced for them to appear on at least one concert date in London as part of a European tour.