Author: Bruce Jenkins  Date Posted:30 July 2021 


Soul and R&B music was strong in the early 1970s. Although the decade came to be dominated by the peerless Stevie Wonder, there were other great artists reimagining the sounds of black America. Take, for example, the transition of Marvin Gaye from pop heartthrob to urban story-teller with his timeless 1971 LP What’s Going On.

Though lesser known, Donny Hathaway was part of that expansion and considered a serious player. Aretha Franklin called him “The baddest new sound on the scene”, doubtless for his fabulous electric piano playing as well as his liquid gold voice. “Donny,” observed Roberta Flack, “has got his thing together”. For evidence, have a listen to Hathaway’s outstanding live album, recorded in 1971, released in 1972 and re-issued by ATCO Records for RSD 2021.

Entitled simply Donny Hathaway Live, the album has one side recorded on each coast of the USA. It is that rarest of live music items, a record that makes you feel part of the event; a participant, not just a distant observer. Both dates were club recordings, which helps of course—there ain’t no intimacy in a stadium. Hathaway is in fine voice and reaching out to the audience, who respond in kind.

Opening with a fabulous version of Gaye’s “What’s going on”, the singer sets out his stall early and confidently. Following this with his own “The ghetto” continues the mood; you can feel the audience digging it and we do too, despite a lengthy conga solo! But the really spine tingling moment is when Donny plays the introduction to Carole King’s “You’ve got a friend”. The crowd, seemingly composed of many admiring fans, squeals with delight. When the chorus arrives they leap in, singing their hearts out (tunefully, in unison, nailing the rhythm). To his immense credit, Hathaway leaves space for them, even improvising a call and response connection. It’s truly magical.

The hallmark of a classy cover is making you unhook from the original. Hathaway achieves that with the Carole King number and again with John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”—no mean achievement. The playing of the backing band is as tight as a drum, with marvellous guitar work from Phil Upchurch (Hollywood date) and Cornell Dupree (in New York) and stellar bass playing by Willie Weeks. Throughout, the leader’s electric piano is scintillating; by turns funky, jazzy, insistent. “Voices inside”, the final track, is particularly groovy and sinuous. All in all, if you lean at all towards R&B from this era, buy a ticket for Donny Hathaway Live, grab a table and order a drink. You won’t regret it.

© Bruce Jenkins 2021

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