Donny Hathaway: Celebrating the Spirit and the Soul
Thirty-six years have passed since the release of Donny Hathaway's magnum opus, Everything is Everything, but the passage of time has not diminished its importance as a foundational text in Modern Soul Music. Sparsely constructed tunes enabled Hathaway to showcase his majestic tenor as well as his improvisational skills as a pianist. Funky bass solos by Phil Upchurch, Louis Satterfield, and Marshall Hawkins created an aural landscape which at times invoked memories of Charles Mingus' "Wednesday's Night Prayer Meeting." Undoubtedly Hathaway drew from the tradition and rhythms of jazz-soul, but his greatest inspiration was the women and men who populated America's racial ghettoes. Striking in its candor and social realism, Hathaway's debut brilliantly communicated the complexity, dynamism, and rhythmic beauty of black life in the post-Civil Rights era. Not long before Hathaway's debut release, cultural critic James Stewart, in his seminal 1968 article, "The Need for a Revolutionary Black Art, called for the development of artistic productions "consistent with a black style, our natural aesthetic styles, and our moral and spiritual styles. None of the available information on Donny Hathaway provides insight on his opinion about the ways in which black artistic expression could be used to fashion a radical political consciousness among the African American masses, but his profound love and admiration for the style, rhythm, and culture of black people was apparent on his debut release. Songs such as "Thank You Master for My Soul," "Sugar Lee," and "Je Vous Aime" exposed the cultural world in which African Americans congregated, loved, played, and prayed.
A testament to the Civil Rights and Black Power movement's profound influence on black artistic production during the sixties and seventies, Hathaway also gave voice to the pains, frustrations, and struggles of thousands of women and men whose lives had not improved in the immediate post-Civil Rights era. Three tunes on his debut are particularly moving: "Tryin' Times, "To Be Young Gifted and Black, and the celebrated "Ghetto. A beautiful instrumental featuring some of Donny's most impressive work on the Fender Rhodes, "The Ghetto was an ode to those blacks and browns (Operation Bootstrap program in San Juan resulted in the massive migration of Puerto Ricans to NYC and other eastern cities.) coping with the reality of deindustrialization, chronic unemployment, and rising crime rates. The song's infectious groove conjures up images of an urban landscape dominated by abandoned factory buildings, boarded up-businesses deserted by the black bourgeoisie, and dangerous corners populated by women and men with very little faith in the American dream. Especially noteworthy was Hathaway's utilization of human voices, which added not only texture to his aural landscape, but a touch of urban realism to an already gripping tale of inner city life. One can easily interpret the guttural moans and screams of the voices emanating from this classic song as those belonging to black women and men impacted by the restructuring of the United States' industrial economy. Hathaway was not alone in his focus on urban life. A certain fascination with the sounds and rhythms of inner city life characterized the recording of jazzmen and women as well. Interesting takes on the rhythm, beauty, and slickness of urban life can be heard, for example, on Yusef Lateef's "Russell and Eliot or Bobbi Humphrey's "Chicago, Damn, and "Harlem River Drive.
Hathaway addressed the hell of life in the post-industrial city, but he also found something redeeming about the urban landscape, something empowering about the ways in which women and men of America's Chocolate Cities discovered and created community. Critical to their ability to create community and survive under undeniably difficult circumstances, according to Hathaway, was their faith and connection to a higher power. A profound faith in the existence of an interventionist God who intercedes on behalf of the oppressed enabled black women and men to look beyond the miseries and absurdities of life.