Donny Hathaway: Celebrating the Spirit and the Soul
Emerging from most of Hathaway's work is an image of a transcendent, interventionist God who hears the existential cries of the downtrodden. Consider his moving "Thank You Master for My Soul , which features one of the most brilliant jazz piano solos in rhythm and blues history. Thanking God for providing him with not only the material necessities of life, but also spiritual nourishment in the time of tremendous need, Hathaway articulates fully his appreciation for God's grace. "Cause you didn't have to hear my moanin, he acknowledges during one of the song's most gripping moments, "Oh you didn't have to hear my groanin, but you kept me... "Thank You Master serves as Hathaway's testimony of how God's divine power enabled him (and perhaps us) to transcend pain and maintain our humanity in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity. Quite possibly Hathaway would have agreed with the black theologian James Cone, who in his classic, The God of the Oppressed, wrote:
It does not matter what oppressors say or do or what they try to make us out to be. We know that we have a freedom not made with human hands. It is faith that defines our person, and thus enables black people to sing when the world says that we have nothing to sing about, to pray when prayer seems useless to theologians and philosophers, and to preach when the world will not listen.
Twenty-four years of age at the time of his debut's release, Hathaway had managed to put forth an interesting portrait of a courageous yet deeply flawed people in all their complexity. No topic was off-limits. Love, pain, disappointment, politics, and religion received attention from the gifted singer and pianist. Not afraid to explore the various dimensions of black music, Hathaway shared with his audience his love of jazz, blues, gospel, and even modern classical music.
Enormous praise for Hathaway's debut emerged from various corners of the music world. Congratulatory remarks came from Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Carole King, among others. To launch the talented musician into superstardom, Atlantic determined his next release would be a more pop-oriented record. Not even a year after Everything is Everything appeared in record stores, Atlantic Records released Donny Hathaway's eponymous second album on April 2, 1971. It was not particularly successful so far as sales; however two songs received critical and popular praise: "Giving Up and Leon Ware's "A Song For You. Identifying "Giving Up as the "benchmark in the art of forthright emotional vocal communications, Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler praised the emotive ballad as "one of the two or three greatest productions in Atlantic's long history, worthy of placement alongside Ray's "What'd I Say and Aretha's "Respect. Continuing his praise of the masterpiece, Wexler noted: "Most songs are lucky to have a single climax, but "Giving Up has at least four; Hathaway's arrangements builds to peak after peak, King Curtis's bone-chilling tenor break lifting the spirits to ever greater elevations. It's just a stone masterpiece. Fans may have appreciated "Giving Up and "A Song for You, but tepid best describes their response to his eponymous album. A few critics dismissed the album as unfocused. Turned off by what he viewed as Hathaway's pretentious approach to music, the noted music critic Robert Christgau gave the album a "D- . Said the dismissive Christgau in his terse review: "Jerry Wexler and Atlantic, who would seem to know more about this sort of thing than I do, are pushing this refugee from the production booth as the Man Who Will Revitalize Soul Music. Could be, as I say, but if having soul means digging on all this supper-club melodrama and homogenized jazz then I'm content to be sterile, square, and white. Yeah yeah yeah. Such commentary seems unduly harsh; however, one could understand some folks' disappointment with the album. Quite simply, the Donny Hathaway album was not as musically, aesthetically, and socially progressive as his debut or the soul masterpieces released in 71: Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, Sly and the Family Stone's There's A Riot Going On,, Funkadelic's Maggot Brain, and Aretha Franklin's Young, Gifted and Black. Still, there were some solid moments on the album. Such moments, unfortunately, didn't translate into pop superstardom. Climbing to number six on Billboard Magazine's Top Soul Albums list, Donny Hathaway failed to move beyond #89 on the Pop Charts.