Donny Hathaway: Celebrating the Spirit and the Soul
Such commercial success eluded Hathaway's next solo project, Extension of a Man .Viewed by some as his most ambitious recording, Extension of a Man was released on June 18, 1973. Opening with the six-minute orchestral piece, "I Love The Lord He Heard My Cry, Pts. 1 & 2 , Hathaway's third album demonstrated his talents as a composer, romantic crooner, band leader, and pianist. The album's impressive opener compares favorably to the tomes/suites on one rather popular jazz record of the time, Archie Shepp's 1972 release, The Cry of My People. It was an effort to provide a compositive portrait of the various sounds and genres of Afro-American music, something various artists in jazz were also attempting. Extension of a Man was more of an artistic than commercial success. However, two of the album's tunes, the Motown-influenced "Love, Love, Love and the bluesy "I Love You More Than You Know cracked the Top Twenty. To dismiss the album as unsuccessful underestimates its impact on many in the black community. A moving song covered by two amazingly talented jazz artists, Kenny Garrett and Charlie Hunter, "Someday We'll All Be Free, resonated deeply with black women and men who found political, economic, and social freedom still elusive during the turbulent seventies. Smooth jazz fans may be familiar with another tune off the album, "Valdez in the Country , performed by George Benson on his In Flight release. "Valdez in the Country had been recorded a year earlier by the San Francisco-based, white rock group, Cold Blood, whose debut album First Taste of Sin on Reprise records had been produced by Hathaway.
Sadly, the years following Extension proved difficult for Hathaway, personally and artistically. Severe bouts with depression limited his artistic input tremendously, even though the singer remained under contract with Atlantic Records. Four years after the release of Extension, however, Donny surfaced on Roberta Flack's Blue Lights in the Basement. A Quiet Storm staple penned by Reggie Lucas and James Mtume, former members of Miles Davis' fusion band, Hathaway and Flack's duet, "The Closer I Get to You achieved gold status and reached number one and number two on the rhythm and blues and pop charts respectively. Unfortunately for those who envisioned even greater commercial acclaim for the gifted young man, Hathaway's life came to a tragic end on January 13, 1979 in New York. Only hours after Hathaway completed a recording session with Flack, his body was found outside the posh Essex House Hotel. Weeks later, New York medical examiner John S. Pearl ruled his death a suicide, but the singer's family and friends claimed vehemently that his death was accidental rather than intentional. "He was extremely positive, producer Arif Mardin remembered, "He was not depressed at all. He was in perfect spirits.
Speaking before one thousand mourners in attendance at Hathaway's funeral at Missionary Baptist church in St. Louis, the Reverend Jesse Jackson focused on the singer's musical legacy rather than the circumstances surrounding his unfortunate death. "How Hathaway died, Jackson informed the crowd, "cannot consume our time, but rather how he lived and what he contributed. "His legacy, Jackson continued, "is music. Veteran record producer Jerry Wexler echoed markedly similar sentiments years later in his autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music: "I loved Donny and continue to derive sustenance from his records. When he died he was only thirty-three, and already being called a giant; I often think of what he might have accomplished. His talent had no limits. The beauty of his voice and the sweetness of his soul remain a permanent part of the liturgy.
A testament to Hathaway's amazing talent, many of today's musicians have drawn from his legacy, his songbook, his vocal approach, and his emotional fervor. Such diverse artists as Beck, Pharrell Williams, Common, Frank McComb, and Raul Midon have acknowledged their indebtedness to his artistic work and spirit. Of course, his influence permeates the work of his incredibly talented daughter Lalah Hathaway, whose beautiful tone, impeccable phrasing, and brilliant sense of timing has received praise from her loyal fan base and music critics. Very much like her father, she's refused to limit herself to one particular genre or stylistic approach.