Born on October 1, 1945, in Chicago, IL; died on January 13, 1979, in New York, NY; son of Drusella Huntley; married; wife's name, Eulaulah; children: Eulaulah Donyll (Lalah Hathaway), Kenya Canelibra. Education: Attended Howard University, 1964-67.
In 1979, soul icon Donny Hathaway tragically fell fifteen stories to his death. Like many other talented members of his generation who were achieving widespread success in the rock and pop worlds--Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding among them--Hathaway's promising career came to an untimely end. The question of how his stirring vocals, sometimes compared to traditional sermonizing, might have evolved as he matured will remain forever unknown. The Grammy Award winner had even considered entering the ministry himself as an adult.
Hathaway was born in Chicago on October 1, 1945, but spent much of his childhood in St. Louis, where he lived in the Carr Square public housing project with his grandmother, Martha Pitts, who also went by the name Martha Crumwell. Pitts was a professional gospel singer, and Hathaway spent a disproportionate amount of time in church, watching her rehearse and perform. One day when he was just three years old, Hathaway was sitting in a pew alongside his mother, who recalled that her son was more than a bit fidgety that day. She asked him what the problem was, and he replied, "I want to go up there and sing with grandma," Drusella Huntley told Ebony. She told him, "'Go ahead.' The first song he ever sang was 'How Much I Owe, Love Divine,'" Huntley remembered. "He couldn't even pronounce the words properly, but he could follow the tune and melody."
Hathaway soon began singing professionally as "Donny Pitts, The Nation's Youngest Gospel Singer." He also played the ukulele on stage, studied the piano, and as a child was fascinated by glitzy keyboard virtuoso Liberace. At St. Louis's Vashon High School, he quickly made a name for himself as a piano prodigy. Backed by the support of his teachers, Hathaway earned a fine-arts scholarship to Howard University and entered in 1964. His professors at Howard recognized Hathaway's talent and provided ample encouragement. During his time at Howard, he met both his future wife, Eulaulah, and recording artist Roberta Flack. Hathaway would leave Howard without his degree after three years of study; he had begun to receive lucrative job offers, in part because of his membership in a group called the Rick Powell Trio.
While at Howard, Hathaway achieved early success in the recording industry by working as a producer and arranger for several acts, including Aretha Franklin and the Staple Singers. He also produced artists for Chess and Stax Records, and served as the band director for the Impressions, a group fronted by another Howard classmate, Leroy Hunter. In 1969, Hathaway teamed with a singer named June Conquest and recorded the single "I Thank You" for Curtis Mayfield's label and sang backup with the Mayfield Singers. Signed by Atlantic Records in 1969, Hathaway's first single, "The Ghetto, Part I," was released in late October and peaked on the R&B charts at number 23 the following January. The heartbreaking, mournful tale of inner-city misery quickly established Hathaway as a talented singer/songwriter with a deep debt to his gospel roots. His obituary in Rolling Stone would later note that the song "marked him as a major new force in soul music."
More singles followed, along with his first album, Everything Is Everything, released in 1970. Hathaway soon collaborated with Roberta Flack, who was embarking upon her own successful recording career. One of their first singles together was "You've Got a Friend," written by Carole King and released in 1971; Their third single, "Where Is the Love?" soared to number five on the charts in 1972 and earned the pair a Grammy Award. The album on which "Where Is the Love?" was included, Donny Hathaway Live: Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, was also a huge commercial success.
Hathaway's familiar voice made its television debut when he was selected to sing the sassy theme song for Norman Lear's television sitcom Maude. Producer Quincy Jones also hired him to score the soundtrack for the 1972 film Come Back Charleston Blue. By this time, Hathaway was married and had two daughters, Eulaulah and Kenya. However, his fame was also accompanied by pain and disappointment. He reportedly suffered from bouts of depression, and was hospitalized on more than one occasion. In addition, his partnership with Roberta Flack disintegrated. Following the release of his album, Extension of a Man in 1973, Hathaway faded into relative obscurity. He played small club dates and formed an independent production company.
In 1978, Hathaway's fortunes improved. The rift with Flack was mended and the pair returned to the studio to record another song, "The Closer I Get to You." It was their biggest hit to date, charting at number two, and earned them another Grammy nomination. Hathaway, however, would not live to attend the awards ceremony. On January 13, 1979, Hathaway and his manager, David Franklin, had dinner at Flack's apartment in New York City. Following dinner, the singer returned to his hotel room at the posh Essex House. Later that night, Franklin was notified that Hathaway's body had been discovered below his fifteenth-floor window. The hotel room door was locked from the inside, and there was no sign of foul play. The window's safety glass had been removed and laid on the bed. It appeared that Hathaway had jumped to his death.
Although the New York City coroner had ruled the death a suicide, friends found the ruling difficult to accept--in part because Hathaway was enjoying renewed professional success at the time. "It appeared to be neither suicide nor homicide," the Reverend Jesse Jackson told Ebony magazine a few months later. Roberta Flack and David Franklin, Hathaway's dinner companions the evening before his death, reported nothing unusual in his demeanor. Yet Hathaway, who lived on the seventeenth-floor at the LaSalle Towers in Chicago, seemed overly fond of heights and often opened his window to orate or sing into the wind. In addition, he seemed fascinated with the topic of suicide and mentioned it frequently. During one performance, he was photographed with a book about suicide atop his piano.
Hathaway's funeral in St. Louis was attended by several notable figures, including Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder, and the Reverend Jackson, who officiated. He was buried in that city's Lake Charles Cemetery. Three other records were released posthumously: Donny Hathaway in Performance in 1980, The Donny Hathaway Collection in 1990, and Free Soul in 2000. That same year his daughter Eulaulah released a solo effort under the name Lalah Hathaway.
by Carol Brennan
Donny Hathaway's Career
Professional child gospel singer under name "Donny Pitts," 1950s; signed with Atlantic Records, c. 1969; released first single, "The Ghetto, Part I," 1970; released first LP, Everything Is Everything, 1970; teamed with Roberta Flack and released duet, "Where Is the Love?," 1972; most successful chart appearance was from another duet with Flack, "The Closer I Get to You," 1978, which reached number two.
Donny Hathaway's Awards
Grammy Award, Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for "Where Is the Love?" (with Roberta Flack), 1973.
- Selected discography
- Everything Is Everything , Atco, 1970.
- Donny Hathaway , Atco, 1971.
- Donny Hathaway Live: Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway , Atlantic, 1972.
- Come Back Charleston Blue (soundtrack), Atco, 1972.
- Extension of a Man , Atlantic, 1973.
- The Best of Donny Hathaway , Atco, 1978
- Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway , Atlantic, 1979.
- Donny Hathaway in Performance , Atlantic, 1980.
- Donny Hathaway Collection , Atlantic, 1990.
- Free Soul , Wea International, 2000.
- Contemporary Black Biography, volume 18, Gale Research, 1998.
- Nite, Norm N. Rock On: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock 'n' Roll: The Modern Years, 1964-Present, with Ralph M. Newman, T. Y. Crowell, 1978.
- Romanowski, Patricia, Holly George-Warren, and Jon Pareles, editors, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside/Rolling Stone Press, 1995, p. 423.
- Detroit News, January 13, 1979, p. 3B.
- Ebony, April 1979, pp. 60-66.
- Rolling Stone, March 8, 1979, p. 17.