Hyperrhiz 23

Donny Hathaway
(Vocals * Soul)

Mark Olague
Cerritos College

Citation: Olague, Mark. “Donny Hathaway.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 23, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/023.r12

Abstract: Mark Olague looks at the compositional potential of the “live” album in pop music through the other “performance” coming through the speakers on Peter Frampton’s 1975 album Frampton Comes Alive: that of the crowd. He then switches focus to look at Donny Hathaway’s 1972 album Donny Hathaway Live! The key to the late soul singer’s enormous talent, according to critics like Emily J. Lordi, was the way Hathaway was able to build a shared intimacy with his mostly African American audience, reflecting their triumphs and suffering even through reinterpretations of popular covers like Carole King’s “You Got a Friend” and John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” Hathaway’s live performances, captured on his classic live album, invite the crowd to participate and spontaneously create community, a practice rooted in the African American religious tradition in which Hathaway was raised.

Keywords: Peter Frampton, Donny Hathaway, audience, African American.


Introduction: ‘Making Church’ (05:46)
Donny Hathaway explains his theory of composition (02:29)


Introduction:‘Making Church’: The “Live” Compositional Ethos of Donny Hathaway

“He’d stare straight at your life and see it like you can’t and sing it like you don’t.”
— Ed Pavlic, Winners Have Yet to Be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway)

Like many Gen Xers, one of my formative listening experiences is sitting with my dad as he spun Peter Frampton’s mega-platinum double-live album Frampton Comes Alive. Released in 1976, the album was recorded primarily at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco.  My father, like I imagine other fathers from what seemed like the years of 1976 to 1985, played the album obsessively, usually at full volume at the end of a long and bitter work week.

None of the songs off the album resonated with me as much as the overall ambiance of the record enhanced by a set of beat-up stereo speakers placed on opposite sides of our beat-up couch. This ambiance I’m referring to is the ambiance of the “live” record—a somewhat paradoxical commercial and aesthetic category: How can a “live” performance convey the atmosphere and spontaneity—the experience of a musical performance—if it is “recorded,” frozen in time and space, packaged and sold as if otherwise? Perhaps it’s the conditions of the listener—the intimate space, the mood, the other listeners present, the overall conviviality of the listening space—that reanimates the live experience. This communal aspect of the live record is its selling point: a concert in one’s living room with friends and neighbors or alone with others who are present only within the grooves of the album.

I can still hear the crowd, sometimes louder than Frampton or his band, reverberate with  “yeahs!” and song callouts, punctuated with the sudden sound of a shattered lighting fixture. Frampton begins strumming his acoustic ballad “Winds of Change,” when suddenly screams erupt just before a wave of quiet returns so he can croon the first verse. Years later I’d discover a more rapturous example of this communal experience between performer and audience and understand its roots, appreciate its possibilities: Donny Hathaway’s 1972 live album Donny Hathaway Live!

The question I think about often is this: What is the live album as both an experience and a recording? What compositional possibilities does it hold for those of us who teach writing as both a pubic and a private act? Hathaway’s live album, although not alone in this respect, perhaps provides a clue.

Most listeners today remember Hathaway, if they remember him at all, for his best-selling duets with Roberta Flack or his tragic suicide in 1979 after the singer battled for years with paranoid schizophrenia. A gifted and classically trained soul artist and composer who was well-versed in the technical aspects of classical, jazz, and blues, Hathaway’s had a strong influence on contemporaries like Stevie Wonder, artists such as Prince and Erykah Badu. Although a workman in the studio who had recorded a pair of modestly selling albums before the live album, critic Emily-Lordi points out that even “Hathaway’s studio performance anticipates a live audience” and was created to “goad a congregation” as much as it was to raise his profile in the music world at the time (19). Lordi positions Donny Hathaway Live! as the singer’s central recording, his masterpiece, not so much for its original compositions—several songs are covers including the album’s opener, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” Carole King’s “You Got a Friend,” and John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” the latter which had only been released six weeks prior—but because it “models the virtuosity of communal black survival—the defiant persistence of collective song and breath that can’t be stolen.” (117).

In his poem “Troubadour 1971,” poet Melvin Douglas captures the magnetism and charm especially African American women fell under at a Hathaway performance, evident by some of the crowd reactions at a performance in Los Angeles, recorded on side A of the album:

California Women don’t sit back,
They sing back—sip gin and tonics,
slap a girlriend’s shoulder, shout “Go ‘head”
& “That’s all right”
from the tables
by the exit.” (qtd. in Lordi)

The poet then imagines the singer responding to the women’s enthusiasm, asking them to come with him and forget their troubles at home, to “sing” like the “marquee bears your name” because “California sisters/this is no place to live/unheard.” The thunder of the women in the crowd is loudest when Hathaway begins the intro to King’s “You Got a Friend.” Hathaway barely gets in a verse before the crowd takes over. Although Hathaway had recorded the song with great success with Flack, it’s the live performance, captured with the full-throated chorus of the women in the audience that makes the recording magical and transcendent. For listeners at home, it’s a mixture of improvisation and intimacy, which is what Hathaway did best, “composing live” with the audience. Hathaway almost succeeds in making one of King’s most popular compositions his own, or to be more accurate, the crowd’s, especially the black women in the audience whose lyrics particularly resonated.  

Composing live as Donny Hathaway seemed to do every night is an intimate and communal act that grounds an ontology of writing that connects the self or writer with the world, with the conditions of those who are willing receive it and respond back—a rapturous feedback loop. It may not be going too far to claim the intention of the live album is to bring the spiritual fervor of a church service home to the listener. As Hathaway himself wrote: “My ambition is to get standing ovations everywhere I play. I’m working to have a performance so effective as to really carry the audience on a ride” (Hathaway qtd. in Lordi 13). No higher compliment can be paid to those writers who “make church” with us readers by inviting us to compose with them, to share a moment or an idea if only for the length of a sentence or paragraph or two.

Works Cited

Lordi, Emily J. Donny Hathaway Donny Hathaway’s Live (33 1/3), Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Pavlic, Ed. Winners Have Yet to Be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway, University of Georgia Press, 2008.