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Final word on the star-crossed yet hugely influential early '70's soul man.....
on 17 November 2013
Donny Hathaway is in the strange position of being both overrated and underrated at the same time. Overrated because whilst being a brilliant musician and arranger his song-writing could tend towards the trite and sentimental when it came to slower tempo tracks and his performance of these could be somewhat 'hammy' with overuse of Gospel-style melisma --- in fact this is where his influence is unfortunate since those song-writing & performing traits were picked up and exaggerated in the R&B of the late '70's, '80's and beyond; long after the sad passing of this soul great. Underrated because his legacy is so slim (only three studio albums and one live one in his lifetime) and so tends to be under heard and at his best, often when singing more upbeat funkier tunes such as his awesome "Everything Is Everything" and "The Ghetto" where his vocal instrumental and arranging skills come into their own, he is almost unsurpassable.
This inexpensive 4CD set is a sort of companion to the (excellent) Rhino France 4CD box, "Someday We'll All Be Free" from 2010. In fact it is packaged exactly the same in a fold-out cardboard case of the same dimensions (so they sit side-by-side quite nicely) with an excellent booklet containing pictures, track details and an informative essay by Charles Waring detailing the tragic struggles of this soul great with self-doubt and ultimately schizophrenia which lead to his demise in '79 by suicide.
The 4CDs are beautifully remastered and it is great to see Rhino Records (for now) back in the "proper" reissue game producing a 'labour-of-love' type set on which they originally based their reputation after solely producing "5-fer" cheapo repackaging jobs under he 'Original Album Series' banner for the last few years with no remastering and no liner notes. Hopefully this will be the start of a trend to compete with Sony Legacy who have continued to keep the faith in producing excellent reissues set via their Complete Album Collections such as the recent Bill Withers, Taj Mahal & Herbie Hancock sets.
CD1 comprises a sort of 'greatest tracks' with plenty of single mixes/edits (such as "The Ghetto; Pts 1&2"), his Christmas track, "This Christmas" which actually works as a song rather than a seasonal cash-in (à la Lily Allen with that execrable Keane cover for John Lewis). There are also a few rare early tracks for Curtis Mayfield's Curtom label including "I Thank You Baby" and "Just Another Reason" (both duets with June Conquest) and these are worth hearing despite having slightly rough sound quality (sound like vinyl rips to me). Some of the single mixes work better than the album mixes for the slower, more dirge-like tracks such as "Giving Up" which whilst a Hathaway standard does benefit from being trimmed down in my opinion - this is probably just me since I prefer Hathaway's more upbeat music than his more ruminative stuff even though in retrospect the latter probably indicated where his life was at the time.
CD2 comprises what must be the final vault excavation for Donny Hathaway with 13 tracks unearthed and inevitably it is pretty patchy. The good news is that there is no overlap with the 5 tracks unearthed for the "Someday We'll All Be Free" set. Firstly there is a cover of The Association's "Never My Love" which suffers in my opinion from Hathaway's tendency to 'over-emote' on slower tracks. Then comes "A Lot Of Soul" which is an interesting track, with a pronounced country music influence including honky tonk piano and even some pedal steel - possibly a result of his arranging work on Willie Nelson's seminal "Shotgun Willie" LP? Next is "Let's Groove" which sounds like an after hours bluesy jam - pleasant enough but definitely outtake material. There are then a couple of funky, lightly Latinised instrumentals with lashings of electric piano (which I like) --- lightweight sure and certainly unfinished but also enjoyable. Then comes "Memory Of Our Love" which is a mid-paced stepper again with plenty of Fender Rhodes sounding uncannily like early '70's Steve Wonder --- a nice find. Next "Sunshine Over Showers", a sentimental ballad which again sounds remarkably Stevie Wonder-ish and whilst well performed isn't really to my taste. Next is "After The Dance Is Gone" from '78 and so is likely to be one of Hathaway's final recordings ---- it is pleasantly uptempo with a dancing flute line but has pretty trite lyrics and a cheesy female voice over in the middle-eight and ultimately sounds a bit sparse as if incomplete (which sadly it probably was). Next is an interesting 1968 recording, "Don't Turn Away", a brassy upbeat almost Northern Soul item sounding like it could have come from Chess Studios - I like this one a lot. Then comes another late '60's item, more Motown in sound - upbeat and soulful with powerful singing and an excellent arrangement with plenty of brass riffs and stinging rhythm guitar --- a keeper. Then is a negligible unfinished instrumental, "The Sands Of Time & Changes", with little to recommend it bar some nice organ. Finally is the "Zyxygy Concerto" which is Hathaway's attempt at a classical piece which whilst admirable in ambition and intent is less than compelling in execution with no memorable themes and no real harmonic or rhythmic interest to keep one's attention over its 20-minute playing time.
CD3 comprises live offcuts from the Bitter End, where much of Hathaway's seminal "Live" album was recorded. In fact I prefer much of this stuff than the equivalent tracks on "Live" if only because there is less crowd participation (which the liners think is a bad thing where I actually disagree since I want to hear what the band is doing uninterrupted). There are superb extended versions of "Everything Is Everything" & "The Ghetto"; Hathaway in excelsis in my opinion.
CD4 comprises all of the duets Hathaway performed with Roberta Flack right up to his death (he was recording with Roberta on the day he decided to take his life; movingly recalled in the liner notes by Roberta herself). Plenty of good stuff here including the stone classic, "Where Is The Love" plus a brilliant cover of Carole King's "You've Got A Friend". The three late '70's tracks, including the hit; "The Closer I Get To You", are less to my taste suffering from the slickness (and synths!) of the disco-era but are well performed.
In conclusion a largely excellent set and a steal at the price despite CD2 being inevitably somewhat patchy (despite containing some very worthwhile stuff). Therefore for any admirers of the Golden Age of early '70's soul music before the onset of disco and the rot set in this set is a must.