By the early ‘70s there was no shortage of high quality soul singers in America. Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, and of course the inimitable James Brown, to name but several, remained at the forefront of popular music, continuing to write and record some of the most influential music ever made. Part of this huge pool of talent was Donny Hathaway, a singer who was fluent in the language of jazz, blues, soul and gospel.
Released in 1972, Donny Hathaway Live was culled from two intimate shows recorded at The Troubadour, in Hollywood, and The Bitter End, in Manhattan, and captures Hathaway in a way his studio albums never could. In other words, Hathaway was at his best when performing in front of an audience, something which Live has no difficulty in establishing.
From front to back, each performance is imbued with a deep sense of humanity, where Hathaway manages to connect with his audience to the extent that they themselves become part of the show (just hear the call and response during “The Ghetto”).
Backed by a superb band, including Phil Upchurch (guitar, side one), Cornell Dupree (guitar, side two), Mike Howard (guitar), Willie Weeks (bass), Fred White (drums) and Earl DeRouen (congas), Hathaway kicks things off with a strong and soulful take of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” during which Donny absolutely shines on the electric piano, as he also does on an extended version of “The Ghetto,” a performance so good it makes the original studio cut pale in comparison (which is really saying something).
There is a congas interlude in between where DeRouen takes the listener all the way to Africa, before the rest of the group come back in and resume the song proper, in a manner that is almost as exciting as actually being there.
DeRouen’s “Hey Girl” is given a smooth and breezy run-through, followed by an outstanding cover of Carole King’s “You Got A Friend,” a song which elicits some excitement from the crowd, who join in during the chorus. “Little Ghetto Boy” is a poignant social statement on the desperate situation of many African-American youth at the time, while the plaintive “We’re Still Friends” remains a showcase for Hathaway’s ability to emote, seemingly effortlessly, such heightened sentiment through his voice, as if his vocals were a window to the soul.
John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” gets a serious soul-brother makeover, with Hathaway singing every line as if it were his last. The LP concludes with a 13 minute “Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything),” where the whole band lock down into a tight but loose funky groove, directed by Hathaway’s excellent playing on the Rhodes electric piano, steering the group through a maze of previously uncharted soul-jam territory. And though despite it being a jam, the band never once loses its cool, with each member adding their own distinct flavour to the mix.
Donny Hathaway Live is one of the finest live albums ever released, and though in spite of such immense praise by fans and critics, we are yet to be blessed with an extended remastered edition. Surely that is not too much to ask, considering just how extraordinary Hathaway truly was.