Classic Album Series: To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Donny Hathaway’s Everything is Everything.

Photo Credit: Jim Taylor, Cover Design: Haig Adishian, Source

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

“Harlem” by Langston Hughes

The only simple fact about Donny Hathaway was that he had talent. It wasn’t self-evident, not in the beginning, and maybe not even by the end. Rather, his talent, profuse and overwhelming, drew others to him. Even now, where most exposure to the man is limited to his involvement with Roberta Flack. Just hearing his voice tells you, instinctively, that this man had a tremendous gift. But that’s just the beginning to Donny Hathaway, and Everything Is Everything is one of the few complete portraits of his potential.

It’s an album that’s inspiring in its clarity, its timelessness, and spirit. The 1970 debut of wunderkind session player Donny Hathaway showed more than a singular voice. This was a man who truly had soul, could arrange full band compositions on the fly, and who could really play the hell out of a piano. But where does one start with Donny?

Hathaway got his start around the age of three, in the words of Ric Powell, who played with Donny Hathaway on this album, “nurtured in the religious surroundings of the home of his grandmother, an accomplished gospel singer and guitarist, Martha Crumwell.” His grandmother then decided to bring him on a gospel circuit tour under the name Donny Pitts, “The Nation’s Youngest Gospel Singer.”

A four-year-old singing gospel while playing ukulele may have seemed like an unlikely, though appropriate start to a musical career, but Hathaway was more focused on music education by the time he was in high school. Hathaway’s foray into music as a profession began in 1964, when he met Ric Powell at Howard University. As Powell wrote in the liner notes to Everything,“he was in school on a fine arts scholarship, studying music education, unsure whether to be a Preacher or a Teacher,” before “due to the high cost of living” they formed the Ric Powell Trio, and performed gigs around the DC area. This trio would prove important in Hathaway’s career — the bassist Steve Novosel was married to Roberta Flack, who would collaborate with Hathaway later on, their duets perhaps the most lasting commercial impact of Hathaway’s all too brief career.

Hathaway didn’t want the spotlight, or at least didn’t seek it out. But the spotlight was looking for him. Howard University was a focal point for black musical talent in the 1960s, and Curtis Mayfield discovered Hathaway singing in a university choral group, a group he would later christen ‘The Mayfield Singers,’ and implored Hathaway to work at his newly formed label Curtom Records. While Hathaway’s impact on recordings like The Impressions smash The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story can’t be measured directly, there is no doubt that the joy that Mayfield and company found in their own music, and the way The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story worked social consciousness into song no doubt had a profound impact on Hathaway.

“Donny, this is a monster”

It became clear in Chicago that Hathaway wanted to be a solo artist. As much as he admired Curtis Mayfield, he realized that he “needed to say certain things that weren’t possible while we were together,” and began to cobble together a line-up for an album while working with other Chicago session musicians at Chess Records. Split between thinking he didn’t have the talent to make it on his own, and knowing that he could perform, Hathaway demoed “The Ghetto” to close confidant Sidney Barnes, who told him, “Donny, this is a monster.” But it was another musical mentor of the era, one who had played with the likes of Sam Cooke, who would give Hathaway the break he needed.

King Curtis, so the story goes, had heard Donny singing in an elevator. Not any particular song, mind you, but the hum of the elevator motor, replicated by Hathaway’s uncanny, perfect pitch. Curtis was floored by the man’s talent. When he heard the then as-yet-unreleased and self-produced Everything is Everything, he just about ran to press the record into the hands of Jerry Wexler, the head of Atlantic Records, who released it on the Atlantic subsidiary, ATCO Records.

In an interview long after Donny’s debut, Jerry Wexler recalled, “He was the most brilliant musical theorist I ever encountered.” Coming from a professional who had worked with the likes of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, such praise was not given lightly.

In keeping with his humble personality, Everything is Everything opens not with Donny, but with an ensemble. First, session bassist extraordinaire Louis Satterfield, then a female chorus, before Donny Hathaway calls everyone together to sing “everything is everything.” “Voices Inside (Everything is Everything)” is a purely joyful experience, both a sermon and performance, with horn swells and dashes of Hathaway’s electric and acoustic piano playing.

“He hears the music, he hears the strings, he hears the production, he hears the drums, he hears the lyrics all at the same time,”

However, “Je Vous Aime ( I Love You)” is where Hathaway’s strength in singing and arranging starts to shine. An ode to his wife Eululah, who contributes to the backing vocals here (surrounded in fact, by Hathaway’s own backing in a subtle show of affection), it showcases Hathaway’s perfect elocution and his way to transform traditional gospel idiom into vibrant composition, where to build or break the song.

I Believe to My Soul” is one of those songs that threatens to leap off the record and spring to life. It is also evocative of what producer Eric Mercury would later recall of Hathaway: “He hears the music, he hears the strings, he hears the production, he hears the drums, he hears the lyrics all at the same time,” The introduction is a remarkable back-and-forth between Hathaway’s piano before the whole band comes in. Yes, it may be a Ray Charles cover, but the reverence for this piece is not out of idolatry for Charles the man, but for the music he made.

Going back and listening to the Charles original, you’re struck by the timidity of the recording. Charles sounds like he hasn’t decided what emotional reaction to have — weary, with a mournful Greek chorus — while Hathaway’s interpretation all but demands an apology from the cheating lover.

Donny Hathaway had been exposed to a variety of musical traditions, from his early days in gospel churches, to the study of European classical music at Howard University, to the pop leaning elements of Chicago soul music, and it’s only fitting that his debut album reflects that ecumenical background. Certainly, his ability to wring the best out of others’ material became a calling card. He follows the Ray Charles cover with Erroll Garner’s jazz standard “Misty”, before hopping to the gospel-infused jazz nightclub groove of his own instrumental original “Sugar Lee”.

“Tryin’ Times” was Hathaway’s message song, a story laced around a syncopated groove about the socio-political climate, one that managed to be the concise, matter-of-fact counterpoint to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”.“Thank You Master (For My Soul)” slowly unfolds as Everything is Everything’s forgotten masterpiece, spare vocal phrasing and undulating piano lines counter the punchy horn section that reinforces Hathaway’s spirited pleas of thankfulness.

It’s only after these first seven songs that Hathaway brings in the single, “The Ghetto,” though in a much more fleshed-out form than what Barnes had heard, with a hypnotic back-hook and few lyrics to speak of aside from the constant refrain of “the ghetto,” echoing the futility and underlying hope of the situation in one go.

Perhaps the greatest gift of Everything Is Everything is its ability, on repeated listening, to change your mind about what’s the best song on here. For now at least, Hathaway’s take on Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” takes that spot.

Composed by Nina Simone and Weldon Irvine in 1969, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” was a song inspired by A Raisin in the Sun’s playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Simone’s original is zippy, theatrical, energetic. It’s a celebratory tone, or at least a hopeful one, and almost always buttressed by a swell of backing singers. This is true of all the cover versions … except Hathaway’s.

There is a deliberate point of saying “Gifted and Black,” in that it brings the two together as a united front. Of the numerous covers that followed Simone’s original, Donny is the only one to read it as if a judge handing out a sentence, “To be young, Gifted, ..and Black.” The tension of the arrangement alone makes you realize you’re listening to something Hathaway holds dear, and Hathaway pours so much into his reading that it can’t help but be the climax on an album full of them.

Everything is Everything went on to perform modestly well on the charts, reaching #33 on the R&B charts and #73 on the pop charts, enough to show Atlantic there was a demand for more. Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and even Carole King were immediate fans, handing Everything is Everything out to friends, and in Aretha’s case, later collaborating with him.Though not his most spirited (that would be 1972’s Live), nor his most spiritual (that would be 1971’s Donny Hathaway), nor even his most ambitious (1973’s Extension of a Man), Everything is Everything is Hathaway’s most complete album, a fully-fleshed expression of a singular talent.

Further Reading:

Many thanks to Emily J. Lordi, who contributed Donny Hathaway Live to the 33 1/3 book series, and was a tremendous resource to this piece.



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