Donny Hathaway

These Songs for You, Live!

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Few musicians gave more to their audience than Donny Hathaway. Capable of leading the section or letting the crowd take him away, a man whose sensuality oozed out of him on-stage but who also aired his struggles with despair and social unrest, Hathaway really had no comparison in soul music, or even pop music in total. (His closest kin, Sam Cooke, was the only one who possessed a similarly transcendent voice, gloriously simple yet with enormous depth.) Fans of latter-day soul music's most cathartic figure previously had two avenues to enjoy Hathaway in a live context: the brilliant original album Live from 1972 and the valuable document In Performance, issued in 1980 after his suicide (perhaps the most tragic death in pop history). Atlantic/Rhino's breathtaking compilation These Songs for You, Live! combines roughly half of those LPs and bolsters the program with six unreleased tracks (only some from the same concerts) and an interview. The results prove that, arranging skills aside, Donny Hathaway reached his peak facing not a mixing board but an audience of living (and often screaming) people. Compilation producers Dave Nathan and Barry Benson start out with a pair of light pieces, Hathaway originals "Flying Easy" and "Valdez in the Country," before beginning the heart of the disc, a selection of inspired covers. The choices are all formidable (though for a variety of reasons), including Carole King's "You've Got a Friend," the Hollies' "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On," and the Beatles' "Yesterday" (the latter, astonishingly unreleased, takes its place as one of the most gorgeous versions ever recorded of the most performed pop standard of the 20th century). No one could deny that these pieces are soaked in melodrama, though Hathaway's spirit and fire transcend the pathos so completely that in his hands they're transformed. His own "Someday We'll All Be Free" is another gorgeous performance, this one leavened by his alternate modes of piano playing, gospel arpeggios in the beginning but meaty jazz solos later on. These performances, all recorded between 1971 and 1973, provide the most compelling proof that it was Donny Hathaway who reached the pinnacle of true gospel-soul.

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