In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
At the conclusion of Amy Winehouse’s posthumously released version of “A Song for You,” there’s a particularly revealing and heartbreaking snippet of dialogue. “Marvin Gaye (was), great,” Amy emphatically states, “but Donny Hathaway like…he couldn’t contain himself, he had something in him, you know.” It’s heartbreaking to hear for myriad reasons, but it’s also, hands down, the most beautifully spot-on description of Donny Hathaway’s transcendent gift. He was in possession of an extraordinary voice that, like Aretha’s, could easily evoke tears in the most hardened of souls, even if the song itself was expressing a seemingly uplifting sentiment. He didn’t so much sing as simply feel out loud.
By the end of 1973, Donny Hathaway had recorded three solo studio albums, a duet album with Roberta Flack, and a movie soundtrack, as well as a live album widely acknowledged as one of the greatest ever made. He’d become the recipient of considerable critical acclaim, money, overwhelming attention…and pressure, much of which was self-created. He was a musical perfectionist of the extreme, complex, and occasionally insufferable Brian Wilson variety, both in the studio and onstage. And he was surprisingly insecure about the quality of his voice (a fact we standard issue humans might find hard to comprehend), so much so that in the latter years of his career he’d taken to telling colleagues that if he did any more recording, he no longer wanted to sing but just wanted to play piano.
Donny had been diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1971, and as time progressed, sadly, so did the disease. He also suffered from depression. By 1974 his mental health issues had become so severe that studio work and live performances became increasingly difficult to arrange and follow through with. He did what he could, when he was able, but for all intents and purposes, his career as a singular headlining and touring artist was over. As a result, from 1974 to 1979, his recorded output was minimal, consisting of two tracks with Roberta Flack in 1979 and a dozen or so solo songs, the latter of which didn’t see light of day until the release of the 2013 Rhino box set Never My Love. He ultimately died by suicide on January 13th, 1979 in New York City.
Donny Hathaway was one of the greatest singers to ever walk the planet, and his excursions into the world of covers remain to this day a master class in how it’s done.
There was a considerable amount of cross-pollinating going on in the early ’70s, with both soul and rock artists regularly covering one another’s songs ( The Isley Brothers were particularly adept at this, oh yes they were). Donny was another active participant in this genre-crossing mutual admiration society, and his choice in covers sweetly reflects that. He was also a total musical sponge devoid of elitism; though he took composing classes to learn the technical skills needed to write a symphony , he was also a Top 40 radio lovin’, don’t care if it’s cool, music nerd and self-proclaimed “country music freak.”
And as you can probably guess, he so assertively takes up residency in the covers featured below that he ultimately hijacks a few from their original owners. Here’s hoping there have been no hard feelings over the years. Please join with us in a collective heavenly thank you on behalf of the universe to Mr.Hathaway.
Donny Hathaway – A Song for You (Leon Russell cover)
This song has been covered literally hundreds of times, with the versions by Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, and the Carpenters being particular standouts. But this version remains at the top of the class, with its raining piano flourishes and the requisite immaculate Hathaway vocal. That last note is everything.
Donny Hathaway – Giving Up ( Gladys Knight & the Pips cover)
Transformation time. “Giving Up,” written by Van “The Hustle” McCoy, was a 1964 hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips (#6 on the R&B chart and #38 on the pop chart). Their version is very nice, replete with perky orchestration and those classic chorus accentuating Pips-style backing vocals. Donny turns the whole thing inside out, crafting a version so removed from theirs in style and sound that it’s literally a different song. He slows it down until it’s nearly standing still, delivers a vocal that stutters with utter desperation, fills it to the gills with dramatic pauses, then caps it with lush rain-swept orchestration to bring it all home. Yes, it’s amazing. Sidebar: Jennifer Holliday, Tony winner from the original cast of Broadway’s Dreamgirls, did a cover of Donny’s cover (!) that is also fierce as hell.
Donny Hathaway – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother (The Hollies cover)
Despite its long time popularity, a lot of folks have mixed feelings about “He Ain’t Heavy…” as a song, which is understandable. There are points where it more closely resembles a sermon than a song. It’s also so spectacularly sentimental at points it can feel a bit cringeworthy. And the place where you’re most likely to hear it these days is over the sound system in a supermarket or pharmacy. Manilow, Mathis, Newton-John – every easy listening / adult contemporary artist from here until forever has covered this song, which only stands to confirm its considerable cornball qualities.
But as is usually the case, Donny is here to try and convince us of its hidden charms. The utter conviction in his voice here, his unabashed belief in what he’s singing, is what they call “church.” While the way he goes up on the bridge might not necessarily get the atheists among you to believe in a higher power, it may well make you believe in the song.
Donny Hathaway – Sack Full of Dreams (Grady Tate cover)
Another radical reinvention. Grady Tate’s 1968 version of “Sack Full of Dreams” is the very embodiment of light and breezy and features string flourishes that veer dangerously close to the sound of muzak. Donny approaches the song from a completely different angle, slowing things down and keeping the instrumentation lean. “Sack Full of Dreams” is kind of a dream-prayer, all wistful emotion and half-full hopes, and Donny’s spare arrangement puts the focus where it belongs, on the the lyrics themselves, which of course allows him to completely throw down on the vocal. It’s not only one of his finest covers; it’s also one of the finest Hathaway songs ever. Yes, I’m calling it a Hathaway song, because with this performance, whether he intended to or not, he full-on stole it. What a beauty.
Donny Hathaway – Magdalena (Danny O’Keefe cover)
First things first: Danny O’Who? Well, Danny O’Keefe had a top ten hit in 1973 with “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues,” and he was cut from the same cloth as mustachioed, denim-shirted ’70s singer-songwriters like Jim Croce and Gordon Lightfoot. Jackson Browne later covered his song “The Road” on the massively successful Running On Empty album. This one’s more of a curio in the Hathaway cover arsenal, sounding less like a pop song and more like some lost ’70s variety show theme. But it’s important to shine a light on it, if only to spotlight Donny’s unbelievable versatility and show just how eclectic his tastes could be: He could basically do anything. And the vocal here is the very epitome of sweetness and light.
Donny Hathaway – You’ve Got a Friend (Carole King cover)
Full disclosure: I think this is one of the best live recordings of any song ever. Here’s the scene: Donny Hathaway is playing at LA’s Troubadour in August of 1971. This is the summer of Tapestry; Carole King’s gigantic album is in the middle of a fifteen-week run as the best-selling album in America. Every person alive that year owns a copy of it, or at least their big sister does. It is beyond ubiquitous.
Hathaway hits the opening notes of his cover of Carole’s King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” on the keyboard. The song’s just been to #1 in the charts, as sung by James Taylor, and of course is a featured track on Tapestry. Its opening notes instantly trigger maniacal, unhinged, Beatlemania-style screaming from the women in the audience. Donny starts singing with his usual soulful beauty. When he gets to the line in the first verse, “close your eyes and think of me,” one of the intensely hyped-up ladies answers back with, “I’m thinkin’!” There is a burst of laughter. Then it’s time for the chorus. At this point, the whole audience takes the mike from Donny, and he graciously lets them. Beyond lets them. They completely take over the song, while awestruck Donny guides, leads, embellishes, and backs them up for the rest of the way. It’s just… damn.
One of the most mind-blowing things about this recording is the closeness of all of it. It sounds like the crowd is onstage with him, all of them clapping, screaming, and chattering while completely surrounding him at his keyboard (at least that’s the way I’ve always pictured the scene in my head). That positively transcendent moment when the first verse transitions into the chorus, and everyone starts singing, gives me chills every single time I hear it. Listen close and you may feel your heart expand inside you, Grinch-style.
There are plenty more great covers within the Donny Hathaway catalog we didn’t have room to feature here, so I heartily encourage you to head down the rabbit hole wherever you stream or listen and check out his entire catalog, especially the live stuff. You won’t be sorry!