In January 1999, around the 20th anniversary of Donny Hathaway‘s death, Echoes Editor Chris Wells talked exclusively to Donny’s widow, Eulaulah Hathaway.
The interview – alongside others with Curtis Mayfield, Roberta Flack and Leroy Hutson – was intended to form part of Chris’s sleeve note to a proposed ‘Anthology’ of Donny’s music. When, for various reasons, the project fell foul of internal changes at Atlantic Records, the only people who got to see a transcript of the conversation with Mrs Hathaway were readers of the old newspaper version of Echoes. We re-print it here in conjunction with the 2013 ‘Anthology’ Box Set Never My Love.
We know very little about you or where you met Donny.
“I’m originally from Virginia and I went to Howard University, same as Donny. That’s where we met. I too am a professional musician. At the time, I was majoring in classical voice.
“We probably met in the practice area – I don’t remember exactly where – but we often hung out there and sung, and just acted silly, like students do. Everybody was too busy practicing for romance, really.”
We know Donny was brought up by his grandmother, Martha Crumwell. What of his mother and father?
“I think at the time that Donny was conceived his mother wasn’t married, so, as commonly happened back then, his grandmother took upon herself the responsibility of parenting. She was the one who tried to develop his musical talents. She took him around singing in different programmes, ‘cause it was evident from a very early age that he had been endowed with musical talent.
“He could hear things that he couldn’t play at first, but by the age of four he was able to sit down at a piano and play the things he could hear in his head. He would tell his grandmother, ‘I hear the most beautiful music in my head, grandma’. So she purchased a piano – she was a musician too – and he began to play.”
When were you married?
“Right after I finished Howard: I finished a year before Donny and we were married then, during my first year at Graduate School.”
So you were already married in 1970 when you sang background on The Ghetto?
“Yes. In fact, I’m not the only other member of the family on that record: that’s Lalah crying on the middle segment of the song. I think it was the first time anybody had used a baby’s voice in that way. She was around eight months old. We have one other daughter, of course, Kenya: she’s a singer too.”
Leroy Hutson told us that Donny left ahead of graduation and that it had concerned him greatly at the time.
“Leroy and Donny were very close – I have a lot of respect for Leroy. But at the time he left there really wasn’t too much more the school had to offer Donny. He didn’t go to school much as it was and he still made straight ‘A’s. He’d been working in The Mayfield Singers and did little weekend gigs, but Curtis soon offered him a position in his company in Chicago, as producer and A&R. That’s how we went to Chicago.”
Why did he sign to Atlantic and not to Curtom?
“I think perhaps that Curtis had a need for Donny’s talents, but not his abilities as an entertainer, an out-front artist. Competition for him, maybe? Or maybe he didn’t realize the full range of Donny’s talents at that stage. Anyway, while he was at Curtom, he signed to Atlantic.”
Via an intervention from saxman King Curtis?
“Yes, I think what happened was that King Curtis heard Donny singing in an elevator. Donny was humming the pitch that the elevator motor was making – he had perfect pitch – and King began to take notice after that. He told Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler [at Atlantic] about Donny, and they signed him.”
Was your time at Curtom a happy one?
“Oh yes, very happy. We had an apartment on the near south side of the city. Donny was very content. The only thing, he wanted to be a solo artist. And, in his hip pocket he really was, ‘cause he was gigging on the side all the while he was there. He had this trio with Ric Powell and another guy.”
From our conversations with Leroy we get the impression that he and drummer Ric weren’t exactly the closest of buddies…
“Donny was a young man in a big city when he went to Washington. He met Ric there and he became that surrogate brother who showed him around. Ric was his lifeline to the club circuit. Later the partnership did dissolve… there were things that weren’t quite right… but let’s just say that, early on, Ric served his purpose. I don’t want to say too much. I’m sure whatever Leroy told you is right!”
As for Donny’s solo albums, he always sought to blend in many musical styles. Did the record company try to rein him in at all?
“Initially, yes, some of the people there wanted him to stick to conformity. We’ve always said his music was before its time because of that. He was able to tone it down to the point where it was livable with but he was still able to do what he wanted to do. I’m sure we would have seen some more of it coming out later, had he endured.
“The first two albums showed the real Donny, be they up or be they down. They literally showed the real musician. On the first album, he was true to just what he was feeling, thinking… the signs of the era he was living in. The second album was a bit more… conformed. He was given the go-ahead to make the first one exactly as he wanted. The only thing he left out, really, was his classicism.”
Was he frustrated that the bigger hits came with Roberta Flack, as duets, and not solo?
“At that point I don’t think he minded it too much. It was just another avenue. Later on it became a problem.”
1972 was very busy in terms of releases, with Live!, the Roberta duets and the soundtrack to Come Back Charleston Blue, so 1973 was set-up for Extension Of Man to be his ‘masterpiece’…
“Yes, and that was my favourite album. I was there for some of it. He recorded some of it in Chicago and some in New York. He intended it to be his masterpiece. He always said that he wanted to write a symphony, so he took an old hymn and made into a symphonic soliloquy. It was quite different to anything else out there.”
The album went in lots of directions at once – too many perhaps?
“I don’t think so. There are those who like an album that ploughs one furrow, but there are also those who are listening just to music itself. When you do, you like some variation, some diversion. He could do any kind of music and he could do them all so well. There was virtually no-one before him like that, and then this kid comes on the scene who could do anything, any kind of music – be it a sonata, gospel from behind an organ, ragtime, or whatever.”
Did his strict upbringing lead to tension of the ‘spiritual versus the devil’s music’ variety?
“Yes, he thought about it a lot. His grandmother and step-grandfather were very devout believers. He had to adhere to what they said. He told me at one time, when we were getting ready to go to St. Louis, he wanted to tell them something, but that he knew it would create a whole big argument. He was right: they said to him, ‘If you can’t talk to us about what we taught you, in the way that we taught you, then don’t talk to us about it at all’.
“He so desperately wanted to talk to them about how he’d found out things about life that weren’t as they’d said. It bothered him that he couldn’t just sit down and debate with them properly.”
After Extension Of A Man, the only album to be released prior to the final Roberta Featuring Donny album was In Performance, another live set, made up of out-takes…
“By that time Donny had become ill. His manager at that time, David Franklyn, was taking things very slow with him. There were other people who tried to get their paws on him, but at that point he really had to have medical attention. He had become mentally ill. He was hospitalized on several occasions. I guess by ’73 or ’74 it was determined that he was a paranoid schizophrenic. It made life very difficult for us both.”
Did you think he might recover?
“Initially I thought he might recover, yes. At that time I had hardly heard of the words to describe his illness, so I was hopeful. But after he was admitted into hospital in New York, I’d go up every Friday and so had a chance to talk to his doctors. They clarified for me what the illness was about. So I knew there was a chance of only a slight recovery, but that he would never be rid of it. You can be medicated and counseled, but you’ll always be a paranoid schizophrenic.”
Did he simply get worse towards the end?
“I think so, yes. Like all people who take medication, he began to think if he felt better then he could go it alone, that he was cured. He couldn’t. He got off his medication and it didn’t make him better at all. He was ill all through the last five years of his life.”
Had he tried to kill himself before the night of his death?
“No, he hadn’t. And, of course, there is still some question as to whether he tried to kill himself that time. When you consider that in New York City all the hotel windows must open by law… if you’re neglectful enough to sit on a ledge, you might just fall. So it’s not definite. I wasn’t there the last night.”
Leroy Hutson talked to us about a final album that Donny and he had been working on, tentatively titled Make It On My Own. Were you aware of anything else he had recorded?
“No, not really. To a certain extent, I was the little wife who was kept in the dark. I know that he and Leroy stayed very close and I think that if they had worked closer then maybe some progress might have been made. But Ric came to Chicago shortly after us and… well, he was still a better talker than a drummer. Had Donny and Leroy been able to stay together more they may have been able to construct more music together – they were like brothers. But his two daughters are keeping the family flag flying now. They are even wearing his hats.”
Chris’s [long] review of the new Hathaway boxed set will be published in the November edition of the print magazine – available from the end of October. There’s also a competition to win one of five copies of the release.
Details of the album’s full track listing can be found here: