Josh Rutner

saxophone, etc.

Episode 18: Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway (Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, 1972)

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When Nina Simone introduced her tune “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” to the packed house at the Philharmonic Hall in 1969, she said: “It is not addressed to white people primarily. Though it does not put you down in any way—it simply ignores you. For my people need all the inspiration and love that they can get.”

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the idea of rebuking self-censure and instilling self-love in African-Americans was coalescing. Steve Biko, anti-Apartheid activist and founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, would later refer to his slogan, “Black is beautiful,” as saying to a person: “Man, you are OK as you are. Begin to look upon yourself as a human being.” And this cultural movement was greatly catalyzed by black musicians at the time. The summer of 1968 brought James Brown’s single, “Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud”; 1970 brought the aforementioned Nina Simone recording of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” a deep and gospel-influenced cover of which would be released later that same year by Donny Hathaway. It was covered again in 1972 by Aretha Franklin on her album Young, Gifted and Black, the same year she would release her live, full-on gospel record, Amazing Grace.

1972 also saw the release of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s plainly-titled duet record, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway—this week’s Album of the Week—which featured the song “Be Real Black For Me,” a grooving love song illustrating not only romantic love between people, but a love for the black body itself.

The song, while formatted as a private conversation between two lovers, is clearly addressed to the “black public sphere.” “You don't have to wear false charms,” Hathaway sings. In Flack’s line about her partner’s hair being “soft and crinkly,” she implicitly denies the chemical hair straighteners and relaxers that had been so popular as tool of assimilation, and reaffirms natural black beauty. Flack’s own majestic afro was on display in the image of her and Hathaway inside the fold of the LP jacket, and it nearly overtook the album cover of her 1971 release, Quiet Fire, the typographic design accentuating—halo-like—her hair’s round contour. Hathaway, for his part, preferred to wear hats, stating once in college, “I can't play unless I have my ‘sky’ on my head.”

An Atlantic Records advertisement for the recording that appeared in JET magazine in 1972 featured quotations from Flack and Hathaway about each other, which both sold the record as a true mutual admiration society—two accomplished performers who actually love each other singing love songs—but also, importantly, signaled to JET readers the pair’s dedication to the black-is-beautiful movement—Flack saying of Hathaway that listening to him is a “totally black religious experience,” and Hathaway saying of Flack that she “is unique. She has classical soul. She's black, beautiful, talented, trained, and qualified to be where she is.”

The second track on the album is a version of Carole King’s song, “You’ve Got a Friend,” which was released as the album’s first single on May 29, 1971, which, as it happens, is the exact date that James Taylor’s version of the song came out. Yet another version of “You’ve Got a Friend” appeared on Aretha Franklin’s aforementioned Amazing Grace record, a year later. It wasn’t the only non-tradition song to make an appearance on that record—Franklin also included a tune by Marvin Gaye—but its placement, as a medley with the gospel pearl “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” is compelling. Franklin had, of course, in the late 1960s, had a hit with King’s composition “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” so an inclusion of another one by the composer certainly makes sense, but the practice of peppering gospel records with pop songs, and, indeed, adding straight gospel songs to pop records was a bold and powerful statement, and one that more and more artists at this time were willing to make.

On Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway—which, speaking of Aretha Franklin, also featured a bouncy, country-fied version of “Baby I Love You,” from Franklin’s late-1960s repertoire—we find for example an utterly unstoppable version of the traditional gospel tune, “Come Ye Disconsolate.” Both Flack and Hathaway had included traditional or modern gospel tunes on their previous solo recordings, so it wasn’t a ground-breaking move for either at the time, but something about the two of them singing together, particularly at the song’s climax, skyrockets this performance to another realm. The tempo is achingly slow, and the spare accompaniment of Hathaway on piano, Flack on organ, and the superlative Chuck Rainey on bass, helps to show off Flack and Hathaway's powerful and ethereal individual and interlocking vocals. No false charms are worn around this tune: a pure signal from God’s lips to your ears.

Both Flack and Hathaway’s roots are in the church: Flack the daughter of a church organist, and Hathaway a child prodigy, who achieved notoriety in St Louis circles at the age of three, when he was billed as “Donny Pitts, the nation’s youngest gospel singer.” The two met while attending Howard University.

The album is full of slow-jams, which is just fine by me—I could listen to these two sing at slow tempos all day every day—but it was the slightly more uptempo “Where is the Love?,” the album’s third single, that would eventually take over the airwaves, boosted in large part due to Flack’s growing popularity, with her version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” originally released on her first record, First Take, being featured in a romantic scene in Clint Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, netting her the Grammy for Record and Song of the Year for 1972.

One of the most strikingly emotional songs on the album is the standard, “For All We Know,” which Hathaway sings solo, accompanied by Flack’s sensitive piano. The song tells us to hold fast to the ones we love, for though tomorrow was made for some, tomorrow may never come, for all we know. It is a particularly heavy message given Hathaway’s young death at 33, which came but seven years after the release of this album, when, on a cold January night, he plunged fifteen floors from a New York hotel window.

The medical examiner determined that his death was a suicide, claiming, among other things that “adults don’t fall out of windows. Children might fall out of windows, but not adults.” Hathaway’s friends, including Flack—who was with him up to a couple hours before his death—while fully acknowledging Hathaway’s intermittent but very real “low, low points of depression,” disagreed, claiming his spirits were high that evening, and noting his eccentric habit of leaning out of high windows and full-throatedly singing and preaching for the world, or at least for the birds and the wind—something for which he’d apparently been removed from hotels in the past.

“We come and go like the ripples of a stream.”

Regardless of whether his fall was intentional or accidental, Hathaway would be remembered for his music.

His final note on “For All We Know” flutters away with 40 seconds remaining in the track. Strings, Hubert Laws’ flute, and Flack’s piano build to a final climax, hinting at a conclusion—but it’s not yet the end. Flack comes back in for a final word, quietly resolving the chord, as the strings play a funereal root.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.