REVIEW: Boxing Donny Hathaway: The Man Who Made Neo-Soul Possible

Donny HathawayRedferns

From the ’90s to the present, the neo-soul movement has been the springboard for everyone from Maxwell, Macy Gray, and Erykah Badu to John Legend, Anthony Hamilton, and Raheem DeVaughn. The roll call of key influences should be familiar by now, mostly containing ubiquitous, iconic figures like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Al Green, but there’s one man who’s equally seminal to neo-soul despite never achieving anything near the star status of the aforementioned artists: Donny Hathaway. Fortunately, the first-ever domestic box set of Hathaway’s work, Never My Love: The Anthology, has now appeared via the always-worthy Rhino Records, and not only does it underscore the weighty debt owed to the late Hathaway by subsequent generations of soulsters, it expands his regrettably slim discography with two discs’ worth of previously unheard music.

Singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Hathaway released only four studio albums during his too-short life: three on his own and one in a duo with Roberta Flack. For whatever reason, Hathaway/Flack duets like “The Closer I Get” and “Where is the Love” became huge hits while Hathaway’s solo work mostly achieved only middling commercial success. The four-disc box includes one CD compiled from Hathaway’s albums, one containing collaborations with Flack, another featuring demos of never-before-heard songs, and one full of previously unreleased live recordings from 1971. The breadth and depth encompassed by this set is almost shocking, and the anthology is an overdue monument to the mighty artistry of this mercurial genius.

The demos disc is the most revelatory, as its contents highlight not only Hathaway’s vision but also his eclecticism. “A Lot of Soul,” for instance, is a country stroll (don’t let the title fool you), while the “ZYXYGY Concerto” is a full-on neo-classical piece, with Hathaway’s piano leading the way for a full orchestra. The live disc was recorded at New York’s tiny-but-influential Greenwich Village club The Bitter End (other tracks from Hathaway’s three-night ’71 run at the venue have been previously unearthed). Listening to Hathaway and his band — which includes killer players like guitarist Cornell Dupree, bassist Willie Weeks, and Earth, Wind & Fire drummer Fred White — lock in on a slow-burning soul stirrer like Al Kooper’s “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” or a free-for-all funkfest like “Voices Inside (Everything is Everything)” can be downright epiphany-inducing.

The mentally unstable Hathaway left us at the age of 33; seemingly off his meds for too long, he began acting irrationally at a 1979 session, and later that day he leaped out a window to his death, ending his story far too soon. But with the arrival of Never My Love, hopefully those who have never had the same opportunity to embrace him that his many musical disciples have maximized can begin to play catch-up.