Donny Hathaway

These Songs For You, Live! (Atlantic/Rhino ’04) Rating: B+
Best known today for a pair of duets with Roberta Flack (“The Closer I Get To You,” “Where Is The Love?”) and for committing suicide in 1979 under mysterious circumstances (checking into a hotel before allegedly jumping to his death), Donny Hathaway deserved better. So deep was the soul reservoir in the ‘70s that Donny was an also ran, but this live album attests to the fact that he was a smooth, classy singer with an excellent band (particularly drummer Fred White) and a unique rapport with his audience. These Songs For You, Live! is a remastered compilation that takes 4 songs from the out of print Donny Hathaway Live and 3 more from the posthumously released (and also out of print In Performance), while adding 6 previously unreleased live performances and an interview. The album, which was recorded at various venues (L.A.’s The Troubadour, NYC’s The Bitter End and Carnegie Hall), is comprised mostly of cover songs, some of which are overly obvious (do we really need yet another reading of “Yesterday”?), and a smattering of Hathaway originals that are all among the album’s high points. “Flying Easy” is as smooth and easy as its title would suggest, “Valdez In The Country” is a funky, jazzy instrumental that really grooves along, and the socially conscious “Someday We’ll All Be Free” is a lovely, intimate ballad showcasing Hathaway’s sparkling piano work and velvety smooth vocals. Best of all is “The Ghetto,” the jazzy 12-minute jam finale that brings down the house, while the crowd is also an active participant on “You’ve Got A Friend,” memorably filling in for Roberta Flack. Hathaway’s strong covers of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” and Blood, Sweat and Tears’ “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” fall short of the fantastic originals, but at least his imprint is on every one of the covers, all of which are tributes to his impeccable taste. Alas, Donny is more of a light r&b artist than a true soul artist (think Anita Baker or Luther Vandross rather than Aretha Franklin or Otis Redding), and as such some of these songs could use a little added grit, as several sparse ballads grouped together in the middle of the album get a bit boring after awhile. I prefer songs such as “Little Ghetto Boy” on which he gets his stellar band more involved, which gets the crowd more involved, which gets me more involved. Still, faulty sequencing and a certain lack of excitement aside, there are plenty of “easy listening” highlights here, as These Songs For You, Live! provides classy background entertainment (i.e. dinner music) or mood music (after dinner, wink wink) for when the lights are dim and romance is in the air.

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