A singer/songwriter/keyboardist best known for his duets with Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway fused R&B, gospel, jazz, classical, and rock strains in a modestly successful solo career. He was raised in St. Louis by his grandmother, Martha Pitts, a professional gospel singer. From the age of three, Hathaway accompanied her on tours, billed as the Nation's Youngest Gospel Singer. He attended Howard University in Washington, DC, on a fine-arts scholarship.
One classmate was Roberta Flack, and in the early '70s, shortly after Flack started her solo career, the two began singing together. Their hits included Carole King's "You've Got a Friend" (Number 29, 1971) and "Where Is the Love" (Number Five, 1972), which established them as a duo. Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway was a gold album, but due to personal problems both the partnership and Hathaway's solo career were put on hold for several years. When they reunited in 1978, they had their biggest hit, the gold single "The Closer I Get to You" (Number Two, 1978). Hathaway was working on Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway when he died after falling from his 15th-floor hotel room of the Essex House. (The police called it suicide; close friends refused to believe it.) The LP, released posthumously, hit Number 25 and went gold; a single, "You Are My Heaven," reached Number 47.
At the time of his death, Hathaway had released five solo albums in addition to his discs with Flack. He had recorded briefly for Curtom Records with June Conquest as June and Donnie, and got his first solo contract with Atlantic in 1970 under the patronage of King Curtis. Hathaway enjoyed R&B chart success in the early '70s with singles like "The Ghetto, Part 1" (Number 23 R&B, 1970), "Little Ghetto Boy" (Number 25 R&B, 1972), "Giving Up" (Number 21 R&B, 1972), "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know" (Number 20 R&B, 1972), and "Love, Love, Love" (Number 16 R&B, 1973).
Concurrently, Hathaway worked as a producer and composer for others, including Aretha Franklin, Jerry Butler, and the Staple Singers. He also did freelance production work for Chess, Uni, Kapp, and Stax, and served as arranger for Curtom Records and band director for the Impressions. Quincy Jones hired Hathaway to score the 1972 film Come Back Charleston Blue. He also sang the theme song for the television series Maude. By the mid-'70s, he had formed his own independent production company. Hathaway's daughter Lalah came out with her debut album in 1990.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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