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‘Everything Is Everything’ Showcased Donny Hathaway’s Never-Ending Genius

Read An Excerpt From The Liner Notes Of Our December 2020 Classics Release

On November 24, 2020

“Everything is everything…”

In early ’70s Chicago, somewhere within the tiny 250 watt evening range of AM 1450 WVON — “Voice Of the Negro” — you may have heard that uttered by Herb Kent. By then, he had become one of the biggest Black DJs in the country and was a Chicago institution. Known as “The Cool Gent” for his relaxed demeanor and resonant baritone, Kent shuffled his “everything is everything” catch-phrase throughout his popular 7:30-11 p.m. shift.

One of the people listening was band leader Ric Powell, who explained to me that he interpreted the idiom’s tautology to be an embrace of everyday reality, i.e. “things are what they are…whatever is happening, that's what's happening.” That philosophy inspired Powell to lend the phrase to an album he was co-producing for ATCO Records, Everything Is Everything, the debut LP by Donny Hathaway, released on July 1, 1970.

First albums are often the culmination of a lifetime of hope and struggle but Everything Is Everything was different because Hathaway was different. He was a preternatural prodigy whom Quincy Jones called “a creative musical talent that comes once in 50 years” but stardom was never his childhood ambition. Instead, he followed a more serendipitous path to eventually share his genius with the world.

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In another lifetime, Donny Edward Hathaway may have never crossed into secular music. Born in Chicago, at age three his mother sent him to St. Louis to live with her mother, Martha Crumwell aka Pitts. She sang gospel and played guitar in the Trinity Baptist Church, raising her grandson in the same tradition, fitting a ukulele into his small hands. By age four, they hit the road with Hathaway billed as “Little Donnie Pitts…the youngest [gospel singer] of the nation.” Despite remaining musically active in the church, he wasn’t angling for a recording career. But this would change after graduating high school in 1964, and starting at Howard University on a music scholarship.

In another lifetime, Hathaway could have graduated Howard as a music educator and pursued a quiet life in teaching. However, at college, he’d form friendships that transformed his professional and personal life. It’s where he met his future wife, Eulaulah Vann, a classical voice major from southern Virginia. His college roommate was a dentistry student from Newark, Leroy Hutson. Roberta Flack was an aspiring vocalist from nearby Arlington, while Harold Wheeler, a future Tony Award-winning musical director, was, like Hathaway, from St. Louis.

Then there was Powell, a drummer from the Bronx who had formed the Ric Powell Trio in D.C. Wheeler was their regular pianist but one night, he couldn’t make an audition at Billy’s, a local club. Wheeler recommended Hathaway in his stead, but Powell shares that he was “a little hesitant initially because [Hathaway] had been raised in the church” and lacked familiarity with “secular music, worldly music.” Powell discovered that Hathaway only "knew about three [pop] songs: ‘Maria’ from West Side Story, ‘Georgia On My Mind’ by Ray Charles and [Johnny Mathis’s] ‘Misty.’” It was good enough; they landed the gig and the former kid gospel act had unwittingly taken his first steps toward the pop music world.

Meanwhile, as roommates, Hathaway and Hutson worked on music together and they helped form a choral group with fellow classmates dubbed the Mayfield Singers in homage to Curtis Mayfield. The Chicago soul legend frequented Howard to mentor students and scout for talent; meeting the Mayfield Singers must have flattered their namesake since, in 1966, he released their cover of The Impressions’ “I’ve Been Trying” on — what else? — Mayfield Records, the precursor to his independent label Curtom.

Mayfield told scholar Craig Werner in 1997, “You could just talk to [Hathaway] over the phone and play him a piece of music, and he could call out every chord and tell you what key it was in….He was so intellectual with the music….He was destined to be somebody big.” Mayfield invited Hathaway to sit in on some gigs, which is how the pianist met and befriended Phil Upchurch, the famed Chicago guitarist/bassist. According to Powell, Upchurch urged Mayfield to hire Hathaway at Curtom, and in 1967 the newly married Donny and Eulaulah Hathaway relocated to Chicago where he wrote, arranged, and produced for the label. Mayfield thought he had found a singular talent much like himself; he was right but perhaps too much so.

In another lifetime, Hathaway could have helped turn Curtom into the next Motown. Mayfield had been a one-man hit machine for OKeh Records and The Impressions but landing a partner of Hathaway’s caliber could have vaulted his label’s ceiling. Initially, Hathaway performed as desired, helping develop Curtom acts like The Five Stairsteps and Baby Huey, as well as working with veteran arranger Johnny Pate on The Impressions’ stellar The Young Mod’s Forgotten Story (1969).

Unfortunately, with time came conflict. As Curtom co-founder Eddie Thomas opined in the Mayfield biography, Traveling Soul, “Both men had equal skills yet had very strong and stubborn personalities. Curtis wouldn’t do things Donny’s way or vice versa.” Hathaway eventually asked to be released from Curtom in 1969, but when he immediately signed with ATCO, professional friction turned personal. In Traveling Son, Mayfield’s son Todd recalled that “Dad cut all ties with Donny” and also “forced my mother to do the same with…Eulaulah.”

Ironically, by bringing Hathaway to Chicago, Mayfield had inadvertently set in motion events that launched his protege’s solo career. For one, Curtom had given Hathaway his first taste as a recording artist when he cut “I Thank You Baby,” a 1969 duet with June Conquest. Meanwhile, Upchurch brought Hathaway into moonlight at sessions with Chess and Cadet, working with renowned producer/arrangers like Richard Evans and Charles Stepney.

Chicago also lured Hathaway’s old Howard crew. Hutson impressed Mayfield enough to eventually take over as lead singer in The Impressions in the early ’70s. Powell was a frequent presence as well and in Chicago he introduced Hathaway to an old friend visiting town: King Curtis. The saxophonist was so enamored with Hathaway that he brokered a meeting between him and Atlantic/ATCO’s Jerry Wexler. A few years prior, Hathaway was an aspiring music teacher who only knew a trio of pop songs. Now, at 23, he was being courted by one of the country’s most influential pop music labels. Everything, it would seem, was everything.

"In another lifetime, Hathaway could have helped turn Curtom into the next Motown."

Though his debut was recorded in Atlantic’s NYC studios between September 1969 and April 1970, Everything Is Everything owed much to Hathaway’s Chicago years; the opening song, “Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything),” was a perfect distillation of his time there. Not only was the title inspired by local DJ Herb Kent but the song updated an instrumental written by Upchurch and Evans for The Soulful Strings’ String Fever, a 1969 Cadet LP that included two Hathaway-penned songs, “Zambezi” and “Valdez In the Country.”

For Hathaway’s version of “Voices Inside,” co-writer Powell recalls that the bass line intro by Louis Satterfield was inspired by Percy Mayfield’s “River’s Invitation” from 1963, while the song’s march-like cadence was also deliberate: “We had approached the music director at Howard about putting together an arrangement [of the song] for a marching band.” Powell added new lyrics, including the “everything is everything” hook and the intro lines, “I hear voices, I see people.” As Donny Hathaway Live author Emily Lordi argued, one could interpret that lyric as a dark “premonition of Hathaway’s schizophrenic imagination” but she suggests instead that “in the context of the song it evokes a communal tapestry….music as natural and vibrant as everyday life.”

“Je Vous Aime (I Love You)” was the prettiest composition of the three songs written by Hathaway and Hutson on the LP. Powell recollects that while Hutson penned the French parts, overall, the song was a dedication from Donny to Eulaulah; appropriately, she sings back-up on it. Notably, in the summer of ’69, a Boston group, The Indigos, may have been the first to record “I Love You”; it was a B-side on Gamble and Huff’s Neptune imprint. You can tell how unknown the songwriters were at the time since the label misspelled both their names as “Hudson” and “Haithaway.”

“I Believe To My Soul,” was Hathaway’s vibrant take on Ray Charles’s 1959 classic about suspicious minds. As gifted a songwriter as he was, Hathaway was also one of soul’s great interpreters and this cover took the stark minimalism of Charles’s original and added new layers including an irresistible rhythm section and dramatic bank of horns. Powell recalls that after receiving the finished version, “I saw Ray Charles and I played it for him and he said, ‘Wow, I don't remember recording that.’ I said, ‘You didn't, that's Donny Hathaway!’"

Speaking of covers, Hathaway’s take on “Misty” nodded back to that pivotal audition at Billy’s. Originally a hit for Johnny Mathis in 1959, “Misty” became a modern standard, recorded by countless artists, but Hathaway’s cover is among the very best. Music writer A. Scott Galloway shared with me that Hathaway wanted this LP to show “all these different stylistic things: blues, gospel, jazz, R&B. He was really trying to touch on all different aspects of Black music…that was very important to him from a cultural standpoint.” “Misty” showcased just how deftly and effortlessly he could meld those influences into a performance. There was something deeply reverential in his approach and though tracks like “Thank You Master” were more overtly religious, to this author, no song took me to church more than “Misty.”

“Sugar Lee” was Powell and Hathaway’s homage to their Howard days, a four minute jam session where the pianist and drummer were joined by D.C. bassist Marshall Hawkins and what sounded like a room full of friends hooting, hollering and clapping hands. Compared to the meticulous polish that Hathaway brought to his studio recordings, “Sugar Lee” stood apart in its looseness and spontaneity. As Powell put it in the original liners — which he wrote — the song aspired to sound like “a real swinging party” and that’s exactly what they achieved.

Side A ended with “Tryin’ Times,” another Hutson and Hathaway collaboration first recorded by Roberta Flack on First Take, then Roebuck “Pops” Staples on a Stax B-side. By the time Hathaway recorded his own version, America was even deeper into a Nixonian dystopia of seemingly endless war, protest movements, violent backlashes, and general tumult. Along with “The Ghetto,” “Tryin’ Times” was their attempt to speak to that moment. Over a heavily blues-inflected track, Hathaway crooned “maybe folks wouldn't have to suffer, if there was more love for your brother, but these are tryin' times.” Sadly, 50 years later and those words still feel as resonant as ever.

Side B opened with “Thank You Master (For My Soul),” the only song on the LP solely authored by Hathaway and one of his most deeply personal compositions. Powell surmises that on the LP, this was “Donny’s favorite” because it was his “prayer for being blessed with musical talent.” He may have sounded older and more world-weary than four year old Little Donnie Pitts but Hathaway was undoubtedly drawing from his youthful days spent at Trinity Baptist. Especially towards the song’s end, he was essentially sermonizing about the daily miracle of being alive, avoiding “cooling boards” (embalming tables) and “winding sheets” (body shrouds), all sung with an irrepressible holy spirit.

When Hathaway first met with Wexler in 1969, “The Ghetto” was the demo that helped seal the deal. ATCO released it as a promotional single that fall and it became the LP’s highest charting song. It was also the first composition he and Hutson created, a reclamation of the term “the ghetto” from opportunistic politicians and moralizing commentators. It wasn’t a pedantic manifesto either. Instead, over a deliciously Afro-Latin-flavored groove that unfurls over seven minutes, a host of voices repeats “the ghetto” over and over, not in a lamentation but in a defiant celebration of neighborhoods often pitied and/or feared. In fact, in his 1998 book, A Change Is Gonna Come, Craig Werner revealed that Hathaway had snuck in a few bars of the melody of “We Shall Overcome” and that such a deliberate nod to a Civil Rights-era anthem was Hathaway’s way of telling listeners “to keep the faith, not to give up the dream of redemption, no matter how bleak the world might seem.” Echoing the optimism for the future is one key voice amongst the crowd on this song: the cooing and crying of Donny and Eulaulah’s infant daughter Lalah who would, of course, become a storied artist herself. Powell says “I was holding her in my arms up to the microphone” and he would tell Lalah later, “that was [your] debut recording, on your father’s album.”

The album ended with a song that could have been the LP’s alternate title: “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.” Written in 1969 by Nina Simone and Weldon Irvine Jr. to honor the late playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who originated the phrase, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” would find its greatest exposure via Aretha Franklin’s 1972 song and album of the same name. Yet, Hathaway was the first to cover it and more to the point, he was a living embodiment of its sentiment, one of the “million boys and girls” able to realize his potential, however tragically short-lived it was. In the original liners, Powell described it as “a message of lament” for those “trapped by lack of opportunity” but though the song reverberated with a deep solemnity, the ultimate effect felt like one of uplift and resilience.

“There was something deeply reverential in his approach and though tracks like 'Thank You Master' were more overtly religious, to this author, no song took me to church more than 'Misty.'”

In another lifetime, Everything Is Everything would have been the auspicious beginning to a long career, filled with genre-shifting solo albums, radio-dominating duet projects and countless production and songwriter credits. Instead, Hathaway’s mental illness worsened across the ’70s, putting a strain on his output which ended up being shockingly smaller than one might assume. The shadow of his January 1979 death — and the unresolved questions around its circumstances — hang over all his recordings but especially this one.

As noted, Everything Is Everything was the realization of a dynamic half-decade that saw Hathaway go from an introverted music major to one of the soul era’s brightest stars. In doing so, this was a magnum opus of his abilities in every regard: his songwriting, arranging, producing and singing. As Galloway mused to me, “When he got the opportunity [to record the LP] he just didn't know what to do so he just decided to do everything.” One could argue that Extension of a Man (1973) was more consistent or that Donny Hathaway Live (1972) had more transcendent performances, but Everything Is Everything inarguably established just how expansive his genius could be.

That he and his partners were also able to speak to the social, cultural and political upheavals of the era is no less remarkable. Lordi wrote how Hathaway’s response to “this moment of danger” was to rise to the occasion with “joy, prayer, and revolutionary love….placing black people at the center of their own life worlds.” The promise and realization of that ethos infuses every part of Everything Is Everything, least of all in the image that graces its cover of Hathaway holding hands in a circle of children, all of them young, gifted, and Black.

Profile Picture of Oliver Wang
Oliver Wang

Oliver Wang is a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach. He’s been both a DJ and music/culture writer since the mid 1990s for outlets such as NPR, Vibe, Wax Poetics, Scratch, The Village Voice, SF Bay Guardian, and LA Weekly, and created the audioblog Soul Sides. He co-hosts the album appreciation podcast, Heat Rocks.

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