world, he remains a force in soul music and in other music genres, as well. Perhaps he is best remembered for his soul duets with Howard University classmate Roberta Flack.
Hathaway was not limited and refused to be limited to only one category of music. He wrote astounding soul music, to be sure, but he also composed soundtracks (1972's Comeback, Charleston Blue), jazz, blues, funk, and even country and classical.
In a 1973 interview with British journalist, David Nathan, Hathaway revealed that he had written a concerto entitled Life which reflected on his life in music. His hopes, at the time, were to have it recorded and performed by the Boston Pops with himself conducting. Unfortunately, it is Donny's death that has embedded itself in America's musical remembrance and not his life and magnificent contribution to American music.
April 20, 2012 at Jimmy Mak's, however, it was Donny's life and music that were celebrated and paid homage with SoulMates' Tribute to Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack. Roberta Flack was included because it was his collaborations with Roberta that ran the charts so heavily (two #1's) and won them 1973's Grammy for "Best Vocal Performance by Duo or Group." In fact, the five Hathaway singles that were Top Ten Billboard Hits were all duets with Roberta.
Performing with SoulMates Jay "Bird" Koder (guitar), Jarrod Lawson (vocals and keyboards) and Reinhardt Melz (drums) were Farnell Newton (flugelhorn) and the lovely Saeeda Wright (vocals). It was a flawless line-up with an equally flawless set list which included chart-toppers Where is the Love and The Closer I Get to You. Among the sweetest choices were Donny's non-charting songs and the original SoulMates compositions which peppered the set list with contemporary songs showing the influence of Donny Hathaway. While the concert was a tribute to Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack, it was not be forgotten that this was a SoulMates concert in tribute to the duo.
This was not mere mimickry of great songs. Any band can do that. But to take great pieces and restructure them, to enhance what had once been subdued and to underplay that which had once been featured is truly a tribute in that it allows the original to speak again with freshness and relevance amidst the talents of the current musicians.
J.D. Stubenberg, General Manager of Jimmy Mak's, introduced the band as "the best kept secret in Portland. Soulmates," he continued,"are the band that many of Portland’s great musicians call their favorite. Tonight they’ll be dipping into the deep wells of music built by legendary soul singing duo Roberta Flack and Donnie Hathaway. This is the band to play this music. It just doesn’t get any better."
After some warm-up numbers, SoulMates offered original compositions that featured Jarrod Lawson's lyricism and Jay "Bird" Koder's soaring guitar, especially on Everything I Need (J. Lawson, composer) which contained very Hathaway-esque sentiments about joy in the presence of loved ones. This was followed by Everything is Clear, an original composition of Lawson, Farnell Newton and Steveland Swatkins and was featured on Farnell's CD Class is Now in Session. This provided a fine spot for introducing Farnell to the audience, although he needs no introduction to any Portland audience. As always, Farnell opened masterfully and continued so throughout the evening, playing a gentle horn solo on I Love You More than You'll Ever Know and playing it hot on Back Together Again.
I Love You More than You'll Ever Know was Donny at his blues best and "Bird" Koder was just the man for the job on the sweet, bluesy guitar. Like Hathaway, Bird has refused categorization and both of them were at home in genres from blues to jazz to classical. J.D. was correct in saying "This is the band to play this music."
Jarrod Lawson proved himself more than master of the soulful and bluesy vocals as well as the keyboards in I Believe to My Soul. This was hard blues. It had powerful rhythms and Reinhardt Melz has proven himself Portland's superior drummer over and over again. With Jarrod's kicking bass on the keyboards it might be suggested that the two of them at least approached, if not equaled, the rhythm section of Satterfield, Upchurch and Jennings on the original recording. With Bird and Farnell trading fours, the blues took on a jazz element only to be jerked back into blues with Jarrod's angry delivery of the memorable line "Ooooo, Baby baby baby/ Last night while you were sleeping/ I heard you say/ Ohhhh Ronny/ When you know my name/ When you know my name/ When you know my name is Donny!"
The YouTube link below is the original recording from Donny's first album Everything is Everything from 1970.
From such playfulness, she turned quickly to anguish with Roberta's huge hit Killing Me Softly. The song included stirring harmonies between Saeeda and Jarrod, which was not originally a duet but was treated as such on Saturday night. Jarrod's inclusion was fittingly representative of Donny's presence in Roberta's life. The song was not written with Donny Hathaway in mind nor with Don McLean in mind as apocryphal stories suggest. But the male vocal harmonies were fitting.
The song faded to close with Saeeda repeating the line "Killing me softly...killing me softly...killing me softly..." It received sustained applause for this unbelievable treatment of an already unbelievable song. This was mature treatment of legendary material. Jarrod Lawson has written "If your rendition of a cover tune isn't better, OR, just completely different than the original, what's the point?" With this as the philosophical approach to this tribute, it took the concert beyond the bounds of simple flattering imitation.
Donny loved and appreciated Marvin Gaye and most of Donny's live shows included his cover of the Marvin Gaye hit What's Going On. To pay homage to Donny is not just to reiterate his own material but to realize the music that moved him, as well. That understanding undoubtedly prompted the inclusion of Marvin's song in this tribute. It wasn't done in Marvin's style or even Donny's but, rather, SoulMates style. Jarrod's understanding of the vocals and Bird's take on the melodies in his solos bring this powerful and prophetic song right into the present day. Saeeda provided very heartfelt backing vocals.
For The Closer I Get to You, however, she resumed the duet lead with Jarrod in what was easily the most beautifully portrayed sense of longing heard on this night. Saeeda had shown her playful side, her sexy side and her pained side already but, at this point, she turned on the relaxed emotion of pure desire. She was truly capturing every emotion that Roberta herself has displayed so often. "Lying here next to you/ Time just seems to fly..." was delivered with languid satisfaction. Bird's supportive and understated guitar solo only added to the satisfaction. As the number faded, Saeeda repeatedly breathed the words "a little bit closer" while furtively reaching her hand toward Jarrod. This song was enough in itself to prove the truth of SoulMates' theme of "Sweet, Sexy Soul."
Reinhardt Melz had been the perfect gentleman on drums all night but, with Back Together Again, he turned on the hard funk groove and gave the perfect platform for Farnell's cool flugelhorn solo and Bird's hot guitar. You can't hear SoulMates' version but the link below will take you to the original by Roberta and Donny. This is the extended 12" single.
Bill Withers' composition Lovely Day was next and the playful mood continued as Farnell had not made it to the stage, prompting Jarrod Lawson to call out during the intro, "Yo, Farnell! Where you at?" Farnell, red-faced, made his way quickly to the stage with his horn in hand and jumped right in.
Saeeda's playfulness had been seen earlier but it turned into downright taunting during Where is the Love with Jarrod in duet. None other than Mel Brown had been the drummer on the original recording of this great hit and Reinhardt respectfully kept Mel in mind in playing his rhythms. When the song was coming to its end (and nobody wanted it to end), Saeeda and Jarrod traded the lyric "Where is the love?...Where is the love?" Finally, Saeeda looked at Jarrod and said, "Really, Jarrod, where is the love? I mean, I see that ring on your finger...but where is the love?" Jarrod brightened to red and said "Oh, yeah..where is the love?" Saeeda was relentless. "Jarrod, where is the love?" to which Jarrod answered, "You know that's my WIFE sitting right there..." Saeeda poured it on with "Yeah, but you told me that you were gonna leave her...." It was good theater and it was great music.
But to hear Saeeda Wright with SoulMates and Farnell Newton on The First Time (Ever I Saw Your Face) is a study in absolute desire. This was staggering! It is not enough to mention a stanza or a line of the lyrics and hearing them often distracts from the words themselves. So, with your permission, the lyrics:
The first time ever I saw your face/ I thought the sun rose in your eyes/ And the moon and stars were the gifts you gave/
To the dark and the empty skies, my love/ To the dark and the empty skies.
The first time ever I kissed your mouth/ And felt your heart beat close to mine/ Like the trembling heart of a captive bird/
That was there at my command, my love/ That was there at my command.
And the first time ever I lay with you/ I felt your heart so close to mine/ And I knew our joy would fill the earth/
And last till the end of time my love/ It would last till the end of time my love
The first time ever I saw your face, your face/ your face... your face.....
The trailing off of the final words were so heart-breaking. Perhaps it was so emotional because of the expressed hope that this love would last till the end of time but Donny would be gone so soon. Looking back at dashed hopes is the cruelest fate of all.
But the music still sings to us and the power of the words are no less relevant today than when Donny first recorded them. The song I Believe in Music (written by Mac Davis) became an anthem under Donny Hathaway's treatment. "I believe in Music/ I believe in Love" resounded of hope in the midst of blood-letting and horror. When Donny first recorded it, we were still embroiled in VietNam. Today, we are bogged down in Afghanistan. Donny would remind us that policies and politics divide us but music and the love it expresses are the great unifiers. The audience responded to that sentiment with hands raised and waving in the air. The guitar solo from Bird was electrifying and the audience was invited to sing the refrain, so that even the musicians stopped and let the audience take the lead. The song closed with Bird and Jarrod playing echoes of Let it Be. Powerful.
Howard Ingber is a lovely man who has been dealing with health issues. Howard was in attendance because he loves Donny Hathaway and he loves SoulMates. The words "Take it from me, someday we'll all be free" were sent out to Howard with love. Farnell's melancholy horn solo was a beautiful feature of the song. Howard sat with hands raised and a smile to light up the room. Someday We'll All Be Free is a Donny masterpiece.
From Donny's last album came Love, Love, Love. Hathaway had once told a reporter that he liked writing "pretty music." Love, Love, Love is, most assuredly, pretty music. Reinhardt provided what can only be called a cheerful groove for this sweet piece. Jarrod's intonations of "I looked out into empty space and all I saw was your pretty face" was splendid.
Tonight I Celebrate My Love was, to me, a bit cheesey when it was first released. It was around 1980 and it was one of the worst periods for music, I thought. The SoulMates' rendition, however, was moving and meaningful in a way I never thought possible. With Jarrod and Saeeda singing it, the song turned into a celebration of the deep friendship of Donny and Roberta. I have since gone back to listen to the original and have found new life in that song. That new life was breathed into it by SoulMates. Now, doing that is a tribute!
This Christmas was never a Top Ten hit for Donny but no Christmas passes without hearing it on numerous radio stations and other outlets. Being difficult to sing a Christmas song in April, SoulMates took the music and wrote lyrics in honor of Donny. The concluding line was "Donny, you will always be so special to me." It served as a reminder of the impact of the man and his art. Not dwelling on the end, the choice is better made to celebrate the life and love of Donny Hathway.
Bridge Over Troubled Water is one of those songs that serves us best when things around are difficult. Saeeda Wright took this popular and hopeful song and moved it into another place that even Paul Simon could not have imagined. When she sang the line "And pain is all around..." Howard had his hands in the air again. Music just may be the best ministry one can offer. Saeeda was the bridge over troubled water that night. I can say without any worry of exaggeration that this song was written over 50 years ago for Saeeda Wright to sing. I have never experienced anything like this in my life. I confess that Paul Simon doesn't move me... but Saeeda Wright does.
You've Got a Friend was recorded by everyone back around 1970. Everyone remembers Carole King's version, or even James Taylor's, but the Hathaway version is what we saw through the lens of SoulMates and Donny's version should never be forgotten. It ended cheerfully, even a bit rollicking, which is the effect of good friends.
The encore left Jarrod Lawson alone onstage. Saeeda and Farnell departed first. Bird and Reinhardt slipped away. Jarrod and his keyboard remained for A Song for You. The sheer beauty of the lyrics and the emotion of the music were overwhelming. It created an image of Donny Hathaway alone and giving his music to those who would follow after. The last lines were:
"We were alone and I was singing this song for you..." Almost one could imagine the spirit of Donny at rest, alone with us, and singing his music to a world that still needs his voice.