Donny Hathaway – The Ghetto

5th July 2024 · 1960s, 1969, Music, Soul

This song is such a masterpiece with which to launch a career. And Donny Hathaway is rightly regarded as one of the greatest of all soul singers.

Yet he remains arguably best known for writing and singing a sentimental Christmas song, and for writing and singing an album of duets with his old university friend Roberta Flack – as well as singing the backing vocals on her biggest hit, Killing Me Softly.

This, though, is the real Donny Hathaway – a cinematic seven-minute extravaganza of social consciousness that sums up urban life for black families in the mid-Sixties, complete with sampled street talk, babies crying (actually his daughter Lalah) and an Afro-Cuban vibe from the congas.

The Ghetto, co-written by Hathaway with another university friend, Leroy Hutson, and arrangements by another – Ric Powell – came out as a single in 1969 and appeared on Donny’s debut album Everything Is Everything.

The son of Drusella Huntley, Donny Hathaway was born into an African American family in Chicago but raised down south by his grandmother, a professional gospel singer, in a housing project in St. Louis, Missouri.

He began singing in the church choir with her and took piano lessons from the age of three, going on to earn a fine arts scholarship to study music at Washington DC’s Howard University.

Already performing in his friend Ric Powell’s band, he left before graduation to work as a songwriter, session musician and producer for Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom Records back in Chicago.

Hathaway did the arrangements for hits by the Unifics (Court of Love and The Beginning of My End) and took part in projects by The Staple Singers, Jerry Butler, Aretha Franklin, The Impressions and Curtis Mayfield himself before becoming a house producer at Curtom.

He recorded his first single under his own name in 1969, a duet with singer June Conquest called I Thank You, Baby, and later that year he signed to Atco Records, then a division of Atlantic Records, after being spotted by producer/musician King Curtis at a trade convention.

Sadly, Hathaway began experiencing severe bouts of depression around this time, and in 1971 he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. At one point he was prescribed 14 different medications that he was to take twice a day – but he was less than diligent about them, and would stop when he began feeling better.

From 1973 to 1977, Hathaway’s mental instability wreaked havoc on his life and career and required several hospitalisations. Early in 1979 he started recording a new album of duets but began behaving irrationally, seeming to be paranoid and delusional.

According to his producer, on one occasion Hathaway told him that white people were trying to kill him and had connected his brain to a machine to steal his music and his voice, so the session was aborted and all the musicians went home.

Hours later, Donny was found dead on the pavement below the window of his 15th-floor room in New York City’s Essex House hotel opposite Central Park. It was reported that he had neatly removed the glass from the window and jumped from his balcony.

Hathaway’s funeral was conducted by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Later in 1979, The Whispers recorded the tribute Song for Donny for their self-titled album.