BY JACK RICCARDI
Every year around this time, I think about Donny Hathaway.
If you’ll give me a couple of minutes, I’ll tell you why.
Name sound familiar? Donny was a jazz, gospel and soul singer in the 1960s and ’70s, and one reason I think of him in this season is his pure, perfect version of “This Christmas”, which he cowrote, and which you can hear all over the radio or whenever you ride with me. This is a man who studied Ravel and Debussy but could rock a disco or make you cry. You might also remember his duets with Roberta Flack, like “The Closer I Get to You” and “Where is The Love?”
In fact, Hathaway was doing studio work on an album with Flack, when, on January 13, 1979, he took his own life in New York City.
So, he recorded a Christmas song and died around the holidays? But there’s more to why I’m thinking of him.
You have to hear Donny Hathaway, especially if you love the American blues/soul sound. This guy was gold. His voice was a force of nature. Justin Timberlake has called him the “best singer of all time”. Artists from Steve Wonder to Amy Winehouse described him as their favorite artists.
Hathaway covers abound: from George Benson to Alicia Keyes to Common, from Aretha Franklin to Train to Christina Aguilera. In the ultimate hip-hop compliment, he is often sampled or referenced in lyrics.
OK, Jack, but why now? I’ll tell you.
Doctors treated Donny Hathaway for years, for paranoid schizophrenia and depression.
His family believes he didn’t always keep up with his pills, and probably hadn’t at the time he plunged from the Essex House Hotel.
He felt unloved, unappreciated and unwanted, even though Roberta Flack loved working with him so much that she put up with his erratic studio habits and completed her album with him after his death. He isn’t just posthumously famous—in his day, he was a major star. His 1972 “live” album is one of the best live recordings you will ever hear. Radio and records couldn’t get enough of him.
This is what people fail to understand about mental illness. When people scratch their head. Why would someone who’s famous, talented and rich take his life? When they look into another human being’s existence, and say, hey, if that was me, I would be more than happy.
No. You wouldn’t.
I mean, it’s incredible the persistence with which we believe that success equals happiness, or fame trumps loneliness.
At New Year’s, we think it’s great to post the suicide hotlines on our Facebook page. Sorry, but that’s like wearing the right colored lapel ribbon.
Before you can help anyone else, you have to understand how what looks like the stuff of dreams to you or me can be an empty hell for someone else.
Rest in peace, brother Donny.