donny hathaway

Donny Hathaway

*I used to date a woman who saw the Jimi Hendrix Experience perform live.  She said that in the summer of 1967, when she was  13, her father took her to see a Monkees concert in  Los Angeles. Hendrix, on the  brink of superstardom, was one of the opening acts.

She told me Jimi performed–ear-numbing amplifier feedback, simulated sex with his guitar, the whole bit–while  two zillion teenaged white girls chanted, “We want  the Monkees.”  Her father sat watching the stage in bemused silence while his daughter quietly went ga-ga over Jimi.

Obviously, a lot of people saw Hendrix play live in his time. However, not counting drummer Buddy Miles, who later augmented Hendrix’ Band of Gypsies unit, I’ve never met any of them.  For the rest of her life, she’s got that Hendrix story to tell.

And I’ve got Donny Hathaway.

Most people who know me have heard this story.  Every holiday season, when the soul icon’s classic “This Christmas”  plays on the radio, on TV and wafts from   music systems at  shopping malls, I am reminded  that I got to hear  Hathaway perform the song live.

I had the weather to thank. When  cousin Charlotte,  lovingly known by family as Puddin,’  called one Sunday evening in December 1971 with  two tickets  for  Hathaway’s show that night at Oklahoma City’s Civic Center Music Hall,  snow was on the ground.  Barbara, my sister, didn’t care to go out in it.  So,  Puddin’  invited me  instead.

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A 16 year-old pop music fanatic who absolutely relished watching music performed live, I was excited to see Hathaway.  The formally  trained Chicago-based session musician, arranger and producer  turned front man presented a dynamic, melodic hybrid of soul, gospel, blues, jazz and classical interpretations that, during a 70-71  period  dominated by the rock-tinged funk  of Sly and the Family Stone,  a newly solo Diana Ross, the ever funky James Brown and a prodigious new young sibling act called the Jackson 5,  made  Hathaway pop/R&B’s newest and brightest light.  His  mighty, ringing vibrato, deadly ad-lib skills and a brilliant mastery of the piano (the distinctive purr of the Wurlitzer electric piano became a musical trademark) put Hathaway  in a class by himself.

Because of the weather, the 3,000-seat Civic Center was less than full.  Yet the portly Hathaway,  wearing his characteristic Apple hat cocked ace/duce and  accompanied by a rhythm section of stellar musicians including bassist Willie Weeks, percussionist Earl DeRouen, a guitarist that during the OKC date could have been either Phil Upchurch, Cornell Dupree or Mike Howard, and drummer Freddie White (years later I’d discover that the younger brother of Earth, Wind and Fire  leader Maurice White was no older than I), was in  great spirits. He smiled a lot as he and his band jammed if they were at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

The enthusiastic audience was  waiting  to hear Hathaway play two songs in particular–“The Ghetto,” the proud, mid tempo,  head-bobbing, anthemic instrumental that had been his breakthrough hit single,  and “This Christmas.” Written (with lyricist Nadine McKinnor), arranged and produced by Hathaway, the jubilant, soulful Yuletide ode, initially ignored by white radio,  became an instant  holiday hit at black radio.

Hathaway performed the song  midway through his set. Then, as if rewarding us for trudging through the elements to see him,  played it again at show’s end.  By then the audience  was on its feet, swaying and grooving to a melody, arrangement and lyric that filled us all with joy.

During the ride back home, Puddin’ and I stepped on  each other’s sentences as we excitedly recanted  our favorite moments in the show.  We didn’t know what to expect, but Hathaway’s robust and highly musical recital left us intoxicated.

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Once home, I burned up the phone, calling all my music lovers–fledgling  garage band musicians;  nerdy kids who pored over production credits on the back of LP covers as if they were studying for a test;  ardent record collectors who never went anywhere, day or night, without their stack of 45 singles, you know,  just in case–raving that this cat Donny Hathaway was everything Jet Magazine, Rolling Stone and word on the street said  he was, and then some.

Not long after, Atco/Atlantic released Hathaway’s “Live,” an album of performances recorded at legendary music clubs The Bitter End in New York City, and Hollywood’s Troubadour.  The song list was the same  one I’d heard  Hathaway and company play at the Civic Center, which simply extended my bragging rights: 1972s “Live,” which went on to establish itself as one of the greatest live recordings of all time,  I’d seen for myself.  Live, baby.

But while many have seen a Hathaway concert,  you’d have to have caught his act during a  holiday season to see him perform “This Christmas.”   Imagine being on hand when Nat “King” Cole began performing a little song called  “The Christmas Song,” aka “Chestnuts Roasting By An Open Fire”?  I loved “This Christmas,” but had no clue it would become a holiday standard, covered over and again by a multitude of artists and performers.

Witnessing Hathaway’s musical genius–and watching his subsequent success both as a soloist during his expansive “Extensions Of A Man” album and hit duets like “Where Is The Love” with his dear friend Roberta Flack–made it all the more heartbreaking on January 13, 1979, when Hathaway fell from a window of his hotel room at New York’s Essex House.  His death, which shocked the music world, was ruled a suicide.  He was 33 years old.

In the decades since, Hathaway has  become one of black music’s most  influential figures, touching fans and artists alike through the recorded gems he left behind. But I’ve got something more.

I’ve talked with people who saw the Beatles at New York’s Shea Stadium; know folks who love to gab about being  at L.A.’s long gone Beverly Theater that fateful night in the ’80s that both Michael Jackson and Prince joined James Brown onstage.

However, every holiday season I reminiscence of the time I experienced the great Donny Hathaway perform not one, but two of his life’s signature works–the set that became the “Live” album and “This Christmas.”  I was there. You can believe my vivid and wonderful remembrance is the gift that keeps on giving.

Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love  (Simon & Schuster),  has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].

Steven Ivory