A COLLEGE MEMORY
Donny Hathaway & Roberta Flack
It was 1968, I was a third year student at Howard University in Washington, D.C. (and loving every minute of it!) and one Saturday morning as I was walking across the quad to my dreaded 8:30 AM special physics class for us dummy architecture students, I heard a voice from the Fine Arts Building practicing scales. “Hmmmm,” I thought to myself. “Why does that voice sound so familiar?” And in a flash – yes, back in 1968 my mind did have “flashes of clarity and enlightenment” unlike the freezes of blankness and blackness it suffers today – “Hey, that’s Roberta Flack!” I knew this because me and some of my friends had gone to see her perform several times at Mr. Henry’s on Pennsylvania Avenue up on Capitol Hill. (BTW: Still there. Same Place. Same Menu.) Plus we were hosting her drummer, Eric Gravatt, and his girlfriend post MLK riots in our Dupont Circle apartment since theirs had been burned out. Roberta was still a student and had not yet become famous. But we figured she would be. She was that good.
What I did not know at the time, was that Donny Hathaway, with whom Roberta made several singles and albums, was also a student at Howard. Anyone of an age will certainly recognize “Where is the Love?” and “The Closer I get to You” classic Flack & Hathaway duets, unless you were in a prolonged coma back in the 1970’s. Although a student at Howard, unlike Roberta, Donny did not graduate and left school in 1967 to begin his musical career. An exceptionally talented singer, songwriter and arranger, Donny worked with such luminaries as The Staple Singers, Jerry Butler, Aretha Franklin, the Impressions and Curtis Mayfield during his short professional career.
But it was in 1972 with the release of “Where is the Love?” with former classmate Roberta Flack that Hathaway broke into the pop music charts. From then on until is death in 1979 Hathaway alone and with Flack produced several albums two of which were certified gold. A strong, melodic baritone, Hathaway has always sounded to me like someone who could mold his voice into a vehicle full of emotional expression. It was, and is, a beautiful voice that comes from the heart. His death in 1979 was ruled a suicide, he suffered from schizophrenia a condition that was well known and that, at times, prevented him from writing and recording. Rumors persisted for years that his death – he threw himself out of a 15th floor balcony in the Essex House hotel in New York City - was the result of the CIA’s experimentation with LSD and other hallucinogens on unsuspecting victims. Roberta was devastated by Donnie’s suicide and helped to produce additional albums of his and their duets after his death.
Today one of Hathaway’s daughters, Kenya, works as a back up singer on American Idol. Roberta is still going strong and recently embarked on a fourteen city tour this year.
Take care of your loved ones.