Happy 45th Anniversary to Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s eponymous duet album, originally released May 6, 1972.
Love is beautiful. No one in this universe can perfectly describe or question its existence. Not even an archaeologist can map its origin or predict its occurrence. When it happens, it happens. In a flash, the affection and ecstasy between two souls spark a magical union. Their lives are enriched for the better of it.
But just when the passion gets strong, things can go wrong. The longing and agony sets in. Everything that once shimmered and flowed becomes cloudy and entangled. The broken pieces may rekindle in time; or it’ll remain in ruin as time passes by. In between the joy and despair is the need for reflection and salvation. Nothing better encapsulates love and its unpredictable beauty than the life-affirming soul of Roberta Flack and the late great Donny Hathaway.
Like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell before them, Hathaway and Flack represented two close friends deeply in love. Their fruitful union began at Howard University, where they both studied music. Flack was one of the youngest to enroll at the institution, entering there to study piano at age 15. Hathaway played in a jazz trio during his tenure at Howard, but eventually left to accept jobs in the music business before graduating.
It was obvious that the two shared aspirations of becoming towering forces in the music world. Before landing at Atlantic Records, Flack built a reputation of playing at local piano bars in Washington D.C., while Hathaway worked at Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label in Chicago, writing, arranging, and playing for the likes of Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, Jerry Butler, and Phil Upchurch. Soon, Hathaway would lend his talents to Flack as well.
In 1969, Flack recorded and released her debut album First Take, in which Hathaway contributed two songs, “Tryin’ Times” and “Our Ages or Our Hearts.” By the following year, she released her second album Chapter Two, which included another song Hathaway wrote with fellow cohorts, Leroy Hutson and Curtis Mayfield, “Gone Away.” He was a session pianist, background vocalist and arranger for the album as well.
After years of making strides in the business, Hathaway released his 1970 debut album Everything is Everything and its 1971 eponymous follow-up Donny Hathaway, garnering him acclaim from the music world and his peers alike. While both Hathaway and Flack were known extensively as indomitable talents in the soul landscape, they hadn’t gained pop recognition in the early trajectories of their careers. Flack was certainly a gifted musician in the singer-songwriter realm, with her serene, yet eclectic blend of jazz, blues, and gospel extending well beyond commercial soul. Hathaway’s commercial appeal fared better with his seminal hit, “The Ghetto” and the Yuletide staple, “This Christmas.” But the down-home nuances of his sound quickly veered toward an expansive approach.
The inspiration behind the two uniting to cut a duet album came from the most unlikely of places. During a performance at a Washington, D.C. club called Mr. Henry’s, Flack sang Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” which became an immediate pop staple when it first came out in 1971. Producer Jerry Wexler was in attendance. Stunned by her reading of the song that night, Wexler suggested to Flack that she and Hathaway should record the song and possibly an entire album, as it could consolidate their popularity. Flack eventually gave in to the suggestion and the rest was history. As their arresting folk-soul cover of “You’ve Got a Friend” (US pop #29, R&B #8) hit the charts the same day James Taylor’s version did, Flack and Hathaway began recording their album of duets.
The pairing’s resulting album, 1972’s Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, is a graceful portrait of two masters creating musical bliss with understated sophistication and glowing intimacy. In assessing the hallmarks that define the essence of R&B, classic duet pairings stand at the forefront of them all. From Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell to René Moore & Àngela Winbush, the union between a male and female depicting black romanticism through song is a spine-tingling experience whenever one hears it. The exquisite moment the two share when they eloquently sing together embodies a universe of true love—from its exhilarating highs to devastating lows. They sing on love like they know it all too well, and realistically, they do because they’ve lived it. In fact, the stirring conviction and vulnerability in their vocal approaches leads one to believe that they are an item themselves. Their boundless chemistry is too rich and timeless to ignore, just as love itself.
In every way, Flack and Hathaway epitomized the very essence of black love, right at the height of the Black Power movement. For them, love was more than a spiritual and romantic force that lingers throughout mankind. It was a political emblem that solidified the strength and vibrancy of the black experience.
Individually and collectively, Flack and Hathaway had a unique way of reinterpreting pop and soul staples. With their approach, they usually came up with the definitive readings of certain songs. Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway proves this in more ways than one. The album opens with their blues-based cover of Ben E. King’s lovelorn tale of loss love, “I (Who Have Nothing).” With a delicate string arrangement anchoring the song’s funeral-like mood, Flack’s tasteful voice burns with calming intensity, while Hathaway’s gospel-charged vocalizing takes the ballad to another height.
Their cover of “Baby I Love You” takes the jiving soul of Aretha Franklin’s classic and transforms it with a funky Vaudevillian-styled arrangement. The pairing reflects on their gospel roots with “Come Ye Disconsolate,” dosing the sacred hymn with black Baptist fervor. The luxurious drama of Phil Spector’s “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” (US pop #71, R&B #31) is given an urbane free jazz rendering, with Hathaway and Flack wonderfully blending their voices. The pop standard “For All We Know” has been interpreted by several artists throughout the years, but the quiet fire enchantment of the pairing’s cover is unrivaled.
As the pairing’s interpretative prowess is powerfully showcased on Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, the original material underscores the beauty of their artistic combination. The album’s popular mega-hit, “Where Is the Love” (US pop #5, R&B #1) is one of those romantic evergreens that will never vanish. Written by Ralph McDonald and William Salter, “Love” is characterized as a bittersweet plea between two discreet lovers, in which their burning desire for each other never comes to fruition because one is already in love with another person. The classic ballad features a mellifluous MOR-informed jazz groove with Hathaway and Flack impassionedly singing in unison.
“When Love Has Grown” is another McDonald and Salter-written ballad that has easy-going sentimentality, dripping with warmth and honesty all at the same time. Running at seven minutes, “Mood” is a meditative, piano-driven instrumental that finds Flack settling on acoustic piano with Hathaway on his favored Wurlitzer electric piano. Underneath the piece’s slightly somber atmosphere is the pairing’s spontaneous improvisation, which perfectly exemplifies their classical training. The earnest “Be Real Black for Me” stands as the album’s centerpiece, balancing the shared adoration between two black partners with affirmations directed to the communal power of the “Black is Beautiful” movement.
While Flack and Hathaway would sporadically collaborate throughout the 1970s, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway remains their most cherished achievement as a collective. It was the breakthrough release that brought them enormous recognition on the pop front, becoming a million-seller. It also cemented them as one of R&B’s greatest pairings.
In 1972, Flack reestablished herself as a solo sensation from the inclusion of her 1969 cover of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in the Clint Eastwood film Play Misty for Me, which propelled the single to the top of the charts, while garnering critical acclaim. Even though his commercial virtues as a solo artist floundered after the release of Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, Hathaway furthered his artistic journey with the release of the classic live album, 1972’s Live, the soundtrack to the 1972 blaxploitation film Come Back Charleston Blue, and his final opus, 1973’s Extension of a Man. At the height of his career, Hathaway battled with paranoid schizophrenia and died tragically in 1979.
Given the state of R&B today, few duet pairings, if any, come close to matching the intimate magic and spiritual tenacity Flack and Hathaway created. It was a divine match that exemplified black love, and that loving feeling resonates 45 years later.