RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Let's hear, now, one of NPR's 50 Great Voices.
(Soundbite of song, "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know")
Mr. DONNY HATHAWAY (Singer/Songwriter/Musician): (Singing) When I wasn't making too much money, you know where my paycheck went. I brought it all home to you, baby, and I never spent one red cent.
MONTAGNE: Donny Hathaway may be forever linked to songstress Roberta Flack for the duets they sang back in the 1970s. But his music has influenced performers from George Benson to Alicia Keys to rapper Common. And the body of work he left behind, when he died in 1979, can be said to be part of the very foundation of soul.
Here's NPR's Allison Keyes.
ALLISON KEYES: The thing about Donny Hathaway's voice is its clarity. It has power and strength, but it glistens like a waterfall of moonlight.
(Soundbite of song, "For All We Know")
Mr. HATHAWAY: (Singing) For all we know, we may never meet again...
KEYES: Hathaway's voice, his skills on the piano, and his control over his instruments take your breath away.
Contemporary singer and songwriter Raul Midon is often compared to Hathaway. He says Hathaway not only had an incredible voice, but the technique of a classical singer.
Mr. RAUL MIDON (Singer/Songwriter): He would do...
Mr. MIDON: ...you know, stuff like that. But it was always right on.
(Soundbite of song, "For All We Know")
Mr. HATHAWAY: (Singing) ...goodnight until the last minute...
Mr. MIDON: Obviously, the other great practitioner of that is Stevie Wonder. And there are some others, but they weren't coming from that tradition of singing.
(Soundbite of applause)
KEYES: Midon is talking about Hathaway's roots in what he calls the soul way of singing.
Mr. MIDON: Call it gospel. Call it soul. Call it whatever you want, but that tradition of singing, you know, for lack of a better term, you know, black singers or African-American singers. You know, he came from that tradition.
(Soundbite of song, "What's Going On)
Mr. HATHAWAY: (Singing) Mother, mother, there's too many of you crying. Brother, brother, brother, there's far too many of you dying. You know...
KEYES: Donny Hathaway was born October 1st, 1945, in Chicago, but raised by his grandmother in a St. Louis public housing project. By the age of 3, he was already a professional gospel singer. His piano chops got him into Howard University on a scholarship, and landed him work as a producer and arranger for the likes of Aretha Franklin and the Staple Singers.
In 1969, he signed with Atlantic Records and released his first single.
(Soundbite of song, "The Ghetto")
Mr. HATHAWAY: (Singing) I, I, oh, yeah.
CHORUS: The ghetto. The ghetto...
Mr. JOE MARDIN (Producer/Arranger): When I hear him, it's just sort of like, you know, it's like somebody who has something to say - and you must hear it.
KEYES: Producer and arranger Joe Mardin was still a child when he met Donny Hathaway. Mardin's father, Arif, produced many of Hathaway's albums. And the younger Mardin scoffs at the number of people who claim they were influenced by Hathaway. Not that it isn't nice to see Hathaway get some props; it's just that Mardin thinks most singers and musicians just aren't in his league.
Mr. MARDIN: I think there are very few people that come even close to singing the way that Donny did, or having the depth of sound and emotion in his singing.
(Soundbite of song, "A Song for You")
Mr. HATHAWAY: (Singing) I've been so many places in my life and time. I've sung a lot of songs, I've made some bad rhymes. I've acted out my life in stages, with 10,000 people watching. But we're alone now, and I'm singing this song to you.
KEYES: Joe Mardin says many don't realize that Hathaway's skills as a writer, arranger and conductor were another facet of his extraordinary voice.
(Soundbite of symphony, "I Love the Lord, He Heard My Cry: Parts 1 and 2")
KEYES: Besides that lush orchestral piece that opens the album "Extension of a Man," his final solo release ranges beyond Hathaway's soul and gospel roots to include Latin jazz and honky-tonk. But the eclectic direction his music took may have been challenging to promote for an industry segregated into genres. And by this point in his career, Hathaway was battling depression and schizophrenia.
Producer Eric Mercury was with Hathaway in January 1979 for what would become his last recording session. Mercury is still awed by Hathaway's talent, and the rare ability he had to hear a piece of music as a finished work with all the parts in his head.
Mr. ERIC MERCURY (Producer): You know, he hears the music, he hears the strings, he hears the production, he hears the drums, he hears the lyrics - he hears it all at the same time.
Mr. HATHAWAY: When I think of music, I think of music in totality, complete.
KEYES: In a 1973 interview included on an album called "These Songs for You Live!" Hathaway himself spoke of the way he viewed music. Despite his illness, Hathaway had visions of expanding his already kaleidoscopic musical reservoir.
(Soundbite of Interview)
Mr. HATHAWAY: From the lowest blues to the highest symphony, you know. So like what I'd like to do is to exemplify each style of as many periods as I can possibly do.
KEYES: But he never got the chance. On January 13, 1979, his body was found outside New York's Essex House, below his 15th floor hotel room. His death was ruled a suicide.
Still, Hathaway's legacy, influence and voice live on.
(Soundbite of song, "Someday We'll All Be Free")
Mr. HATHAWAY: (Singing) Brighter days will soon be here...
KEYES: As does an idea he once said he hoped everyone could share.
Mr. HATHAWAY: (Singing) Take it from me, someday we'll all be free. Yeah...
KEYES: Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.