A few weeks ago, I was a guest on a record centric podcast (Tales from the Crate if you’re interested). One of the segments on the podcast is a forum where the hosts and guests discuss one of the albums from Rolling Stone’s top 500 albums. Essentially, the hosts took the top one hundred albums on the list, and show by show, they went through the list album by album. The idea is to listen to the album with fresh ears and as a whole work. This is an attempt to understand why the album is included on the list. When I was a guest, the hosts were discussing Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, number fifty-seven on the list.
I went into the podcast knowing that Songs in the Key of Life is not one of my favorite albums. I like Stevie Wonder, and Songs in the Key of Life has some great songs, but as an album, it’s not my favorite Stevie Wonder album. It’s overproduced with the slick tinny synth and drum machine filled rhythm of an 80’s album. I don’t mean to shit on Stevie Wonder here. The guy is a genius, and he’s really not my focus. The last segment on the podcast is called Surface Noise. During this segment, the hosts and guest bring an album from their collection to play a track. Specifically, I wanted to bring an album, and a song, that embodied the kind of soul and R&B music that I enjoy since I was not into the Stevie Wonder album featured earlier in the show. My first inclination was to bring an Otis Redding album, but it seemed too obvious. Instead, I brought one of the most criminally overlooked soul artist of all time: Donny Hathaway.
Hathaway is one of the best soul artists you’ve never heard of, and his album Everything is Everything is an album you should own. Hathaway is most likely overlooked because he only cut four studio albums, one live album, and one soundtrack in his short lifetime. Hathaway struggled with some mental demons and ended his life by jumping out a window at the age of 33. Hathaway’s biggest success came when he teamed with Roberta Flack, yet Hathaway’s solo albums give him plenty of room to sprawl out and shine. Hathaway is backed by a real band and a real horn section. There are no drum machines, and there is no overproduction. Hathaway is a solid piano player, but it’s his voice. The voice that finds the right mix of husk and silk. That voice is beautiful. Hathaway finds himself in-between the rough wrapping of Otis Redding the pop smoothness of Marvin Gaye. I’ve played the album for a lot of people, and none of them have ever been disappointed. In fact, I went into a new record store once and found the only Donny Hathaway album I didn’t own in the racks. I picked it up and took it to checkout. The owner was working the counter. He reached over and shook my hand. He explained that he had been waiting for someone knowledgeable to come in and buy the album.
Everything is Everything opens with the foot stomping handclapping sing-along “I Hear Voices (Everything is Everything).” The song rides hard upon a heavy and funky bass line. It’s the albums way of letting you know from the beginning that you’re getting yourself into some serious soul shit. The album shifts from the heavy gospel soul of “Thank You Master (For My Soul)” to the party jam “Sugar Lee,” which doesn’t really have lyrics so much as people enjoying a good time in the background. Hathaway does justice to his Ray Charles’ cover “I Believe to My Soul” and to Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.” Charles and Simone are not easy artists to cover, but Hathaway takes their words and fills them with new life. The crowning achievement of Everything is Everything is “The Ghetto.” “The Ghetto” is an almost seven minute song that builds in energy until it reaches a frantic fevered climax. The song is filled with Hathaway’s electric piano, congas that add a Latin feel, and Hathaway’s soulful chanting. Like “Sugar Lee” there are no real lyrics. Hathaway lead chanting of the phrase the ghetto and provides some improvised talk. The background of the song is filled with street banter. It’s the fine groove that Hathaway works himself into that makes the track so interesting, proving that there was more musicianship than just Hathaway’s vocals.
I’ve been around record collectors for long enough to know what they search for. The majority of record collectors are looking for classic rock. You have your jazz guys and your blues guys as well. I don’t know many country guys, and I know even fewer soul guys. Most people I’ve encountered pick up a few Otis Redding represses, a few Motown compilations, and the wrong James Brown albums. Then, they call it quits on their soul collecting. It’s not their fault. They just don’t know where to go. Donny Hathaway is where you go. Everything is Everything is not easy to find in my neck of the woods. I hope there are places that have it more readily available, but I don’t know for sure. In the last few years, Everything is Everything has been repressed on vinyl and will run you about fifteen dollars. An original copy in good condition, will most like cost you between thirty and forty dollars.