Like everyone else this holiday season, I will be searching my devices for Christmas music. My contribution to the family playlist usually ends up being these three: “Christmas Wrappings” from The Waitresses, “What Child is This?” by Vanessa Williams and Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas”.
The theme to the ’70s TV show Maude got me interested in Hathaway’s music, but it would be the song “This Christmas” that would send me to the used record stores in search of Hathaway’s music. Much of his catalog was not widely available on CD until after “This Christmas” was included in a holiday compilation during the early ’90s. Originally released in 1970 from his first album, the song quickly became a modern holiday standard in the digital age. Before that it had already earned must hear annual Christmas playlist status.
Hathaway’s output was tragically cut short as he suffered from depression and eventually committed suicide in 1979. Not the kind of holiday story most people want to hear, but the tragic sadness that underlined his life must have aided the beautiful complexity of his music.
His fourth and final (studio) solo album Extension of a Man was nothing short of a masterpiece. When released in 1973, Hathaway no doubt was caught up in the exciting developments in soul music that saw Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Funkadelic pulling the genre in multiple directions. Just as innovative was Hathaway’s own work that was pushing the boundaries of what was considered “black music”. All of this made sweeter by Hathaway’s golden voice that could effortlessly stretch the limits of what we consider a tenor.
Extension of a Man was interesting the in that it gave a glimpse of the lush string section that was increasingly becoming a staple of sophisticated soul music. For instance one of the albums many hallmarks was its symphonic opener “I Love the Lord, He Heard My Cry”. Made with a 40 piece orchestra (directed by Hathaway himself), the song mixed religion, the American Songbook and cinematic themes to create an expose on the state of Black American music. Could this have been the sophisticated route R&B might have taken if funk or disco not dominated the ’70s?
Hathaway was one of the first to use classically inspired string arrangements in R&B.
Others who experimenting with the concept like Barry White would take it to its pre-synthesizer limit to create disco. In addition to the orchestra, there were top notch session and guest players like a young Stanley Jordan on bass. Despite all the musical accompaniment, Hathaway played some instruments himself, after all he was an accomplished bass and keyboardist early in his career as a session jazz musician.
The musical sophistication was not limited to a big fancy string section, Hathaway’s choice of material, tempered by his time at Howard University, covered many aspects of what was going on in a turbulent era. The Marvin Gaye inspired song “Love Love Love” was one example of how Hathaway easily accommodated the styles of the time. In place of the political and sexual angst of Gaye’s work, Hathaway often inserted mildly religious overtones in a positive and uplifting manner. It’s important to note that Hathaway had been making political statements well before Gaye was free of Motown.
The album has no shortage of moments that mix subtle religious imagery with social commentary. When the juxtaposition really worked, it resulted in some of most moving songs in Hathaway’s catalog like “I Know It’s You” and “Someday We All Will Be Free”.
Vivid imagery abounds on Extension of a Man. So much so that it took a collection of songs covering gospel, blues, funk and even show-tunes to convey it all. Songs recalling the grit of city life like “The Slums” was as much a response to the funk movement as the popular blaxploitation films of the day. There was even room for the show tune inspired “Magdalena”, an uncommon element in R&B then and now.
When listening to any of Donny Hathaway’s music you can’t help but wonder how much his internal sadness contributed to the beauty of his compositions. The sheer diversity of Extension of a Man must have made it a difficult sale at a time when black music was easily pegged into one category by record companies.
There might be more conventionally satisfying Hathaway albums like Everything Is Everything, but Extension of a Man’s unexpected diversity makes it all the more fascinating and relevant to listen to now.