Over the last week or two, a very modern kind of shrine has sprung up in Camden Square: cans of beer and packets of fags glimmer in the sun. While many tributes to Amy Winehouse in the more quality newspapers have emphasised the range of her musical talent (which in some cases carries the taint of hypocrisy), it seems her reputation will always be as much about the vice as the voice. Fans know better, and I really hope that wherever Amy is as I write this, she’s got her favourites on, full blast. I doubt there’s such a thing as rock star heaven, given that the devil has all the best middle-eights, but there must be some sort of festival compound in the sky where all the good and gone swap guitar tabs and work their way through each others’ riders. If so, I’ve got a feeling she’s already made a beeline for Donny Hathaway – after all, there’s nothing you can teach her that she hasn’t learned from him already. Still, she might be surprised to find herself sitting on a pew with the good book in her lap; charismatic Christianity and the Carr Square projects are a long, surreal trip from the synagogues of Southgate.
They’re light years away from Oxford too, as I type this. It never ceases to amaze me that so much of my favourite music is godly. I’ve been an atheist for as long as I can remember. Not the evangelical, finger-pointing Dawkinsy type; that’s another religion as far as I’m concerned, and I hold no truck with it. Mine is a tranquil godlessness, an Anglicanism without the faith. I’m the one at the back of the church admiring the stonework, muttering ‘ooh, it would be so nice to believe, wouldn’t it?’ But sometimes, the masonry hums, and the nave rings with melody. It’s then that I begin to wonder whether I’ve been too ready in my rejection of the good news. There’s the St Matthew Passion; a whole cortege of requiems; the jaw-dropping arches and vaults of Messiaen’s organ music. There are the Church of England hymns that stir me at weddings and funerals, the Songs of Praise numbers I often overheard my agnostic mother singing along to on Sundays – ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, ‘Lord of all hopefulness’, notated in the heart whether out of faith in God or the mere power of communal music-making. There’s Mahalia Jackson singing ‘How I got over’ at the height of the Civil Rights struggle; Aretha Franklin’s cover of Elton John’s ‘Border Song’; and there’s the voice of pop’s archangel, Donny Hathaway, a sound so beautiful and pure that it’s almost impossible to believe it is human. Impossible, at least, until you realise that it’s the most humane voice you’ll ever hear. At its most jubilant, Hathaway’s music enfolds you in its wings and treats you to a little test flight in transcendence; at its most sorrowful, it weeps when you weep and only offers the handkerchief when you’re ready to dry your eyes. In heaven, you see, timing is all; because in heaven, you have all the time in the world.
My first proper encounter with Donny was, appropriately enough, his debut album – Everything is Everything (1970). The cover intrigued me before I heard a note. The artwork of other early seventies soul albums often tends to emphasise the introspective genius of the artist: Marvin Gaye gazing upwards on the front of What’s Going On, or the rays of imagination emanating from Stevie Wonder’s closed eyes on Innervisions. Everything is Everything eschews solitary contemplation in favour of a joyful playground skip, Donny playing kindly uncle to a band of smiling children. The image might have seemed dodgy, were it not for the music within. Yes, he ‘hears voices’ on the first track, but it’s an inclusive jam rather than the work of an auteur channelling the spirit; sheer street corner exuberance, as if the Family Stone decided to cut a gospel record. And it just gets better and better. Nobody has ever sung ‘Misty’ as though knowing their hat from their glove were a matter of life and death; as for ‘Thank You Master (for my soul’) – well, thank you Donny, for yours. After this near-baptismal experience, I decided to get my hands on everything I could, and read as much as possible about the man behind that astonishing voice. To my sadness, I discovered I’d been born again in the image of a troubled soul whose schizophrenia crushed and killed him. The next material I heard took on almost impossible gravitas. Hathaway’s version of ‘He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother’ turns the little-boy-lost harmonica and Radio 2 harmonies of The Hollies into an epic consideration of African-American consciousness; but I also hear Donny trying to work out where his personal ‘long road’ is leading, and knowing how it ended, I can barely finish the track. I am eternally grateful, then, for ‘Someday we’ll all be free’. I know the story about Hathaway breaking down the first time he heard the final mix, but I’m inclined to think it was mostly in rapture. After all, is there a stronger antidote to despair than this? No wonder Amy refused rehab. I’m with her entirely. The only way you’d ever get me to the Priory would be if the Reverend Hathaway was ministering at the devotionals.
I like to think of ‘Someday’ as an answer to ‘What’s Going On’ (Donny’s take on the Gaye staple is yet another highlight of his career). It has the same major seventh chords at the heart of its verses – chords I always hear as reflective, ruminative, having run the full octave and stepped back to take stock of their knowledge. But where Marvin uses this knowledge to ask the vital questions, Donny draws on it to reassure us that whatever is going on, it’s not leading to catastrophe. On the page, the lyrics could easily seem trite, but the development of the melody makes them thrill and ring. ‘Things are moving fast’, sings Donny at the lowest end of his range, before imploring us to ‘hold on tight’ in a shattering ten-note leap: the sheer joy of singing is defence enough against the chaos of the world. Then the wondrous testimonial: ‘take it from me, someday we’ll all be free’. The jazzy chords and change in rhythmic emphasis surprise us, but we trust Donny so utterly that we know they come from wisdom and experience. It’s the gentlest of imperatives; not so much a hook as an ear-hug. Factor in the dappling Fender Rhodes, the velvety strings, and Marvin Stamm’s lovely trumpet solo (like a bird catching a thermal), and you have the three other active ingredients of a four-minute cure for despond.
‘Someday we’ll all be free’ has taken on a varied afterlife. For example, it signs off Spike Lee’s Malcolm X film, forever aligning it to wider national, and specifically racial, struggles. But at its heart it’s the cry of a man frequently fractured by anguish, using a prodigious gift to help him surmount it. Donny Hathaway’s faith in God ultimately didn’t help him. Even his supernatural talents (he was proficient in classical piano by the age of eight, and one of his ambitions, sadly never realised, was to write a symphony) proved inadequate ballast against his bipolarity. But his greatest act was one of supreme charity; he shared his extraordinary voice with us in a series of sublime albums. I’m not sure what I can give back as a fan, but maybe next time I’m in New York, I’ll take my cue from those Camden mourners, and lay a little flower beside the Essex House Hotel, on the sidewalk where Hathaway’s body was found in 1979. And if I ever reach that backstage party in the sky, I’ll be signing up for his sermons; you never know, I might just end up as a believer on the other side.