Friday, July 12, 2013

40 Year Itch : Adventures in Soul

Two Great Artists Challenge Themselves and Their Fans

With his dazzling live album in 1972 and his partnership with Roberta Flack on the Grammy winning "Where Is the Love", the multi-talented Donny Hathaway had finally struck Gold. Now, to show his new fans what he was really capable of, Hathaway recorded his most ambitious set yet.

I decided to call it Extension of a Man because I am in the process of expanding and developing styles. I would like to record as many styles as humanly possible for one person.
-Donny Hathaway

The album's best known cut is the beautiful easy listening anthem "Someday We'll All Be Free" ( used in Spike Lee's Malcolm X). When Hathaway first heard the finished take of the tune he broke down in tears. The lyrics, by friend Edward Howard, were written not as an anthem but as a message to Hathaway:

 "What was going through my mind at the time was Donny, because Donny was a very troubled person. I hoped that at some point he would be released from all that he was going through. There was nothing I could do but write something that might be encouraging for him."

But there's also the symphonic opener "I Love the Lord; He Heard My Cry ( Parts I & II)" , a Tijuana Brass inspired "Flying Easy", a funky revisiting of  "The Ghetto" called "The Slums" and a Latin instrumental called "Valdez in the Country". Added up, it's a masterpiece from one of soul music's great visionaries. 

This would be Hathaway's final album. The man Curtis Mayfield described as "instilled with the depth of religious feeling in black music" was also suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. The year after his 1978 comeback duet with Flack, "The Closer I Get To You", Hathaway apparently leaped to his death from the 15th floor of New York City's Essex House.

I think we've found a winner for worst album cover of 1973.

Perhaps taking a cue from the progressive rock experimentalists , Aretha Franklin followed up her double live album of gospel music, Amazing Grace, with what initially was going to be a jazz vocal album, Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky). There's a straightforward take on Stephen Sondheim's "Somewhere" and a swinging rendition of James Moody's "Moody's Mood". Had producer Quincy Jones, record execs and Aretha herself not gotten cold feet, this might have a great, if underselling gamble. 

Instead they padded the album with filler and a song written by Aretha's sister Carolyn ( who sings background with Erma Franklin)  called "Angel" which hit #1 on the R and B charts and peaked at #20 on the pop charts. It was the first album Aretha recorded for Atlantic not to crack the Top 25 pop chart.

Quincy Jones also produced an astonishing Grammy winning single for Aretha in 1973 called "Master of Eyes ( The Deepness of Your Eyes)" which made it up to #33 on the pop charts but for some reason did not appear on Hey Now Hey.

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