When an artist dies too young it is always tempting to mourn not only the loss of his or her spirit but also the loss of the great work they might have done had they lived. Such is the case with Donny Hathaway whose premature loss robbed the world of what would have undoubtedly been the great music he would have made. If there can be said to be a silver lining it is that Hathaway left us with some wonderful work including a magnificent series of duets with Roberta Flack that will endure forever.
“The Closer I Get to You” wasn’t supposed to be a duet. The song was written by Reggie Lucas and James Mtume, both of whom were members of Flack’s touring band. They offered it to producer Joe Ferla, who produced the track along with Flack and Gene McDaniel, for inclusion on Flack’s album Blue Lights in the Basement. David Franklin was Flack’s manager and it was his idea to re-write the song to include Hathaway. Five years earlier, Flack and Hathaway, friends since they attended Howard University together, had collaborated on an acclaimed self-titled album of duets.
Unfortunately, Hathaway had spent the intervening years battling clinical depression and it often required him to be hospitalized. In fact, but when the time came to record “The Closer I Get to You” Hathaway was too ill to travel from his home in Chicago to New York for the session. As a result, Flack had to record the vocals with a stand-in session singer. The track was then sent to Chicago where Hathaway added his part before sending the track back to New York to be mixed.
“The Closer I Get to You” was released as a single by Atlantic Records in February 1978. It climbed to the top spot on the R&B chart while reaching #2 on the Billboard 100. Hathaway and Flack were nominated for a Grammy Award for the duet. Among the many accolades that the track received was one from the BBC‘s Lewis Dene who called it a “soul masterpiece.”
Less than a year later, Donny Hathaway was dead. At the time of his death, he had just begun work with Flack on another album of duets. While his voice was reportedly in fine shape, he began acting irrationally in the studio. The recording session for the day and Hathaway returned to his hotel where he apparently leaped to his death from his 15th-floor room. His death was ruled a suicide although some friends were troubled by the conclusion since Hathaway’s career was just being resurrected.
A devastated Roberta Flack included a few of the duets that had been finished on her next album which was called Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway. Flack also vowed that “The Closer I Get to You” would always be dedicated to Hathaway and that all proceeds from the single would go to Hathaway’s widow and two children.
After Hathaway’s death, Flack spoke to Jet Magazine:
I tried to reach out to Donny. That’s how we managed to do the song we did last year. I felt this need because I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t save him, I knew he was sick. But I knew when he sat down at that piano and sang for me it was like it was eight or nine years ago because he sang and played his ass off.
The video for “The Closer I Get to You” was made after Hathaway was gone. The quality here isn’t great but you can see that his absence was handled by having the camera focus on a photo of Hathaway that is on a table behind Flack as she sits at the piano.