Soul Serenade: Roberta Flack And Donny Hathaway, “The Closer I Get To You”

Roberta Flack and Donny HathawayWhen 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.”

Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway

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.

Soul Serenade: Garland Green, “Jealous Kind Of Fella”

Garland GreenA couple of weeks ago I wrote about Danny White, a southern soul singer who toiled for years looking for a hit that proved elusive. This week, I’ll take a look at a singer who managed to find that hit, even reaching to Top 20 on one occasion, before fading from the memory of most people.

Garland Green was born in Mississippi, one or eleven children. He joined the great northern migration when he moved to Chicago at the age of 16. Green was still in high school when his singing talent came to the attention of Argia Collins, a local restaurateur. Collins became Green’s patron and paid for him to attend the Chicago Conservatory of Music where Green studied voice and piano.

While he was in school Green began to sing in the clubs around town and he won a talent contest at a place called the Trocadero. The win earned him the chance to open a show for Lou Rawls and Earl Hines. Joshie Jo Armstead was in the audience the night of the concert. Armstrong had written songs with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson and she saw something in Green. Armstrong arranged for Green to record in Detroit and the resulting single, “Girl I Love You,” found enough local success that MCA Records picked it up for national distribution on their Revue Records imprint.

Green recorded a few more singles for Revue before being moved up to MCA’s most prominent label, Uni Records. “Jealous Kind of Fella” was a song co-written by Armstead and Green along with R. Browner, and M. Dollinson. When the single was released in 1969 it raced up the charts, reaching #5 on the R&B chart and winning a Top 20 spot on the pop chart while selling a million copies. Unfortunately, the follow-up single, the oddly titled “Don’t Think I’m a Violent Guy,” failed to come anywhere near matching the performance of “Jealous Kind of Fella,” not even cracking the Top 100. That put an end to not only Green’s association with MCA but his partnership with Armstead as well.

Green landed at Cotillion Records, an Atlantic subsidiary. He released five singles for the label but only the Donny Hathaway-produced and arranged “Plain and Simple Girl” found any success. The single was a Top 20 R&B hit but again didn’t crack the pop Top 100. The lack of success led Green to depart Cotillion for Spring Records. There he released five more singles including “Let the Good Times Roll” (not the Shirley & Lee song), and “Bumpin’ and Stompin’.” None of the singles found anything more than minor success on the R&B chart which led Green to yet another label, RCA.

At RCA, Green released three more singles and an album that was produced by Leon Haywood. The search for another hit continued to come up empty for Green. He moved to California in hopes of changing his luck. There he recorded for an indie label called Ocean-Front Records. The album that Green released for the label was co-produced by Lamont Dozier but only the single “Trying to Hold On to My Woman,” a song that had been a hit for Dozier a decade earlier, found any traction, reaching #63 on the R&B chart.

There was no quit in Green, however. He continued to record and release his own records until 2011 when he signed a new record deal with a subsidiary of CDS Records called Special Soul Music. The following year, Green released his first album of new material in 29 years, the appropriately titled I Should’ve Been the One. Indeed.

Soul Serenade: The Unifics, “Court Of Love”

The UnificsWhat do you think of when you think of Washington, D.C.? If you’re like me you think of the grandeur of the nation’s capitol, perhaps some of the magnificent monuments and museums. And of course you think of politics and maybe these days you would rather not. But there’s another side to Washington, D.C. The fact is that the District has produced some fine music over the years.

That brings us to the Unifics. Marvin Brown, Tom Fauntleroy, Bob Hayes, Al Johnson, and George Roland met in 1966 while they were students at Howard University. Johnson was the group’s leader, in fact they originally called themselves Al & the Vikings before they changed their name to the Unique Five, and that name eventually evolved into the Unifics.

They sang at dances and clubs but the group was in turmoil early on. Not a year had gone by in their existence when Fauntleroy was drafted, and Hayes and Roland were out the door. They were replaced by Greg Cook and Michael Ward, and when Brown left he was replaced by Harold Worthington. Guy Draper wasn’t put off by all of the lineup changes however, and he took the group on as a manager, and got them signed to Kapp Records.

The Unifics - Court of Love

The first Unifics single on Kapp Records was “Court of Love” in 1966, and it was a hit. Written and produced by Draper (and arranged by fellow Howard student Donny Hathaway) the record reached #25 on the Billboard Hot 100, and made it all the way to #3 on the U.S. Black Singles chart.

The Unifics, with their white gloves and strobe lights, became an enormously popular live act. Their stage presentation was so powerful that no acts wanted to follow them to the stage. Despite their touring schedule, Draper found time to get the Unifics back into the studio to record an album to capitalize on the success of the single. It was called Sittin’ in At the Court of Love. Unfortunately, the race to get the album out fast meant that Draper didn’t have time to write enough original songs for it. And while Draper originals like “Which Ones Should I Choose,” and “Tables Turned” were very effective, covers like “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” and “This Guy’s in Love With You” were not.

The next Unifics single, “The Beginning of the End,” did nearly as well as “Court of Love,” reaching #36 on the Pop chart, and #9 on the R&B chart. But 1969’s “It’s a Groovy World” barely managed to crawl into the Top 100, although it was a Top 40 R&B hit.

The group had a falling out with Draper, and after recording two more singles, “Memories,” and the quirky “Toshisumasi” for Kapp, Ward and Worthington left the group. They were replaced by original members Brown and Fauntleroy. Facing dwindling records sales, Kapp dropped the Unifics, but they were quickly picked up by Fountain Records in 1970. Their single for the label, “Dawn of a New Day” didn’t do much business, and by 1972 the Unifics were done.

It was hardly the end for Al Johnson however. He spent the next 30 years building a huge career as a producer and songwriter, working with artists like Norman Connors, Jean Carn, the Whispers, and the Dells. Reuniting with Fauntleroy and adding two new members, Johnson resurrected the Unifics in 2004. That year they released their first album in more than 30 years, the aptly named Unifics Return.

Al Johnson passed away in 2013. Fauntleroy decided to retire from performing, but continued to create choreography for the group, which continued on with two new members.

Soul Serenade: Donny Hathaway, “This Christmas”

Donny Hathaway - This ChristmasIt’s a sad old world, isn’t it? Everywhere you look there’s violence and hatred, war and famine. But every once in awhile you hear a story that demonstrates the basic goodness of people, and it makes your heart soar because it gives you hope, and hope is an elusive thing these days. Just when you think love is lost, you look around at your family and friends and realize that love is not lost at all. It’s right there in your heart.

I’m going to appreciate the peace of Christmas more than I ever have this year. It’s a time to put aside the animus and fill our hearts with light and love, if only for one day. But here’s the thing; if we can all do it on Christmas, maybe we can do it the day after Christmas, and the day after that, and the day after that. Before we know it, peace and love will become the normal way of things, and not the exception. Come on, it’s not hard to do, because deep down inside, it’s what we all want … (more)

Soul Serenade: Garland Green, “Jealous Kind Of Fella”

Soul Serenade - Garland Green

Popular songs are a funny thing. What is it that makes some hit songs live on forever, while others are forgotten with the passage of time? Is there something in the melody or lyrics that give a song its staying power? I suppose that if anyone knew the answers they would be cranking out timeless hits on a regular basis …

Soul Serenade: Garland Green, “Jealous Kind of Fella”