Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway: Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway

May 6, 1972 – Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway is released.
# allmusic 4/5
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
The Atlantic Records album from Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway is a duet album produced by Joel Dorn and Arif Mardin and released on this date in May, 1970.
Flack and Hathaway were both solo artists on the Atlantic roster who’d enjoyed critical acclaim but – particularly for Flack – limited commercial success. Both graduates of Howard University although Flack’s attendance there pre-dated Hathaway’s, the two singers’ careers had overlapped: Flack had included Hathaway compositions on her First Take and Chapter Two albums with the latter also featuring Hathaway as pianist, arranger and background vocalist. It was Jerry Wexler who suggested a joint venture might consolidate Flack and Hathaway’s popularity.
The first single from Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway was a version of “You’ve Got a Friend” recorded before the single release of the James Taylor version: both tracks debuted on the Hot 100 dated 29 May 1971 – marking Flack’s first chart appearance – and although Taylor’s version reached #1 the Flack/Hathaway duet ascended as high as #29 and was a Top Ten R&B hit at #8. (The B-side “Gone Away” was a Chapter Two track written by Hathaway.) The second single from the duets album was a remake of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” which was a #30 R&B hit peaking on the Hot 100 at #71. It was the album’s third single “Where Is the Love” – released April 1972 almost a year after the album itself – which would be the smash hit, largely due to Flack having had her solo career breakthrough with “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”.
Although Hathaway had enjoyed more solo success than had Flack prior to their teaming up his subsequent solo career was desultory with no high-profile success prior to his re-teaming with Flack for “The Closer I Get to You” in 1978. Hathaway had recorded two songs for a second duet album with Flack – which became the Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway album – at the time of his death on 13 January 1979.
Pairing Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, Atlantic’s two masters of antiseptic soul music, was a fantastic if obvious commercial idea. The hope that Roberta would pull Donny along on her coattails, the way Marvin Gaye did with Tammi Terrell, has been completely realized. To that extent Roberta and Donny have enjoyed considerable success.
Working together, Flack and Hathaway save each other from the worst excesses of their solo albums. There are none of those excruciating tenminute cuts that both these artists are so fond of. All the songs here fit into the conventional three – to – five minute range, with the exception of a semi-classical instrumental, “Mood.” Roberta manages to add some lightness to Donny’s unremittingly tortured vocal style, while Hathaway, with his long background as an arranger and sideman on soul sessions, contributes a little flair to the dirge-like treatment Roberta is prone to render love songs. Nonetheless this record is every bit as boring as both Flack’s Quiet Fire and Donny Hathaway Live, and, in some ways, worse.
On the original “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Marvin followed Tammi’s “My love is alive” with a spontaneous, exclamatory “whew” that made the record. There’s none of that warmth and rapport, so necessary for duets, on this record. Both of these singers show off–holding notes for a long time, doing all kinds of tinkly things on the piano, but generating no feeling for each other. Roberta does some lovely things with her voice, But Donny’s whiny, pretentious style is most always annoying When they sing the same line together, it feels like he’s literally weighing her down with his drabness.
They’re so busy with their fancy arrangements and vocal tricks that they exert almost no effort to interpret the lyrics. For instance, in “Baby, I Love You,” there’s a line: “I’m gonna stop you from saying goodbye.” In their twangy version, they choose to emphasize the word goodbye, repeating it over and over again, thus working against the actual intent of the lyric. That’s just sheer ineptitude.
Another problem is dynamics. They build to a point, but then never deliver anything real, anything for us to latch onto. The entire album is always safe, sterile, almost academic in its commercialism.
A few of the songs would make good cocktail lounge music. Their current single, “Where Is The Love,” is pleasant enough, but sounds like Stevie Wonder under a heavy dose of thorazine. The rest of the songs are worse. “Be Real Black For Me,” a song they wrote for themselves, does have a lovely chorus, but flounders in the verses. Their rendition of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” is particularly bizarre. The lush treatment of the old Phil Spector song is periodically interrupted by a riff similar to the one in the Rolling Stones’ “Bitch.” It makes no sense at all.
All in all, a pretentious and vacuous album. Currently Number Four in the charts, so there! (RS 115)
~ RUSSELL GERSTEN (August 17, 1972)
“I (Who Have Nothing)” (Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Carlo Donida) (5:00)
“You’ve Got a Friend” (Carole King) (2:34)
“Baby I Love You” (3:24)
“Be Real Black for Me” (3:30)
“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” (Barry Mann, Phil Spector, Cynthia Weil)
“For All We Know” (J. Fred Coots, Sam M. Lewis) (3:38)
“Where Is the Love” (2:43)
“When Love Has Grown” (Ralph MacDonald, William Salter) (3:31)
“Come Ye Disconsolate” (4:50)
“Mood” (7:00)

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