Donny Hathaway sang his greatest song in 1973. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers explains how a personal message of hope and encouragement became an indestructible black anthem.
The late Donny Hathaway reached a true pinnacle with his recording of “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” High praise, to be sure, since Hathaway’s career had many great musical moments. Still, this particular song stands out. It’s so compassionate, so inclusive and so uplifting that it’s now understood as transformative and inspirational beyond context. Not only was it Hathaway’s own finest hour, but the song has become an enduring message of perseverance delivered by many a heartfelt artist over the decades.
Born in Chicago and raised in St. Louis, Hathaway was a prodigy who, by the age of four, was known as Little Donnie Pitts (“the nation’s youngest gospel singer”). In 1964, he earned a fine-arts scholarship and studied music at Howard University, where he began a friendship with classmate Roberta Flack. He also met Curtis Mayfield when the Impressions performed at the college. Soon after, Hathaway left school and moved to Chicago, where he thrived as a staff producer/arranger for Mayfield’s newly formed Curtom label.
The civil-rights movement was growing and Curtom was an example of black entrepreneurship and activism within the Chicago music business. For a time, Hathaway was an important part of Mayfield’s team and Curtom’s sound. A gifted musician and songwriter, he also often freelanced for other record labels. But it was inevitable that Hathaway would make his own recordings.
Thanks to musician/producer King Curtis, Hathaway signed a recording contract with Atlantic imprint ATCO in 1970. Over the next three years, he released three fascinating studio albums, a highly acclaimed live recording and a celebrated duet album with Flack.
Hathaway was a poised auteur on par with geniuses like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and his solo work revealed both great maturity and great promise. He was a skilled keyboardist with a superb voice and a range of compositional abilities. His bold soul sound was often sanctified gospel, showcasing jazz and classical elements as well. He wrote passionately about love, God and black life, and he inhabited familiar pop tunes with fresh insight and enthusiasm.
Hathaway’s recording career was limited but still showcased many treasures. His romantic duets with Flack like “Where Is The Love” and “The Closer I Get To You” became huge hits. His interpretation of Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted And Black” rivals her version, and his take on Leon Russell’s “A Song For You” is even better than the original. Hathaway’s own songs often spoke of adversity, identity and faith, with authentic commentary like “Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything),” “The Ghetto,” “Tryin’ Times” and “Little Ghetto Boy.” Even holiday tune “This Christmas” remains a perennial.
Donny Hathaway “Someday We’ll All Be Free“
Hathaway was as confident onstage as he was in the studio. 1972 ‘s Live was recorded at the Troubadour in Los Angeles and The Bitter End in NYC. Opening with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” and including songs by Carole King and John Lennon as well as his own material, Hathaway revealed himself to be an expressive gospel/soul singer and performer.
Although he was productive in the early ’70s, Hathaway struggled with severe depression. He was married with children but also had a closeted gay life, which burdened him greatly. Despite this, 1973’s Extension Of A Man still contained hopeful moments, particularly “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” It was right around this time Hathaway was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, and an associate named Edward Howard wrote the song lyrics as a personal message of encouragement to his dear friend.
Hang on to the world as it spins around
Just don’t let the spin get you down
Things are moving fast
Hold on tight and you will last
Keep your self-respect, your manly pride
Get yourself in gear
Keep your stride
Never mind your fears
Brighter days will soon be here
Take it from me, someday we’ll all be free
Arif Mardin, part of Ahmet Ertegun’s “Turkish mafia” at Atlantic, produced the classic track. Hathaway wrote and arranged the music, and it opens with his celestial-sounding Fender Rhodes piano. Joining him was a small group: guitarists Cornell Dupree and David Spinozza, bassist Willie Weeks, drummer Ray Lucas and trumpeter Marvin Stamm. From the start, Hathaway’s soaring vocal transports us. Strings and horns enter and swell, and Stamm plays an elegant solo before Hathaway lifts his voice and sings the final inspiring verse. They say Hathaway wept when he heard the final mix of his recording. Who could blame him?
Keep on walking tall
Hold your head up high
Lay your dreams right up to the sky
Sing your greatest song
And you’ll keep going, going on
Take it from me, someday we’ll all be free
Hey, just wait and see, some day we’ll all be free, yeah
Take it from me, someday we’ll all be free
It won’t be long, take it from me, someday we’ll all be free
Take it from me, take it from me, take it from me
Sadly, Hathaway’s mental-health problems continued, and he never made another solo album. He had difficulty staying on his medications and was shuttled in and out of psychiatric institutions. He performed only occasionally in small clubs, and his career floundered. As he suffered from delusions and hallucinations, his personal life unraveled. Hathaway’s behavior in the studio was so unsettling that he lost his close rapport with Flack for years.
Alicia Keyes “Someday We’ll All Be Free”
By 1979, Hathaway and Flack had reconciled. They were making their second duet album, and Hathaway traveled to Manhattan for sessions with producers Eric Mercury and James Mtume. Hathaway began behaving erratically in the recording studio on January 13. Mtume spoke to him and saw that he was paranoid and extremely delusional. Mercury agreed that Hathaway was in no shape to continue and cancelled the session, sending everybody home.
It was a Saturday, and Hathaway dined with Flack at her Central Park apartment. Soon after returning to the Essex House hotel, Hathaway plunged to his death from his 15th floor balcony. There had been no visitors, his door was bolted from the inside, and the authorities deemed it a suicide. Besides the psychosis, he was estranged from his wife, and his confusion around his sexuality had worsened his depression. Rev. Jesse Jackson presided over his funeral. Hathaway was 33 years old.
“Someday We’ll All Be Free” may have been Hathaway’s swan song, but the relevance of this inspirational communiqué has only grown stronger over time, evolving from a personal message of hope into an indestructible anthem of encouragement and deliverance. It also speaks to black life like few other songs. Although it was not written as such, the tune became associated with the civil-rights movement. In a sage move, Spike Lee used a stirring version sung by Aretha Franklin at the dramatic conclusion of his 1992 film Malcolm X.
Contemporary culture continues to respond to the song’s poignancy. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, Alicia Keyes gave a moving interpretation on the telethon America: A Tribute To Heroes. The phrase has appeared as the title of a book as well as magazine articles and radio programs. There are many heartfelt interpretations by all sorts of talented musicians.
The song’s dramatic import has more recently been enlisted on television, as Hathaway’s version was used to wrap up a couple of very different season finales. It appeared in The Chi during the season-two finale (“The Scorpion And The Frog”), and it was wonderfully utilized on The Walking Dead at the end of season seven (“The First Day Of The Rest Of Your Life”). The sad commentary on that episode is that the entire song is used to frame a montage in which long-running character Sasha reviews her bittersweet existence as she takes her own life.
Clearly, the hopeful song has endured, however retrofitted these themes may be. It certainly intersects with our current events and the Black Lives Matter movement, and it can mean something to everyone in the most positive of terms. Donny Hathaway took his own life, but he gave us something that still remains inspirational to hang on to.
The Walking Dead‘s Sasha’s Tribute
Sasha had her reasons, but if you or someone you know is in emotional distress or having a suicidal crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.