Donny Hathaway was one of the earliest musical figures I remember hearing by name. Though at that time,it was seven years late to the party that was his musical life. He committed suicide over a year before I was born-apparently after suffering with paranoid schizophrenia during what would’ve normally been the peak of his career. An alumni of Howard University,the Chicago native first took up with Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label. He began producing and doing session playing for the likes of Aretha Franklin,the Staple Singers and The Impressions before embarking on a music career of his own.
Hathaway only recorded three studio solo albums in his lifetime. There were also a pair of live albums as well. Another project that Hathaway was involved with was a 1972 film score recorded with Quincy Jones entitled Come Back,Charleston Blue. The album was brought to my attention by DJ,musician and Donny Hathaway admirer Nigel Hall. He encouraged me to seek the record out. And I finally discovered a vinyl copy online. It sat in my collection until several months ago when I dug it out for a vinyl based segment on this blog. And the song that stood out for me was called “Little Ghetto Boy”.
A funky conga drum shuffle begins the song with Hathaway’s bluesy,heavily reverbed Fender Rhodes piano serves as the intro to the song. As his vocal comes in,so do the climactic string arrangements and the stirring bass line. This essentially provides the choruses of the song-which provides the bed for the vocal narrative. Woodwinds come more into play for the refrains of the song-which lyrically serve to ask rhetorical questions of what was illustrated in the choruses. And its on this extended refrain that the song finally fades itself out.
Donny Hathaway has recorded some of the most amazing soul/funk standards over the years. Among them “Everything Is Everything” and the holiday favorite “This Christmas”. This song,with its Afro-Latin soul jazz shuffle is somewhat reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues”. Hathaway really set two different modes on this song too. He starts off talking about the title character with low expectations and opportunities. Then asks those ever important questions as to what will become of the “little ghetto boy” in the future. Its one of Hathaway’s finest message songs consequently.