Interview: Roberta Flack


Heute erscheint die 4-CD-Premium-Box “Donny Hathaway – Never my love”! Im Rahmen der redaktionellen Erstellung der ausführlichen und akribisch recherchierten “liner notes” zu dem exklusiven Paket über das Lebenswerk der Soullegende hat Charles Waring die Soulikone (und Gesangspartnerin von Donny Hathaway)Roberta Flack interviewt! Das Originalinterview wurde uns zur Verfügung gestellt.

How would you describe Donny’s musical talent?

Phenomenal and just awesome. As the wrestling guys say: awesome! Just incredible. Natural, that’s a very important word. He was naturally talented and naturally able to express that and hear with a lot of accuracy what he was feeling and give it back to people who were in his midst or within earshot of him. We were trying to finish our first album and he had written a song for Carla Thomas but for some reason Carla didn’t like the song, it wasn’t working out that she would sing this song and he played it for me and I said that’s beautiful, I want to do it. And the song was called ‘Gone Away,’ that’s on the first album. Which all the samplers in the world have used since then… that’s how that came about. But Donny was just unbelievable.

You also did a song written by Donny with Leroy Hutson on your first album called Tryin’ Times.

I love that song. I love that song.

It had very socially conscious lyrics, didn’t it?

Yeah. Even the use of the language; ‘Tryin’ Times,’ is what the world is talking about, to understand the use of that very bad grammar you would have to have been somewhere in touch with the neighbourhood, you know. But if you understood and if you do understand the importance and the intensity as well as the depth of the meaning of the whole phrase then you can understand why breaking that grammatical rule isn’t that big a deal because you still make the point: tryin’ times, what the world is talking about. You can do it like that. You can say ‘Tryin’ Times’, what the world is talking about. You don’t have to say ‘is’ – but I made a point of saying ‘Tryin’ Times’ is what the world is talking about. I thought it was very clever.

Whose idea was it for you to collaborate on an album together?

Jerry Wexler, God rest his soul. May he rest in peace, Jerry Wexler.

That was a very astute move on his part, I think.

It was. It started out with him suggesting after James Taylor, who I adore love and worship – let that be recorded – as a musician I just think he’s probably top of the Pops. When he did ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ I just melted and I started to sing that in this little club that I was performing at in DC called Mr Henry’s. Anyway, Jerry Wexler decided after hearing me sing it that we should do it as a duet and it should go to the R&B charts ‘cos of course, James Taylor was taking big booty for weeks and weeks and weeks at a time on the Billboard pop charts. You know, top of the charts and stuff. He said no, no; I don’t do anything about charts and at this time I still don’t know that much about it but I really was not interested. I said I like the song, I want to do this song. I didn’t care what the motivation was. With him I did not care. But Donny and I, we did it in twenty minutes.

What other memories do you have of making that album together?

The first album was the most unique and interesting because Donny and I went in completely innocent babies thinking we had eight songs. We didn’t think that was enough and we didn’t think it wasn’t enough. We didn’t think anything about how many there were, we just had these eight songs. And we were ready to do these eight songs. Actually seven songs and I think it was Joel Dorn, who was my solo producer at the time, and Arif Mardin, God rest his soul, who said to us one day: you guys need some more songs. You’re talking about an album. You’ve got to come up with two or three more songs. So I said okay and Donny said alright and so we talked about it and I asked him, I said, do you know – because we were both from the church; I’m from the Methodist Church which is different from the experience that you would have as a young person in the ‘hood, in a Baptist church or in a Pentecostal church. A Methodist church was a little more… I would say… What’s the word when you think about Handel and Bach? Traditional.Traditional, classic, sacred music, that’s what we did. We did all of Handel’s Messiah as much as we could as a choir, as a church, and we did all of the beautiful music; Randall Thompson, you know Mozart’s ‘Ave Verum,’… I grew up hearing all of that and then a little later in my connection with the church I had a chance to play that because my mum decided to have my last sibling, who is my little baby sister, I think I was about 13 or 14. I took over and that was a big day for me… But the point is the Donny and I both had that background, that special church background, so I asked him in the studio if he knew…I said do you know ‘Come Ye Disconsolate’? He said sure and he started playing. And so we started singing and then we got to the second verse and he said let’s just repeat ‘The earth has no star… .’. I said no, we need to do the second verse you know. I’ll take one and you take one, ‘cos it’s a short song and we’ll come back in and do the chorus again or something like that. He said okay so I called my mum, who is also in heaven now, and I said can you turn to page 312 in the hymn book (that’s how good I was), and give me the words to the second verse; you know, joy of the desolate, light of the straying, you know, and she did. And we finished that song and it was so good. I can’t tell you how many people asked me, especially in situations where it was more than appropriate to sing that song.

Donny played electric piano. His favourite instrument was the Wurlitzer. It’s on ‘You’ve Got A Friend,’ it’s on everything. One of my favourite songs that we did on there was ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.’ But he could make any instrument that he was playing sound so majorly important. And when he plays on that Wurlitzer, boy, you know, I’ve had such incredible moments in my performances to try and get someone to recreate that sound, you know, it’s hard. They have a Wurlitzer stop on the Fender Rhodes or any other keyboard, but they don’t have something that sounds like the original, old Wurlitzer that he played.

Also on the album is ‘Where Is The Love.’ That was a massive hit for you both. What’s the story behind it?

‘Where Is The Love’ was written by Ralph McDonald, who was in my band, travelling with me around the world and he came to me and said “Ro, I’ve got a song” and he had recorded it with Valerie Simpson, who has an incredible voice. He had her singing ‘Where Is The Love’ and I thought it was just the nicest, hippest, most wonderful R&B thing that I had heard at that point in my life. And I wanted to do it. And I said I’ll do it. And he said who are you going to do it with? It should be a duet. I said Donny. He said Donny? I think Ralph really had some other ideas but you know he acquiesced and Donny and I went into the studio and did that. That was another one that happened in like a fifteen or twenty minute window because we we’re both musicians and if you listen to the songs ‘Where Is The Love’ and ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ I don’t think that they sound like we studied them. We studied a little bit on ‘Gone Away.’ You know what I’m saying? After I heard it I said no, I don’t like that note and Donny said okay, at the end I’m going to do this. I said ah! And then he said no, listen and I said okay. But on ‘Where Is The Love’ we just sang it down, two or three times and got it. The same thing with ‘You’ve Got a Friend.’

Did you not have much rehearsal time for the album?

No, we didn’t rehearse. Donny and I were musicians so there was nothing to rehearse. You go in and you do it, you know. You know what you’re doing, that’s important. But you don’t have to rehearse it. There’s a lot to be said about spontaneity, especially when it comes to honesty in music and feeling and just being raw, you know, and you want that sound and not so studied.

Did you do any concerts with Donny together in the early 70s?

Yeah, you can get one of them online. We did a concert at UCLA, Berkeley, we did concerts all over the world – all over the country; I shouldn’t say world. But the one at UCLA, Berkeley, before he died was a big one.

When you used to do shows, did you do your own sets first and then combined later?


What was Donny’s personality like?


Was he a studious kind of guy?

I don’t know about being studious. He knew a lot of music. I mean his favourite classical composer, was Ravel, and if you listen to his orchestration an ‘Extension of a Man’ you can tell that he was no dummy. That was his orchestration. Not somebody else’s or whatever. Not only did he do the orchestration but he wrote it out, that is a chore writing out parts for strings and horns, brass, woodwind and everybody. He was pretty amazing.

What do you remember about the sessions for The Closer I Get to You?

He did his part in Chicago because that’s when I guess he started to be aware that he was not as strong as he wanted to be because the message I got – the information I got – was that he was sick and didn’t feel well. His manager, as I said, was my manager. The guy who was working with me on the recording, the engineer Joe Ferla (?), had suggested that Donny could do his part in Chicago and I could do mine here. (New York). So I got someone, just a session studio singer, to sing Donny’s part and I had put my part on it and I sent it to him. He just added his part and then they sent it back and Joe Ferla mixed it.

Duets in different locations. And then in 1979 you record two more duets with Donny. ‘You are my Heaven’ and ‘Back Together Again.’ What are your recollections of those sessions?

Sad. That’s when it became obvious that he was not as strong emotionally as I had been used to seeing him be and there was some really different kind of things that he did you know with his body and with his hands and eyes, and stuff like that. And it didn’t frighten me but it made me wonder where it was going. And, of course, we all found out on that fateful day. By the way, we had been in the studio that day. Are you aware of that?

Yes, I’d read about it.

We went into the studio that day and he came home to my house. I have a piano, a great piano, a Bosendorfer, and he sat down played the Bosendorfer and said I’m writing this song. I thought it was wonderful, you know, and then I had arranged to have some food, lunch, for him and a couple of other people that were with him. We ate, everybody ate. He wanted some beer. We went down the block to the deli and bought some beer and came back, you know. Like that. And then we left after about an hour or two hours and I went to the hotel with him and his road manager and his manager. I did not go into the room: I said goodbye to him in the lobby of the hotel. Then I came back to my house, my apartment, and then the next morning the guy who I was dating called me from Canada. He said: “Roberta – what? – how are you doing?” I said fine. He was picking, just trying to see what my reaction would be. I didn’t react because I didn’t know. And when I told him I didn’t know he said you’re kidding. I said no. He said: “man, Donny is dead.” I said: what? And of course I haven’t gotten over that. I really haven’t. It’s only been in the last year and a half maybe, two years, that I’ve been able to talk about it and tell the story the way it really happened to my recollection because they have lots of pseudo-reality shows and there’s one in particular called Unsung that comes out of this country actually, where the implication is that something else happened. But whatever it is, I didn’t know anything about it. I just want to go on record as saying that I never saw him do drugs, I never saw him really act crazy, really threaten anybody; I never saw any of that. Or heard it from him, to me.

He didn’t seem troubled then to you on that night when you were having dinner?

He didn’t seem troubled. He seemed uneasy but he had seen no way for the whole session for Back Together Again and You Are My Heaven the whole time. But Arif was there, Arif was his producer, Joel Dorn was mine. And Arif was in the studio at that moment when we decided to stop and that was it. But before all that he did have one day when he said that he couldn’t sing and that he didn’t think he could sing anymore ever in his life. And I took him to my then voice teaching friend, whose name was Frederick Wolfenson (?), And ‘Wolfy’ taught a lot of people, you know. And Mr Wolfenson had him sing by getting him to relax his body instead of being stiff and holding onto the side of the piano. He had him sit down, lean back, saying, “if you want to, if you don’t, don’t”. And he got comfortable and he just opened his mouth and sang. It was just the most beautiful thing.

They define it was difficult to carry on with the album after what had happened to him?

Oh, I didn’t think about doing the album. I didn’t think about finishing it. I didn’t do any more singing on those songs after that. So what ever they came up with they came up with as a matter of combining what ever singing I had done.

Is it true that you sang at his funeral?

There was no a funeral as far as I know. As far as I know I think he was just buried. I don’t know.

On a more positive note, what do you think Donny’s musical legacy is?

Wonderfulness. Just greatness. His legacy is great: how to be great and be a musician. And be humble, and be shy. He could have been Mozart, you know. Mozart had a lot of Donny and Donny had a lot of Mozart in him in that they were supremely gifted, both of them and very, very insecure about how to make that available to the rest of the world. Somebody comes along and says I’ll manage you, and you say ‘okay.’ Or I’ll get the royalties to give you money so you can live. You say ‘all right.’ You know, whatever. It’s sad but there are some gifted people, not only musicians but artists in other fields, who just don’t seem to be able to do enough of the business to make it work. I have a problem doing business but I have enough sense – I’m such a big mouth – but I would talk to somebody, you know, and hopefully, it’s the right person because that person has my ear and what ever they say back to me, even if I don’t abide by it, I’m going to hear it and nine times out of ten remember it, you know. But I think that there are some people who just can’t do it. All they know is music. All they know is their gift. I can’t say that that’s a bad thing, I say that it would be a good thing if the world was a different place. If it was just beautiful period, and you didn’t have to worry about somebody ripping off your musical idea or changing your stuff around, you know, it would be a better world.

How influential do you think Donny has been as a singer?

Oh, I think he’s been influential. We all influence each other. Miles Davis said to me once: there are only so many notes. And darn it, if you get out there and sing it or play it, you’re going to repeat a note that somebody else’s sung or played. It’s just inevitable and I think that maybe a little too much importance is placed on how unique we all are – we all are unique but not unique to the extent that no one else can sound or think or feel or fathom what we do musically. There’s no great mystery here. Donny was very accessible as a singer and as a musician and he didn’t hold back. I didn’t get the feeling that he was holding back things when he was performing, whether it was recorded live or not; I just felt like he was giving it all up, you know.

Interview: Charles Waring

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