A sensitive, emotional masterpiece.
Daryl Easlea 2011-03-22
One of the best duet albums of all time, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway was made at the request of Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler. Flack and Hathaway had been friends at Howard University, and Hathaway had played piano on Flack’s early albums. It was Wexler’s suggestion that the duo initially record Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend. They took the song out of middle-class bohemian bedsits and relocated it to the inner city. Released simultaneously with James Taylor’s version, the two covers vied for US chart space. Flack and Hathaway’s reading is so heartfelt and emotional, it is probably the best cover of King’s original.
The song that really cemented the popularity of Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway was Where Is the Love. A molasses-sweet pop song, it was written by Ralph Macdonald and William Salter and originally intended for vocal group The 5th Dimension. It sounds as sweet, breezy and peachy as any of Stevie Wonder’s high-period ballads, and remained on the US charts for best part of a year. It also made the UK top 30 in 1972.
People who bought the album on the strength of that hit were surprised to find a work of great depth and tenderness. A cover of You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling detunes the drama of Phil Spector’s Righteous Brothers original and makes it an anguished urban whisper between lovers. Be Real Black for Me was a perfect anthem for the ‘black is beautiful’ movement, a celebration of African-Americanism.
As it progresses, the album becomes ever more solemn and sombre – it closes with a beautiful rendition of the old sacred song Come Ye Disconsolate which leads into Mood, an astonishing, intimate instrumental seven-minute piano duet that showcased both players’ classical training.
It was during the recording of the album that Flack’s rendition of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, from her debut solo album, became an enormous hit, giving the public a voracious appetite for Flack and Hathaway’s material. Its mixture of covers and deep, soul-searching tunes, beautifully played and sung, was a one-off.
Flack and Hathaway recorded sporadically together throughout the 70s until Hathaway’s tragic death in 1979. Although Flack has sung with several other singers since, nothing has come close to the special magic they arrived at on this record. Intimate and understated, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway is an album that needs to be appreciated fully once again.