An ebullient release, but tinged with great sadness.
Daryl Easlea 2012-04-24
A lot had happened in the years immediately following Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s groundbreaking duet album in 1972, and not all of it was good. Whereas Flack had gone on to be a global superstar, Hathaway had grappled with mental health issues and had effectively ceased recording after his 1973 album Extension of a Man.
With Flack’s encouragement and support, the pair worked together again, recording the huge US hit duet The Closer I Get for Flack’s 1977 album, Blue Lights in the Basement. Plans were underway for the two to make a new record that was to feature four or five duets plus solo material. Sadly, Hathaway was not to finish the sessions, committing suicide during the recordings. Flack was bereft. After a suitable pause, she resumed work on the album, utilising Hathaway’s material and completing the rest alone.
The two Hathaway tracks are, unsurprisingly, of the greatest interest – You Are My Heaven, co-written by Stevie Wonder, remains a poignant listen with lyrics sung by Hathaway, such as “An angel whispered to me when I woke this morning.” Had this been set against a brooding acoustic guitar, it could have proven an almost unbearable listen; instead, it’s sunshine soul, full of upbeat joy that makes it a happy memorial.
Similar can be said for the album’s key single, Back Together Again. It is a celebration of love, but also an answer to the many fans and critics who had longed for the duo to reunite. Written by Reggie Lucas and James Mtume, it was a perfect piece of late-70s soul, with Ray Chew’s irresistible horn arrangements punctuating the groove.
Of Flack’s solo material, Only Heaven Can Wait and Stay With Me can both be seen as coded tributes to Hathaway. God Don’t Like Ugly is the kind of sturdy, radio-friendly R&B that quietly co-existed at the time of disco’s popularity. Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long succumbs to the mores of the dancefloor; it is bright, buoyant, bass-heavy disco, marred only by Flack’s vocal being somewhat mired in the mix.
Whereas Flack and Hathaway’s first full-length collaboration is almost like a work of classical music as much as it is soul, this partial reunion cannot really compare. The gourmet banquet of the former is followed with the high-quality fast food of Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway. However, given the circumstances surrounding its release, it is a fitting, frequently joyous full stop to the glory of the pair’s collaboration.