Donny Hathaway & the greatest live performance ever (ever)…

Warning: What follows is really over the top.

I have a friend who thinks Lynyrd Skynyrd’s One More from the Road is the best live album ever. Out of every live recording in the world that’s ever existed. Better than James Brown’s Live at the Apollo or the Who’s Live at Leeds. All of them. Maybe I’ll get him to explain why here soon, since I kind of want to know myself. If I had to guess, knowing him, I would say it’s probably related to the feeling of the whole thing. The emotional elements, the heart and soul, the Artimus Pyle of it all (the bands hairy drummer) as opposed to its tightness…which leads us here, to one of the greatest live performances ever to appear on an LP. As in, staggeringly incredible. As in, you guys go on ahead, I need to sit down for a minute.

Here’s the scene: Donny Hathaway, one of the finest singers earth has ever been blessed with, is playing at LA’s Troubadour in August of 1971. He hits the opening notes of his cover of Carole’s King’s “You’ve Got a Friend”, on the keyboard. It’s just been #1 in the charts, as sung by James Taylor, and of course features on Carole’s mega-selling, gigantic Tapestry LP, that every person alive that year owns a copy of, or at least their big sister does. It is beyond ubiquitous. The notes instantly trigger maniacal, unhinged, Beatle-esque screaming from the ladies in the audience. Donny starts singing with his usual soulful beauty, like always. When he gets to the line in the first verse, “close your eyes and think of me”, one of the intensely hyped up ladies answers back with, “I’m thinkin‘ !”. There is a burst of laughter. And then it’s time for the chorus. At this point, the whole audience takes the mike from Donny…and he graciously lets them. Beyond let’s them. They completely take over the song, while awestruck Donny guides, leads, embellishes, and backs them up for the rest of the way. I’m telling you, it’s just, damn….

One of the most mind-blowing things about this recording, is the closeness of all of it: it sounds like the crowd is onstage with him, all clapping, screaming, breathing, and chattering, while completely surrounding him at his keyboard (at least that’s the way I’ve always pictured the scene in my head). That moment, when the first verse transitions into the chorus, and everyone starts singing, gives me chills every single time I hear it: it is positively transcendent. You’ll actually feel your heart expand inside you.

At one point Donny says “Y’all sound awful good to me”, then,” this might be a record here”.

Yeah, thank God for that.

  3 comments for “Donny Hathaway & the greatest live performance ever (ever)…

  1. Dave Menzies
    August 11, 2021 at 7:12 pm

    As I continue to work my way through your past articles I came across the Donny Hathaway item. I really only have Donny compilations and some stuff with Roberta Flack. This live album is insanely good! I can’t believe I’ve missed this version of Friend – and no – you were not over the top. You perfectly describe the joy and the atmosphere and the feeling and the warmth of the recording. You made me want to search it out and have a listen. I’m so glad that I did. So, huge thanks for that.
    p.s. as good as this Donny Live album is, and I’m sure that it will continue to grow on me and become a real favorite (its been on the ipod all week), best live album ever is of course J.Geils Band – Live/Blow Your Face out. That’s just a fact!

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    • August 13, 2021 at 5:00 pm

      Oh my gosh Dave, isn’t it amazing ? I literally feel transported when I listen to the DH Live, I mean they really captured something precious and singularly amazing when they decided to record that show. By the way, I wrote a thing about Donny a while back on Cover Me where I also go straight over the top:

      https://www.covermesongs.com/2020/01/in-the-spotlight-donny-hathaway.html

      And yes, on your recommendation I am listening to the J.Geils today, beginning to end ! For the record, my same friend who loves the Skynyrd love ALSO loves the Geils , so okay y’all, I’m officially on it 😉

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      • Dave
        August 15, 2021 at 4:22 pm

        Thanks for pointing me in the direction of the Cover Me article Hope! A great read, and yes, I’ve been down the Donny Hathaway rabbit hole most of this Sunday afternoon. (Natalie Cole rabbit hole next) So much good stuff on Youtube. You’ve probably already heard this, but I stumbled across this unreleased track – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xh8XJNbQmo -You Had To Know. It’s fantastic. I don’t know he did it -but the sound of his recordings- it always feels like it’s being played live in your room. Sackfull of Dreams is a perfect tune to listen to outside on a warm Summer day. Hope you enjoyed the J.Geils.

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