Donny Hathaway is remembered for many songs, though perhaps most often his duet with soul R&B singer Roberta Flack entitled Where is the Love (1972), and his solo rendition of A Song for You (1971), which happens to be a cover of a Leon Russell song released in 1970.
A song about forgiveness and hope and a shot at redemption, A Song for You owes its power to its intimacy, repeating the refrain, “We’re alone now, and I’m singing this song for you.”
Hathaway’s rendition remains the most remembered, perhaps not only for his versatility and soulfulness — he too began singing in a gospel choir, having been raised by his grandmother who was a professional gospel singer — but also the way the arrangement creates the environment the lyrics describe.
Most of the song is just a duet between Hathaway and a piano, which really doesn’t do too much other than pulse various chords. At various verses, strings and different instruments enter with simple and short phrases or counter-melodies. Yet one can easily imagine a single singer-pianist playing the song before an audience of one — the “you” the song is dedicated to — revealing all the candor and love the performer has left to share.
The pace — tempo — of the song also signifies comfort in discomfort. Whenever one pleads and bears his soul for another to see, he wills himself for potential rejection and downfall. The song seeks forgiveness — But now I’m so much better / And if my words don’t come together / Listen to the melody — and insists on permanent love that is in a place / Where there is no space or time for I love you for my life. The plodding tempo reveals an almost thoughtfulness to the singer who continues to plead and redeem himself.
Hathaway’s vocal tour de force supports this vulnerability, this comfort in discomfort. His long musical phrases demonstrates not only great candor, but incredible soul, for his voice persists with fervor and intent through every moment he has in the song. While he sometimes shows off his versatility that presages neo-soul and R&B vocal embellishments more common in the late 90s and early 2000s, his performance remains subtle. Listening to him feels as if one is in the same lounge or room with Hathaway, alone now, listening to him sing his way through a final proposal, an ultimate request for forgiveness and love.
Hathaway could do anything he wanted, vocally. What makes this memorable is his recognition of this song’s need for complete truth, and no pretense — the tempo of this song would make it extremely difficult for any singer to hide his/her flaws — and his delivery of these notions through a subtle, and yet deeply soulful performance.