Donny Hathaway was one of the most influential and talented soul singers of the 1970s, known for his smooth, gospel-inflected voice and his collaborations with Roberta Flack. However, his life and career were cut short by a mysterious and tragic death that remains a source of speculation and controversy to this day. What was Donny Hathaway cause of death, and what led him to that fatal moment?
Early Life and Career
Donny Edward Hathaway was born on October 1, 1945, in Chicago, Illinois, but moved to St. Louis, Missouri, when he was very young. He began singing in the church choir with his grandmother, a professional gospel singer, at the age of three, and also learned to play the piano. He showed great musical talent and won a full-ride fine arts scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he met Roberta Flack. He left college after three years to pursue a career in the music industry, working as a songwriter, producer, arranger, and session musician for various artists, including Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, and the Staple Singers.
He signed with Atco Records as a solo artist in 1969 and released his debut single, “The Ghetto”, which became a classic soul message track and a hit on the R&B charts. He followed it with his acclaimed debut album, Everything Is Everything, in 1970. That same year, he also released his original holiday song “This Christmas”, which would become a staple of seasonal music for decades to come.
In 1971, he recorded a duet with Roberta Flack, covering Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend”, which was a major success on both the R&B and pop charts. The duo released a full album of duets, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, in 1972, which featured their Grammy-winning hit “Where Is the Love?”. Hathaway also recorded solo albums such as Donny Hathaway (1971) and Extension of a Man (1973), which showcased his versatile and expressive vocal style and his ability to blend soul, gospel, jazz, and classical influences.
Mental Health Struggles
Despite his musical achievements and popularity, Hathaway struggled with severe bouts of depression and paranoid schizophrenia, which affected his personal and professional life. He was hospitalized several times and received electroconvulsive therapy as part of his treatment. He also experienced delusions and hallucinations that made him believe that someone was trying to kill him or control his mind with a device implanted in his brain.
His mental health issues also caused tension in his relationship with Roberta Flack, who tried to support him but found it difficult to cope with his erratic behavior. Their partnership began to crumble in 1973, when Hathaway walked out of a recording session after hearing voices in his head. He withdrew from the public eye for several years and did not release any new music until 1977.
That year, he reconciled with Flack and recorded another duet with her, “The Closer I Get to You”, which became their biggest hit and reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. They planned to record another album together, but Hathaway’s condition worsened again.
The Final Days
On January 13, 1979, Hathaway was staying at the Essex House hotel in New York City, where he was supposed to resume recording with Flack. However, he was acting paranoid and irrational, telling Flack that “white people” were trying to kill him and that he had heard God’s voice. He also refused to take his medication and became agitated when Flack suggested that he see a doctor.
That evening, Hathaway went back to his room on the 15th floor of the hotel. Around 6:30 p.m., hotel employees heard a loud thud outside the building. They discovered Hathaway’s body on the sidewalk below his room’s balcony. The glass door of the balcony was shattered from the inside. The police ruled his death as a suicide by jumping from the balcony.
However, some of Hathaway’s family members and friends disputed this verdict and suggested that he might have been murdered or that his death was an accident caused by his mental state. They pointed out that there were no signs of struggle or suicide note in his room. They also claimed that Hathaway was afraid of heights and would not have jumped voluntarily.
Moreover, they argued that Hathaway was in good spirits before his death and had been looking forward to working on new music. They also noted that he had recently reconciled with his estranged wife Eulaulah and their two children.
Donny Hathaway’s death shocked and saddened the music world and left behind a legacy of timeless and soulful songs that have inspired generations of artists and fans. He was posthumously inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 2003 and honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019. His daughter, Lalah Hathaway, followed in his footsteps and became a successful singer and songwriter in her own right.
Donny Hathaway’s cause of death remains a mystery, but his life and music remain a testament to his genius and passion. He was a soul legend who touched many hearts with his voice and his spirit.