Anyone who is a true connoisseur of voice knows well who Lalah Hathaway is. The daughter of late soul singer Donny Hathaway carries his legacy forward proudly. Though Lalah has left her most recognizable marks in the worlds of R&B and jazz, gospel music is a place she seems to constantly circle back to.
There was always a natural spring of gospel feeling that bubbled up from the center of Donny Hathaway’s music. From grounded anthems like “Someday We’ll All Be Free” and “Thank You Master (For My Soul)” to fun loving songs like “Magdalena” and “This Christmas,” all of them sound as if they were recorded from the pulpit. One could surmise that the same feeling churns inside Lalah Hathaway, because it comes to the surface ever so often.
Kirk Whalum featuring Lalah Hathaway –
“He’s Been Just That Good” (2009)
For the third installment of his The Gospel According To Jazz series, Kirk Whalum invites Lalah Hathaway to sing the original composition “He’s Been Just That Good.” The saxophone dominated radio single stands strong in its simplicity. Everyone knows that often the simple songs minister the strongest in church. Lalah’s smoky, rich contralto voice brings to the song the same weight and strength that we might have seen had Donny himself been invited to the party.
The Winans featuring Lalah Hathaway –
“It’s Not Heaven If You’re Not There” (1993)
This bouncing pop/gospel ditty too often gets overlooked. Though The Winans’ All Out album featured contributions from R. Kelly, Gerald LeVert, Michael J. Powell, and Kenny Loggins, it stalled out at #15 on the Billboard Gospel charts and #9 on the Billboard CCM charts in 1993. Regardless, who wouldn’t want to hear two voices as dynamic as Marvin Winans and Lalah Hathaway trading lines on wax?
“It’s not a leopard if it doesn’t have spots. It’s not plethoric if it’s not a lot. Wouldn’t be an eagle if it didn’t soar through the air. It’s not Heaven if you’re not there.” It’s hard to sing along (or even hear it) and not smile.
Israel & New Breed featuring Lalah Hathaway –
“Silent Nocturne” (2006)
Easily the highlight of the A Timeless Christmas album, Israel & New Breed masterfully embellish on the perennial carol commemorating Jesus’ birth, “Silent Night.” It’s nothing short of amazing to hear the way both voices interplay flawlessly with the ensemble of musicians like swirling wind currents in a snow storm. Such an amazing performance is a joy to the world all year around.
Joe Sample & Lalah Hathaway –
“When Your Life Was Low” (1999)
“When Your Life Was Low” was never a gospel song. The lyrics tell of a loyal friend or lover who is embraced when times are hard and abandoned once success comes. The song spent nearly two decades as a beautiful, but obscure ballad buried at the end of a 1980 Randy Crawford album. Co-writer Joe Sample convinced Lalah to re-record the song for their duo album The Song Lives On, and the single helped push the album to #2 on the Billboard Jazz charts.
Always a favorite at live shows with Hathaway’s fanbase, gospel audiences began to take notice of the song as well. Lalah was asked to render the song as an a capella encore during a Pre-Stellar Awards BMI Trailblazers Luncheon as well as Kierra Sheard’s 2009 Bold Right Life conference, both times driving crowds wild.
The song was recently cemented into the pantheon of gospel music since being covered by contemporary gospel quartet Men of Standard on their Greatest Hits album. Their cover recasts Christ as the faithful friend and lover who is not to be abandoned once hard times pass.
Donald Lawrence featuring Lalah Hathaway & Ramsey Lewis –
“Don’t Forget To Remember” (2004)
For Donald Lawrence’s debut solo album, he called upon Lalah & the incomparable Ramsey Lewis to reframe a classic song from his 1995 smash album Bible Stories with the Tri-City Singers. This straight-ahead jazz interpretation, warmed by the subtle ambience of smoldering choir vocals has become a definitive song for both Lawrence & Hathaway.
Though Hathaway has never positioned herself as any radical or outspoken evangelical, she still serves to inspire even without preaching. She has always presented the class and modesty of a woman with standards and principles. One would be hard pressed to hear vulgar or explicit material performed at a Lalah Hathaway concert. This is a likely reason Hathaway remains accessible to audiences on both sides of the church’s walls.
On a recent visit to BET’s Lift Every Voice talk show, Lalah admitted to maintaining a personal relationship with God marked by quiet time and contemplation. Whether she jumps, shouts, and speaks in tongues every Sunday is of little concern. Matthew 7:16 says that we will be able to recognize trees by their fruit, and by Lalah Hathaway’s fruit, she looks to be family.
Lalah Hathaway was recently nominated for a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance this year for “That Was Then,” a single from her 2008 solo album Self Portrait. For more info about Lalah, visit her website www.lalahhathaway.com or follow @lalahhathaway on Twitter.