When it comes to duets, there are a few notable duos pivotal to Black music—Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Lionel Richie and Diana Ross, James Ingram and Patti Austin, Peaches & Herb, Ashford & Simpson, and of course, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway.
Though Flack and Hathaway’s eponymous duet album turned 50 this year, it’s still considered a timeless R&B treasure. The 10-track LP features an array of classic tunes like “You’ve Got A Friend,” “Be Real Black For Me,” and the ballad that transcends time, race, and orientation, “Where Is The Love.”
Donny’s daughter, Grammy Award-winning Lalah Hathaway, believes her late father would be “proud” of how his work stood the tests of time with the way Black music has evolved sonically over the years. Even through the phone, her proud smile can be sensed. “He would be excited that the music has endured 50 years and will continue to endure,” she begins. “I think he would be tickled pink that we find it important that we want to talk about it, so long after he’s been gone, so long after the music has been created. I think he would feel like he definitely helped to set some of the gold standard for what duets are and what those records sound like.”
The legendary Flack remembers her dear friend in music and how the collaboration even came to be. “After Jerry [Wexler] suggested our collaborations to me at one of my shows at Mr. Henry’s [in DC], Donny and I spent countless hours collaborating on arrangements and compositions for this album,” she shared in an emailed statement. “We were deeply connected creatively. He could play anything, sing anything. Our musical synergy was unlike [anything] I’d had before or since.”
Though Lalah was only around 10 years old at the time of her father’s death, to this day, she admits that she still gets asked about him almost daily—sometimes to her dismay.
“I definitely have had those types of days and sometimes [interviewers] forget I’m his child. I have had interviews with people where they’re talking to me like we’re talking about Elvis Presley or John Lennon. Both of those people are giants in their own right, but this is my actual blood. So, I show up differently for that and it shows up differently for me,” she expresses in a melancholic tone. “There are some times where I feel like this is my personal business and I don’t want to discuss it with you because I find you callous and unfeeling. But anybody that comes to me in the right way, I’m totally open and always willing to talk about my dad because he’s just was one of the greatest voices ever. And people still feel that.”
When it comes to Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway specifically, Lalah definitely considers the breakout track of the album to be “Where Is The Love,” thanks to its generational and crossover appeal.
“‘Where Is The Love’ is one of those songs when I’m talking to people and they say, ‘Oh, you have kind of a famous name. Are you… I recognize the name.’ And I say, ‘Oh, well, my father is Donny Hathaway.’ And they say, ‘Oh, I don’t know who that is.’ And I say, ‘Well, you do, you just maybe don’t know that you do.’ They [respond], “Oh, what did he sing?” As soon as I sing, ‘Where Is The Love,’ they say, ‘Oh, of course.’”
“Ralph McDonald did a few sessions with me and during a break, he played a few tunes that he and his partner [William] Bill Salter were working on,” revealed Flack about the making of their hit record. “One of them was ‘Where Is The Love.’ He was trying to get that song to The Fifth Dimension, but as soon as I heard it, I told him I wanted to record it with Donny. We recorded it as quickly as we could! (laughs)”
“Where Is The Love” peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and No. 1 on both the Billboard Easy Listening and R&B chart in July and August 1972, respectively. It also garnered Flack and Hathaway a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals in the following year.
With these days feeling like the era of nostalgia, I ask Lalah if she’d consider remaking the album with someone. Naturally, her first answer was her sister and fellow R&B and jazz singer, Kenya. Coincidentally, in 2019, the two performed “Where Is The Love” at the GRAMMY Salute to Music Legends.
Admittedly, in recent years, Lalah has been performing her father’s music with an orchestra. Though she listed a few male figures who are “carrying on the tradition of rhythm and blues that [she has] so much respect for,” she shares that she has yet to meet a man willing to tackle Flack’s portion of the album because she “called dibs on [her] daddy,” obviously.
But what if she recreated the album as a compilation LP with several artists, I suggest. “I think that’s a beautiful idea. And there’s so many guys out there. There’s a wealth of rhythm and blues happening right now,” she replies. “But for my money, it’s the guys that really observed the traditions and managed to bring it forward that really excite me: Usher, John Legend, Lucky Daye, Dave Hollister, Joe. I mean Charlie Wilson, those guys really, the sound of their voices just takes me back.”
Lalah did tease that—thanks to some advice from the late Natalie Cole—she is working on a posthumous duet with her father, set to arrive “sooner than you think.”
For Flack, her favorite memory is a no-brainer when reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the classic album she created with the late and legendary soul singer. “The love and connection that Donny and I had, musically—it was like flying. Donny was a musical genius. I don’t use that term lightly. The recording of this album was a time for us that was joyful, creative, and effortless.”
Following the release of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, both artists went on to collaborate again on “The Closer I Get To You” from her Blue Lights In The Basement album (1977). Their second and final joint album, Roberta Flack featuring Donny Hathaway, was released in 1980, following his tragic death in January 1979.
Listen below to a rare live concert between Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway from Nov. 24, 1971.