Hathaway sings honest, straight-up music from the soul

Soul singer appearing at Rams Head Wednesday

Music: in concert, CDs

January 22, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

She looks like him: round face, full lips, haunting eyes. And when she sings, there's more than a hint of him in her vocal texture -- the honeyed smokiness, the bluesy phrasing. Lalah Hathaway, the oldest daughter of late soul great Donny Hathaway, has been told many times, "You sound just like your daddy."

But she doesn't believe it.

"All my life people have told me how they have admired my father," says Hathaway, who's calling from her cell phone in a Los Angeles boutique. "Singers I know -- Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, lots of singers -- rank him up there with the top. I think he'd be tickled pink that Justin Timberlake is going around saying, 'Donny Hathaway is my favorite singer.' But, no, I don't really think I sound like him. I don't hear it, anyway."

The soul-jazz singer, who plays Rams Head Tavern Wednesday night, was 9 years old when her father leapt to his death from the 15th-floor window of Manhattan's posh Essex House hotel on Jan. 13, 1979. Perhaps best known for his smash '70s duets with Roberta Flack ("Where is the Love," "You've Got a Friend," "The Closer I Get to You") and his oft-sampled first solo hit, 1970's "The Ghetto," Donny was, to many, a musical genius whose church-inspired, classically trained piano style and intense, from-the-soul-pits vocals have been widely imitated but unmatched. (Even Stevie Wonder, especially after 1972's Music of My Mind, and George Benson clearly took a few vocal licks from Donny.)

Artists from today's "neo-soul" movement -- India.Arie, Jill Scott, Alicia Keys, Glenn Lewis -- often mention the legend as a chief influence. In a recent video, Musiq even rocks a T-shirt emblazoned with Donny's image.

But Lalah Hathaway, who's set to release a new album this spring, doesn't plan to do a full tribute-to-dad project a la Natalie Cole -- well, not anytime soon.

"At some point, I'm going to do something like a tribute, I guess -- not what Natalie did, because she's already done that," she says. "I'll think about something else. I don't think that [my father] has gotten what he deserves on the tribute tip. But it's great that he is getting recognized here and there for the 15 minutes he was with us."

In the early '90s, before the rise of Mary J. Blige, it looked as if Lalah Hathaway would be the next big thing in R&B, a striking woman who melded the emotional realism of classic soul with the upfront, edgy attitude of hip-hop.

Her 1990 self-titled debut garnered critical acclaim and spawned two radio hits: "Heaven Knows" and "Baby Don't Cry." But four years passed before the artist followed it up with A Moment, which also snagged favorable attention and featured a smokin' jam, the keyboard-driven "Let Me Love You."

But Hathaway never really built upon the momentum. With the emergence of such sassy powerhouses as Blige, Toni Braxton and Erykah Badu, the young artist basically faded into obscurity.

But in recent years, Hathaway has resurfaced on stellar projects with Marcus Miller, Meshell Ndegeocello and the great Joe Sample. (Her duet album with the legendary Crusaders' pianist, 1999's The Song Lives On, is a pop-jazz masterpiece.) And her image is a little funkier these days: no more long weaves. The clothes are thrift-store-eclectic chic, and dreadlocks fall past her shoulders.

"I haven't exactly had that commercial success where people go, 'Oh, yeah, that's Lalah Hathaway,' " the singer says. "But regardless of that, I've been working quite a bit -- a lot of touring every year with Joe Sample or Marcus Miller or on my own."

Referring to her tense relationship with Virgin, her old label, the artist says, "I just wanted to be at a place where I had creative control and some dignity. That's important to me. Major labels are like ad agencies now. The consumer doesn't need all that prepackaging, especially with soul music."

Her long-awaited follow-up to A Moment will be issued by the independent Mesa Blue Moon label and will feature production by Mike City, best known for his work on Sunshine Anderson's modern soul classic "Heard It All Before."

"The record is still pretty much me," Hathaway says. "There's not a gimmick. I wish I could say that, but it's not. It's just straight-up, honest music from the soul."

And in that respect, she's every bit her daddy's girl.

Lalah Hathaway plays Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St., Annapolis, Wednesday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35.

For more information, visit www.ramsheadtavern.com. The singer also plays the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, Va., Monday and Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $29.50 (advance) and $35 (day of show) and can be purchased through Ticketmaster at 410-481-SEAT.

For more information, visit www.birchmere.com.

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