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The birth of cool

On Donny Hathaway's Someday we'll all be free

 

By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

The Sixties, the Civil Rights Movement. Having a dream. 1964, the Civil Rights Act. 1965, the Voting Rights Act. The mid-Sixties was both a culmination and an upsurge.

 

De jure desegregation was achieved. De facto segregation was in a mopping up phase—or so we thought back then. 1966 was a year of major transition, the birth of the Black Power movement. In 1965, Malcolm was assisinated.

 

In 1968, Dr. King’s head was damn near blown off. Vietnam was in full effect. By the end of the Sixties, all of the old certainties were gone, cities from coast to coast were aflame. And yet, when the Seventies arrived, rather than despair, there was an electric current of confidence and optimism coursing through the heart and veins of Black America.

Black was blacker, badder and more beautiful than it had been in centuries on these shores. Everything we did, every organization, every individual, to one degree or another, reflected this new wave, this clenched-fist self-determination.

 

Even Soul Train looked and sounded like a political party. For the descendants of enslaved Africans struggling for freedom, justice and equality, the period from the late Sixties to the mid-Seventies was the most optimistic time of the twentieth century.

This period produced three great anthems: 1. "Young, Gifted and Black," 2. "Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud)," and 3. Donny Hathaway’s classic “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” Here, for your edification and inspiration are seven versions of the classic, kicking off with the original by Donny.


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When Donny Hathaway wrote and exuberantly sang: “Never mind your fears / Brighter days will soon be here / Take it from me / Someday we’ll all be free,” he was neither preaching to the choir nor bucking up the doubters and non-believers.

 

This was an anthem. An anthem voicing a general aspiration, an assurance, that what we seek will be found. The lyrics are hip. The melody, high-flying and optimistic. Never mind that Donny ended up committing suicide, at that moment, he believed. We believed. All of us believed in the future. And ultimately, the enduring strength of this song is that it appeals to that perennial emotion purported to spring eternal from each human breast.


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Teena Marie, “the” quintessential blue-eyed soul singer, offers a soaring snippet of Donny’s song (available on the expanded re-issue of Teena’s Motown LP It’s Magic). Actually, this version of the song’s first verse was used as an introduction for an extended version of “Déjà Vu.”

 

She pulls out all the stops on a long, loud high note blast. I wish she had sung the whole song, but this intro is indicative of the power of the song: here was a young white girl singing a black anthem and the audience, which undoubtedly included a healthy sampling (most likely a majority) of Black folk, were deep into it, thoroughly moved by it.
 
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From Teena Marie we segue right into the Seventh Day Adventist vocal group, Take 6. Their version includes the deep bass, jazzy chords and harmonic modulations that are the group’s trademarks.

 

Plus, there is a cameo appearance from Donny Hathaway’s daughter Lalah Hathaway. I am particularly appreciative of the way this arrangement’s sweeping harmonies uplift the soaring lead voices. I find it paradoxical that the most religious-based of all the performers uses jazz techniques for their approach.


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Neo-retro bluesman Keb’ Mo’ (by which I mean, he’s a young man playing in a traditional country blues style) sounds most like he just arrived from up country and is telling his city-bred cousin, hey, everything is going to be alright. Contrasted to Take 6, this is an exceedingly simple arrangement, yet it is equally effective, probably because Keb’ Mo’ is really feeling it and because he knows how to project his sincere emotions without Teena Marie’s flashy emoting or Take 6’s dazzling technique.


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R&B queen Regina Belle offers up a near-symphonic production that opens and closes with Marvin Gaye’s “Save The Children.” It’s an inspired medley. Regina could be Anita Baker’s younger sibling.

 

Regina’s voice is pitched higher and is lighter than Anita’s but they both love upward glissandos. Some folk find this approach a bit melodramatic, but I think this is one of Regina’s better efforts.
 
New Orleans
gospel icon Raymond Myles gives us the funkiest version, even though it is firmly planted in the gospel tradition, including a spoken homily interlude.

 

Gunned down in a controversial car-jacking episode, Raymond Myles was immensely gifted with not only a talent for singing, but also a musical vision that was both broad and deep.

 

He would incorporate diverse and divergent musical traditions into his performances, plus he could wear out the most seasoned veteran with his ability to play keyboards and to arrange and direct his backup choir, all of which was in support of an old-school vocal style that made both men and women shout and weep, moan and cheer. Raymond Myles was phenomenal, as is his reading of this classic.
 
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We close with saxophonist Kenny Garrett putting percussion beneath the song to give it an exotic, uplifting lilt. When I first heard Kenny’s version, I wanted to hear more saxophone, or should I say, I wanted to hear more jazz from his saxophone, but then I realized that this was not meant to be a jazz rendition but rather has both feet planted in the instrumental R&B bag including tabourined back-beats on the release of the song and short, stabbing phrasing on the closing vamp.

I live in
New Orleans. It’s hard to be cheerful and optimistic, but listening to this set always improves my outlook. I hope these versions of Donny Hathaway’s classic will do the same for you. Someday….

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