Sunday, August 02, 2009

Rest Easy, Little Donnie Pitts

It was my job to play bad music from the seventies for awhile. I didn't mind it, really. Music is 99% trifling and unimportant. It bugs me a bit to see drivel deified, but as long as you keep in mind there isn't a dime's bit of difference between the Monkees and Led Zeppelin, you'll be fine. Enjoy it, or not; just don't tell me it's important.

Since I eviscerate and then defenestrate 70s music often here, you might get the impression I think it was all bad. Far from it. In many ways it's better than everything that came after, and everything that came before, too. The technology was good enough to capture everything properly, unlike the woolly sixties recordings, and the musicians were still actually playing their instruments together and singing without Auto-Tune pitch-correction equipment. It's useful to remember that Auto-Tune was invented by a guy at Exxon. You can listen to music through a gas pump filter if you like. Me? No thanks.

Listen to how thin and wan the background music on the average eighties hit sounds now. The drum machine and the synthesizer wounded the process. Autotune would mop up by killing the singing in the nineties. I can't think of anyone current that even tries to sing anymore. They chant singsong doggerel, or sound like a cruise ship lounge act. I go searching in the wreckage for the piquant tap of a wooden stick hitting a Remo head, the squeak of a finger on a round wound string, and the gentle insuck of breath between passages passing through a plate reverb.

I am susceptible to wavering on this point, but the most compelling male pop voice I can think of right now is Donny Hathaway.

"You're joking," you just said. Or maybe: "Who?" If you remember the fairly lame duets with Roberta Flack you figure everything I learned about music I learned in an elevator. But that's just a reflection of the guy's talent. He could sing the treacle ballads playing in your dentist's office right now if he wanted to. A man with a wife and kid's gotta work, after all.

I came up with Donny as the top of the pop singer food chain by hearing him sing Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On better than Marvin Gaye did. It's a live recording, in what sounds like a small venue, that gets run often on the soul station I listen to when the table saw's off. How can you sing that better than Marvin Gaye? Dunno. He does.

Donny Hathaway died before he had a large body of work, and so is mostly obscure compared to other seventies acts that didn't die and can still fill an arena. Colostomy Rock, I call it. I searched to find you a YouTube video of him singing, but what few they have are not what I'm looking for. So I'll get strange. I'll offer you ten minutes of Donny Hathaway performing "Everything is Everything," not even singing, just mumbling and shouting and playing the keyboards, with the talented Cornell Dupree playing guitar and the magnificent Willie Weeks playing bass. Just keep in mind that all that wonderful noise happens before he even opens his mouth to sing. See? The seventies wasn't all ABBA and Black Oak Arkansas.

You could hire Donny Hathaway for a little while. It was better to unleash him. He was dead, suicide, before the seventies were. Shame. Rest easy, Little Donnie Pitts.


misterarthur said...

Part of the problem, today, is that anyone can be a "recording engineer". Plug in an M-Audio solo, hook up an (actually really good for the money) Audio-Technica Condenser microphone, turn on Garage Band, and voila: Instant Rudy Van Gelder. Until, of course, you listen to something he actually recorded...but you knew that, of course. Acutally, it's even easier if you don't mic anything but the singer. Just plug in direct, flip on an amp simulator, fire up the drum machine, and you're done. It's like typography used to be. It used to be an art setting type. Now you just need an Adobe product and a bunch of fonts. But you knew that, too.

donny said...


you are right. Donny's version of What's going on stronger than the original.

Check my site on Donny :