Hathaway, Lalah

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Lalah Hathaway


Vocalist, songwriter

Lalah Hathaway set herself apart from the hard-edged hip-hop trends of the 1990s with a subtle vocal style rooted in her jazz training and in the classic soul vocals of her father Donny Hathaway. Her smooth voice brought her many admirers, for she was equally at home in styles ranging from R&B ballads and uptempo numbers to pop standards and jazz. She appeared on more than 100 recordings and concert performances by other artists. After a featured vocal slot on a major jazz release, pianist Joe Sample's The Song Lives On, Hathaway re-entered the spotlight in 2004 with the critically lauded album Outrun the Sky. She remained a strong concert draw through the middle 2000s.

Hathaway's unique voice didn't fit readily into any particular niche in an increasingly fragmented music industry. But Hathaway accepted the limitations and rewards that came with her stylistic versatility. "It's all music to me," Hathaway explained to Richard Harrington of the Washington Post. "I've always recognized that I'm somewhat different as a musician and singer because I understand that [mine is] a singular voice—it's my voice and nobody else has it. Doesn't make me better than anyone else, just makes me singular."

Lalah Hathaway has good musical genes. She was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1969, just before her father, Donny Hathaway, began his ascent to international fame thanks to a series of duets with singer Roberta Flack. Donny Hathaway was trained in both classical and gospel traditions, and Lalah's mother Eulaulah was an opera singer. The major event of her youth was her father's death in 1979 after he fell 15 floors out the window of a building; it was generally accounted a suicide. "I was only ten years old when it happened, but it was very traumatic," Hathaway recalled to Deborah Gregory of Essence. "I had been very close to my father. Now I carry the pain inside; sometimes I feel it, sometimes I don't, but I'll have to deal with it for the rest of my life."

She was enrolled in a high-school music program that focused on classical music, but teachers decided that her low, rather quiet voice wasn't suited to opera. She also grew up during a golden age of R&B female vocals, listening to singers like Chaka Khan, and in the 1980s she came under the spell of the fusion jazz that was making inroads into urban radio, hearing instru-mentalists like guitarist Pat Metheny and the group Weather Report. The eclectic atmosphere of Boston's Berklee College of Music fit Hathaway well, and her vocal talents bloomed. "I met a lot of great musicians, and the musician I am was informed by that," she told Harrington. Major-label talent spotters turned their ears in Hathaway's direction, and she was signed to Virgin as a sophomore. While her classmates were traveling to vacation spots for spring break during her senior year in 1990, she was recording her debut album, Lalah Hathaway.

Critics praised the album, and Hathaway garnered high-profile club dates around Boston and beyond. She moved to Los Angeles in 1991. "[H]er voice is limpid, smooth, and bracing, with just a hint of sultriness," noted David Hiltbrand of People. "You have only to listen to 'Obvious' or 'I'm Coming Back' to realize that she has a very sure, remarkably mature flair for phrasing." Radio programmers were less friendly than critics, however, and the album stalled out in the middle ranges of Billboard magazine's R&B chart. The jazz component in R&B was on the decline by the early 1990s, and, noted Eric Snider of the St. Petersburg Times, "It's readily obvious that there's plenty more of the jazz singer waiting to come out" in Hathaway's voice.

The next phase of Hathaway's career seemed to bear out her jazz tendencies. Her sophomore release A Moment came out on the Virgin label in 1994 and failed to attract much attention with its combination of ballads and funky numbers intended to reach a younger demographic. Meanwhile, Hathaway's reputation in the jazz world was growing. She recorded and toured with key jazz instrumentalists and producers, including keyboardist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., and bassist Marcus Miller, whose band she joined shortly after graduating from music school. In 1992 she began touring with former Crusaders pianist Joe Sample, and her schedule was busy through the 1990s even though she didn't record again under her own name after 1994. Hathaway's jazz phase culminated the 1999 Joe Sample/Lalah Hathaway release The Song Lives On, which cracked the top five of Billboard's Contemporary Jazz chart. "I think she's found her niche," jazz DJ Jay McLaughlin told Sonia Murray of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I don't know a lot of R&B singers that can just come over and start singing jazz. And be received like she has been."

Still, Hathaway was frustrated by her lack of R&B exposure and wasn't ready to give up on the genre. "It seems like this music has forsaken the whole art of A&R [artists-and-repertoire], watching an artist develop, and having a story to tell with a beginning, middle, and end," she told Murray. "Especially for black girls who want to do something other than shake [their] butts." Later, asked by Renee Graham of the Boston Globe why there had been such a long break between her solo albums, she was even blunter: "Because the music industry sucks," she said. "It's in a constant state of flux. I signed two deals, the record labels folded, a partner moved away or decided to do something else." And the stark split between hip-hop and retro neo-soul troubled Hathaway. "From my own experience with soul music, there's a couple of extremes out there," she told Graham. "If you're in the middle, there's nowhere to even take the music to be heard. The window of opportunity is just closing and closing."

Hathaway did find work in the early 2000s, continuing her long association with Marcus Miller and appearing on albums by Take 6, MeShell NdegeOcello, and Mary J. Blige. In the summer of 2004 she performed "Forever, for Always, for Love" on the Luther Vandross tribute album Forever, for Always, for Luther. The song gave Hathaway a Number One urban adult contemporary single and was also included on her third solo release, Outrun the Sky, which appeared in late 2004. The album once again garnered substantial critical praise. Ebony gushed that "Effortlessly, she pulls listeners into her universe with rich vocals, lush lyrics, and full-bodied rhythms." Stylistically the album made use of the full range of Hathaway's talents, with rock, blues, gospel, jazz, and even country influences, and Hathaway made autobiographical songwriting contributions of her own with songs such as "Boston."

At a Glance …

Born in 1969 in Chicago, IL: daughter of Donny 'Hathaway, a soul music vocalist, and Eulaulah Hathaway, an opera singer. Education: Berklee College of Music, Boston, 1990.

Career: Recording artist, various record labels, 1990–.

Addresses: Label—Sanctuary Records, Sixth Floor, 369 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10017. Web—www. lalahhathaway.com.

The album made it into the hip-hop/R&B top 40 and brought Hathaway a fresh round of exposure. She rejected the idea of an electronic duet with Donny Hathaway (comparable to "Unforgettable," in which diva Natalie Cole's voice was joined with that of her late father Nat "King" Cole) but contemplated among various other future projects, an album of Donny Hathaway covers with her sister Kenya, a member of the band on television's American Idol. She was also planning a new solo album featuring fresh compositions of her own, and it seemed possible that what she needed to reach top-level stardom was material that revealed the real Lalah Hathaway.

Selected discography


Lalah Hathaway, Virgin, 1990.
A Moment, Virgin, 1994.
(With Joe Sample) The Song Lives On, GRP, 1999.
Outrun the Sky, Sanctuary, 2004.



Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 6, 1999, p. P3; July 21, 2005, p. P5.

Billboard, April 16, 1994, p. 28.

Boston Globe, September 19, 1990, p. 76; September 23, 2005, p. D18.

Ebony, October 2004, p. 45.

Essence, February 1991, p. 32.

Jet, January 10, 2005, p. 28.

People, September 24, 1990, p. 21.

St. Petersburg Times, April 19, 1991, p. 25; June 17, 1994, p. 27.

Washington Post, February 10, 2006, p. T6.


Lalah Hathaway, www.lalahhathaway.com (March 25, 2006).

"Lalah Hathaway," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (March 25, 2006).

"Lalah Hathaway," Soul Tracks, www.soultracks.com/lalah_hathaway.htm (March 25, 2006).