Emily Lordi reads from her book on soul singer Donny Hathaway during a discussion with Tara Betts at the Seminary Co-op bookstore in Chicago
Emily Lordi (right) reads from her book on soul singer Donny Hathaway during a discussion with Tara Betts at the Seminary Co-op. Credit: Luke Sironski-White

Each book in the long-running 33 1/3 series is supposed to be about a single record, but Emily Lordi’s 2016 entry, Donny Hathaway Live, does a little more: she calls it a “praise song” for the soul icon’s 1972 live album, but it’s also about his relationship with live performance in general.

Lordi, an associate professor at Amherst, came to the University of Chicago’s Seminary Co-op on Friday, January 13, to discuss Donny Hathaway Live and the performances the book consecrates. She discussed the underappreciated singer and pianist with fellow professor Tara Betts, who recently published a collection of poems called Break the Habit—and who’d suggested to Lordi that they have their talk in Chicago, where Hathaway was born in 1945. January 13 was also the anniversary of his death in 1979.

Donny Hathaway was a protege of Curtis Mayfield and his peers included Roberta Flack, but he was overshadowed by soul singers perceived as having more star potential or crossover appeal. In the early 70s, he enjoyed a period of success with studio albums, live performances and recordings, and collaborations with Flack, but after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1973 or ’74, he faded from the public eye—he resurfaced only briefly for a string of underpublicized concerts in ’75 and ’76, most of them in Chicago. He died from an alleged suicide in New York City, having fallen from the 15th floor of the Essex House hotel.

Hathaway’s legacy has outgrown his success in life, though, and vindicated his talent. R&B and pop performers as different as Stevie Wonder and Justin Timberlake have praised him, and seemingly every year, new covers of his Christmas standard “This Christmas” emerge (it’s been recorded by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Christina Aguilera, Mary J. Blige, and Destiny’s Child—and in 2015, Seal and Train).

But Lordi doesn’t care to perpetuate the posthumous image of Hathaway as a sort of soul-music Van Gogh. In Donny Hathaway Live she stresses the intimate political and social connections he tried to create with his audiences, challenging the idea of Hathaway as a sort of tortured, idiosyncratic loner. Lordi probably couldn’t have avoided biography while writing about a man who’s never before been the subject of a nonfiction book, but her concerns tend more toward the religious and communitarian power of soul: “Insofar as soul music unmoored a spiritual experience of community from institutionalized religion,” she writes, “it allowed people to make their own church in a secular space.” Her detailed, friendly conversation with Betts touched on topics such as black masculinity, the ties between soul music and racial liberation, and the underrecognized experimentalism of soul singers.

The tone of Lordi and Betts’s discussion—and of the prose in Donny Hathaway Live—contrasts starkly with the tone-deaf academic-ese that has recently seemed to plague the 33 1/3 series. The book on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy reads like a paint-by-numbers set of glorified Genius annotations mixed with undergraduate-level sad-boy fearmongering about social media. Donny Hathaway Live does a much better job combining the academic, the journalistic, and the personal—in its approach it’s more like a less solipsistic version of Carl Wilson’s 33 1/3 entry on Celine Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. Wilson talks about his marriage, flagellates himself for being a snobbish music critic, and helps codify “poptimism”—in the process helping me feel vindicated for thinking “My Heart Will Go On” is kind of a total banger.

Lordi doesn’t do anything quite so attention-grabbing here, but she does something just as important—by avoiding the “great black artist” myth, she humanizes Hathaway without fetishizing him or treating his music as sociology with a rhythm. She also recognizes the importance of the people who took part more tangentially in Hathaway’s music, whether the session musicians, the audience, or his wife, Eulalah, who was a singer herself. Before performances Hathaway used to call Eulalah, Lordi said, and get her advice about how exactly to sing certain songs or notes.

The importance of collective emotion and experience in Donny Hathaway Live lends the book much of its resonance. Music criticism tends to treat the communal spirit of soul and R&B as something that an individual artist must transcend or escape in order to accomplish anything truly innovative—modern examples include Janelle Monae’s conceptually expansive Archandroid or the self-conscious genre fusions of Frank Ocean or Miguel.

Donny Hathaway Live asserts Hathaway’s value not as a “star” or “personality” but rather as a conduit through which music could flow to his bandmates and the audience. He was against the business of star making, she said, and when you listen to the Hathaway Live album, it’s a joy to hear him talk not just to his audience but also to the other players onstage. To Lordi, Hathaway’s soul is daring not because it rises above, but because of how thoroughly it comes together with—it’s no wonder that his live albums are where the story’s at.

As Lordi offered her sermon on a complicated man who lived for music and the people who love it, adherents of Hathaway’s gospel could find a new way to listen. After the talk, almost the entire audience stuck around to chat with Lordi, Betts, or both—and eventually ended up talking to one another. Lovers of music and words, professional and amateur, had come together to appreciate a man who valued the same kind of comfort and intimacy that the event created. Nadine McKinnor, cowriter of “This Christmas,” was in attendance, though she didn’t tell anybody who she was until after the talk. She’d been sitting quietly, listening to Lordi and Betts discuss the song she’d written with Hathaway almost 50 years ago.