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Rock n Roll Suicide: Donny Hathaway (1945-1979)

May 1, 2011

The story of the suicide’s life inevitably begins at the end. The life itself forever exists in the shadow of death, every detail a crumb leading back to the foregone conclusion.

Donny Hathaway fell from the window of his 15th floor room at New York’s’ Essex House Hotel on January 13, 1979. He was 33. Despite being ruled a suicide by the coroner, many of his family and friends believe it might have just been an accident. It is, of course, not uncommon for those closest to the deceased to resist the notion that their loved one killed themselves. Such an admission leads to uncomfortable questions of complicity: why didn’t I see the signs? what more could I have done? These painful queries are one of the many burdens that the suicide leaves behind. Sometimes that’s the point and sometimes those questions are the unintended consequences of ending one’s suffering. It is no wonder that some suicides leave no note and do their best to make their death look unintentional. Creating the illusion of an accident can be a gift to those you love. After all, accidents exist in a vacuum, but suicides never do.

While seemingly odd that the safety glass had been meticulously removed and was on the bed, apparently hanging out of windows was not out of character for Donny Hathaway. He had repeatedly drawn the ire of hotel managers that did not appreciate his habit of singing in his room, so he would simply open the window and sing into the wind. He was also in the midst of a career resurgence at the time. Why kill himself now? his friends and family wondered. His song “The Closer I Get to You,” which he recorded with Roberta Flack, had been nominated for a Grammy and charted at number 2. If his friends and family pointed to his success as a reason why he didn’t kill himself, perhaps they never fully understood the nature of his precarious mental state. In the wake of his triumphant solo 1970 debut Everything is Everything (which included his classic “The Ghetto”), Hathaway was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. It’s a devastating condition, one that was little understood at the time. Medications were primitive and like so many paranoid schizophrenics, he quit taking the pills whenever he thought he was better, only to further tailspin into the darkness. He spent time in and out of mental institutions and he frequently spoke of suicide.

Success is not a balm for emotional turmoil and perhaps Hathaway came to fully realize the polarizingly hollow nature of fame when he experienced it the second time around. Or he may have been simply beyond caring. It is impossible to make sense of the motivations of those inflicted with this crippling disease, we only have their behavior to decipher. Certainly, his fragile and disturbed mental condition had a lot to do with his artistic split from Roberta Flack in 1973 (their 1972 album of duets had spawned three huge hits) and by all accounts, he spent the subsequent five years deeply broken and disturbed. Upon reconciling with Flack in 1978, he quickly found himself back on top, but he may very well have felt more isolated and alone than he had ever been.

“A Song For You” off his 1971 album “Donny Hathaway.”

Donny Hathaway – A Song For You MP3

24 Comments leave one →
  1. pete baldwin permalink
    May 5, 2011 6:09 am

    nice write-up on a phenomenal talent gone way too soon. my favorite album is “live” with that awesome band and one of the greatest bass solos (willie weeks) of all time recreated here…

    cheers.

    • November 30, 2016 6:53 am

      I don’t believe Donny committed suicide. A person with that much talent could always find refuge in their talents. I don’t have half the talent he had but nothing can shake me because I always have my talents to lean on. I think he was murdered as he was found fully clothed including, coat, shoes, gloves and hat. Someone that ill would not think of getting fully dressed to fly out of a window. It seemed as if he had planned to take the stairs but he never made it. He also told friends that “white” people were trying to kill him. I would guess that he meant the doctors were trying to kill him with medication. He was right if that were the case, the frankenstein treatments back then were dangerous and could have caused him to commit suicide. He should’ve never taken there drugs. It’s better to die healthy. What about the four glasses that were found in his room on the day of his murder. Who used them? I guess we’ll never find out but we can learn from it. Don’t ever trust anybody or anything when you are famous and talented. Always carry a gun or two…

      • Anon permalink
        February 12, 2018 10:17 am

        He was a paranoid schizophrenic… Try to even have bipolar unmedicated… Someone I know with it attempted suicide five times before taking medication regularly. There is a lot of luck involved and perhaps it is a grey area with the details, but having a mental illness can be incredibly crippling. The drugs are medicinal albeit probably quite primitive in the late 70s, but nevertheless they are designed to keep you alive and able to function. Psychosis is something else- beyond imagination if you don’t experience it. I don’t but I am very close to someone who had when I first met them… Feeling like white people were trying to kill him and steal his sound sounds very much in line with what the paranoia would be about. Yes, I agree that it was very beta those days but if he went unmedicated you could almost guarantee him committing suicide. Especially the fact that stigmatism still exists to this day. Probably shock therapies happened those days.At least with the medication, there was a better chance. There is no reason to expect him to not to commit suicide fully clothed, just as much as there is no reason for him to be fully clothed. Boltzmann hung himself during a vacation with his family! His daughter found his body. He was mentally ill too; if you use the same logic you would say well why would he wait to commit suicide like that if he was so ill… If he carried a gun he most definitely would have shot himself or goodness knows, he might have shot others too. Mental illness is destructive.

    • Jeffery Gerritt permalink
      April 6, 2017 11:47 pm

      People who don’t believe someone committed suicide because they had “so much talent,” or “so much to live for,” completely misunderstand the nature of severe depression and mental illness. Money, talent, fame — none of that means a lick to someone victimized by bottomless despair, sometimes caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest that artists, such as Hathaway, might be even more likely to suffer severe depression. It’s somewhat understandable that people close to a suicide victim would, because of the stigma, deny it. But by not accepting the truth, they are, unwittingly, perpetuating the stigma of mental illness. That just prevents other people from getting the help they need, and making it more likely that other people will, tragically, end their lives. Hathaway didn’t need a gun. He needed professional help and supportive family, friends, and fans.

      • Jeffery Gerritt permalink
        April 6, 2017 11:51 pm

        People who don’t believe someone committed suicide because they had “so much talent,” or “so much to live for,” completely misunderstand the nature of severe depression and mental illness. Money, talent, fame — none of that means a lick to someone victimized by bottomless despair, sometimes caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest that artists, such as Hathaway, might be even more likely to suffer severe depression. It’s somewhat understandable that people close to a suicide victim would, because of the stigma, deny it. But by not accepting the truth, they are, unwittingly, perpetuating the stigma of mental illness. That just prevents other people from getting the help they need, and makes it more likely that other people will, tragically, end their lives. Hathaway didn’t need a gun. He needed professional help and supportive family, friends, and fans.

  2. October 19, 2012 3:48 am

    Reblogged this on DEPRESSION: my muse and commented:
    In my continuing effort to bring to light the mental illness in people that look like me, I present to you one of my all time favorite singer, Donnie Hathaway. Though it’s still discussed the cause of his death, one thing for sure is he suffered with and from extreme mental illness. It was also reported that just before his death, he thought white folk were out to get him. Apart of his illness? Plain ol’ paranoia? We can’t be sure, but one thing for sure is he was suffering. Let’s not suffer in silence. My motto: If left untreated, mental illness will kill you just as fast as any cancer or other terminal illness, you can trust in that. And yes, that includes a reckless lifestyle.

    • September 15, 2014 4:51 am

      I totally agree with you. As a mental illness patient myself I can relate.

    • January 28, 2016 1:32 am

      Well there are sounds and beats. That are used for war. That kills. So with Donnie had said that,he felt that white people were out to kill him. Just may had been a fact. Those different sounds can drive you crazy
      This guy was young.and had such a promising future. And just to fall out a window,suicide really may had been homicide. Really sad,when we just,go by what some doctor,or cops said it to be. Donnie you are missed. I believe what you say you felt like.HONESTLY.
      inked out
      melam

      • Anon permalink
        February 12, 2018 10:24 am

        With mental illness it is completely irrelevant no matter how promising your future is. Of course, therapy and understanding of others about one’s illness helps immensely and I have come to understand that myself, but the underlying symptoms left unmedicated and untreated in any other form will still be psychosis. You could be king of everything, or a tiny grain of sand. You are still living with your brain.

  3. Glenda permalink
    May 11, 2013 9:01 pm

    My condolences to his family: I love his music “God will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away. These words are faithful and true.” Rev. 21:4,5 ❤

  4. November 22, 2013 7:03 pm

    Yea my favorite album was live to it seem as if my cousin roberta kept him calm and tried to keep him safe but god only knows what happen peace be with his family and God bless

  5. Dylan permalink
    March 14, 2016 7:17 pm

    If you want proof that demons exist just go out on a balcony on a high floor anywhere in the world, you will feel the urge to jump, it is the easiest way to prove the existence of demons. Almost anyone can fall prey to death this way as it takes no special thing to die this way as all you have to do is jump, that is why Demons like it so much as the possibility of survival is 0 but the ease of inciting it to happen is basically the easiest method. This also happens in subways. I force myself to stand at the wall or at least 15 feet back when a subway comes, and I never go out anywhere near the edge of apt balconies or windows one can jump out of. So I don’t make any judgements that he wanted to kill himself, if you fall into a daydream state even for a couple seconds demons can easily take advantage of it if you are on a balcony high up.

    • Anon permalink
      February 12, 2018 10:19 am

      This is not proof demons exist at all. It is mental illness. It is actually pretty well understood, though there is a lot to go. If you suffer from psychosis and your brain is crumbling, it would be only logical that you might be inclined to do something like that. If we used demons as an excuse then so many people would not be alive today, including some people who I know.

  6. October 5, 2016 6:35 pm

    The only talent I’ve ever compared to the Genius Stevie Wonder…Loved dancing to Everything is Everything, the Ghetto, etc. at the University of Buffalo way back in the day…RIP my brother

  7. November 30, 2016 6:52 am

    I don’t believe Donny committed suicide. A person with that much talent could always find refuge in their talents. I don’t have half the talent he had but nothing can shake me because I always have my talents to lean on. I think he was murdered as he was found fully clothed including, coat, shoes, gloves and hat. Someone that ill would not think of getting fully dressed to fly out of a window. It seemed as if he had planned to take the stairs but he never made it. He also told friends that “white” people were trying to kill him. I would guess that he meant the doctors were trying to kill him with medication. He was right if that were the case, the frankenstein treatments back then were dangerous and could have caused him to commit suicide. He should’ve never taken there drugs. It’s better to die healthy. What about the four glasses that were found in his room on the day of his murder. Who used them? I guess we’ll never find out but we can learn from it. Don’t ever trust anybody or anything when you are famous and talented. Always carry a gun or two…

    • anaj permalink
      October 28, 2017 4:55 pm

      You obviously don’t understand mental illness, not everything is a conspiracy.

    • Jay Byrd permalink
      November 19, 2018 5:13 pm

      I agree. I believe the music industry killed him like so many others🙁

  8. billvillbill permalink
    December 9, 2016 4:35 pm

    RIp brother i love you

  9. Tina permalink
    December 26, 2016 10:55 am

    With all due respect Ira Ward, you have no knowledge of mental illness. Please educate yourself on the MEDICAL condition that Mr. Hathaway was in before casting ignorant opinions. He was a great talent and gone too soon… mental illness was purely to blame.

  10. Lenora Payne permalink
    March 23, 2017 9:54 am

    I pray that his soul is in heaven. I have a cousin who has been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. I’ve never known her to talk about or attempt suicide bit, the voices in her head she hears, the mood swings, the violent acts on her mother and myself, I know all too well, and the depression. So it wouldn’t surprise me if it was suicide because to be mentally ill that way has got to be very frustrating. And it may seem to someone suffering with the illness that death would release them from the hell that they are going through, unfortunately. I’ve always felt heartbroken over his death, he was such a talented soul and my very favorite song of his to this day will forever be “This Christmas”. Every year around that time I so oak forward to hearing that song. I can listen to it over and over. (All year long I play it actually). And the Whispers did a fabulous song for him, A Song For Donnie. We truly do miss him. May his soul rest in peace and may he continue to sing his heart all in Heaven. Gone too, too soon.
    R.I.P Donnie Hathaway. You are loved and missed

  11. June 5, 2017 8:33 pm

    We do know this that Almighty God whatever name you might call Him know what truly happen rather it was murder or suicide God will judge each of us in the end. Amen

  12. Jakpovi permalink
    October 3, 2017 5:35 am

    Only heaven knows how he died. Maybe he was murdered or he fell or yes, demons may have urged him on to jump – feeling bad that the rehearsal was called off because of his behaviour. Remember, even Jesus Christ was challenged by satan to jump. Dylan may be right, because I have thought about this may have happened to him. He was so vulnerable and so, someone should have been with him and not left him alone. The songs “giving up so hard to do” and “I hear voices” may be linked to the struggle he was going through which finally overwhelm him.

    Also, remember back then black singers exploited and if they become too smart, they were extinct. Up till now, there is still clouds over the death of Sam Cooke.

    To me, Donny will ever be the best singer ever lived or will live. I am certain, he has found rest in God.

  13. Christie Shell permalink
    October 29, 2019 10:02 pm

    Such talent, gone way too soon. I can’t help But think this too was a sacrifice, and his mental condition had Nothing to do with it. I’ve read Enough “stories” of how celebs “took their own lives”. I see how it works in the entertainment industry, people are used, abused, then once they’re done with you, it’s time for someone else to come up, and for you to step down, and before you know it, it “was suicide”. I love the music but can’t stand the game. I see what’s Really going on in cruel, cold, and absolutely wicked world…rest your soul Mr. Hathaway…respect.

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