lalah hathaway (troubador live recording)

*Standing before the Troubadour on a chilly Spring April 21st evening, the memories immediately come rushing back.

Rock journals, when documenting the legendary West Hollywood 400-capicity nightclub’s illustrious history, wax profusely about Elton John playing his first American concerts here and the early performances of  legends James Taylor, the Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Jackson Browne.

Black acts aren’t mentioned much.  But as a fledgling music journalist in the 1970s, I saw plenty of them here.  A post-“Super Fly” Curtis Mayfield.  Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. He could play a set of some seriously inspired jazz, go out into the bar area and visit with buddies, then perform a second set as if it required no thought whatsoever.

In ’75, soul/funk singer,songwriter D.J. Rogers nearly burned the club down with show-stopping, break-down-inside–the-break-down renditions of his popular soul ballad, “Say You Love Me” and the heart breaking “Bula Jean.”

And I can’t forget one evening in 1976 when  photographer Bobby Holland and myself, both working for Soul Newspaper, met with Michael Henderson in his suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The R&B crooner, songwriter and bassist who wrote and sang “You Are My Starship” and “Valentine Love” was playing the Troubadour in an hour or so, but was more excited about a sexy, sophisticated ballad he’d just recorded in Detroit, titled “At The Concert.”

The production, which Henderson ended up cutting as a duet  with Roberta Flack, had everything but vocals. He proudly played it for us on his ghetto blaster while  getting dressed  for his show.

Cleaner than the Board of Health in a gray three piece suit, Henderson then phoned the club and asked for his bandleader, Motown saxophonist Eli Fontaine (that’s him opening Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”).

“Y’all started yet?” Yes. The band was on stage playing, and Fontaine, now that he’d heard from Michael, was about to join them. “Cool. I’m on my way.”

Bobby drove as we raced the short distance to the Troubadour ahead of Henderson’s limo, parked and dashed in  just in time to see the tall, lean star, having entered through the club’s  rear entrance, coolly stroll onto the stage,  pick up the mic and  sing.

Yes, great, rich remembrances. And, under the iconic blue lit Troubadour sign, I’ve the presentiment that I am in for more memory making.

Because tonight, Lalah Hathaway’s name is on the marquee. The vocalist/songwriter is not simply performing; tonight, the celebrated artist dares treks the path of sacred recording history.

More than four decades earlier, August 1971, Lalah’s dad, the great singer, songwriter, keyboardist Donny Hathaway, recorded performances here and at New York City’s Bitter End. The best takes from both club engagements became the landmark 1972 Atlantic release, Donny Hathaway Live.

In an all too brief life and career that included classics “Where Is The Love” and “The Closer I Get To You” (duets with Roberta Flack); a handful of albums, among them the reaching, seminal Extension Of A Man, Live, featuring a tour-de-force version of “The Ghetto,” was both a watershed moment for Donny and one of the greatest live recordings in modern music.

When I was 15, I caught Donny’s performance of the musical set that would become that Live album when Mr. Hathaway and the same personnel on the album, save a member or two, played the Oklahoma City Civic Center. My cousin, Charlotte Lewis, took me.

It being late December 1970—there was snow on the ground–Hathaway also performed his new song, which black radio had just started playing, “This Christmas.”

For any other R&B artist of her generation, recording at the Troubadour would be deemed a clichéd attempt to exploit a legacy. For Lalah, however, recording at the club is a musical birthright.

Gary Taylor invited me here. The singer, songwriter, producer texted me the week before: “Lalah is asking me which set do I want to see at the Troubadour Tuesday night.  You down?” Yes. I’m in need of some great music and inspired performances and…distraction from what is going on in this country.   I don’t know if Hathaway can fulfill my need, but I am so open.  Hell yes.

To Taylor, Lalah is like a little sister. She was barely an adult, still studying at the Berklee School of Music, when he wrote and produced for her 1990 debut Virgin Records album the ethereal ballad, “I’m Coming Back.”  It has since become a staple of her career.

Another ballad, “Good Love,” Taylor also wrote for Hathaway. She recorded a demo of the song; Gary and I used to cruise L.A, intoxicating ourselves by playing it over and over. When Virgin balked on Lalah cutting two Taylor songs for her album (could have had something to do with the label dropping Taylor after his one album there, 1988’s Compassion), Gary’s cousin, the late, venerable Skip Scarborough–who’d just finished writing for Baker the song “Giving You The Best That I’ve Got” (among Scarborough’s  writing credits: The Friends of Distinction’s “Love Or Let Me Be Lonely”, L.T.D.’s “Love Ballad”, The Creative Source/Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love,” Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day”)–urged Gary to get “Good Love” to Anita Baker. Scarborough and Warner/Chappell Music publishing executive Rochelle Fields were instrumental in Baker hearing the song and recording it.

Today, Baker and Hathaway are dear friends, but   years before Anita actually met Lalah, she met her voice. At a Hollywood studio with Taylor, Baker, after expressing her love for “Good Love” and the rich contralto voice on the demo, asked Taylor, “Baby, who is the man singing?”

“That’s not a man,”  replied Taylor. “That’s Lalah Hathaway,  she’s a daughter of Donny.”

“What? That’s a woman?” Anita was stunned. “Well, honey, if I ever meet her, I’m going to have her open her mouth wide so I see what’s in her throat!”

We’re here almost an hour ahead of the second show, the one we’re to attend, yet people are already arriving to wait in line for it.   Singer/songwriter Siedah Garrett, who wrote Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror,” and her man, music executive Eric Nuri, exit the club. They have a previous engagement, Nuri tells me, otherwise they’d still be in there digging the music.

As they walk away,  a handsome, sturdy gentleman named Jermaine who seems to be in charge, greets us with orange plastic VIP bracelets. He’s fastening mine to my wrist when he says, almost to himself, “You know what….you guys might as well get some of this first show….C’mon.”

We follow him in and are immediately hit by a wave of music and the collective kinetic energy of a standing-room-only crowd entranced with what they are experiencing.

For all its musical legend, the Troubadour is not a glamorous venue. Wood and more wood.  Upstairs, we find a place to stand  in the balcony  overlooking the main floor. In the festive dimness, Mr. EURWEB, Lee Bailey, dapper in black, greets me with a nudge in my back.

Standing center stage in a colorful dress, a square of shag carpet under her bare feet,  Lalah, before a ten-member ensemble,  is in the middle of “A Song For You.” Written and recorded in 1970 by Leon Russell and subsequently many others, Donny Hathaway made it his in  1971,  via  a dramatic arrangement  to which  Lalah is faithful, hitting all the vocal nuances fans of Donny are familiar with. Indeed,   these two sets, being taped for DVD by a five camera crew, are as much tribute to Daddy Hathaway as Lalah’s own musical growth.

Heir to soul royalty but also a child of jazz, hip hop and neo-soul, Lalah used to be reticent about performing her father’s works and arrangements—though performing them occasionally–for fear of being lost in his shadow.

However, a decade-plus of doing her own thing—albums and collaborations with artists as disparate as Joe Sample, Marcus Miller, George Benson, Al Jarreau and the musical collective Snarky Puppy (her rip-roaring performance of Brenda Russell’s “Something” is just that)– finds Lalah softening her stance. Tonight, she performs wonderful renditions of Donny songs, including the hopeful “Little Ghetto Boy” and the tender “You Were Meant For Me,” as well as “Where Is The Love” and “The Closer I Get To You,” the latter two, Hathaway  sings with background vocalist Vula Malinga.

Lalah’s musical instincts–her artful, soulful ad-libs, exhilarating improvisational skills (showcased this night during her bracing scatting on “Something”); her highs, funky middle and smoky lows; that spirit-quaking moan that rides up the spine and a vibrato so strong  a human being could walk on it,  not to mention a vocal trick that sounds as if she is harmonizing with herself—all reflect her evolution and maturation into one of the best singers recording and performing today. That, and her quiet assurance and down home charm has this eager audience in the palm of her hand. They are talking to her, agreeing with her, urging her on.

When she begins Luther Vandross’ expansive “Forever, For Always For Love,” the house audibly melts. A Lalah Hathaway  favorite, the song  perfectly accommodates  her warm vocal tone and pragmatic, understated stylizations. Vandross himself used to refer to young singers’ excessive vocal acrobatics as “yodeling.” Lalah, like Donny and Vandross, uses her superpowers for good, never overwhelming an arrangement simply for the hell of it.

However, vocally she can run her ass off, and when it makes artistic sense, she does. Occasionally,   to illustrate her vocal verve, Lalah executes a flurry of vocal gymnastics that sends the audience into hysterics.

As if there aren’t  enough gifted musicians backing her (Mike Aaberg, Bobby Sparks, Keyboards; Errol Cooney, Jairus Mozee, Guitars; Eric Smith, Bass; Eric Seats, Drums; Lamont Sydnore, Percussion; Jason Morales, Dennis Clark and Vula Malinga,   background Vocals),  the brilliant keyboardist Robert Glasper sits in for a song.  And more than once, Errol Cooney’s guitar blistering solos absolutely  slay.

During the second set, Anita Baker and Patti LaBelle sit on the front row of the balcony. Clearly having a great ol’ time, when Lalah does something particularly ridiculous, the two laugh and shake their heads in disbelief.  Hathaway acknowledges her two idols  and then launches into an early Baker hit, “Angel.” Everybody  in the place knows the words. Anita stands and looks around the Troubadour, alternately holding her face and head in her hands in amazement.

Lalah sings her own songs—“Baby Don’t Cry,” “I’m Coming Back,” “Just A Little Girl”—and reaches back to old school funk and ballads, including the Gap Band’s “Yearning for Your Love.” By the time the  Earth, Wind & Fire ballad “Love’s Holiday” comes up, this crowd, enraptured,  is in perpetual, euphoric singalong mode.   Hathaway sings: “Would you mind if I touched, if I kissed, if I held you tight, in the morning light, yeah….”  And on cue, replicating Phillip Bailey’s background parts on the song, they respond jubilantly: “Owwwwwwwwww.!!!”

Things are happening in the world. Isis is on the move. The economy is coming back,  but not fast enough for most.  In Baltimore,  two days before Lalah’s show,  Freddie Gray, Jr.  died while in police custody. Hathaway has, if only temporarily, taken us away from our assorted shared woe.   By the time she says good night, none of us wants this to end, including Anita Baker, who, after the house lights come up, takes the stage and instigates an encore.  What is  left of the audience co-signs her wish with cheers.

“And I don’t want nothing to do with it,”  Baker says just off mic,  backing away  as Lalah returns.   Translation: I ain’t singing shit tonight. I’m here to hear this girl.”   Without her band,  Lalah  sings an introspective ballad accompanying herself on electric piano.  And then she is gone.

Not really.  Lalah has given me yet another wonderful  Troubadour memory to hold onto.  And the CD/download/DVD  of it will be available soon. Perhaps I’ll be able to hear myself in the background,  live album style, screaming in delight.

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Steven Ivory

Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]