As with many other songs, radio d.j. Vin Scelsa introduced me to this some suburban weeknight many years ago while I sat in my basement probably writing a short story or love letter fiddling with the radio to pick up WNEW from New York with the least amount of static. That was the original Leon Russell version; Leon also wrote the song around 1970. (RIP Leon 2016; I saw him do a few songs with Elton John at the Talking Clock Revue show around 2010. He was, let’s say, wooden.)
The original is great but this cover version is better. It feels like it has more risk than Leon’s, more vulnerability. When Leon sings through the character in the song, a rock star who has treated his lover badly but is now going to make it all up to her by pulling out his trusty guitar and singing her a song, there’s something overdetermined about how successful he’ll be. This song would melt anyone into a puddle, and Leon seems aware of that going in. Perhaps he’s even used the same move on other, past lovers who he treated badly.
In Donny’s version you hear pride and the self-aggrandizement in the lyrics (“While you’re considering whether to forgive me don’t forget to factor in that tens of thousands of other people love me”) but also something pleading. It feels like an interaction, not a performance. The voice is pure, the piano glissandos beautiful, the pace slow but it’s a bit of a cover for how hard he’s trying, for how much he knows this matters.
I mean, it’s still a bit overdetermined–you know no one’s going to be able to resist that voice–but Donny manages to convince you he doesn’t know.
Donny Hathaway is a bit of a tragic figure: he had a few solo songs that still get played, neither of which I’m a big fan of (“This Christmas,” “Someday We’ll All Be Free”) and then a few hits with Roberta Flack that I do enjoy, especially “Where Is the Love.” (Fun fact: they met as undergraduates at Howard University.) He was diagnosed in the early seventies with paranoid schizophrenia and heavily medicated off and on, the “off” mostly due to his own neglect. He committed suicide in 1979 by jumping from a hotel balcony. Jesse Jackson presided over his funeral.
Anyway, this song, in either Leon’s or Donny’s or even Andy Williams’s version: guaranteed to quiet a room. That moment at the end when the voice comes back in after the piano solo, “I love you in a place where there’s no space or time”? Sublime.