On Donny Hathaway’s “She is My Lady”

Today’s post comes from Emily J. Lordi, author of the just-released 33 1/3 volume on Donny Hathaway’s Donny Hathaway Live. In this piece, Lordi discusses Hathaway’s 1971 song “She is My Lady,” a track she does not explore in her new book.

The love of music and the love of black people are Donny Hathaway’s two great themes. The first is clear in songs like “I Believe in Music,” but also in the passion and care with which Hathaway sings a lyric, reinvents someone else’s song, and cheers on every member of his band. Similarly, you hear his love of black people not only in “message songs” like his version of Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted and Black” and his duet with Roberta Flack, “Be Real Black for Me.” It’s also in the soul talk of “Sugar Lee,” in his celebration of “The Ghetto,” in his call-and-response with his fans. These moments attest that, for Hathaway, blackness was music. The reverse was also true. As he told an interviewer in 1973, “American music is Black music… in form, melodic line, rhythm, tonal color. You name it, it’s Black!” His entire body of work was like the slogan “Black is Beautiful” in musical form.

In 1971, he recorded a song called “She is My Lady.” Although it is not about politics, its stable and stirring refrain can be heard to address the anxieties of the Black Power era and the “law and order” Nixon years—what Hathaway himself called “Trying Times.” The song was written by George S. Clinton, Jr. and arranged by Arif Mardin, who builds it piece by piece: solo piano and voice, then trumpet, cymbals, strings, and softly humming backup singers: I’ve learned to live for the sound of her laughter / Her sunny smile is my only light / To love her now is the sole thing that I’m after / I’ll make her melody my life.

Slowly, we approach the woman who changes everything. The strings tremble in her presence, the drums gain momentum, and everybody bursts into song: Ohhhh, she is my lady, I’m a witness to the wonder of her ways! No fewer than nine singers are credited on this track, including such well-known artists as Cissy Houston and Myrna Smith. They join Hathaway in pronouncing his lover the solitary reason for my days—but in so doing, they round out his world, give him a community of witnesses. Hathaway is saying that his lover is all he’s got, but the choir is signaling an expansive love, one that makes the world feel at once vast and secure. The refrain itself feels like that, as Hathaway leaps to the third of the chord on the “oh” but lands right in his vocal sweet spot. It’s such a simple way to begin—“oh”—and the harmony and lyrics stay simple. But you can’t wait to hear that refrain again—and, when it comes, like the lady herself, it sounds like an answered prayer.

The good news only gets better—exultant strings, elaborate counterpoint, busy electric guitar. Hathaway plays one of his favorite gospel licks at the 3:10 mark: a pattern of descending eighth notes that creates tension by starting on the flatted seventh before resolving down to the sixth. That anticipation of resolution moves the song on every level. In an era of great uncertainty, of black empowerment and anti-black violence, songs like this one brought listeners an unusual reassurance: not just the hope, but the knowledge that something good was on its way. That’s why the wordless bridge yields this plain declaration: “I don’t have to worry.” The song is a musical manifestation of faith.

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