ROBERTA FLACK & DONNY HATHAWAY / “I (Who Have Nothing)”
“I can only watch you with / my nose pressed up against the window pane.” Does love really conquer all? If you ask Ben E. King, it’s questionable. This is the begging song to end all begging songs. In this corner, a somebody with everything; in that corner, a nobody with nothing. Who wins? The song doesn’t tell us but the statement of the loser’s case is undeniably one of the more moving pleas in the annals of throwing oneself on the mercy of the court of love, which, by the way, is one of the hardest courts in the land. With this song, it’s not just the lyrics. The melody, with its wonderful, soaring lines, tip-toes to the edge of melodrama, not to mention the way Ben E. King uses those strings as an ominous portent of the hard-luck tale to come. But then Luther Vandross chooses to cross over to big production country. He offers a mesmerizing performance supported by orchestration at the highest level. Martha Wash seconds Luther in their duet and she does some inspired crooning. Rather than simply worry a note, Martha swoops with crystal-clear phrases that make us marvel at the elegance of her voice. I’m conflicted by Luther’s version. It sounds too good for the tale it’s telling, too rich—much, much too rich—even though it is undeniably an admirable rendition. But now you take Roberta and Donny. Well, this is the definitive reading precisely because it’s blues based. Even though it has strings, it’s taken at a funeral pace. This version is clearly about loss; there is no redemption implied. Rather than beautiful voices, these are tortured crooners moaning about a fate worse than death. I have always liked this song. I like all three versions. But I could listen to Roberta and Donny all night long, especially on one of those too frequent New Orleans evenings when the water or the lights or the gas or whatever goes out and nothing seems to be working right. “I (Who Have Nothing).” I heard that! —Kalamu ya Salaam
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