The first time I heard “A Song for You” sung by anyone was some time in the late Nineties, or it might have been 2000. I’d met some guy at a bar, and the ensuing seduction was a little more dramatic and drawn out than the average hook up. We got to talking about music, and I remember several things about the night. 1) He had a 200-CD changer (something I STILL want, even in the age of iPods), and 2) he played the “Disappearing Acts” soundtrack-a CD that’s probably impossible to find these days, but is a pretty solid mix of modern and classic soul.
Sitting in that darkened apartment, under the influence of a few drinks, was where I first heard Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You”. Of course, I was nowhere near ignorant to Hathaway’s genius. Somehow, I’d just missed this song. And it was one of those experiences that I couldn’t even begin to properly put into words-sitting in that darkened room, eyes closed, listening to one of the greatest voices in history interpreting the words of a great songwriter…if there’s any one instance in my life that I can use as an example of the power of music to directly affect the heart, that would be it.
Written in 1970 by Leon Russell (currently basking in the glow of the success of his album with Elton John entitled “The Union”), “A Song for You” is most closely identified (at least in soul music circles) with Hathaway (whose reading is definitive), but over the course of the past 40 years, it’s become something of a standard. Everyone from Ray Charles to Simply Red to Aretha Franklin has recorded it, and it was a showstopper for Elliott Yamin back during “American Idol”‘s fifth season. Of the many versions I’ve heard, only one gave me pause, and that was Whitney Houston’s aerobicized version as featured on her 2009 album “I Look to You”.
One version I hadn’t investigated until recently was The Carpenters’ version. I grew up with a relative who listened to Lite-FM religiously, and I was also of age for the Karen Carpenter appreciation period of the mid-Nineties, so I’m pretty well acquainted with her voice. It’s amazing how two completely different singers like Donny and Karen can wring such emotion out of a song that wasn’t written by either of them. A true testament to not only the power of a timeless voice, but the power of a perfectly composed song.