Bass Transcription: Donny Hathaway – What’s Going On

The opening track from Donny’s 1972 Live album, ‘What’s Going On’ was one of several cover versions that appeared on the record along with Carole King’s ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ and John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’. Whilst Live is much lauded by bassists for Willie Weeks’ standout solo on ‘Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything)’, the entire album is a masterclass in supportive R&B bass playing and has been frequently cited by many prominent musicians and bassists as having a profound influence on them.

Donny Hathaway’s take on one of Marvin Gaye’s most iconic songs retains the swung 16th feel of the original but adds several unison rhythmic accents and extends the original harmony, betraying Hathaway’s jazz influences.

Willie Weeks is faced with the daunting task of committing to tape his version of James Jamerson’s greatest bass lines and somehow manages to pay homage to aspects of the original part whilst still stamping his own style on every note. As with Jamerson, the movement within Weeks’ lines is built using a mixture of chord tones and chromatic approach notes combined using varied permutations of semiquaver and quaver rhythms.

There’s a play-along video for the transcription here:

The bass enters in the fourth bar, playing a rapid-fire fill in unison with Hathaway’s electric piano. Willie Weeks then quotes Jamerson’s original line for 3 bars before another quick fill into a passing B7 chord – this harmonic device of adding additional dominant chords to briefly create tension happens throughout the song: a C#7 appears four bars into the prechorus to strengthen the change to the F#m7, E7sus is used in the first bridge section to break up 8 bars that would otherwise consist of nothing but A minor.

Donny Hathaway – What’s Going On bass transcription

This concept is taken a step further in the second bridge section, where we have a bar consisting of ii-Vs moving chromatically down by a semitone – Bm7 to E7 followed by Bbm7 to Eb7, again used to create tension before resolving back to the A minor vamp. During this extended bridge/outro section the entire band has freedom to ‘stretch out’ and Willie Weeks is no exception, embellishing his lines beyond Jamerson’s original part that he plays during the first bridge section of the song.