Flack and Hathaway were both solo artists on the Atlantic roster who'd enjoyed critical acclaim, but Flack had enjoyed limited commercial success. Both were graduates of Howard University, although Flack's attendance there pre-dated Hathaway's, the two singers' careers had overlapped: Flack had included Hathaway compositions on her First Take and Chapter Two albums with the latter also featuring Hathaway as pianist, arranger and background vocalist. It was Jerry Wexler who suggested a joint venture might consolidate Flack and Hathaway's popularity.
The first single from Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway was a version of "You've Got a Friend" recorded before the single release of the James Taylor version: both tracks debuted on the Hot 100 dated 29 May 1971 — marking Flack's first chart appearance — and, although Taylor's version reached #1, the Flack/Hathaway duet ascended as high as #29 and was a top ten R&B hit at #8. (The B-side, "Gone Away," was a Chapter Two track written by Hathaway.)
Although Hathaway had enjoyed more solo success than had Flack prior to their teaming up, his subsequent solo career was desultory, with no high-profile success prior to his re-teaming with Flack for "The Closer I Get to You" in 1978. Hathaway had recorded two songs for a second duet album with Flack — that became the Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway album — at the time of his death on 13 January 1979.