Roberta Flack - Biography
By the end of 1971, singer-pianist Roberta Flack had recorded three critically-acclaimed albums for Atlantic Records: First Take (1970), Chapter Two (1970), and Quiet Fire (1971). Each contained a smattering of socially conscious tunes (such as “Go Up Moses” from Quiet Fire, which she co-wrote with producer Joel Dorn and the Reverend Jesse Jackson) and a larger amount of gentle ballads sung in velvety alto tones at the type of ultra-slow tempos associated with such jazz cult favorites as Shirley Horn and Jimmy Scott. Flack’s own cult had become nationwide, especially among jazz fans and college students, and she began to attract a degree of mainstream attention when “You’ve Got a Friend,” a duet with former Howard University classmate Donny Hathaway, reached No. 8 on Billboard’s R&B chart earlier in 1971, although their treatment of the Carole King composition was undercut in the pop market by James Taylor’s concurrent version.
First Take, Flack’s January 1970 debut release, had included a haunting rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” a ballad written by Scottish folksinger Ewan MacColl for his wife, American vocalist Peggy Seeger. Actor Clint Eastwood, making his debut as a director, used Flack’s treatment of the tune to underscore a romantic scene between himself and Donna Mills in the motion picture Play Misty for Me, released in November 1971. The psychological thriller’s massive box-office success led many fans to record stores in search of Flack’s album. Atlantic then trimmed down the track by 66 seconds from its original LP length of five minutes, 21 seconds, and issued it as a 45. The single topped Billboard’s pop chart for six weeks in the spring of 1972, propelling the more-than-two-year-old album to the peak of the trade publication’s album chart. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” won Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year and established Flack, at age 33, as a major star.
Flack was born on February 10, 1939, in Ashville, North Carolina, and raised in Arlington, Virginia. Although she attended the local AME Zion Church as a child, she was particularly taken with the less-subdued gospel music of such stars as Mahalia Jackson and the Soul Stirrers featuring Sam Cooke that she heard at a Baptist church down the street. She was a fast learner. She began talking piano lessons at nine and, at 13, replaced her mother as organist at AME Zion. Also at 13, she won second place in a statewide competition for African American students with a performance of a sonata by Scarlatti. She graduated high school at 15 and began attending Howard on a full music scholarship. After graduating at 19 with a bachelor’s degree in education, she took a job teaching music, math, and English in Farmville, North Carolina, to high school students, some of whom were older than herself. She returned to DC after a year and taught at several junior highs for the next four years.
By 1962, the diminutive (5’2”) classically-trained pianist was moonlighting at the posh Tivoli restaurant as an accompanist to strolling opera singers. During intermissions, she sang and played a mixture of blues, folk, pop, and jazz songs. More prestigious gigs followed at such local night spots as the 1520 Club and Mr. Henry’s, where the owners built a special upstairs area for her. Flack’s audiences there would come to include such luminaries as Woody Allen, Burt Bacharach, Bill Cosby, Ramsey Lewis, Liberace, and Johnny Mathis, some of whom sat in. In the summer of 1968, Les McCann was in a Washington audience at a benefit concert for the Inner City Ghetto Children’s Library Fund. The jazz pianist and sometime singer was so taken with Flack’s performance that he signed on as her manager and introduced her to Joel Dorn, his producer at Atlantic. Her audition for Dorn lasted three hours, during which she rendered 42 songs from her club repertoire, including “The First Time Ever I Say Your Face.”
The belated success of that song was quickly followed by another duet with Hathaway. “Where Is the Love” had been written by Ralph MacDonald and William Slater with the Fifth Dimension in mind, but MacDonald, who was playing percussion on a session for the Flack and Hathaway’s first album together, brought it to Dorn and co-producer Arif Mardin’s attention. The single hit the top of the R&B chart and won a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal by a Duo. It also went Gold, as did the album Roberta Flack& Donny Hathaway (1972 Atlantic). Flack’s next solo single was “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox for, and first recorded by, vocalist Lori Lieberman under the title “Killing Me Softly with His Blues.” Flack’s revamp of the tune spent five weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart in early 1973, and her album Killing Me Softly peaked at No. 3. The LP sold more than two million copies and stands as her biggest-selling album. Like “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “Killing Me Softly with Your Song” won Grammys for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. Flack also won a 1973 Grammy for Best Pop Vocal. The next year, she found herself at the top of three Billboard charts -- pop, R&B, and AC -- with the rumba-flavored “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” a number written by her frequent associate, early-‘60s pop singing star Eugene McDaniels. The song, which also appeared on an album of the same title, was produced by the singer herself under the thinly veiled pseudonym “Rubina Flake.”
After a three-year hiatus from recording, Flack re-emerged in late 1977 with the album Blue Lights in the Basement (Atlantic) containing the No. 1 R&B hit “The Closer I Get to You.” Written by guitarist Reggie Lucas and percussionist James Mtume, members of her band at the time, it was her first duet with Hathaway in six years. The emotionally troubled Hathaway was hospitalized at the time and received a temporary discharge to do the session. In 1980, while the two singers were working on what was intended to be their second full album of duets, Hathaway ended his life by jumping from the 15th floor of a New York City hotel. The LP, issued by Atlantic in 1980 as Roberta Flack featuring Donny Hathaway, contained two completed duets, of which the Lucas-Mtume-penned “Back Together Again” peaked at No. 8 R&B.
During the early 1980s, Flack found another duet partner in Hathaway-influenced vocalist Peabo Bryson. The most successful of their series of duets was the No. 5 R&B single “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love,” on which Bryson sounded more like Johnny Mathis than Hathaway. The song, written by Michael Masser and Gerry Goffin, was included on the album Born to Love (1983 Capitol). It was the second of two albums with Bryson. A year earlier, Flack made a solo album for Atlantic titled I’m the One. It was her most subdued outing to date and yielded the No. 7 AC, No. 13 pop hit “Making Love,” written and produced by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager.
After making guest appearances on two tracks of alto saxophonist Sadao Watanabe’s album Rendezvous (1983 Elektra) and singing “Goodbye Sadness” on Yoko Ono’s rare limited edition double album Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him: A Tribute to the Life and Times of John Lennon (1984 MJI Broadcasting), Flack returned to Atlantic in 1985 with “People on a String” from the White Nights soundtrack and the following year made a single version of “We Shall Overcome” to commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Finally, in 1988, the singer cut another complete album for the company, Oasis. The African-spiced title track, produced and co-written by bassist Marcus Miller and featuring an alto saxophone solo by David Sanborn, became Flack’s fourth R&B chart-topper, although it didn’t even dent the pop Hot 100. The album also included “And So It Goes,” written by Flack in collaboration with poet Maya Angelou and producer Barry Miles. The singer returned to the pop chart for the first time in seven years with 1991’s “Set the Night to Music,” a duet with reggae vocalist Maxi Priest that climbed to No. 6 but only as high as No. 45 on the R&B chart.
Other Flack albums include Set the Night to Music (Atlantic 1991), a collection of pop, R&B, and blues standards titled Roberta (Atlantic 1994), the Christmas set Holiday (2003 Punahele Productions), and At Her Best — Live (2008 Immortal). In 2006, Rhino issued a 17-song retrospective of Flack’s work spanning 1970 through 1988. The Very Best of Roberta Flack includes all her major hits, several album tracks, and “Tradewinds,” the poignant MacDonald-Slater-composed B-side of “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” and in 2012 released Let It Be Roberta: Roberta Flack sings The Beatles.