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Roberta Flack

+ {Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway} + {Roberta Flack & Peabo Bryson}

Drawing a line through 60s soul divas ARETHA FRANKLIN, NINA SIMONE and GLADYS KNIGHT, the classy, cool and contemporary ROBERTA FLACK was the 1970s equivalent as she breezed through three of the decade’s finest works of art (and chart-toppers!), `The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, `Killing Me Softly With His Song’ and `Feel Like Makin’ Love’ – the first of these a near cutting-room floor smoocher from the 1971 movie, Play Misty For Me. And who could forget her urbane MOR ballads with DONNY HATHAWAY? Not Roberta, who struck up a long-term professional partnership with the smooth soul singer until he took his own life early in 1979.
Born Roberta Cleopatra Flack, February 10, 1939 (or 1937?), Black Mountain, North Carolina, she was raised in Arlington, Virginia as the daughter of a church organist. She learned piano from an early age and went on to study music at Washington DC’s Howard University, where the aforementioned future collaborator DONNY HATHAWAY was one of her classmates.
After graduation she began carving out a career in teaching before Hammond organ maestro and innovative jazz-funk artist, LES McCANN, discovered her singing in a club and duly recommended her to Atlantic Records head honcho, Ahmet Ertegun. Her label chose to issue a GENE McDANIELS composition, `Compared To What’ (flipped with LEONARD COHEN’s `Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’) as a single from her debut album, FIRST TAKE (1969) {*9}. The LP sold moderately at first; thought of a soul record closer to folk or light jazz. Indeed, with lounge-like singer Roberta on piano, accompanied by bassist Ron Carter, drummer Ray Lucas, guitarist John Pizzarelli and background string arrangements from William Fischer, it was clear to see why. Among two works that had a collaborative HATHAWAY stamp of approval (not composed with Roberta one might add), was the classic EWAN MacCOLL-penned `The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, belatedly chosen by actor/director and jazz-buff Clint Eastwood to complement a love scene to the aforesaid film, Play Misty For Me. Edited to four minutes from its 5:22 on the original LP (and twinned with a fresh song, `Trade Winds’), it steadily climbed to the top of the charts the following spring, and stayed there for 6 weeks.
Back in summer 1970, FLACK was still only playing a bit part in shaping the R&B-tinged jazz-soul scene, although her sophomore set, the aptly-titled CHAPTER TWO {*7}, edged her into the lower end of the charts; Top 40 on her breakthrough cinematic success. Gifted with an alluringly rich vocal range that could adapt to anything thrown her way, she slid effortlessly into contemporary mode for DYLAN’s `Just Like A Woman’, JIMMY WEBB’s `Do What You Gotta Do’ and BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE’s `Until It’s Time For You To Go’.
At her most effective interpreting the balladry of singer/songwriters, Roberta’s cover of CAROLE KING’s `You’ve Got A Friend’ was the first of many hit duets with HATHAWAY and became her first Top 30 one as JAMES TAYLOR sat atop the chart with his version of the same song; their second duet, `You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’ (a hit several years ago for The RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS) didn’t quite come up to scratch, although a Top 75 place was promising.
Producer Joe Dorn was also behind Roberta’s third album. QUIET FIRE (1971) {*5} was wearing thin the template of her previous records, but nevertheless it was pushed up into the Top 20 on the back of her spring 1972 resurgence; “First Take” reached No.1 and so on. FLACK had her inaugural writing credit on opener `Go Up Moses’ (albeit shared alongside Jesse Jackson and Dorn), whilst the others stemmed from GOFFIN-KING (`Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’), PAUL SIMON (`Bridge Over Troubled Water’), The BEE GEES (`To Love Somebody’), JIMMY WEBB (`See You Then’) and others not so identifiable.
Later that same year a whole album’s worth of R&D collaborations reached the Top 3. The eponymous ROBERTA FLACK & DONNY HATHAWAY {*7} was a sumptuous surrender of songs; a few even spawned from the pair themselves: `Be Real Black For Me’ and `Mood’. If Roberta had her Quiet Fire, then the pairing was surely the “quiet storm” for the pure soul aficionado; the Top 5 `Where Is The Love’ oozed sensuality over unnecessary re-treads of their previous duet hits, which actually sat well within the context of staples, `I (Who Have Nothing)’ and `For All We Know’.
Influenced by both jazz and classical music, FLACK’s cool, measured, but often spine-tingling vocal cords were tailor-made for 1973’s `Killing Me Softly With His Song’, a Fox & Gimbel-scribed track (inspired by DON McLEAN’s `Empty Chairs’) that furnished her with a second No.1 and established her as one of America’s most elegant and eloquent soul singers. The opening salvo from the Top 3 KILLING ME SOFTLY {*7}, there were also sentimental and stylish renditions of JANIS IAN’s `Jesse’ (another home-soil hit) and LEONARD COHEN’s `Suzanne’ (the latter clocking in at nearly 10 minutes!).
In summer ’74, FLACK secured her third No.1 with `Feel Like Makin’ Love’, but somehow months were wasted before its parent Top 30 LP, also entitled FEEL LIKE MAKIN’ LOVE (1975) {*6}, stocked the shops. Produced by Rubina Flake (aka Roberta), her choice to overwhelm the set with either GENE McDANIELS, Stuart Scharf and the combo of Ralph McDonald & Walter Salters songs was somewhat off the mark; and with a stellar, near 13-minute reading of STEVIE WONDER’s `I Can See The Sun In Late December’, she’d given her backing band a bone to chew. 1975 also found FLACK guesting on BOB DYLAN’s “Rolling Thunder” revue at a special benefit night for the unjustly imprisoned (and duly bailed and released) boxer, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
The ensuing two years saw Roberta teaching music to disadvantaged kids before returning to the chart spotlight with the 1977-released BLUE LIGHTS IN THE BASEMENT {*6} album. Produced by Ertegun and keeping it strictly unfettered by excessive self-indulgence, the highlight was undoubtedly her near No.1 duet with HATHAWAY: `The Closer I Get To You’, whilst there not much wrong with the safe, soft-rock of McDaniels’ `Why Don’t You Move In With Me’. As new wave times engulfed MOR/AOR artists by the bargain-bin-load, Atlantic Records were shocked when her eponymous ROBERTA FLACK (1978) {*4} hit a lowly #74 place, having spawned the Top 30 `If Ever I See You Again’ (also from the film of the same name composed by its director/producer Joe Brooks).
Roberta was duly dealt a severe blow early the following year (January 13 to be precise) with the suicide of DONNY HATHAWAY; the posthumous album they’d been working on together – containing minor hits `You Are My Heaven’ and `Back Together Again’ – ROBERTA FLACK FEATURING DONNY HATHAWAY {*5} saw the light of day in March 1980. She eventually found a new singing partner in the shape of PEABO BRYSON with whom she cut a concert double album later in 1980, LIVE & MORE {*5}, and went on to work with him regularly throughout the decade; one of their duets, `Tonight, I Celebrate My Love’ (from 1983’s BORN TO LOVE {*5}), gave FLACK a now rare British hit (No.2) in summer ’83, having already hit the Top 20 on home soil.
Coming on the back of the said collaborative live album, BUSTIN’ LOOSE (1981) {*4}, held over much of the same personnel – MARCUS MILLER, LUTHER VANDROSS et al – and at least some of the bloodlessness. Peabo got his oar in on `Ballad For D’, an apparent tribute to FLACK’s previous singing partner, HATHAWAY, but one couldn’t help wondering why the lady herself didn’t get a chance to invest it with some genuine emotion. Ace Brazilian percussionist Dom Um Romao also gleaned a credit, making his influence felt on `Qual E Malindrinho (Why Are You So Bad)’ – if one thought there’d be FLACK practising her Portuguese, then forget it, it was a fusion-friendly instrumental. The cheesy but infectious `Children’s Song’, was probably the most engaging track on the whole album, if only because it belonged to the previous decade (feelgood shades of STEVIE WONDER) rather than the one facing her. FLACK was always a smooth operator but the oil-slick arrangements she embraced in the late 70s neutralised much of that congenial melancholy. At least she still had a hand in most of the writing, contributing the sentimental main theme, `Just When I Needed You’, and ghosting back in time, framing her cultured tones with the almost ABBA-esque acoustic guitar and strings of `Love (Always Commands)’. She threatened to get earthier on the flip side’s `Hittin’ Me Where It Hurts’, but the passion just wasn’t there.
1982’s I’M THE ONE {*5} suffered in its wake, though there were bright spots in accompanying hits, `Making Love’ (#13) and the title track (#42).
Notable by her chart absence for the remainder of the decade, FLACK continued to play benefit gigs and often performed with full orchestras. While she did chalk up an R&B No.1 in 1988 with the self-produced/half-penned OASIS {*5}, and from it a choice title track cut with Marcus (and one with ASHFORD & SIMPSON: `Uh-Uh Ooh-Ooh Look Out (Here It Comes)’), her commercial appeal had waned in her almost 7-year absence.
Nevertheless, 1991 was a time to regain some momentum when the title piece to SET THE NIGHT TO MUSIC {*5} hit the Top 10 for the unusual combination of FLACK and reggae star MAXI PRIEST. On the back of a Japanese-only STOP THE WORLD {*4} in ’92, her final album for Atlantic, ROBERTA (1994) {*5}, failed to win over soul, jazz and AOR fans, and that looked to be that for the lady.
This decade had seen her regularly appearing on the annual “Colors Of Christmas” US tour, while the 1996 success of FUGEES’ version of `Killing Me Softly’ sparked renewed interest in her work; the release therefore of a festive set, THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM (1997) {*4} was somewhat underwhelming; as was the Taiwan-only FRIENDS: ROBERTA FLACK SINGS MARIKO TAKAHASHI (1999) {*4} and the long-awaited LET IT BE ROBERTA: Roberta Flack Sings The Beatles (2012) {*4}.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS // rev-up MCS Oct2016

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