Roberta Flack’s musical gift to us has spanned more than 5 decades

Howard University was something of a magnet for pianists. 

Young Roberta Cleopatra Flack, born February 10, 1937, in Asheville, North Carolina, was no exception, as detailed in this biography from the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.

Roberta Flack was born into a musical family; her mother was a church organist and her father was a jazz musician. She grew up in Arlington, Virginia and studied classical piano; at 15 she won a scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C. where she studied piano and voice and served as assistant conductor of the University choir. She graduated at 19 and intended to enroll in graduate studies but the sudden death of her father caused her to return to North Carolina, where she took a job teaching music and English in Farmville.

Flack moved back to Washington, taught private piano lessons and performed at the Tivoli Club and then Mr. Henry’s a Capitol Hill night club where she built her repertoire and honed her performance skills. At a benefit concert for the Inner City Ghetto Children’s Library Fund in 1968, Flack performed before an audience that included pianist Les McCann. McCann recommended her to Atlantic Records, who signed her, and Joel Dorn produced her first album, First Take, which was completed in ten hours.

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Ann Powers, writing for NPR’s Turning the Tables series, explored the inner and outer versions of Flack, declaring that her “career demands a new way of thinking about the word ‘genius.‘”

Roberta Flack has always held two souls within her body. From her childhood days onward, she was herself, the daughter of a draftsman and a church choir organist who learned to play music at her mother’s knee. This Roberta strove to understand both Chopin and Methodist hymnody and was precocious enough to gain admission to Howard University at 15. She was a shy, awkward, diligent girl with her nose always in a book and fingers tired from practicing piano scales.

Even then, in her deepest being, she was also Rubina Flake, renowned concert artiste, effortlessly dazzling Carnegie Hall crowds with her performances. Rubina helped Roberta endure the indignities faced by gifted black children in the South, as when she’d sing “Carry Me Back To Old Virginny” for contest judges in hotels where she wasn’t allowed to stay the night. Her alter ego helped her feel glamorous and capable when others told her she was imperfect. Rubina had no need to respect others’ restrictions. She was a diva, surrounded by bouquets of backstage flowers and the approval of an elite who didn’t describe her as having “a chipmunk smile and a nut-brown face.”

Flack graduated from Howard with dreams of becoming an opera singer. Discouragement from a vocal coach led her to reconsider and turn toward music education as a career and popular music as an avocation. She taught in rural North Carolina and at several Washington, D.C.- area schools, eventually establishing herself as a nightclub performer on the side. Her repertoire and her warmth as a performer made her a sensation at Capitol Hill’s Mr. Henry’s, where she played up the classical elements in folk revival ballads and Motown hits, explaining how she did so as she went along — “it’s based on an interesting baroque form called the passacaglia,” she’d tell the crowd, offering a song, maybe, by Leonard Cohen. It was this unexpected blend of elements, not only in repertoire, but playing out within each song, that drew other musicians like the soul jazz pioneer Les McCann to Flack. After a night at Mr. Henry’s he decided he needed to hook her up with his producer, Joel Dorn. Dorn soon signed Flack to Atlantic Records, and in 1969 they made First Take, the debut effort in a recording career that would bring her 18 Billboard-charting songs, four Grammy awards and 13 nominations and, at this year’s Grammys, lifetime achievement awards.  

I remember going to hear Flack play at Mr. Henry’s along with other students from the Howard Fine Arts Department; among them was Donny Hathaway, with whom Flack would record a hit duet album in 1972.

Though most Flack fans know her for her mega hits “The First Time Ever I Saw His Face,” which won the Record of the Year Grammy in 1973, and “Killing Me Softly with His Song” in 1974, her jazz repertoire is both flawless and funky. 

Flack was no stranger to jazz festival stages, mixing it up with blues and gospel overtones—like this remarkable 1971 performance at Montreux.

Her performance of Eugene McDaniels “Compared to What,” on her 1969 debut album First Take, accompanied by bassist Ron Carter and drummer Ray Lucas, is too often overlooked. Flack delivers both piano and vocals.

In early 2020, Jim Farber interviewed Flack for The Guardian; they discussed breaking through with First Take.

The opening, Compared to What, which had been recorded earlier by McCann, spat out a biting critique of the Vietnam war in a lyric that also attacked the public’s apathy (“We’re all chicken feathers / without one gut,” Flack sniped, over her sarcastic piano). The song’s socio-political focus found a kindred spirit in another piece on the album, Tryin’ Times, co-written by Flack’s college friend, singer Donny Hathaway. In between, she sang a song in Spanish, Angelitos Negros, interpreted a Leonard Cohen piece, Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, and delivered another song co-written by Hathaway, Our Ages or Our Hearts, about an intergenerational love affair.

Still, the most dramatic song was a seven-minute rumination called Ballad of the Sad Young Men, whose lyrics, by Fran Landesman, originally appeared in a 1959 musical about the Beat Generation titled The Nervous Set. A highly literate piece, the song spoke of lonely young men drawn to a bar where they forever seek “someone they can love / for just a little while”. They’re caught in a loop, “drinking up the night / trying not to drown,” while “choking on their youth” as age beckons. At the song’s astounding climax, Flack hits a note of operatic power. “Fran Landesman is one of the greatest lyricists of all time,” Flack wrote. “I sang it about soldiers, then, later, about gay men. It touches me deeply every time. I used to perform this song at Mr Henry’s and people would be totally silent. I knew it moved them.”

Performances like that, and those on the rest of the album, cast Flack as an ace cabaret interpreter. Only one track on the album, the traditional I Told Jesus, had any root in gospel music. Likewise, little of the music referenced gutsy soul. In the process, Flack upended every stereotype about the kinds of sounds an African American artist could successfully market. “I didn’t try to be a soul singer, a jazz singer, a blues singer – no category,” Flack wrote. “My music is my expression of what I feel and believe in a moment.”

I’ve gone back and listened to the entire album several times this week. The song that emerged as an earworm was “Angelitos Negros.”

Theresa Delgadillo wrote for American Quarterly that “Angelitos Negros” was adapted from a poem. Píntame angelitos negros, written by Venezuelan poet Andrés Eloy Blanco, “decries the absence of Blacks in representations of heaven, and by analogy their exclusion from full participation in the nation.”

I’ve been segueing “Angelitos” with Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, since they both evoke a haunting mood, woven with flamenco jazz-tinged sounds. Flack and Davis toured together in the 1980s—I’m still looking for that video footage! In lieu of that tour, here she is in 1993, Live in Japan, singing everything from her greatest hits to Ellington’s Prelude to a Kiss.

Flack suffered a stroke in 2016, which she talked about in an AARP interview with Alanna Nash, half a century after she splashed into the mainstream.

Roberta Flack suffered a stroke in 2016 that has kept her from performing in public, but the 83-year-old singer-songwriter and pianist remains active and creative. She helped archive the bonus tracks for the 50th anniversary release of her debut album, First Take, out July 24, and appeared at the Grammy Awards last January to receive a lifetime achievement award. (“It was breathtaking to be there. And to receive hugs and congratulations from Joni Mitchell and Lizzo in the same 24 hours is something, you know?”) Flack made her last recording three years ago, but has been back in the studio of late. Will she ever perform in concert again? “You’re going to have to keep an eye out for me — wait and see,” she teases.

Flack closed the interview with her thoughts about the relevance her older recordings still hold in the world we face today.

I’m deeply saddened that many of the songs I recorded 50 years ago about civil rights, equal rights, poverty, hunger and suffering in our society are still relevant in 2020. I hope that people will hear these songs in a new way as they connect to their lives today, to this pandemic, to the growing economic disparities, to Black Lives Matter, to police brutality, to activism versus apathy, and the need for each of us to see it and address it. I will continue to use my music to touch hearts, tell my truth, and encourage people always to do whatever they can, however they can, to make the world better.

Thank you Ms. Flack, for the gifts you have blessed us with. Meet me in the comments for even more music from Roberta Flack (and Rubina Flake).

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