Roberta Flack, singer-pianist extraordinaire, emerged at a time when virtually everything depended on talent and perseverance.
In those days there were no shortcuts to making it, like “American Idol” or any other TV show of its type. There was no exposure to be had such as that available by way of YouTube. No electronic gimmickry to cover up vocal or instrumental shortcomings.
Most importantly, standards were higher.
One indicator of the level of respect Roberta Flack has is that even when she is laying relatively low, as she has in recent years, interest never wanes among the faithful. She is a dependable, class act.
And her greatest material, such as “Killing Me Softly With His Song” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” are timeless treasures, firmly embedded worldwide. Her place in history is assured.
NORTH CAROLINA-born Roberta Flack took a far more than casual interest in music at a very early age. She knew music was her destiny, although the hows, wheres and whens had to be discovered.
Young Roberta proved to be so proficient at classical piano that she became the recipient of a full music scholarship from Howard University. When she enrolled in college she was not yet 16! Considering her musical prowess, it is no surprise that she became the university choir’s assistant conductor.
After graduation from Howard (at age 19) Flack taught school for several years in Washington, DC, public schools. Weekends and evenings she performed in area clubs, etc.
During a benefit concert, someone who would prove to be of crucial importance to the career of Roberta Flack was in the audience — none other than jazz great Les McCann. He was, to say the least, impressed. So much so that he arranged an audition with Atlantic Records, the company he recorded for.
THE RESULT was Flack’s debut 1972 album, the critically acclaimed “First Take.” Sales were not exceptional, just satisfactory. However, when the beautiful “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was chosen for inclusion in the hit movie “Play Misty For Me” by the star of film, Clint Eastwood, sales soared.
The album and the song both reached No. 1, and “First Take” was certified Platinum by the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) for selling in excess of one million copies.
Around this time Flack began recording duets with another great artist, singer-pianist-composer Donny Hathaway who had, interestingly, been a classmate at Howard.
The first of these was the No. 1 hit “Where Is the Love?” (1972), followed by “The Closer I Get to You” (No. 1, 1978), “You Are My Heaven” (Top 10, 1980) and “Back Together Again” (Top 10, 1980).Meanwhile, Flack’s solo career continued to blossom with albums such as “Chapter Two” and “Quiet Fire.” In 1973 she delivered another classic hit, “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” and yet another the following year, “Feel Like Makin’ Love,”
IN 1983, Flack enjoyed a fifth duet smash, but this time her partner was Peabo Bryson. The song was the lovely “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love.” She was also successful, though not as much so, with “Set the Night to Music,” recorded with Maxi Priest in 1991. This was after her fourth No. 1 solo hit, “Oasis,” in 1988.
Roberta Flack received a great honor in 1999, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. That same year she had the pleasure of performing in South Africa for President Nelson Mandela.
It was also an honor for Flack when “Killing Me Softly With His Song” was remade by the Fugees (with Lauryn Hill on lead vocal) in 1996. The new version was a No. 1 hit and, not surprisingly, many if not most younger people were unaware of the fact that the song had been done before.
A strong believer in giving back to the community, Flack created the Roberta Flack School of Music, located at the Hyde Leadership Charter School in New York. The program provides music education without charge to underprivileged students.
Fans were happy to see Roberta Flack when she made an appearance at the 2010 Grammy Awards, singing “Where Is the Love?” with Maxwell. — SVH and Jason Donovan
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