#451: First Take, Roberta Flack
You may remember Roberta Flack from Lauryn Hill’s cover of “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” off the Fugees’ The Score. That was my only point of reference for Roberta Flack — well, that and About a Boy. Little did I know that Roberta Flack is impressive as hell.
She was one of the youngest students to ever enroll at Howard University, at only 15. She’s the first musician to ever win a Grammy for Record of the Year consecutively. She basically birthed “quiet storm!” See you in twenty years, Anita Baker.
But first, she released her debut at age 32. Unfortunately, it didn’t make a splash immediately — it took Clint Eastwood to make that happen, who used her version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in his thriller Play Misty For Me. It’s glacially slow and staggeringly beautiful, and I love this story about how her producer wanted it to be much faster. She said that he “said, ‘OK, you don’t care if it’s a hit or not?’ I said, ‘No sir.’ Of course he was right for three years, until Clint got it.”
It’s no wonder that her producer was nervous, but it also makes sense that she told him no: it’s completely emblematic of Flack’s whole vibe. She’s deeper than your average soul diva. She covers my favorite Leonard Cohen song/poem, “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” “Compared to What” matches her intimate belt to a harsh critique about the Vietnam War that makes reference to abortion, for crying out loud. Her use of jazz musicians means that she’s not afraid of long musical interludes and heavy bass lines: see “Angelitos Negros” and “Tryin’ Times.”
My favorite songs off this album were the ones that sounded like church. “I Told Jesus” is just her own arrangement of a traditional religious song, but “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” could be mistaken for a Christmas song, if you don’t listen to the lyrics about young men drinking, running from the truth. They’re earnest and full of compassion, in stark contrast to her winking jazz musicians.
Roberta Flack is still alive, but last year announced that she has ALS, making it “impossible to sing.” Heartbreaking, that she’ll never duet with Lauryn Hill again. I love the qualifier to her announcement, though: “It will take a lot more than ALS to silence this icon.”
Least Favorite Song: “Our Ages or Our Hearts.” She’s just singing about a 21 to 34 year age gap, which certainly isn’t criminal, but I think Age Ain’t Nothin’ But A Number ruined that topic for me.