The legend herself.
By Lindsey Lowe Osborne
1973 was a good year for music. Aerosmith released their first album, Aerosmith. Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon hit. And that’s the year that Marvin Gaye encouraged Roberta Flack to try out a new song she’d been working on. It was called “Killing Me Softly with His Song.” You know that song. I know that song. We all know that song.
But let’s go back. Before “Killing Me Softly,” along with a host of other hits, including “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” and “Where Is the Love,” there was a piano, a church, a classroom. Flack has had a penchant for music since she was a child sneaking into the Baptist church down the street to listen to the Gospel music. She began playing piano when she was still sitting in her mother’s lap; when she was 9, she began taking piano lessons. “Before it was my voice, my instrument was the piano. My father hauled a junked upright home for me. It was green and it smelled awful,” she remembers. “Some cleaning and polishing up did the trick and I played the heck out of that piano. I want to write a book for children called The Green Piano.”
She couldn’t get enough of it. “Music, in my opinion, is the universal language that best expresses our lives’ experience,” Flack explains. “Without understanding a word of a language, I can understand the emotion conveyed through a piece of music. I have always thought this was how I best express myself.” By the time she was 15, Flack, who was raised in Virginia, had enrolled in Howard University in Washington, D.C., on a full music scholarship. The next year, she was conducting her sorority’s vocal quartet and teaching private lessons. She also changed her focus from piano to voice and then changed her major to music education. She became the first African-American student teacher at an all-white school in Maryland and by the time she graduated at age 19, she’d already directed a full-length production of Aida.
Her father’s sudden death forced her to withdraw from her graduate studies and get a job to support herself. She was hired to teach English and music in Farmville, North Carolina, but was met by several challenges (it was a very “segregated, backwards” town.) A string of teaching jobs followed. (She would remain interested in teaching, eventually founding the Roberta Flack School of Music in the Bronx in New York City in 2006.) By 1968, Flack was performing in some revered nightclubs in D.C. It was a performance at a benefit for the Inner City Ghetto Children’s Library Fund that caught musician Les McCann’s ear and blew him away. With his guidance, Flack went into the Atlantic studio and began to play her music. The next year, she recorded her first album, First Take, which was followed by Chapter Two and Quiet Fire.
Flack is now a four-time Grammy Award and American Music Award winning artist. Her singles and albums have spent much time in the revered spot. “The First Time I Ever Saw on Your Face” was No. 1 on the charts for weeks, as was “Where is the Love.” The song “Killing Me Softly” was No. 1 on both the pop and R&B charts; the album, by the same name, hit gold status almost immediately. I could go on and on—Flack’s awards and accolades sure do. (For example, in 1999, she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.) But suffice it to say that Roberta Flack and her music made an indelible mark on history. “My music conveys my life—my thoughts, memories, hurts, dreams, loves. My dream is that people who are touched by my music find it in their own experience,” Flack says. “An example is ‘The First Time I ever Saw Your Face.’ People all over the world have told me that my version of this song makes them remember their first love, the first time they held their child in their arms, the first time they saw their pet. I am continually moved by the stories of how my song has affected people. And it means different things at different times in my life to me.”
Flack’s most recent projects include a Christmas album, Christmas Songs, and Let It Be Roberta, a Beatles tribute album, which she says was a special project for her. “[The Beatles] arguably have created one of the greatest bodies of work in the history of popular music,” she says. “John was a good friend of mine. He and Yoko were my next-door neighbors. I took their songs and told my stories through their words and melodies. I took artistic and emotional risks with this project.”
She’s in her 70s now, but as on fire as ever. Her current tour will put her in Birmingham on April 18 at the BJCC (just for me, I think—that’s my birthday!) She says she’ll be sharing some of Let It Be Roberta at the show, with a host of other artists. “I worked with some amazingly talented young musicians, some of whom you will see performing with me,” she says. “We will be performing several songs from the album in the show. I hope you love them as much as I do!”
She’ll also be performing alongside the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. “I am so looking forward to playing with your orchestra,” Flack says. “The fullness and richness that orchestras bring to my music is overwhelming to me. With all that is in the news about your state, I am honored to be coming to play for you.”
4/20: Diana Krall at the Alys Stephens Center. For fans of Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, and Jane Monheit.
4/26: Marilyn Manson at Iron City. For fans of Korn, Nine Inch Nails, and Slipknot.
4/30: Gretchen Peters at Workplay. For fans of Diana Jones, Allison Moorer, and Caroline Herring.