With a career now spanning five decades, singer & songwriter Roberta Flack has been one of the most acclaimed, successful artists in pop and R&B music. The recipient of five Grammy Awards including Record of the Year and the Lifetime Achievement Award, Flack has entertained and inspired music fans with her elegant, artistic, deeply soulful music.
Flack is perhaps best known for her two biggest hits in the 1970s: “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Killing Me Softly with His Song.” Both singles reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, and she won the prestigious Record of the Year honor for both songs (in 1973 & 1974). “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was featured on Flack’s debut album, First Take, which has recently been re-issued in a special 50th Anniversary edition (with bonus material).
Flack also had many other hit singles and best-selling albums during the ‘70s, ‘80s & ‘90s. Her other hits as a solo artist include “Feel Like Makin’ Love (which reached #1 in 1974), “Making Love,” “If Ever I See You Again,” “Jesse” and “You’ve Got A Friend.”
She is also known for her acclaimed, hit collaborations with other top artists. Flack teamed up with R&B legend Donny Hathaway to record the 1972 duet album Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, which included the Grammy-winning hit, “Where Is the Love”. Then in 1980, she released Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway, that included two more duets with him. The duo also had the big hit, “The Closer I Get to You.”
Besides her collaborations with Hathaway, in 1983 Flack recorded a duet album called Born to Love with R&B/pop star, Peabo Bryson. This album included the beautiful ballad hit, “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love.” Then in 1991, she teamed up with pop/reggae artist Maxi Priest for the Top 10 hit, “Set the Night to Music.”
Earlier this year (January 2020), Flack received a very special honor: the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She attended the Grammy event and met many young artists who told her they were influenced and inspired by her music.
Flack, who is now 83, retired from performing live shows in 2018. However, she remains active with her Roberta Flack Foundation, which was established in 2010 to support aspiring creatives and causes she cares about.
Here’s a video of Roberta Flack performing her hit “The First
Time Ever Saw Your Face” in 1972.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Roberta Flack. She discusses her great career, and how she recorded some of her classic songs. She also talks about her collaborations with Donny Hathaway and Peabo Bryson.
DK: It’s now been 50 years since the release of your debut album, First Take. Can you talk about the making of your album? I saw a video, where you said that you recorded dozens of songs before selecting the eight songs that made the album.
Roberta Flack: I was living in Washington DC, teaching in the DC public schools during the day and performing at night. As word spread about me and people came to see me on Sundays, (restaurant & bar owner) Henry Jaffe added a room for me and my trio. It was called, “Mr. Henry’s Upstairs.” I performed five nights a week, three shows per night—that’s a lot of music and every set was different. I came to the attention of (jazz artist) Les McCann, who arranged for an audition with Atlantic Records. I was asked in my audition for a record deal at Atlantic Records, how many songs I knew, and I said, “600”. Yes, the recording was 10 hours long but it was spread over three days. Atlantic signed me, starting out 40+year relationship and made First Take as my first album release. The songs on the bonus CD have never been released before, but were a part of my repertoire from that time in my life. It was a time of discovery and transition for me, and the music of First Take and the bonus tracks take me directly back.
DK: Your first big hit was “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” How did you select this song to record, and decide to sing it in a slower, more sensual way than the previous versions?
Flack: My friend (music artist) Donal Leace played Joe & Eddie’s version of the song for me. At the time, I was still teaching. I loved the song, and taught it to the young girls in the Glee Club at the Banneker Junior High School in DC. I regularly performed it at Mr. Henry’s, so it was one of the songs I was very connected with when it came to choosing tracks for my first recording project. The tempo and arrangement of the song came as a part of the way I felt the story of the song—when you express your feelings about the first time you ever see a great love, you don’t rush the story.
Here’s the audio of Roberta Flack’s #1 hit, “Killing Me Softly
with His Song.”
DK: In 1973, you had another classic hit with “Killing Me Softly with His Song.” How did you discover this song, and did you immediately know that it could be a special song in your career?
Flack: I was on a plane and read through a list of music channel song listings. The title of the song (recorded by Lori Lieberman, who wrote the song with Charlie Fox & Norman Gimbel) jumped out at me. I took out a note pad and listened to that song 10 times to get the melody and lyrics. When I landed, I called Quincy (Jones), who helped me get the music charts. I rehearsed the song with my band at Bob Marley’s studio in Kingston, Jamaica but did not record it. I was opening for Marvin Gaye at the Greek Theatre back in Los Angeles later that year, and at the end of my set, the audience was asking for an encore—Marvin told me to sing another song. I performed “Killing Me Softly” and the audience lose their minds. Marvin walked over to me, put his arm around me and said, “Baby, don’t ever do that again live until you record it.”
DK: You had a great collaboration with Donny Hathaway. How did you decide to team up with him, and can you talk about your two biggest hits with him, “Where Is the Love” and “The Closer I Get to You”?
Flack: I loved Donny. I love Donny. Donny is a musical genius and I don’t use that word often or lightly. Donny had his struggles through the years, but when he sat at the piano and sang for and with me, it was as if nothing was wrong—he sang and played and created magnificently. Members of my band—James Mtume and Reggie Lucas—wrote “The Closer I Get To You”, not as a duet, originally. I wanted to have it re-written as a duet as a way to help Donny, who was suffering from severe depression at the time. He wasn’t able to come from Chicago to New York for the recording, but did his part of the song in Chicago and it was later mixed with my vocal. When I listen to my recordings, it’s one of the most beautiful yet most painful songs for me to hear to this day.
DK: In 1974, you had another #1 hit with “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” Can you tell the story behind how you selected and recorded this song?
Here’s the audio of Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway’s hit,
“Where is the Love.”
Flack: Gene McDaniels wrote that song in less than an hour for me. He was a magnificent songwriter and I recorded many of his songs over the years. This was the first album that I produced myself, with the help of people like Gene (McDaniels) and Stevie Wonder. At the time, I didn’t think it would be the hit it turned out to be.
DK: You wrote songs for some of your albums, particularly your album, Oasis, which you wrote five songs. Can you talk about your songwriting style?
Flack: Honestly, songwriting is not where I am the most at home with my expression. I love collaborative songwriting. Maya Angelou was a dear friend of mine. Her lyrics on “And So It Goes” are so clear and evoike feelings that so many of us can connect with. Another favorie is “Mood,” that I co-wrote with Donny (Hathaway). For me, it’s about the feelings and experiences that are expressed.
DK: I also like your album of duets, Born to Love, with Peabo Bryson. How did you decide to collaborate with him, and can you tell the story behind your hit, “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love”?
Flack: I met Peabo because we had the same manager, David Franklin. Michael Masser wrote “Tonight I Celebrate My Love” originally for Diana Ross & Julio Iglesias—lucky for us they passed on the song!
DK: Earlier this year, you received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. What did this new honor mean to you?
Flack: It was overwhelming and breathtaking to be there. When I met artists like Lizzo, Demi Lovato, Alicia Keys, Ariana Grande, and so many others in person and hear from them that they were inspired by my music, I felt understood. I love that connection to other artists because we understand music, we live music, it’s our language. Through music we understand what we are thinking and feeling. No matter what challenge life presents, I am at home with my piano, on a stage, with my band, in the studio, listening to music. I can find my way when I hear music.
Here’s a video of Roberta Flack & Peabo Bryson performing
their hit, “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love.”
DK: Currently, what new projects are you working on? I read that you might be writing a book. And can you tell me about the Roberta Flack Foundation?
Flack: In 2010, I established the Roberta Flack Foundation to provide music education and animal welfare. Last year, I gave out grants to Anasa Troutman’s Shelectricity Project to provide mentorship to young girls of color and to filmmaker Carol Swainson, who is creating a film about changing the racial narrative at home. Since the onset of this pandemic, my team and I did a fundraiser for “Feed The Children” in which we played a songlist of my favorite songs—I think it’s still on YouTube. I’m working on collaborations with different artists on tracks that I recorded over the years but never released. I have hundreds of unreleased tracks that have been in storage that we’ve recently had transferred.