Internationally hailed as one of the greatest songstresses of our time, Grammy award-winning Roberta Flack remains unparalleled. Her songs bring insight into our lives, loves, culture and politics, while effortlessly traversing a broad musical landscape from pop to soul to folk to jazz. This timeline explores Flack’s life and the major milestones in her career.
Born in Asheville, North Carolina, and raised in Arlington, Virginia, Roberta Flack discovered her earliest musical influences from the church.
Whenever she could, she’d sneak out to hear such gospel luminaries as Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers. At home, Flack’s father repaired an old upright piano, and she began to pick out tunes while sitting on her mother’s lap.
When Flack turned nine, she began taking piano lessons, and also started to listen to a wide range of popular music, R&B, jazz, blues, and pop.
As she moved into her teens, Flack’s listening gravitated towards classical music, and her piano playing developed rapidly. At 13, she won second place honors with her performance of a Scarlatti sonata in a statewide contest for Black students.
By the age of 15, she enrolled at Howard University on a full music scholarship, making her one of the youngest students to ever enroll there.
Flack begins teaching
Within a year, Flack was conducting her sorority’s vocal quartet, accompanying pop, jazz, and opera singers, and changed her major from piano to voice as she was assisting the school’s choir conductor. To earn extra money, she also taught piano privately and played the organ at her parents’ church – a job previously held by her mother.
Flack next changed her major to music education, becoming the first Black student teacher at an all-white school near Chevy Chase, Maryland. By the time she graduated, at 19, she’d already directed a production of “Aida,” earning her a standing ovation from the faculty after her final exam recital.
She began graduate studies in music, but the sudden death of her father forced her to leave both school and home to take a teaching job out of the necessity to support herself.
Flack held teaching posts at several junior high schools over the next four years.
Flack starts performing
At D.C.’s posh Tivoli Club, she served as accompanist to the opera singers who strolled the room. During intermissions, Flack would sing and play blues and folk songs and pop standards on an old upright piano in the back. Eventually, she started working two to three nights a week at the 1520 Club, playing solo piano and singing.
When her voice teacher told Flack that he saw a brighter future for her in pop music than the classics, she started reshaping her repertoire in her ensuing stints, and her reputation spread. People like Burt Bacharach, Al Hibbler, Carmen McRae, Kim Stanley, Eddie Harris, Woody Allen, Ramsey Lewis, and Johnny Mathis were in regular attendance.
Flack auditions for Atlantic Records
While the nation’s capital was hosting Resurrection City, Roberta Flack was doing a benefit for the Inner City Ghetto Children’s Library Fund. In the packed crowd was famed musician, Les McCann, who was stunned by what he heard: “Her voice touched, tapped, trapped, and kicked every emotion I’ve ever known. I laughed, cried, and screamed for more… she alone had the voice!” Within days he had arranged an audition for Flack with Atlantic Records.
With a repertoire of more than 600 songs, Flack played 42 of them for Atlantic producer, Joel Dorn, in three hours. She went into the studio and laid down some 39 song demos over nine hours.
Roberta Flack’s first album
Three months later, she recorded “First Take,” her debut album, in a mere ten hours at Atlantic Studios. Among the songs she cut was “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”
“First Take” was released in June 1969, followed by her first single, the Eugene McDaniels’ composition, “Compared To What.”
A year later, she released her second album, “Chapter Two,” produced by Joel Dorn and King Curtis, arranged by future-collaborator Donny Hathaway, and with laudatory liner notes by Jerry Butler. Another McDaniels’ composition, “Reverend Lee,” and Jimmy Webb’s “Do What You Gotta’ Do” both became singles from the album, which included material as diverse as Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman,” a Buffy Sainte-Marie composition, and the then-contemporary Broadway hit, “The Impossible Dream.”
Encouraged by Jerry Wexler, Flack and Donny Hathaway collaborated on “You’ve Got A Friend.” Again, her peerless interpretation of the contemporary pop hits won her critical acclaim.
Later that year, she performed in Ghana as part of the star-laden Soul To Soul Festival. For this once-in-a-lifetime event, Flack performed “Freedom Song,” “Tryin’ Times” and “Gone Away.” The album of the event was released on Atlantic (as was the videotape of the concert, fifteen years later).
Roberta Flack’s third album, “Quiet Fire,” was released. It was arranged by Flack herself. It yielded the single, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.”
“Play Misty For Me”
Clint Eastwood personally decided to include “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in his thriller, “Play Misty For Me.” Atlantic rushed the song, from her first album, out as a single, and in seven weeks it went to #1 on the charts.
Washington, D.C. proclaimed April 22nd as Roberta Flack Day, kicking off a weekend celebration encompassing receptions at the Kennedy Center and the Congressional Caucus Room.
At an evening banquet attended by more than 500 friends, admirers, and luminaries, Flack was presented with the Capital’s official proclamation, Down Beat’s award as Top Female Vocalist, a D.C. youth award, and gold records from Atlantic for the “First Time Ever” single, and the “First Take” and “Quiet Fire” albums. Flack capped off the night with a 45-minute concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Flack’s collaborations with Donny Hathaway
Atlantic released a new Hathaway/Flack single, “Where Is The Love.” The album quickly went gold, as did the single, which remained in the Top 10 for two months straight.
Flack’s fourth album, “Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway,” was released.
Flack breaks Grammy Award records
“First Time Ever” won Record of the Year and Song of the Year, while “Where Is The Love” won for Best Pop Vocal by a Duo at the Grammy Awards.
Flack’s single, “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” achieved certified, gold sales status, having been both the #1 pop and R&B song in the country. “Killing Me Softly,” the album, was released in August, certified gold within two weeks, and remained the best seller in every musical category except Country for months thereafter.
“Killing Me Softly” won as Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Vocal by a Female at the Grammy Awards.
The follow-up single, “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” went to #1 on the Pop, R&B, and Easy Listening charts. An out-of -the-box gold single, it became Roberta Flack’s eighth million-seller in less than two-and-a-half years.
Roberta Flack produces as Rubina Flake
The “Feel Like Makin’ Love” album was released in 1975, the first produced by Roberta Flack herself.
Flack continued to work, tour, and record – with special emphasis on the craft of producing. “No matter how many records I’d heard, ” she says, “I knew what I sounded like in my head, and in my heart I knew what I wanted it to sound like. My voice is the record for me, and I don’t ever want to lose that.”
Flack released “Blue Lights in the Basement,” the album she still calls her “personal favorite.”
At the beginning of 1978, a second single was released, a new collaboration with Donny Hathaway titled, “The Closer I Get To You.” Her umpteenth chart-topping single, it was certified gold, as was the “Blue Lights” album, which had reached #1 on both the Pop and R&B charts.
Early in 1980, Flack completed “Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway,” Before the album was released, in March, a Stevie Wonder/Eric Mercury composition, “You Are My Heaven,” had already become a national R&B/pop crossover hit (Mercury and Roberta co-produced the album).
Atlantic released “Live And More,” a collaboration and co-production with talented crooner, Peabo Bryson.
Flack worked on her first project outside of the direction of Atlantic Records, when she composed and produced the soundtrack album for the Richard Pryor/Cicely Tyson film, “Bustin’ Loose.” Singles from this album included “You Stopped Loving Me” and “Just When I Needed You.”
Atlantic released “The Best of Roberta Flack,” a collection of eleven songs which had redefined popular music in the preceding decade.
Flack returned to the studio to record the “I’m The One” album with producers Ralph MacDonald and William Salter (who together had penned “Where Is The Love”) and William Eaton. Singles culled from the record were “Makin’ Love,” a Bacharach/Sager tune, and the title track.
Flack’s second collaboration with Peabo Bryson, “Born To Love,” debuted in 1983 and produced another huge smash, “Tonight I Celebrate My Love.”
Flack appeared as a guest artist on Japanese saxophone legend Sadao Watanabe’s album, “Rendezvous” (released on Warner-Pioneer in Japan). Flack sang on the tracks “If I’m Still Around Tomorrow” and “Here’s To Love.”
Flack was asked to contribute to Yoko Ono’s tribute to her late husband John Lennon, “Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him.” Her vocal on “Goodbye Sadness” was praised by the critics as one of the most moving on the album. The year also saw Flack undertake a successful tour of England.
Flack returned to Atlantic in 1985 with the single “People On A String” from the “White Nights” soundtrack.
Flack released a single version of “We Shall Overcome” on the label to commemorate Martin Luther King’s birthday.
She performed a number of live dates with symphony orchestras, and toured Japan twice between 1986 and 1988: once with Miles Davis and the Crusaders; the second with Tokyo’s Japanese Symphony.
She performed with Miles Davis again at the Toronto Jazz Festival in June 1987, and on the Capitol grounds with the National Symphony and Marvin Hamlisch in July, before 225,000 enthusiastic fans.
The release of “Oasis,” which featured the work of Marcus Miller, Andy Goldmark, The System’s David Frank, Henry Gaffney, Ashford & Simpson, Greg Phillinganes, Michael Omartian, Jerry Hey, David Sanborn, George Duke, Marvin Hamlisch and Siedah Garrett, Quincy Jones, and others. The title track became a #1 R&B single.
More Global Tours
Flack toured California, Japan, and Hong Kong in 1989, headlining a series of dates with Patrice Rushen and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Flack released “Roberta”, an album of popular jazz and blues standards. “Roberta” contains Roberta’s own arrangements of such classics as B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and “Let’s Stay Together.” “Roberta” earned a Grammy nomination in the company of Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett.
Flack hosted a weekly radio show, “Brunch with Roberta Flack”. The show presented Flack as a host with unique insights into the world of music in which she herself has been such an integral part. “Brunch With Roberta Flack” aired nationwide in over 30 major metropolitan radio markets.
The release of Flack’s first Christmas album, “The Christmas Album,” as well as a new collaboration with Peabo Bryson for Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas” movie soundtrack.
Highlights of 1998 included a Roberta performance along with Madonna, Elton John and Sting at Carnegie Hall for the Annual Rainforest Foundation Benefit Concert, a tour of Japan, and a musical appearance with the Muppets on “Sesame Street.”
Flack earns her star
Roberta Flack was selected to receive a coveted star on Hollywood’s legendary Walk of Fame.
Flack traveled to South Africa for a sold out concert tour. Even President Nelson Mandela, a Roberta Flack fan, turned out to enjoy the culminating concert.
One of the greatest women in Rock & Roll
Flack’s accomplishments were celebrated during the historical five-hour VH-1 program, “The 100 Greatest Women of Rock & Roll.” She ranked highly, sharing the company of Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Madonna, Alanis Morissette and several other trail-blazing female artists.
“Roberta Flack In Concert” was released on DVD.
Flack took a leadership role in response to the aftermath of September 11th. She, along with other celebrities, participated in Nile Rodgers’ “We Are Family” movie and single (directed by Spike Lee), which set an example of unity among all Americans.
Flack released “Holiday,” a timeless collection of seasonal favorites, a Roberta classic or two, plus a few goodies thrown in for good cheer.
Roberta Flack remains an inspiration to her fans, peers and younger musicians in the music industry. Flack has appeared with soul artists like Alicia Keyes, India.Arie and Angie Stone, all younger artists who have been heavily influenced by Roberta Flack’s earlier achievements.
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