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Roberta Flack
Roberta Flack, 2008.jpg
Flack in 2008
Background information
Birth name Roberta Cleopatra Flack
Also known as Rubina Flake
Born (1937-02-10) February 10, 1937 (age 87)
Black Mountain, North Carolina, U.S.
Genres Jazz, soul, R&B
Occupations Singer-songwriter, musician
Instruments Vocals, keyboards
Years active 1968–2022
Labels Atlantic (1968–1996)
Angel / Capitol(1997)
RAS / 429 / Sony/ATV (2011–2018)
Associated acts Donny Hathaway
Peabo Bryson
Maxi Priest

Roberta Cleopatra Flack (born February 10, 1937) is a retired American singer who topped the Billboard charts with the No. 1 singles "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face", "Killing Me Softly with His Song", "Feel Like Makin' Love", "Where Is the Love" and "The Closer I Get to You", the latter two duets with Donny Hathaway. Flack influenced the subgenre of contemporary R&B called quiet storm, and interpreted songs by songwriters such as Leonard Cohen and members of the Beatles.

Flack was the first artist to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in two consecutive years: "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" won in 1973 and "Killing Me Softly with His Song" won in 1974.

Early life

Flack was born in Black Mountain, North Carolina, to parents Laron Flack, a Veterans Administration draftsman, and Irene (Council) Flack a church organist, on February 10, 1937 (some sources have cited 1939 but the 1940 Census gives Roberta's age as 3 years old) and raised in Arlington, Virginia.

Growing up in a large, musical family, she often accompanied the choir of Lomax African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church by playing hymns and spirituals on piano, but she also enjoyed going to the "Baptist church down the street" to listen to contemporary gospel music, such as that performed by Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke.

When Flack was nine, she started taking an interest in playing the piano, and during her early teens, Flack so excelled at classical piano that Howard University awarded her a full music scholarship.

By age 15, she entered Howard University, making her one of the youngest students ever to enroll there. She eventually changed her major from piano to voice and became an assistant conductor of the university choir. Her direction of a production of Aida received a standing ovation from the Howard University faculty. Flack is a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and was made an honorary member of Tau Beta Sigma by the Eta Delta Chapter at Howard University for her outstanding work in promoting music education.

Flack became a student teacher at a school near Chevy Chase, Maryland. She graduated from Howard University at 19 and began graduate studies in music, but the sudden death of her father forced her to take a job teaching music and English in Farmville, North Carolina.

Career

Early career

Before becoming a professional singer-songwriter, Flack returned to Washington, D.C., and taught at Banneker, Browne, and Rabaut Junior High Schools. She also taught private piano lessons out of her home on Euclid St. NW. During this period, her music career began to take shape on evenings and weekends in Washington, D.C. area night spots. At the Tivoli Club, she accompanied opera singers at the piano. During intermissions, she would sing blues, folk, and pop standards in a back room, accompanying herself on the piano. Later, she performed several nights a week at the 1520 Club, again providing her own piano accompaniment. Around this time, her voice teacher, Frederick "Wilkie" Wilkerson, told her that he saw a brighter future for her in pop music than in the classics. She modified her repertoire accordingly and her reputation spread. Flack began singing professionally after being hired to perform regularly at Mr. Henry's Restaurant, on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., in 1968.

The atmosphere in Mr. Henry's was welcoming, and the club turned into a showcase for the young music teacher. Her voice mesmerized locals and word spread. A-list entertainers who were appearing in town would come in late at night to hear her sing (frequent visitors included Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Ramsey Lewis and others). As restaurant owner Henry Yaffe recalled, "She told me if I could give her work there three nights a week, she would quit teaching." He did and she did.

To meet Roberta's exacting standards, Yaffe transformed the apartment above the bar into the Roberta Flack Room. "I got the oak paneling from the old Dodge Hotel near Union Station. I put in heavy upholstered chairs, sort of a conservative style from the 50s and an acoustical system designed especially for Roberta. She was very demanding. She was a perfectionist."

1970s

Roberta Flack 1971
Flack in 1971

Les McCann discovered Flack singing and playing jazz in a Washington nightclub. He later said on the liner notes of what would be her first album First Take noted below, "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." Very quickly, he arranged an audition for her with Atlantic Records, during which she played 42 songs in 3 hours for producer Joel Dorn. In November 1968, she recorded 39 song demos in less than 10 hours. Three months later, Atlantic reportedly recorded Flack's debut album, First Take, in a mere 10 hours. Flack later spoke of those studio sessions as a "very naive and beautiful approach... I was comfortable with the music because I had worked on all these songs for all the years I had worked at Mr. Henry's."

In 1971, Flack participated in the legendary Soul to Soul concert film by Denis Sanders, which was headlined by Wilson Pickett, along with Ike & Tina Turner, Santana, The Staple Singers, Les McCann, Eddie Harris, The Voices of East Harlem, and others. The U.S. delegation of musical artists was invited to perform for 14th anniversary of African independence in Ghana. The film was digitally reissued on DVD and CD in 2004 but Flack declined permission for her image and recording to be included for unknown reasons. Her a cappella performance of the traditional spiritual "Oh Freedom" retitled "Freedom Song" on the original Soul to Soul LP soundtrack is only available in the VHS version of the film.

Flack's cover version of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" hit number 76 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972. Her Atlantic recordings did not sell particularly well, until actor/director Clint Eastwood chose a song from First Take, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" written by Ewan MacColl, for the sound track of his directorial debut Play Misty for Me; it became the biggest hit of the year for 1972, spending six consecutive weeks at #1 and earning Flack a million-selling Gold disc. It finished the year as Billboard's top song of 1972. The First Take album also went to #1 and eventually sold 1.9 million copies in the United States. Eastwood, who paid $2,000 for the use of the song in the film, has remained an admirer and friend of Flack's ever since. It was awarded the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1973. In 1983, she recorded the end music to the Dirty Harry film Sudden Impact at Eastwood's request.

In 1972, Flack began recording regularly with Donny Hathaway, scoring hits such as the Grammy-winning "Where Is the Love" (1972) and later "The Closer I Get to You" (1978), both million-selling gold singles. Flack and Hathaway recorded several duets together, including two LPs, until Hathaway's 1979 death.

On her own, Flack scored her second #1 hit in 1973, "Killing Me Softly with His Song" written by Charles Fox, Norman Gimbel and Lori Lieberman. It was awarded both Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female at the 1974 Grammy Awards. Its parent album was Flack's biggest-selling disc, eventually earning double platinum certification. In 1974, Flack released "Feel Like Makin' Love," which became her third and final #1 hit to date on the Hot 100. That same year, Flack sang the lead on a Sherman Brothers song called "Freedom", which featured prominently at the opening and closing of the movie Huckleberry Finn. That same year, she performed "When We Grow Up" with a teenage Michael Jackson on the 1974 television special, Free to Be... You and Me. Then, in her only film role, she served as the narrator for The Legend of John Henry.

1980s

Roberta Flack
Flack in 1995

Flack began working with Peabo Bryson, charting as high as #5 on the R&B chart (plus #16 Pop and #4 Adult Contemporary) with "Tonight, I Celebrate My Love" in 1983. Her next two singles with Bryson, "You're Looking Like Love To Me" and "I Just Came Here To Dance", fared better on adult contemporary (AC) radio than on pop or R&B radio.

In 1986, Flack sang the theme song entitled "Together Through the Years" for the NBC television series Valerie, later known as The Hogan Family. The song was used throughout the show's six seasons. In 1987, Flack supplied the voice of Michael Jackson's mother in the 18-minute short film for "Bad". Oasis was released in 1988 and failed to make an impact with pop audiences, though the title track reached #1 on the R&B chart and a remix of "Uh-Uh Ooh-Ooh Look Out (Here It Comes)" topped the dance chart in 1989. Flack found herself again in the US Top 10 with the hit song "Set the Night to Music", a 1991 duet with Jamaican vocalist Maxi Priest that peaked at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and #2 AC. Flack's smooth R&B sound lent itself easily to Easy Listening airplay during the 1970s, and she has had four #1 AC hits.

Later career

Roberta Flack in August 2013
Flack performing in 2013

In 1999, a star with Flack's name was placed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In the same year, she gave a concert tour in South Africa; the final performance was attended by President Nelson Mandela. In 2010, she appeared on the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards, singing a duet of "Where Is The Love" with Maxwell.

In February 2012, Flack released Let it Be Roberta, an album of Beatles covers including "Hey Jude" and "Let It Be". It was her first recording in over eight years. Flack knew John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as both households moved in 1975 into The Dakota apartment building in New York City; they had apartments across the hall from each other. Flack has said that she has been asked to do a second album of Beatles covers. In 2013, she was reported to be involved in an interpretative album of the Beatles' classics.

At age 80, Flack made her most recent recording, Running, the closing credits song of the 2018 feature documentary 3100: Run and Become with music and lyrics by Michael A. Levine.

Personal life

Flack is a member of the Artist Empowerment Coalition, which advocates for artists to have the right to control their creative properties. She is also a spokeswoman for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; her appearance in commercials for the ASPCA featured "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face". The Hyde Leadership Charter School in the Bronx, NYC, runs an after-school music program called "The Roberta Flack School of Music" to provide free music education to underprivileged students in partnership with Flack, who founded the school.

From 1966 to 1972, she was married to Steve Novosel. Flack is the aunt of professional ice skater Rory Flack. She is also the godmother of musician Bernard Wright, who died in an accident on May 19, 2022.

According to DNA analysis, she is of Cameroonian descent.

Health

On April 20, 2018, Flack was appearing onstage at the Apollo Theater at a benefit for the Jazz Foundation of America. She became ill, left the stage, and was rushed to the Harlem Hospital Center. In a statement, her manager announced that Flack had had a stroke a few years prior and still was not feeling well, but was "doing fine" and being kept overnight for medical observation.

On November 14, 2022, it was announced by a spokesperson that Flack had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and had retired from performing, due to the disease making it "impossible to sing", according to a spokesperson.

Accolades

On May 11, 2017, Roberta Flack received an honorary Doctorate degree in the Arts from Long Island University.

Flack was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2009.

On March 12, 2022, Flack was honored with the DAR Women in American History Award and a restored fire callbox in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington DC commemorating her early-career connection to nearby Mr. Henry's neighborhood bar.

On May 13, 2023, Flack received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music.

Grammy Awards

The Grammy Awards are awarded annually by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Flack has received four awards from thirteen nominations.

Year Nominated work Award Result
1972 "You've Got a Friend" (with Donny Hathaway) Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Group Nominated
1973 "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" Record of the Year Won
"Where Is the Love" (with Donny Hathaway) Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus Won
Quiet Fire Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female Nominated
1974 Killing Me Softly Album of the Year Nominated
"Killing Me Softly with His Song" Record of the Year Won
Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female Won
1975 "Feel Like Makin' Love" Record of the Year Nominated
Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female Nominated
1979 "The Closer I Get to You" (with Donny Hathaway) Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group Nominated
1981 Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female Nominated
"Back Together Again" (with Donny Hathaway) Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal Nominated
1995 Roberta Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance Nominated
2020 Roberta Flack Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award Won

American Music Awards

The American Music Awards is an annual awards ceremony created by Dick Clark in 1973. Flack has received one award from six nominations.

Year Nominated work Award Result
1974 Favorite Female Artist (Pop/Rock) Nominated
Favorite Female Artist (Soul/R&B) Won
"Killing Me Softly with His Song" Favorite Single (Pop/Rock) Nominated
1975 Favorite Female Artist (Soul/R&B) Nominated
"Feel Like Makin' Love" Favorite Single (Soul/R&B) Nominated
1979 Favorite Female Artist (Soul/R&B) Nominated

Discography

  • First Take (1969)
  • Chapter Two (1970)
  • Quiet Fire (1971)
  • Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway (1972)
  • Killing Me Softly (1973)
  • Feel Like Makin' Love (1975)
  • Blue Lights in the Basement (1977)
  • Roberta Flack (1978)
  • Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway (1980)
  • I'm the One (1982)
  • Born to Love (1983)
  • Oasis (1988)
  • Set the Night to Music (1991)
  • Stop the World (1992)
  • Roberta (1994)
  • The Christmas Album (1997)
  • Let It Be Roberta (2012)
  • Running (2018)

See also

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