Monday, January 27, 2014

Roberta Flack, The #33 Female Artist of the Rock Era

Roberta Flack was born in Black Mountain, North Carolina and was raised in Arlington, Virginia.  She was classically trained on the piano from an early age.  Flack received a music scholarship at age 15 to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., making her one of the youngest students to ever attend there.  Roberta eventually changed her major from piano to voice, and became an assistant conductor of the university choir.  Her direction of the university production of Aida received a standing ovation from the Howard University faculty. 

Roberta became a student teacher at a school near Chevy Chase, Maryland.  She graduated from Howard at age 19 and began graduate studies, but the death of her father forced Roberta to take a job teaching music and English in Farmville, North Carolina.  She then taught school in DC at Browne Junior High School and Rabaut Junior High.  Roberta also taught private piano lessons out of her home. 

Meanwhile, Roberta sang at area night clubs; she accompanied opera singers at the piano at the Tivoli Club.  During intermissions, Flack sang blues, folk and pop in a back room, accompanying herself on the piano.  While Flack was singing at the DC nightclub Mr. Henry's in 1969, jazz musician Les McCann discovered her, and Roberta soon signed a recording contract with Atlantic Records. 

Three months later, Flack released her debut album First Take.  Flack's cover of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" peaked at #76.  The album and all the songs on it were largely ignored until three years later (more on that upcoming).  In 1970, Roberta released the album Chapter Two, and she released her third album, Quiet Fire, in 1971, both of which eventually went Gold.  The latter was nominated for Best Pop Female Vocal Performance at the Grammys. 

Roberta soon began recording with Donny Hathaway, a classmate at Howard, and the pair released the album Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway.  One of the tracks, a remake of James Taylor's "You've Got a Friend", was released as a single.  The song was nominated for Best Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals at the Grammy Awards, but only went to #29 on the chart.  As talented as she was and as promising as her career appeared to be in 1969, Roberta was having a tough time getting off the ground.

Then in 1972, actor Clint Eastwood chose a song from the album First Take, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" for the soundtrack of his directorial debut Play Misty for Me.  The song went on to become the biggest hit of 1972, spending six weeks at #1 in the United States, reaching #1 in Canada and Australia, earning Roberta a Gold record, and becoming a classic, one of The Top 100 Songs of the Rock Era*.

"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" captured the Grammy Award for Record of the Year.  With the single in high rotation at radio stations all across the country, the album also went to #1 and is now just shy of 2 million units sold in the U.S. alone. 

With that landmark single finally accomplishing what other songs could not do, namely putting Roberta on the map, she then released another single with Hathaway--"Where Is The Love", which peaked at #5 overall and #1 on the Easy Listening chart in the United States and sold over one million copies.  Flack & Hathaway won the Grammy for Best Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus.

The following year, Flack released the album Killing Me Softly with His Song.  The title song was the first single, and it went to #1 for five weeks in the U.S., again longer than any other song of 1973.  The song also topped charts in Canada and Australia.  It won Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female at the Grammy Awards.  Flack thus shares the distinction (along with U2) as the only artists to ever win Record of the Year in consecutive years.  It too is a solid member of The Top 500 Songs of the Rock Era*.  

Flack also captured an American Music Award for Favorite Female Soul/R&B Artist, and she was nominated for Favorite Female Pop/Rock Artist and Favorite Pop/Rock Single (for "Killing Me Softly...).  Both the single and album sold over two million copies each, and Killing Me Softly with His Song was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards.

The follow-up was "Jesse", which reached #3 on the Easy Listening chart:

In 1974, Flack reached #1 for the third time in as many years with the single "Feel Like Makin' Love".  It was the lead single from the album of the same name, and was nominated for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female at the Grammys.  The song was also nominated for Favorite Soul/R&B Single at the American Music Awards, and Flack was nominated for Favorite Female Soul/R&B Artist.

In 1978, Flack & Hathaway came up with a smash--
"The Closer I Get To You", an across-the-board-winner that hit #2 on the Popular chart,  #1 on the R&B chart and #3 on the Adult Contemporary chart.  It also hit #1 and went Gold.

The duo earned Grammy nominations for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group, and Flack's album was nominated for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female.  Flack chose "If Ever I See You Again" as the next single, and it reached #1 on the AC chart.

Flack & Hathaway were also nominated for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group at the Grammys for their song "Back Together Again", and Flack scored another American Music Award nomination for Favorite Female Soul/R&B Artist.  But in 1979, Hathaway died of apparent suicide.  Needless to say, Roberta was devastated.  She went through a dry spell until her 1982 album I'm the One, which contained the single "Making Love".  The song hit #7 on the Adult Contemporary chart and #13 overall.

The title song reached the Top 10 as well on the AC chart.

Flack recorded the album Born to Love with Peabo Bryson in 1983.  A Gold record was presented to the pair for their smash "Tonight, I Celebrate My Love", which jumped to #2 in the U.K., #4 in Canada, and #4 on the AC chart in the U.S.

The follow-up single, "You're Looking Like Love To Me", landed at #5.

In 1986, Flack sang the theme song ("Together Through the Years") for the NBC television show Valerie.  The song was used on the show for the next six seasons.  Two years later, Flack released the album Oasis.  The title song hit #1 on the R&B chart and #13 on the Adult Contemporary chart.

Three years later, Roberta combined with another soul gentleman, Maxi Priest, for the title song on Flack's album Set the Night to Music.  It peaked at #2 on the AC chart and #6 overall in the U.S. and #9 in Canada.

In 1995, Flack's album Roberta gave Flack her 13th Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance.  In 1999, Flack received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In 2007, Roberta founded the Roberta Flack School of Music at the Hyde Leadership Charter School in the Bronx, New York, providing an innovative and inspiring music education program to underprivileged students free of charge.

In 2012, Flack released the album Let it Be Roberta, an album of Beatles covers, including "Hey Jude" and "Let it Be".  Flack moved into The Dakota apartment building in New York City at the same time that John Lennon and Yoko Ono did.  Flack has been asked to do a second interpretative album of Beatles classics, and she is working on just that.

Roberta is a spokesperson for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Flack has won four Grammy Awards and has had 13 hits, with six of those going Top 10 and three #1 songs in her career.  She has excelled on the all-important Adult Contemporary chart, where she has enjoyed 20 career hits, with more than half of those (12) reaching the Top 10, capped off with four #1's. 

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