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Roberta Flack Featured in NPR Music
Roberta Flack’s career demands a new way of thinking about the word ‘genius.’
Flack’s impact as a performer in the pop music space in the 1970s was sudden and massive. Over the next four decades, Flack built a legacy on a quiet belief in limitlessness.
February 10, 2020
by ANN POWERS
Turning the Tables is NPR’s ongoing multi-platform series dedicated to recentering the popular music canon on voices that have been marginalized, underappreciated, or hidden in plain sight. In 2020, we will publish an occasional series looking closely at the careers of significant women in music, treasured albums or significant scenes. This is the first in the series.
Roberta Flack has always held two souls within her body. From her childhood days onward, she was herself, the daughter of a draftsman and a church choir organist who learned to play music at her mother’s knee. This Roberta strove to understand both Chopin and Methodist hymnody and was precocious enough to gain admission to Howard University at 15. She was a shy, awkward, diligent girl with her nose always in a book and fingers tired from practicing piano scales.
Even then, in her deepest being, she was also Rubina Flake, renowned concert artiste, effortlessly dazzling Carnegie Hall crowds with her performances. Rubina helped Roberta endure the indignities faced by gifted black children in the South, as when she’d sing “Carry Me Back To Old Virginny” for contest judges in hotels where she wasn’t allowed to stay the night. Her alter ego helped her feel glamorous and capable when others told her she was imperfect. Rubina had no need to respect others’ restrictions. She was a diva, surrounded by bouquets of backstage flowers and the approval of an elite who didn’t describe her as having “a chipmunk smile and a nut-brown face.”
Flack graduated from Howard with dreams of becoming an opera singer. Discouragement from a vocal coach led her to reconsider and turn toward music education as a career and popular music as an avocation. She taught in rural North Carolina and at several Washington, D.C.- area schools, eventually establishing herself as a nightclub performer on the side. Her repertoire and her warmth as a performer made her a sensation at Capitol Hill’s Mr. Henry’s, where she played up the classical elements in folk revival ballads and Motown hits, explaining how she did so as she went along – “it’s based on an interesting baroque form called the passacaglia,” she’d tell the crowd, offering a song, maybe, by Leonard Cohen. It was this unexpected blend of elements, not only in repertoire, but playing out within each song, that drew other musicians like the soul jazz pioneer Les McCann to Flack. After a night at Mr. Henry’s he decided he needed to hook her up with his producer, Joel Dorn. Dorn soon signed Flack to Atlantic Records, and in 1969 they made First Take, the debut effort in a recording career that would bring her 18 Billboard-charting songs, four Grammy awards and 13 nominations and, at this year’s Grammys, lifetime achievement awards.
“I always say that ‘love is a song’ – meaning that music reaches beyond age, race, nationality and religion to touch our hearts,” Roberta Flack recently wrote when asked by email to reflect upon the breadth of her career. (She mostly speaks to journalists this way now, having suffered some health setbacks in recent years.) Flack is 83 today – her birthday – and a titan in the eyes of many fellow artists and discerning fans. In more than a half-century of making music, she’s established herself as one of the most distinctive song stylists in the pop arena.
She is best known for majestic ballads like 1973’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” which laid the groundwork for the neo-soul sounds of R&B in the 21st century. But real heads, as the perennially hip Flack might say herself, continually find their way to her albums, which are funky, sexy and political, blending jazz and Latin and rock and, always, classical elements in ways that defy the “adult contemporary” label often attached to her work. She’s so often been ahead of the curve in her 50 years recording, bringing the Brazilian arranger and composer Eumir Deodato out of the jazz world into her sessions in the 1970s, helping R&B stalwart and future Disney balladeer Peabo Bryson break through to the mainstream in the early ’80s, connecting with new wave reggae star Maxi Priest for a Top 10 hit in the 1990s. Long before “post-genre” was a cliche on a million pop aspirants’ lips, Flack showed how to build a legacy based on a quiet belief in limitlessness. Starting with First Take – which will soon be reissued in an extras-packed deluxe edition – she established her own parameters and then continually transcended them.
Though she does occasionally co-write her material, Flack came to fame as an interpreter as bold and discerning as her role models Nina Simone and Frank Sinatra. Like them, she had no fear of putting a Broadway ballad like “The Impossible Dream” next to a Bee Gees song on her setlists. Her inventiveness and panache placed Flack beside Aretha Franklin, Judy Collins and Joan Baez as prime revisionists of the American songbook at the turn of the 1970s. She made room in the repertoire for the new generation of singer-songwriters emerging from the folk revival, like Cohen and Laura Nyro, and for civil rights movement-inspired black composers like Eugene McDaniels, who authored many of her most powerful and political songs. Later she would work with McDaniels and others to invent a new style of R&B that built musical all-inclusiveness into its circulatory system – the marketing term applied to it was “quiet storm” – and which, after too many years of critical underestimation, would reveal itself as a prime element in 21st century pop.
Flack is primed for the kind of critical and popular renaissance that brought Nina Simone back into the forefront of the musical conversation not long ago, and unlike that lost genius, she is still with us to enjoy it during her lifetime. As the only solo artist to win the Grammy for Record of the Year two years in a row – in 1973 for “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and in 1974 for “Killing Me Softly With His Song” – she should have been granted, at the very least, a spotlight tribute during this year’s televised ceremony, especially since host Alicia Keys owes Flack a considerable (and, by her, acknowledged) artistic debt. Instead, there was merely one quick shot of Flack smiling beatifically in the audience. Perhaps that cutaway did capture something: the failure of popular music’s official institutions to fully track Flack’s importance. She is beloved, yet underestimated, a treasure too rarely held up to the light.
One reason for this, unavoidably, is racism. After the 1980s, when new radio formats and outlets like MTV did much to undo the genre-busting experiments of the previous decade, Flack continued to be a regular presence on both the black-oriented R&B and white-dominated adult contemporary charts. But the influence of this firebrand who had openly defied others’ definitions of “soul” was increasingly downplayed within the emerging histories of both rock and soul. (One obvious slight: Though she has been eligible since 1994, she’s never even been nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.) The values her music conveys – virtuosity’s attention to detail; the warm sensuality and tender eroticism shared by longtime friends and lovers; revelations reached slowly and thoughtfully instead of in a clattering crash – didn’t coalesce within a rock and roll-defined hierarchy that puts rebels and gritty individualists at the top. Within black communities and among artists of color, Flack’s music has always remained a central guiding force. But to fully acknowledge Roberta Flack’s importance is to rethink the presumptions that have haunted popular music for as long as she herself has been making music. Really listening to her seems like a good place to start.
It was classical music that first taught Flack that anything could be incorporated into her art. The compositions she loved struck her as open fields where any idea or feeling could circulate. “For the first three decades of my life, I lived in the world of classical music,” Flack wrote to me. “I found in it wonderful melodies and harmonies that were the vehicles through which I could express myself.” Her classical training suited a character prone from childhood to be careful and self-reflective and made Flack an exceptionally sensitive and deeply inventive interpreter. “My music is inspired thought by thought, and feeling by feeling,” she wrote. “Not note by note. I tell my own story in each song as honestly as I can in the hope that each person can hear it and feel their own story within those feelings.”
In an intimate 1989 interview with Essence editor Susan L. Taylor, Flack shared the mantra that she adopted in childhood. It’s from one of her favorite old hymns, by the depressive 19th-century Methodist minister Maltbie Davenport Babcock.Be strong, we are not here to play, to dream, to drift. We have hard work to do, and loads to lift. Shun not the struggle, ’tis God’s gift. For the young Roberta, music-making became the space where she could show that strength, not through florid emotional exertion but in the care she put into each note she sang, each phrase she explored on the piano. Telling Taylor, “I think everything you do as a Black person in this country represents a struggle for survival,” she explained that her power came in knowing “I have intelligence that no one can ever take away from me.”
Psychologists popularized the term “emotional intelligence” 20 years after Flack made her first landmark albums, but its meanings resonate throughout her entire catalogue. She could infuse a simple lyric like the one Ewan MacColl wrote for “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” with so many shades that, as MacColl later remarked, “an hors d’ouevre became the main course.” A light-spirited, wandering tune hastily written because the folk singer’s future wife Peggy Seeger needed a “very short, modern love song” for a radio program, in Flack’s hands “First Time” became virtually infinite. She found a slow rondo within it, building up its tension in waves, turning it into a first-hand account of desire that builds in a non-linear way that evokes a woman’s erotic responses. It’s not surprising that, after lovers, new mothers are those likely to find the intensity of Flack’s rendition relatable, as they enter into a relationship that redefines the basic rhythms of their bodies and their lives. An example: “Shortly after we brought him home I held him in my arms and listened to Roberta Flack singing this tune I felt my heart exploding in my chest with a love I couldn’t begin to put into words so Roberta’s will have to do for now,” the Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O wrote on her Instagram page after giving birth to her son.
The wide scope of Flack’s appeal, and her fearlessness about traveling beyond artistic borders, helped make her a major figure in 1970s popular culture. Her biography dazzles with surprising details. She sang at Jackie Robinson’s funeral in 1972. She was the sole guest on a live broadcast of Bill Cosby’s hugely influential television show in April 1970, and in 1971, she performed at the Soul to Soul Festival in Accra, Ghana, alongside Wilson Pickett and Ike & Tina Turner. She performed a duet with Michael Jackson on the television adaptation of the influential feminist children’s album Free To Be… You And Me. She became one of the first black investors in the radio station WBLS in 1974, and the first black person to buy an apartment in the famous Dakota apartment building on Manhattan’s upper east side, in the mid-1970s. (Flack’s bedroom wall abutted John Lennon’s rehearsal space, and she and the Lennon-Ono’s became close friends.) In the 1980s she toured with Miles Davis; in 2001, not long after he left the White House, she accompanied Bill Clinton to a Harlem AIDS fundraiser. In the 1970s, as much as Joni Mitchell embodied the complexities of women’s liberation for white women, and Patti Smith stood for an emergent punk androgyny, Flack represented the sophistication of black women in an era when mores were rapidly changing, and she remained an influential presence in many different cultural spheres.
Across the decades, Flack turned what is often misinterpreted as her “mood music” into a unique musical form that integrated elements across musical genres with unparalleled grace and receptiveness. Her approach is one of the best examples of what in the 1970s became known as “fusion,” but it contrasts with the showier gestures of the mostly-male artists who pounded that subgenre of jazz-rock into existence. Flack just as powerfully established a route beyond the pigeonholes that many other artists struggled to transcend. Accomplishing this, she also did what (as the scholar Robin D.G. Kelley has pointed out) jazz players like Johnny Hodges and Thelonious Monk managed: she reinvented the art song. “My main interest is in telling my story through a song – whether mine or someone else’s,” Flack told me. “Tell the truth with clarity and honesty so that the listener can feel their story.”
As Flack developed this approach, she brought Rubina Flake with her, using the pseudonym when she took ;over from Dorn as producer of her fifth solo album, 1975’s Feel Like Makin’ Love. Flack had, in fact, played an increasingly central role in producing each of the five albums they did together, but only after Dorn exited the scene did she take credit. In a 1978 Los Angeles Timesinterview, citing “a subtle sexism and racism” in the music industry, she reflected on the struggles she’d faced as the only prominent woman recording artist of color officially in the producer’s chair. “Like everything else in this society, the record-production process is male-dominated,” she said. “There are no great women producers because they have such a hard time getting started. A black woman has an even tougher time getting started. No man in the business would say it’s racism or sexism, but the fact remains the women producers aren’t there. We must be threatening to the men in the business. A lot of the men don’t think you’re serious or capable so they don’t give you the support.” Flack has collaborated with producers including Arif Mardin ;and her protege, the jazz bassist Marcus Miller, but since the late 1970s has retained primary control in the studio.
Flack’s insistence on governing her recording sessions recalls the similar determination of Joni Mitchell, whose career parallels hers in many ways, though they’re not often historically associated. (They did share in one big musical moment: Both appeared as part of Bob Dylan’s mid-1970s Rolling Thunder Revue.) Like Mitchell – born, coincidentally, Roberta Joan Anderson – Flack singularly avoided genre categorization; also like her, she was a master at connecting with her listeners in ways that felt transformative. Reviews of early Flack shows resemble the gushes aimed at Mitchell in those years. “Visually, when she starts off she isn’t beautiful and she isn’t anything more than a very good singer, but by the end of the evening she is just the most incredible woman you have ever seen,” wrote Vicki Wickham, a journalist who also managed artists like Dusty Springfield and Labelle, wrote of a 1971 Flack concert. “She blossoms before your eyes.” Minus the part about looks – unsurprisingly the lithe and blond Mitchell was greatly admired for her beauty, while the voluptuous, natural-haired Flack consistently faced critiques, especially of her weight – this could have been a Joni review. Both women also occupied a space between the record-store bin labels, and were criticized for it, particularly for crossing racial lines – Mitchell for her adventures in jazz, Flack for her supposedly unsoulful classical leanings. And both were ace collaborators and their own bosses, acknowledged or not, in the studio. Forming their personae, however, these two reigning artists diverged. Mitchell made a mission of declaring herself a genius who stands alone, while Flack always stressed the collaborative process of music making. Perhaps this is why critics and historians generally accepted Mitchell’s flattering self-descriptions while focusing on Flack as good-natured but fanatically perfectionist.
Or perhaps – no, definitely – we still need new ways to think about genius. In his definitive essay on her legacy, the critic Jason King extolled Flack’s mastery of “vibe”: the outward expression of the feeling and spirit that motivates the creative process, first within one person and then in collaboration with others, a musical experience that, as King writes, “produced certain scales of social possibility around intimacy and communion.” Quoting Les McCann’s liner notes for First Take, King refers to the force Flack channels as “getting-togetherness.” Flack created a musical language that made the ineffable palpable. This language is erotic, but not narrowly sexual. It is political, as when she takes on black-power protest songs like McDaniels’ “Compared To What,” but never strident. It’s masterful without devolving into posturing. And it’s hugely influential across the spectrum of pop music.
As King discusses, Flack’s vibing centrally shaped quiet storm, that R&B style that would sustain her career after her initial success in the early 1970s. Though the 1975 ballad by Smokey Robinson gave that elegant format its name, Flack’s blueprint, set down on her first three albums, preceded that effort, and with Feel Like Makin’ Loves he would make a whole world of it. Flack continued to shape the subgenre with her 1980s duets with Peabo Bryson and generate classics for its playlists into the 1990s. By then,Erykah Badu, D’Angelo and others were referencing her intensity and cool to develop the style dubbed neo-soul. Hip-hop trio the Fugees put her legacy front and center in their 1996 reinvention of “Killing Me Softly,” which itself won a Grammy and established Lauryn Hill as a new generational voice. Later, Solange would present her own spin on the introversion at the heart of Flack’s music. Working with these artists and in their own solo efforts, essential producers like J Dilla, Flying Lotus and Rafael Saadiq borrowed from Flack’s sense of dynamics – that way of revealing the complex strata of what seems like sonic air.
Today Flack’s presence looms over both R&B and indie “bedroom” pop as if she were one of the astral ;beings in Ava DuVernya’s version of A Wrinkle In Time; she is a source of energy and wisdom. Flack’s 1970s hits, especially, are perennial touchstones. In 2016, The New York Times used Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” as a litmus test in a video highlighting new voices including Tinashe, SZA and Dej Loaf. During a video-recorded 2019 tour through her Amoeba Records shopping bag, the indie-pop auteur Clairo credited Flack for teaching her “how to feel a song sonically… she was the first person I listened where I was able to focus on the importance of a really good structure, a really good foundation in the song.” Jazz artists like Cassandra Wilson, Norah Jones, Diana Krall and Cecile McLorin Salvant – whose new rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” with Rafiq Bhatia shows how, in Flack’s hands, this was always a call to prayer – learned similar lessons. Rubina Flake may have never played a concerto at Carnegie Hall, but Flack, who’s enraptured crowds on such stages for decades, actually recomposed pop.
Why, then, is the influence of Roberta Flack so underplayed within popular music history? King’s essay, originally presented at the Museum of Popular Culture’s annual Pop Conference and then published in a 2007 anthology, remains the only serious career-spanning academic exploration of her work. (The book was edited by my husband, Eric Weisbard, and I was lucky enough to be in the room when King presented his remarkable work.) Since then, more than 20 books have been published about Bob Dylan. More than 30 have been published about The Beatles in the past two years alone. Dylan and The Beatles are culture industries unto themselves, but many artists whose careers have coincided with and paralleled Flack’s have at least enjoyed some significant canonizing attention in the past decade. Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield all received definitive biographies. Nina Simone and the Eagles were the subject of widely viewed documentaries. Carole King’s life story inspired a successful Broadway play.
Death, as it does, also reframed some reputations. After her passing in 2018, Aretha Franklin’s place at the center of music history was reinforced by not only an outpouring of grief but by deep cultural inquiry, with hundreds, if not thousands, of essays published on her impact. The same thing happened with David Bowie upon his demise in 2016. Illness, too, sometimes seems to set the stage for greater sympathy toward underestimated figures. This past year, Linda Ronstadt’s career has rightly been celebrated as part of the annual Kennedy Center Honors ceremony and in a documentary that played in theaters nationwide. Her return to the spotlight even inspired an apologetic essay by Elvis Costello, who’d been dismissive of her when the singer covered several of his songs on her 1980 album Mad Love. Noting her “artistic curiosity and daring,” Costello wrote that he’d sobbed uncontrollably when, at the end of the documentary, Ronstadt sang in a voice halted by Parkinson’s disease, “so much so that I had to slip out of theatre.”
Pathos opens the heart in ways that can defeat people’s assumptions; the fact that a mighty singer like Ronstadt has essentially lost her voice has moved ;many to remember just how valuable that voice was in its prime. Flack, too, has suffered health setbacks in recent years. When I sought Jason King’s opinion regarding Flack’s relative obscurity in the pantheon, he pointed to this: “Part of the reason she isn’t as well-known today is that she simply hasn’t been very active.” But he also remarked that Flack’s music always confused the largely white, male establishment that determines greatness through canonizing institutions like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“Flack also remains in a blind spot because she’s a complex figure, and the world has trouble with complex figures, especially complex black women who refuse simplistic classification,” he noted. “The nature of her power as a performer – to generate rapturous, spellbinding mood music and to plumb the depths of soulful heaviness by way of classically-informed technique – is not too easy to claim or make sense with the limited tools that we have in music criticism.”
Even at the height of her success, many white tastemakers dismissed Flack’s music as bland or even facile – considering it “oatmeal sentimentality,” King explained, rather than a “classically informed, serene approach to pop.” This is where things get sticky: Responses to Flack’s music, in the moment it was made as well as now, often reflect listeners’ assumptions about racial authenticity and individual agency. In the early 1970s, when she was one of pop’s best-selling and most critically acclaimed artists, she repeatedly encountered interviewers who put her in the impossible position of having to defend her music’s racialized bona-fides. “I do not like gimmicks and what I consider myself is a soulful singer in that I try to sing with all the feeling that I have in my body and my mind,” she told one journalist. A person with true soul is one who can take anybody’s song and transcend all the flaws, the technique and just make you listen.”
Flack never hesitated to map her own freedom by building a fully unrestricted repertoire that not only included the usual safe bridges into other genres, like Beatles songs, but many unexpected choices. She demanded mobility not only in terms of song selection, but in the studio, as she gathered collaborators that included jazz greats like bassist Ron Carter and guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, funk masters like Bernard Purdie, and even some electronic music pioneers.
Once she took over primary production duties, Flack’s music became “blacker,” or at least so some critics claimed. “She now prefers a more overtly black style – a dreamy, repetitive, gently jazzish kind of chant,” wrote John Rockwell in The New York Times in 1977, reviewing a nightclub appearance. Her recording sessions became all-star gatherings of then-and-future R&B leaders – in our email conversation Flack enthused about the all-star team who participated in the 1988 album Oasis, which was inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement: “Nick [Ashford] and Valerie [Simpson], Siedah Garrett, Maya [Angelou], Quincy [Jones], Marcus Miller… Brenda Russell, Greg Phillinganes, Paulino DaCosta, Don Alias and so many others.”) This was the period when radio programmers began resegregating the realm, and though Flack was among those rare artists whose songs appeared in multiple formats, in the public’s estimation she was generally slotted on the R&B side. Yet on Oasis, for example, she also worked with soft rock arranger Michael O’Martian – the man behind Christopher Cross’s format-defining hit “Sailing” – and her subsequent, 1991 album Set the Night To Music boasted a title track written by power ballad queen Diane Warren. One of her finest late-career works is her return to the Beatles catalog, Let It Be Roberta.
The 1970s was a rare time in rock-era popular music, when the cosmopolitan impulse was valued instead of held suspect. The reigning geniuses of the age, like Mitchell, Bowie, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, claimed a certain happily transgressive attitude as their right. Studio sessions brought players together across lines of race, style and nation – fusion wasn’t just a name applied to a certain strain of jazz-rock, but a general principle of operations for everyone from country rockers like J.D. Souther, who worked with jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd, to Carole King, whose mostly forgotten 1973 album Fantasy was a funk-jazz-soul concept album in which King imagined herself as “black or white, a woman or a man”; to Isaac Hayes, who steeped Jimmy Webb and Carpenters songs in symphonic funk and utterly reconstituted them. The 1970s impulse toward erasing genre and thus, identity, can now seem hopelessly naïve and self-unaware. Yet Roberta Flack’s music in this era, as carefully constructed as it was daring, never falls into the trap of clueless idealism.
Her music was always centered in her experience as a black woman who grew up in the South, crossing lines but also connecting her expanding universe back to her personal experience and her community. One way Flack maintained this link was through gospel music – not the shouting Pentecostalism most rock and roll fans associated with that world, but the “long line hymnody” cultivated within Methodist congregations. Those indelible early hits, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” both invoke that style of sacred singing, one of the oldest forms of African-American sacred self-expression, in which leaders would spin out phrases like wool becoming thread, so that responders could absorb the words and find their own ways into the melodies. “You know me, I like to slow everything down,” Flack told an audience in 1971. It was this sense of time upended, rooted in black sacred music, that gave Flack’s signature songs such power. King ;names this effect as an expression of “silent frenzy,” the form of spiritual rapture that, in African diaspora religions, results in almost ghostly stillness instead of the frenetic “falling out” that characterizes popular cultural depictions of gospelized joy.
Flack has always embodied expressions of blackness that value elegance and self-modulation as much as raw-spirited directness as a route to deeper emotional expression. Her exquisite collaborations with Donny Hathaway, most famously the 1972 hit “Where Is the Love,” play upon this idea of love as an art steeped in emotional refinement; the two musicians, who’d met at Howard University, were both classically trained, and achieved a mutual responsiveness when working together that cast desire as an exquisite exchange and romance as an elevating experience. The same spirit characterizes quiet storm, and as Flack helped pioneer it on late 1970s albums like Blue Lights in the Basement, she was reaching back into her own memories of how she and her friends found rapture in the ordinary world. “When I was young, kids would have dance parties in the basement of their homes,” she wrote in her email. To get a romantic feeling, they would drape a blue fabric across the light – Blue Lights in the Basement. I tried to capture the intense and enchanting mood of romance and mystery from those teenaged days in the music of that album.” This is the underappreciated gift of quiet storm, a style long dismissed as bourgeois background music. It considers the environment in which emotions and the erotic can be cultivated, one where responsiveness and imagination creates a haven – one that, like fusion music before it, is cosmopolitan but fundamentally black. “Quiet Storm as an evergreen black radio format is not really understood well,” King noted, “partly because it refuses to center white folks in its vision of black erotic intimacy and romance.”
Roberta Flack always returned to blackness as the wellspring of her creative life. The community she’s cultivated, from her early days being mentored by McCann to her later years guiding fresh talent like the brother-sister duo Jerry and Katreece Barnes, stands at the center of contemporary R&B’s history, a kind of jedi force charting its path. But Flack has also felt entitled to travel widely, claiming songs from everywhere. Hers is the freedom of the interpreter, who finds herself anew in many writers’ voices instead of being entrapped, as many singer-songwriters can be, in autobiography.
In this way, Flack is a lot like Ronstadt, another great voice who emerged at the end of the 1960s and played a role in pop’s defining processes ever since. Like Ronstadt, Flack established herself at the very moment when singer-songwriters were taking over the pop zeitgeist. Judy Collins, Joan Baez and Dionne Warwick, all stars before Flack became one, had clear connections to scenes grounded in songbooks – the folk revival and the torch singer/cocktail jazz lineage. Aretha Franklin’s gospel origin story and family ties to the struggle for civil rights made her authenticity unquestionable. Ronstadt and Flack, however, both wanted to stay unrooted, to maintain their eclectic values and explore interpretative singing as a creative act. Both had the audacity to present themselves as equals to the friends whose songs they took on and made indelibly new – to Warren Zevon, Glenn Frey and Don Henley in Ronstadt’s case, and Stevie Wonder and Gene McDaniels, among others, in Flack’s. Everyone around them, especially the men whose songs they made into hits, was grateful for their sonic alchemy in its time. But as the story of musical greatness became codified as one of autobiographical authorship, these women were too often read as second-class characters in the very epics they essentially authored.
Here’s the real story: In popular music, interpretation is a form of authorship. This was an undisputed truth until, in the rock era, a new cultural moment coincided with a shift in the economy of pop. Just as the counterculture fixated on individualism as a prime value – stepping away from communities and institutions like church, the family and the corporation – singer-songwriters emerged as the voices of a generation for whom “me first” was as compelling a concept as “sticking it to the man” or “free love.” In some ways, Ronstadt and Flack were old-fashioned, more like the country singers and jazz vocalists each admired; but by rising to the challenge to think of themselves as writers of sound and voice, each forged a unique artistic path. That both were also known for making audacious moves beyond their comfort zones, even after they’d developed signature sounds that would influence generations, speaks to this insistence that music forms and rejuvenates itself in the act of translation.
Linda Ronstadt finally got her due, in part, because a younger generation of artists working in country and Americana music found inspiration in her voice and her imagination, rejecting the idea that her work was not in some fundamental way self-authored. Flack has also long been held up by younger singers, but her legacy has been most profoundly felt within black private life, where her music remains in heavy rotation at family gatherings and in bedroom encounters alike. “She’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time,” King notes. “I think Flack is certainly well known in black communities of a certain age: Her songs remain R&B radio staples. If you’re young and you don’t know Flack by name, you’ve heard her songs because your daddy or mommy or your grandparents have played them.” Though many who love her consider Flack’s music a comfort – an oasis, as she once named it – the qualities that make her a constant companion in her fans’ lives, and within the evolution of R&B and pop itself, are dynamic: her artistic mobility, her creative intelligence, her ambition. As a child, she projected these gifts onto her dream self, Rubina Flake.They’ve become her signature as, over fifty years, she’s made each song she touches a means for telling her own story. “Every single song I’ve recorded expressed something deep and personal to me,” she said in summing up her career. “Each was my singular focus whether in the studio or on the stage.” Roberta Flack deserves that same attention as a major player in music history, and that level of grown-up love.
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