“I first met Flack several years ago backstage at the Grammys.I was interviewing her for Rolling Stone when Lady Gagadropped into our interviewjust to express her love and admiration for Flack.…her musical legacy and inspiration only growswith every passing year.And as (Billie) Eilish celebrated her back to backRecord Of The Year wins it just reminded everyonethat the first person to do that wasand will forever be Roberta Flack.”– Forbes’ Sunday Conversation with Steve Baltin
In case you missed it
Roberta Flack Featured in Forbes
Now Available at Digital Music Services
Set of Two CDs & Vinyl Album
Includes 12 Never-Before Released
1968 Demo Recordings For Atlantic Records
Flack Celebrates Grammy Wins
With Billie Eilish,
The Only Two Artists
To Now Have Back-to-Back
Record of the Year Awards
Flack Joins 2021 Record Store Day Line-Up
With Never-Heard-Before Version
of “What’s Going On”
A New Release from Her Recording Vaults
Roberta Flack On Social Activism In Music,
Great Collaborations And Grammy Love
When Billie Eilish took home her second consecutive Record Of The Year Grammy this year she became just the third artist ever to win the Record Of The Year award in back to back awards ceremonies. U2 achieved the feat in 2000 and 2001 for “Walk On” and “Beautiful Day” respectively. And well before they did it, Roberta Flack became the first artist to score the repeat win in 1974, taking home the honor for “Killing Me Softly” the year after she won for “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”
A Grammy legend for that dual win, Flack came back to the ceremony in 2020 to take home a deserved Lifetime Achievement Grammy. It was part of an active 2020 for the artist, who also celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of her debut, The First Take, with a deluxe edition last July.
Flack says it is incredibly meaningful for her to be celebrated by her peers and legions of musical fans. I first met Flack several years ago backstage at the Grammys. I was interviewing her for Rolling Stone when Lady Gaga dropped into our interview just to express her love and admiration for Flack.
Now 83, Flack unfortunately suffered a stroke in 2016 that affected her voice and keeps her from singing in public. But her musical legacy and inspiration only grow with every passing year. And as Eilish celebrated her back to back Record Of The Year wins it just reminded everyone that the first person to do that was and will forever be Roberta Flack.
The stroke unfortunately affected her speaking voice as well, but she graciously agreed to do an an email interview with me. And while I normally never do those, when you have the chance to speak to a true legend, you do not pass that up. So here is my Sunday Conversation with Flack.
Steve Baltin: Most artists don’t go back and revisit their own material unless it is for an anniversary or retrospective. So when you went back and listened to The First Take were there things that you heard differently or surprised you?
Roberta Flack: The tracks on First Take were part of the playlists for my performances at Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill, where I was working at the time. The songs were about events happening at the time in the world, in the U.S. and in my personal life. When I listened to the remastered tracks I was surprised that many of these songs are still (sometimes sadly) relevant to what is happening today.
Baltin: Most artists also don’t have perspective when making an album because they’re in the middle of it. So with so much distance from the original release are you able to hear it almost as a fan and figure out why the record had such a deep impact with people?
Flack: I’ve always tried to express myself musically from a place of complete honesty in the hope that each person can find his or her own story when they listen in a way that helps them to feel their own truth.
Baltin: Looking back on it did you know “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” would be so special?
Flack: I had no idea. When I recorded the song I was thinking of my cat, who had died. Through the years that song has meant so many different things to me.
Baltin: When you have songs like “First Time” or “Killing Me Softly” they make such an impact with fans. Are there favorite stories you have heard from people about how those songs have impacted their lives?
Flack: More than I can count or tell you about. Many people married, many babies made, many hearts broken and new loves found… A year or two ago, I was watching the Academy Awards and the director of the Best Picture of the year, when asked how he was going to celebrate his win, said that he and his cast and crew were going to sing karaoke to Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” hearing that my version of that song was included in celebrating such a wonderful night for them made me so happy.
Baltin: Tell me about your foundation and why you started it and the importance of giving back to arts education and animal welfare.
Flack: I was a teacher before I was a professional musician. My first job out of college was a teacher in the Washington DC public schools. When I considered what it meant to me to leave a legacy for future generations, I knew that meant more than just my catalog of recorded music, I wanted to provide young people with the opportunity to learn, grow and fully develop their minds. In 2006 I founded the Roberta Flack School of Music in the Bronx, which thanks to funding from Prince provided over 1000 children with music education for over 10 years.
Baltin: I read you are writing a children’s book, The Green Piano, which I love that idea. Why did you decide to tell your story in the format of a children’s book?
Flack: I’ve always wanted to share the story of my green piano with children. I recently met author Tonya Bolden, who joins me in giving voice to the story of how my father found an old, smelly piano in a junkyard and restored it for me and painted it green. This was my first piano and was the instrument in which I found my expression and inspiration as a young person to remember my dreams.
Baltin: We met a few years ago at the Grammys and I remember Lady Gaga coming up to you and going, “Roberta!” in the middle of our interview. How much has the love from younger artists you influenced meant to you?
Flack: This past year (2020) when I was at the Grammy telecast, Lizzo, Ariana Grande, Khalid and others told me how they have been inspired by my music. This means everything to me. Being recognized (in 2020) with the Grammy for Lifetime Achievement was so moving in that I was recognized and honored by young artists and that my music touches and continues to inspire change and growth.
Baltin: Billie Eilish, who I love got all the attention for the back to back Grammy Record Of The Year wins as you had. Having been one of the only three people to achieve that feat do you have any advice on how to handle that attention?
Flack: Keep telling your story as you live your life. Talk to each person in your audience directly as best you can through your music and don’t lose sight of the fact that your music is the instrument through which you can convey your truth to the world.
Baltin: Also, talk about H.E.R. and winning Song Of The Year for “I Can’t Breathe,” which carries on the tradition of social activism. How important is it for you to see other artists carry on that tradition?
Flack: Social activism in music is critical. We must always try to advocate for change to make this world better, kinder and more peaceful. I’m sorry that songs like “What’s Goin’ On” (Marvin Gaye), (my) “Tryin’ Times” and “Compared To What” (Les McCann and Eddie Harris) are still so relevant, but they are. “I Can’t Breathe” has moved so many young people to take action to advocate for change.
Baltin: You got to work with so many great artists, what makes a great collaboration?
Flack: A great collaboration is one in which the combination of two talents creates something unique and meaningful that neither could have without the other. Donny [Hathaway] and I had that synergy, as did Peabo [Bryson] and I. Maya (Angelou) and I wrote a song together that I recorded called “And So It Goes.” My collaboration with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company (Roberta Flack Suite) or my “Brazilian Suite” that I recorded with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra were all great collaborations.