Roberta Flack

Killing us softly

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Depending on your age, the voice you hear in your head when the song “Killing Me Softly with His Song” is mentioned is quite possibly that of Lauryn Hill, who, with her fellow Fugees, saw her cover of it hit the top of the pop charts in 1996.

With all due respect to Hill—she’s a goddess, her version of “Killing Me Softly” is iconic and her album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is flawless—but when I hear “Strumming my pain with his fingers/Singing my life with his words,” the only voice I hear is Roberta Flack’s.

It is true Flack had a hit with the song—which spent five weeks atop the Billboard chart and eventually won the singer a couple of Grammys—years before I was born. But thanks to my mother’s record collection, which was replete with ’70s divas such as Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and, yes, Roberta Flack, songs like “Killing Me Softly” were part of the soundtrack of my youth.

But Flack is no one-hit wonder. Along with “Killing Me Softly,” the silky-voiced singer from North Carolina can count “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” “Where Is the Love,” “The Closer I Get to You,” and more among her rich roster of songs that have become classics. She’s also the first solo artist to win back-to-back Grammys for Record of the Year (for “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in 1973 and “Killing Me Softly” in 1974), an achievement that has not been duplicated by anyone since. And lest you think Flack’s fire flamed out along with so many others with the end of the ’70s, she made her way back to heavy rotation in the ’80s with “Making Love” and “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love.” And then when the ’90s came along, so did Flack, charting another hit, “Set the Night to Music,” a duet with Maxi Priest that was inescapable radio fodder for a time.

Such longevity is a welcome thing for any musician, but for Flack, it didn’t come about via luck or accident. She was born into a musical family, began playing piano when she was nine years old and got early inspiration from seeing Sam Cooke and Mahalia Jackson perform. As she got older, her piano study became serious and she eventually displayed such great skill that she was awarded a full music scholarship to prestigious Howard University, where she enrolled at the age of 15.

And then she began to sing.

It should come as no surprise that Flack excelled in college, where she changed her major from piano to voice, became assistant conductor of the university choir and won ovations and accolades for her outstanding work on everything she touched.

From there, Flack should’ve been a shoo-in for the kind of success she now enjoys, but instead she made her way in the music industry like so many other obscure artists: she worked a day job—in her case, as a teacher—and worked on her music career during nights and weekends. With her classical training, she got paid gigs accompanying opera singers, and would then sing the blues and soul standards she loved for the crowds during intermission. Bit by bit, Flack built a following, until she was discovered and signed to a deal with Atlantic Records.

Music is rife with stories of bands that have taken weeks, months, even years to record albums, but Flack is the rare case of the exact opposite of those nightmare scenarios—she recorded her debut album, from top to bottom, beginning to end, in a mere 10 hours. It was, appropriately enough, titled First Take, and hopes were high that it would take the world by storm.

It would’ve been nice had that happened, but, in truth, sales of First Take were sluggish and Flack might’ve found herself in danger of fading into obscurity—no matter how silky-smooth her voice or elite her training might be—were it not for a little help from an unlikely source: Clint Eastwood.

It was Dirty Harry himself that selected “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” to be part of the soundtrack to his directorial debut Play Misty for Me, and the rest, as they say, is award-winning, platinum-selling, superstar-making history.

And yes, Flack and Fleetwood are still friends.

During her decades-long career, Flack has become known for more than just her incredible voice. She’s also devoted a considerable portion of her life to advocating for causes and organizations she’s passionate about. She’s sung for Nelson Mandela, campaigns for artists’ rights as a member of Artist Empowerment Coalition, is a spokesperson for the ASPCA, and founded a school in the Bronx to teach music to underprivileged children.

Flack’s life is characterized by hard work and high achievement, and now when she performs, people are quick to line up and laud her. And when she launches into her most famous song, the one about strumming and singing, she still kills us all, ever so softly.

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