Roberta Flack

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Roberta Flack
Flack in 2008
Flack in 2008
Background information
Birth nameRoberta Cleopatra Flack
Also known asRubina Flake[1]
Born (1937-02-10) February 10, 1937 (age 84)
Black Mountain, North Carolina, United States
GenresJazz, folk, soul, R&B
Occupation(s)Singer-songwriter, musician
InstrumentsVocals, keyboards
Years active1968–present
LabelsAtlantic (1968–1996)
Angel / Capitol (1997)
RAS / 429 / Sony/ATV (2011–present)
Associated actsDonny Hathaway
Peabo Bryson
Maxi Priest

Roberta Cleopatra Flack (born February 10, 1937)[2][3] is an American singer. She is known for her No. 1 singles "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face", "Killing Me Softly with His Song", "Feel Like Makin' Love"; and "Where Is the Love" and "The Closer I Get to You", two of her many duets with Donny Hathaway. Flack is also noted for her influence on the subgenre of contemporary R&B called quiet storm, along with her interpretations of songs by various songwriters, such as Leonard Cohen and members of The Beatles.[4]

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. Only U2 and Billie Eilish have repeated this feat.

Early life[edit]

Flack lived with a musical family, born in Black Mountain, North Carolina, to parents Laron Flack, a Veterans Administration draftsman,[5] and Irene Council[6] Flack[7] a church organist,[8] on February 10, 1937,[9][2] (some sources also say 1939; the 1940 Census states Roberta was 3 years old)[10][11] and raised in Arlington, Virginia.[12] Growing up 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.[13]

When Flack was nine, she started taking an interest in playing the piano,[7] and during her early teens, Flack so excelled at classical piano that Howard University awarded her a full music scholarship.[14] 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.

Roberta 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.[15]


Early career[edit]

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.[citation needed] Flack began singing professionally after being hired to perform regularly at Mr. Henry's Restaurant, on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., in 1968.[16][17]

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."


Flack in 1971

Les McCann discovered Flack singing and playing jazz in a Washington nightclub.[7] 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.[12] 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 Harlem, and others. The U.S. delegation of musical artists was invited to perform for 14th anniversary of African independence in Ghana.[18] 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.[19]

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.[20] 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,[21] 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.[12]

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.[20] 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.[22] 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. Also in 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.


Flack in 1995

Flack had a 1982 hit single with "Making Love", written by Burt Bacharach (the title track of the 1982 film of the same name), which reached #13. She began working with Peabo Bryson with more limited success, 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.[23] 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[edit]

Flack performing in 2013

In 1999, a star with Flack's name was placed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.[14] That 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.[24] Flack knew John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as both households moved in 1975 into The Dakota apartment building in New York City, and had apartments across the hall from each other. Flack has stated that she has already been asked to do a second album of Beatles covers.[25] She is currently involved in an interpretative album of the Beatles' classics.[26]

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.[27]

Critical reputation[edit]

Flack's minimalist, classically trained approach to her songs was seen by a number of critics as lacking in grit and uncharacteristic of soul music. According to music scholar Jason King, her work was regularly described with the adjectives "boring", "depressing", "lifeless", "studied", and "calculated";[13] AllMusic's Steve Huey said it has been called "classy, urbane, reserved, smooth, and sophisticated".[28] In 1971, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau reported that "Flack is generally regarded as the most significant new black woman singer since Aretha Franklin, and at moments she sounds kind, intelligent, and very likable. But she often exhibits the gratuitous gentility you'd expect of someone who says 'between you and I'."

Reviewing her body of work from the 1970s, he later argued that the singer "has nothing whatsoever to do with rock and roll or rhythm and blues and almost nothing to do with soul", comparing her middle-of-the-road aesthetic to Barry Manilow but with better taste, which he believed does not necessarily guarantee more enduring music: "In the long run, pop lies are improved by vulgarity."[13]

Writer and music critic Ann Powers argued in a 2020 piece for NPR that "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." [4] Jason King argued that she occupies a complex place in popular music, as "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."[4]

Personal life[edit]

Flack is a member of the Artist Empowerment Coalition, which advocates the right of artists 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". In the Bronx section of New York City, the Hyde Leadership Charter School's after-school music program is called "The Roberta Flack School of Music" and is in partnership with Flack, who founded the school, which provides free music education to underprivileged students.[29]

Between 1966 and 1972, she was married to Steve Novosel. Together, they had a son, Bernard Wright, who became a successful funk and jazz keyboardist and producer.[7][30] Flack is the aunt of professional ice skater Rory Flack.[31][30]

According to DNA analysis, she is of Cameroonian descent.[32]


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.[33] In a statement, her manager announced that Flack had suffered a stroke a few years prior and still was not feeling well, but was "doing fine" and being kept overnight for medical observation.[34]

In popular culture[edit]

Her collaboration with Donny Hathaway is mentioned in the song "What A Catch, Donnie" on Fall Out Boy's fourth studio album, Folie à Deux.

American experimental producer Flying Lotus had a song named after her ("RobertaFlack") on his Los Angeles album.

In 1991, Hong Kong singer Sandy Lam recorded a cover version of "And So It Goes" called "微涼" in the album 夢了、瘋了、倦了. Although it was not officially promoted by the record company, it was played by many DJs.

In the Red Hot Chili Peppers' song "My Lovely Man", on the album Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Anthony Kiedis sang "I listen to Roberta Flack, but I know you won't come back."

She is a favorite singer of Vic Wilcox, in David Lodge's novel Nice Work, winner of the Sunday Express Book of the Year award in 1988.

In the 2014 Marvel movie X-Men: Days of Future Past, her hit "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" is playing when Hugh Jackman's character, Wolverine's consciousness initially arrives back in 1973. The song also appears in Marlon Riggs's 1989 experimental documentary Tongues Untied.

Her song "Compared to What" plays over the opening credits to the 2015 movie The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The song also appears in Paul Thomas Anderson's 1997 film Boogie Nights.


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

Flack was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2009.[35]

Grammy Awards[edit]

The Grammy Awards are awarded annually by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Flack has received four awards from thirteen nominations.[36]

Year Nominee / 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[edit]

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

Year Nominee / 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



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  4. ^ a b c Powers, Ann (February 10, 2020). "Why Is Roberta Flack's Influence On Pop So Undervalued?". NPR. Retrieved November 1, 2021.
  5. ^ "After Three Years on Tilt, Roberta Flack Is Finally Lighting Up the Charts Again". Retrieved November 28, 2018.
  6. ^ "Laron Flack and Irene Council, 14 Dec 1931". Retrieved August 23, 2017.
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  10. ^ Brass Music of Black Composers: A Bibliography. Greenwood Publishing Group. 1996. p. 96. ISBN 9780313298264.
  11. ^ Shirley, David (2001). North Carolina. Marshall Cavendish. p. 128. ISBN 9780761410720.
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  13. ^ a b c Weisbard, Eric, ed. (2007). Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music. Duke University Press. p. 183. ISBN 978-0822340416.
  14. ^ a b "Roberta Flack". Roberta Flack. Retrieved November 11, 2012.
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  16. ^ "Mr. Henry's Restaurant – History Summary". Archived from the original on March 19, 2014. Retrieved May 23, 2014.
  17. ^ "Mr. Henry's Restaurant – Home". Archived from the original on February 22, 2014. Retrieved May 23, 2014.
  18. ^ "Soul to Soul (film review)". Time Out. Retrieved March 29, 2017.
  19. ^ Soul to Soul World Catalog Search Results. OCLC 840123917.
  20. ^ a b Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 312. ISBN 0-214-20512-6.
  21. ^ McGillagan (1999), p.194
  22. ^ Pond, Steve (June 12, 1997). "Singer's Career Was Softly Killed By Bad Luck And Insecurity". The Deseret News. p. C5. Retrieved November 18, 2020.
  23. ^ "Bad by Michael Jackson". Songfacts. Songfacts®, LLC. Retrieved December 4, 2020.
  24. ^ "Roberta Flack Gearing Up for Release of New Album "LET IT BE ROBERTA: ROBERTA FLACK SINGS THE BEATLES," an Album of Beatles' Classics". Yahoo! Finance. January 17, 2012.[permanent dead link]
  25. ^ "Roberta Flack's Long And Winding Road". NPR. February 18, 2012.
  26. ^ "Roberta Flack Biography". Retrieved May 23, 2014.
  27. ^ Mitchell, Gail (October 26, 2018). "Roberta Flack Returns With New Song 'Running': Premiere". Billboard. Retrieved January 23, 2020.
  28. ^ Huey, Steve (n.d.). "Roberta Flack". Retrieved March 18, 2017.
  29. ^ "Roberta Flack School of Music". Retrieved November 11, 2012.
  30. ^ a b DeCurtis, Anthony (March 23, 1997). "Two Seasoned Voices, Together Raised for a Cause". The New York Times. Retrieved January 14, 2015.
  31. ^ Jacobson, Robert. "Roberta Flack – Biography". Retrieved January 14, 2015.
  32. ^ "Growing Interest in DNA-Based Genetic Testing Among African American with Historic Election of President Elect Barack Obama". Retrieved November 11, 2012.
  33. ^ Haring, Bruce (April 20, 2018). "Roberta Flack Falls Ill At Apollo Theater, Rushed To Hospital". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved April 21, 2018.
  34. ^ Fernandez, Alexia (April 21, 2018). "Singer Roberta Flack Rushed to the Hospital After She Fell Ill at the Apollo Theater". People. Retrieved April 21, 2018.
  35. ^ "2009 Inductees". North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
  36. ^ "Past Winners Search". Retrieved November 11, 2012.

General bibliography[edit]

  • McGilligan, Patrick (1999). Clint: The Life and Legend. Harper Collins. ISBN 0-00-638354-8.
  • Bryan, Sarah; Beverly Patterson (2013). "Roberta Flack". African American Trails of Eastern North Carolina. North Carolina Arts Council. p. 92. ISBN 978-1469610795.

External links[edit]