Born February 10, 1940, in Black Mountain, N.C., raised in Arlington, Va.; daughter of Zaron (a draftsman) and Irene (a domestic and cook) Flack; married Stephen Novosel (a jazz bassist), 1966 (divorced, 1972). Education: Howard University, B.A., 1958, postgraduate studies in music education; doctoral work at University of Massachusetts--Amherst. Addresses: Record company --c/o Atlantic Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, N.Y. 10019.
When Roberta Flack's debut album, First Take, appeared in 1969, a war-weary public embraced the mellow sound: Flack's warm, velvety voice weaving intimate ballads, touched by the vitality of gospel and jazz. Also including rock, swing, and folk songs in her repertoire, the performer challenged the conventions of popular black music at the time, opening the door for the musical innovations of succeeding black artists like Stevie Wonder, Maurice White, and Marvin Gaye. A canny judge of musical material, Flack enjoyed a string of Number 1 hit singles during the early 1970s, and became known in the industry not only for her outstanding artistry but for her exacting professionalism and dedication.
No stranger to taking several months and studios to complete an album, Flack once insisted that her record company recall 500,000 singles of her "Killing Me Softly With His Song" so that she could provide a better ending. Becoming increasingly involved in all aspects of the music business, the singer has selected, arranged, conducted, and edited her own recording material since the mid-1970s, engaging in music publishing and producing as well. Always appreciative of talented new songwriters and singers, she has helped launch the careers of vocalists like Danny Hathaway and Peabo Bryson by performing and recording with them. Flack explained her artistic independence in The Best of the Music Makers: "I am going to be who and what I am, not what agents, promoters, record companies, producers, or the public would have me be.... When my songs come out, I have to be able to listen to them with out having to duck under the car seat."
Musically gifted as a child, Flack began taking piano lessons at the age of nine, and by thirteen had won second place in a state-wide piano contest for black students. Academically gifted as well, she skipped several grades in school, graduating at the age of fifteen. Entering Howard University on a piano scholarship, Flack eventually switched to music education, which required both vocal and instrumental training. It was then that her beautiful voice was recognized as first-rate classical material, but--self-conscious about her overweight, and eager to arouse in others the pleasure and excitement music stirred in her--Flack continued to pursue a career in education.
Eighteen years old and degree in hand, she took her first teaching post at a segregated school in Farmville, North Carolina, where many of the students were poor and regularly missed school to work in the fields; some of Flack's students were older than she was. Nonetheless, they were anxious to learn all their teacher put before them, and Flack became totally immersed in their lives: directing the school choir, supervising the cheerleaders, creating special classes for the mentally and physically impaired.
For the next six years Flack taught music at three different junior high schools in Washington, D.C. In her spare time she directed church choirs, instructed voice students, and provided piano accompaniment for singers at local clubs; eventually it was she who was doing the singing. Before long she was a favorite pop vocalist at the fashionable clubs in the capital, her fans including such entertainers as Burt Bacharach, Woody Allen, and Bill Cosby. Jazz pianist Les McCann brought Flack to the attention of Atlantic Records, and the singer signed a recording contract in 1969. While First Take sold respectably, it was Flack's appearance on comedian Cosby's 1970 television special that brought her national celebrity; captivating her audience, the vocalist sold more than one million copies of her next LP, Chapter Two, and of the subsequent album Quiet Fire. In 1971, down beat magazine named Flack female vocalist of the year, ending the nearly two-decade reign of jazz great Ella Fitzgerald.
In the summer of 1971 Flack and vocalist Hathaway cut the hit single "You've Got a Friend." Their joint gold album Roberta Flack and Danny Hathaway appeared a year later; the duo won a Grammy Award for their rendition of "Where Is the Love?" Stereo Review critic Phyl Garland deemed the collaborators "perfectly matched," sharing the same "sweetly flowing, honeyed texture" and "firm gospel tradition." (The two singers continued to perform together until Hathaway's apparent suicide in 1979.)
Flack earned a second Grammy in 1972 for "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," a song originally appearing on her first album--and given new life on the soundtrack of the Clint Eastwood motion picture, Play Misty for Me. Reissued as a single, the song soared to number one on the charts (and Flack's debut LP belatedly went gold); it was even reported that U.S. astronauts took a copy of the dreamy ballad on their first moon mission to "calm their nerves." The next year brought Flack similar success, with two additional Grammies for another Number 1 hit, "Killing Me Softly with His Song." Her luck with smart, stylish singles continuing, "Feel Like Makin' Love" topped the charts in 1974.
By the mid-1970s Flack began to take over the creative aspects of her recording career, and, prey to her perfectionism, her records became less frequent. Other interests also claimed her attention: scoring for motion pictures and television, music publishing and record producing, doctoral work in education and linguistics. During the early 1980s the vocalist teamed with singer/songwriter Bryson for several successful duet recordings; their 1983 album Born to Love introduced the hit "Tonight, I Celebrate My Love." Garland observed that--where Hathaway shared Flack's earlier, gospel-rooted form--"Bryson is more in tune with Flack's current style, which is closer to middle-of-the-road pop modified by the smooth textures and lilting rhythms of Sixties soul music."
The critic added that "Flack's current mode sacrifices some of her previous depth for a broader, mass appeal, but she is still a serious artist operating on a high level, and she still has the same honey-ripened voice and velvety style." Reviewing the singer's 1988 album, Oasis, Garland noted further changes: "a lot of production," reflecting "Flack's decision to speak to a new generation in its own language." While finding the vocalist's gift for creating "a sense of intimacy" somewhat compromised here, Garland nonetheless concluded: "Flack's ability to communicate directly with the listener remains intact. In spite of the gaudier trappings, she is still a class act."
by Nancy Pear
Roberta Flack's Career
Began piano lessons at age nine; later trained in operatic vocal technique; teacher of music, English, and math at segregated school in Farmville, N.C., for a year in the early 1960s; music teacher in three junior high schools in Washington, D.C., c. 1961-67; began playing piano and singing part-time in local clubs, mid-196Os; full-time performer, 1967--; recording artist, 1969--. Performances include concert tours, jazz festivals, television specials and motion-picture soundtracks ( Play Misty for Me, Bustin' Loose, If Ever I See You Again, Making Love ). Has scored for motion pictures and television, performed as a concert pianist, and conducted opera; engaged in music publishing and record producing; prepared a textbook for educators on understanding ghetto language.
Roberta Flack's Awards
Named female vocalist of the year by down beat magazine, 1971-73; Washington, D.C., celebrated Roberta Flack Human Kindness Day, April 22, 1972; Grammy Awards for record of the year, 1972, for "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," and 1973, for "Killing Me Softly With His Song"; Grammy Awards for best pop vocal performance by a duo (with Donny Hathaway), 1972, for "Where Is the Love?," and for best pop vocal performance by a female solo artist, 1973, for "Killing Me Softly."
- First Take Atlantic, 1969.
- Chapter Two Atlantic, 1970.
- Quiet Fire Atlantic, 1971.
- Killing Me Softly Atlantic, 1973.
- Feel Like Makin' Love Atlantic, 1975.
- Blue Lights in the Basement Atlantic, 1977.
- Roberta Flack Atlantic, 1978.
- Bustin' Loose (soundtrack), MCA, 1981.
- Best of Roberta Flack Atlantic, 1981.
- I'm the One Atlantic, 1982.
- (With saxophonist Sadao Watanabe) Rendezvous Elektra, 1984.
- Oasis Atlantic, 1988.
- With Donny Hathaway
- Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway Atlantic, 1972.
- Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway Atlantic, 1980.
- With Peabo Bryson
- Live and More Atlantic, 1981.
- Born to Love Capitol, 1983.
- The New Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh and John Swenson, Random House, 1983.
- Simon, George T., and others, The Best of the Music Makers, Doubleday, 1979.
- Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, revised edition, St. Martin's, 1989.
- People, May 5, 1981; July 19, 1982; January 9, 1989.
- Rolling Stone, March 9, 1989.
- Stereo Review, July 1980; March 1982; October 1982; December 1983; April 1989.