Some time ago, maybe in 2005 or thereabouts, I walked in on my mother and aunt watching Play Misty For Me, the 1971 thriller starring Clint Eastwood, in which he plays a nighttime disc jockey who becomes romantically involved with an obsessed fan. I’m milling around the kitchen when I’m enthralled by a voice I’d never heard before and haven’t forgotten since. The voice belonged to Roberta Flack, a North Carolina-born, Virginia-raised singer and pianist, and the song was “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” a gorgeous ballad with light piano chords, faint bass and barely-there drums that accentuate Flack’s one-of-a-kind soprano, a celestial tone that hovers within the mix and lands softly on the ear. While Misty is a fine-enough film, I didn’t care about it at that moment: I needed to know where I could buy that song and all of Flack’s music.
The track appeared on her debut album, First Take, an understated set of jazz-centered arrangements recorded in 1969 during a 10-hour recording session. Featuring an all-star cast of collaborators, including Ron Carter on bass; Ray Lucas on drums; Bucky Pizzarelli on guitars; and Benny Powell on trombone; First Take was gentle yet forceful, a simmering compilation of various genres that showcased Flack’s bandleading abilities. The genesis of this album went back a year, to Mr. Henry’s nightclub in Washington, D.C. She had been teaching at a local high school, but was looking to quit the job and pursue music full-time. Club owner Henry Yaffe afforded that opportunity, building her a stage upstairs where she performed three nights per week. The buzz around Flack started to grow; before long, lines circled the block to see this iconoclastic talent. One night, jazz luminary Les McCann was taken to the venue to see Flack perform. He was so impressed that he nudged Atlantic Records to sign her to the label. They did. First Take was recorded at their studio in New York City. “The First Time…” would go on to win a Grammy award for Record of the Year.
Flack released four albums in quick succession in the early 1970s: Chapter Two; Quiet Fire; Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway; and Killing Me Softly. Though they did well critically and commercially, Flack was still underrated in the pantheon of chart-topping musicians of that era. Her name wasn’t shouted loudly like Aretha Franklin’s or Joni Mitchell’s, even if she won hardware for her inventive mix of soul, gospel and jazz. That she didn’t fit into just one box could be why she was undervalued. Songs about philandering preachers sat near Bob Dylan covers about isolation and womanhood. She was a folk-minded singer-songwriter who could go from classical to Southern funk within the span of a show. The dexterity brought her fans from all across the musical spectrum.
Yet when we talk about Flack, we talk about standalone songs like “The First Time…,” “Killing Me Softly With His Song” and “The Closer I Get To You,” not the full albums. As much as I adore Flack’s music, the LPs were either uneven or too methodical, and some of the B-sides floated by without sticking to the ribs. To this day, some of her best work is remembered because someone else covered it: The Fugees with “Killing Me Softly With His Song”; D’Angelo with “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” While the remakes introduced Flack to a new generation of listeners, they also ran the risk of erasing the original songs from the lexicon. To that end, It would take one hell of an artist to remake “I Can See The Sun in Late December,” the centerpiece cut from Feel Like Makin’ Love, Flack’s fifth and best solo album.
Released in the era of Quiet Storm soul, the LP paired gorgeous celestial arrangements with pronounced rhythmic heartbeats, music that was grounded and grittier — not so graceful, though there was plenty of that throughout the album, too. On “I Can See The Sun…,” in particular, Flack and co-producer Harry Whitaker (himself a stellar jazz musician who released this album along with other great work), arranged a stunning instrumental with light percussion, bass and electric guitar. With its slow pace and angelic backing vocals, the song felt suspended in air, a spiritual perch that only Minnie Riperton, Stevie Wonder and Alice Coltrane could reach. As I write this, I realize I’m falling into the same trap I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph. But I’ve often said that “I Can See The Sun…” is one of my favorite songs ever. It’s the brightest spot on an LP full of bright spots.
Feel Like Makin’ Love was an exercise in counterpoint. On the opening cut, “Feelin’ That Glow,” Flack sang of romantic infatuation, evoking the feel of summertime crushes. In an instant, it sounded like flowers in bloom; next, the band broke into a head-nodding backbeat with hard drums and smoldering electric guitars in the left channel. It wasn’t all sweet; sometimes, carnal feelings arose. “Let’s find a field where it’s shady,” Flack declared. “You can let your magic unfold.” The track always reminded me of The Isley Brothers; the winding guitar solo was akin to something Ernie Isley would play.
“Mr. Magic” and “Early Ev’ry Midnite” landed on the opposite end of the spectrum: Here, she slowed the procession to a crawl, trading the afternoon for the pitch-black sexiness of bodies in motion. Flack never shied away from the latter, of course, but these songs represented a more realized version of her creative approach. They represented freedom; even a quick line on “Midnite” — “a place I know where I can be me” — felt liberating. For a singer who’d spent the past few years as a singer and pianist first, and a producer second, her finding space to assert her own voice was a welcomed change. For those looking for an album of Flack’s greatest hits, you can find that here. For her greatest solo album ever, and one of the best you'll ever hear, check out Feel Like Makin’ Love. It’s perfection.