MUSIC CLIP - OSCAR PETERSON, “MOONGLOW”
Welcome to Afterglow, [a show of vocal jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook], I’m your host, Mark Chilla.
This week on the show, I’m looking at one of the greatest artists of the mid 20th century, singer and pianist Roberta Flack. While Flack didn’t sing many jazz standards herself, she did something that very few artists can claim. By seeking out and performing songs from a variety of often little-known songwriters, she helped establish a new songbook. For the past 50 years, songs she helped popularize have been interpreted and reinterpreted countless times. This hour, I’ll feature her versions of some of those songs, like “Killing Me Softly With His Song” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”
It’s Roberta Flack’s New American Songbook, coming up next on Afterglow
MUSIC - ROBERTA FLACK, “COMPARED TO WHAT”
Roberta Flack with “Compared To What,” her first single from 1969. That song was written by singer-songwriter Gene McDaniels, who also wrote Flack’s 1974 hit “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” “Compared To What” was made into a pop hit in 1969 by jazz-soul artist Les McCann.
MUSIC CLIP - LES MCCANN, “COMPARED TO WHAT”
Mark Chilla here on Afterglow. On this show, we’re celebrating the great singer Roberta Flack, and the many songs she helped introduce into the American Songbook in the 1970s.
Roberta Flack is a hard artist to categorize. She’s probably most often thought of as an R&B singer. Her slow burning and spellbinding vocal delivery helped to establish that classic 1970s “quiet storm” soul and R&B sound. Flack also had a pop sensibility, with great crossover appeal—she performed some of the biggest and most celebrated pop hits of the early 1970s. Yet, she was also classically trained as a pianist, and brought a sophisticated style into her performance that was more polished than most artists at the time. And at the same time, her early background as a performer was rooted in jazz.
While working as a teacher in Washington, D.C., Flack moonlighted as a jazz pianist and singer. She was already in her 30s when she was discovered by jazz pianist Les McCann. Here’s the first known recording of Flack, made by McCann himself in 1968, with her performing the jazz standard “All The Way.”
MUSIC CLIP - ROBERTA FLACK, “ALL THE WAY”
However, when it came to her own performing career, Roberta Flack took an even more interesting path. She combined all of these musical styles—R&B, soul, pop, classical, and jazz—and applied them to songs that were often considered to be folk. The songs had simple, direct melodies, with expressive poetry, and in the process, she helped create a songbook of tunes that were, in essence, genreless like her. In her first five years, she popularized songs that have since gone on to be performed by countless artists. And it’s mostly these songs that I’ll be focusing on this hour.
First up, let’s hear a tune from her debut album First Take from 1969. It was written by singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who at the time, was just beginning to make a name for himself as a folk singer and revered songwriter, penning tunes for Judy Collins.
This is a song that Cohen wrote and Collins first sang in 1967, but Roberta Flack helped elevate. This is Roberta Flack with “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - ROBERTA FLACK, “HEY, THAT’S NO WAY TO SAY GOODBYE”
Roberta Flack in 1969 with the Leonard Cohen song “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” from her debut album First Take.
For the next four years, Roberta Flack and her producer Joel Dorn perfected this style of the slow simmering ballad, combining elements of jazz and R&B, while also championing the songs of folk songwriters from the 1960s. Let’s hear two more songs in this vein right now, each from her second album from 1970, appropriately titled Chapter Two.
This first song, all about a doomed love affair, was written in 1965 by Buffy Sainte-Marie, another Canadian singer-songwriter, like Leonard Cohen The tune is called “Until It’s Time For You To Go,” and became a bit of a jazz and easy-listening staple in the late 1960s, performed by Peggy Lee and Carmen McRae, along with Nancy Sinatra, Glenn Campbell, and Neil Diamond.
Here is Roberta Flack in 1970 with “Until It’s Time For You To Go,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - ROBERTA FLACK, “UNTIL IT’S TIME FOR YOU TO GO”
MUSIC - ROBERTA FLACK, “JUST LIKE A WOMAN”
Two songs from Roberta Flack’s 1970 album Chapter Two. First in that set was the song “Until it’s Time For You To Go,” originally written by Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, and later performed by people like Elvis Presley and Andy Williams. Just now, we heard “Just Like A Woman,” originally written by the legend Bob Dylan, and later performed by people like Nina Simone. We’ll hear another Roberta Flack song that’s also in the Nina Simone songbook a little later.
We’re exploring songs popularized by singer Roberta Flack this hour. Bob Dylan is one of the more familiar folk songwriters that contributed to Roberta Flack’s new American Songbook. However, as I’ve discussed, she was also known for championing the work of lesser-known songwriters, like on this next song.
Up until this point, Flack’s music wasn’t selling particularly well. However, that changed with her version of the song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” It was a folk tune from 1957, written by songwriter Ewan MacColl, for his girlfriend at the time, Peggy Seeger (Pete Seeger’s sister). The tune bounced around the folk scene for a few years, sung by The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Joe and Eddie. Flack knew the Joe & Eddie version, and fell in love with it, calling it, quote, “a perfect song. Second only to "Amazing Grace.” She started to teach the song to her students when she was still a high school teacher in D.C, and then later added the song to her live sets when she was moonlighting as a nightclub singer, transforming it into her slow, simmering ballad style.
Flack included “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” on her first album First Take in 1969, although it never took off. That is, until it was heard by actor, filmmaker and jazz aficionado Clint Eastwood. He heard it on the radio in L.A., loved it, and decided to make it a key part of his 1971 directorial debut, the thriller Play Misty For Me, about a radio DJ and his obsessed fan.
Following the release of the film, the now two-year old song became a hit, re-released as a single in a slightly shorter version (although much slower and longer than the original). The song reached number one on the Billboard charts, won Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the 1972 Grammy Awards, and during the final day of Apollo 17’s mission, making it the last song ever played on the moon.
Here is the slightly shorter radio edit of that song now. This is Roberta Flack with “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - ROBERTA FLACK, “THE FIRST TIME EVER I SAW YOUR FACE”
Roberta Flack with her Grammy Award winning single “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” written back in 1957 by folk songwriter Ewan MacColl, and recorded there by Flack in 1969.
MUSIC CLIP - DEXTER GORDON, “THE FIRST TIME EVER I SAW YOUR FACE”
We’ll have more from singer Roberta Flack and her new American Songbook in just a moment, stay with us.
I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to Afterglow
MUSIC CLIP - ROLAND HANNA, “KILLING ME SOFTLY WITH HIS SONG”
MUSIC CLIP - LES MCCANN, “ROBERTA”
Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. We’ve been exploring music by the great singer Roberta Flack this hour, a singer who blurred the lines between jazz, R&B, folk and pop. Right now, in the background, we have pianist Les McCann, a close friend of Flack’s and one of her first champions, performing his original song “Roberta,” a song written about her.
Roberta Flack did not record that many “jazz standards,” per se. However, she along with other singers like Nina Simone, Donny Hathaway, and others helped create what I’m calling a “new American Songbook.” They recorded and popularized a series of newer songs that helped form the backbone of jazz, soul, pop and R&B repertoire for the next fifty years. These songs are still being covered today.
Let’s hear one of those songs now. At the time it was written, the two songwriters—Barry and Robin Gibb—were not household names. They were a couple of emerging songwriters from the Isle of Man (by way of Australia), whose Beatles-inspired, blue eyed soul group The Bee Gees were just beginning to make a name for themselves… a far cry from the disco kings they would soon become. But the brothers Gibb knew how to write a good song, and one of their early hits became a standard, thanks to early covers by Nina Simone, the Sweet Inspirations, and Roberta Flack.
Let’s hear it now. This is Roberta Flack from her 1971 album Quiet Fire with “To Love Somebody,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - ROBERTA FLACK, “TO LOVE SOMEBODY”
Roberta Flack with the song that’s now a standard, “To Love Somebody,” written by Barry and Robin Gibb of The Bee Gees. That comes from her 1971 album To Love Somebody, produced by Joel Dorn.
Barry and Robin Gibb were not yet superstars when Roberta Flack recorded “To Love Somebody.” But another songwriter that Roberta Flack helped to elevate around this time was someone who was just beginning to ascend to that superstar status. And that’s Carole King. Carole King and her songwriting partner and husband at the time Gerry Goffin were already deeply entrenched in the pop music landscape by the early 1970s. They had written top 10 Billboard hits for the Shirelles, The Drifters, Aretha Franklin and others in the 1960s.
With the release of her album Tapestry in 1971, Carole King became one of the most successful singers of that year. One of the songs that King featured on her album was one of her old number 1 hit songs for the Shirelles in 1960, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” which she transformed into a slow, languid ballad. A few months later on her album Quiet Fire, Roberta Flack gave the song a similar treatment.
Let’s hear it now. This is Roberta Flack with her 1971 version of Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - ROBERTA FLACK, “WILL YOU STILL LOVE ME TOMORROW”
MUSIC - ROBERTA FLACK AND DONNY HATHAWAY, “YOU'VE GOT A FRIEND”
Roberta Flack and her frequent recording and songwriting partner Donny Hathaway with the Carole King song “You’ve Got A Friend.” That version was released as a single in 1971, nearly a year ahead of their self-titled duet album together. King herself released it as a single earlier that year, followed by Flack and Hathaway’s version released in May, the exact same day as yet another version by James Taylor. Flack and Hathaway’s version was a modest Billboard hit, but Taylor’s was much bigger, hitting number 1 on the charts and earning him a Grammy Award for his performance (King also won a Grammy for the song itself). Before that, we heard Roberta Flack alonge, also in 1971, with Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.”
By 1974, Roberta Flack’s musical style began to change, moving away from the slow-simmering jazzy ballad, and more towards mainstream 1970s R&B. It mostly had to do with the departure of her longtime producer Joel Dorn, who had helped cultivate the jazzy R&B sound of Atlantic Records for artists like Les McCann, Yusef Lateef, and Charles Mingus around this time. But before Flack and Dorn parted ways, they produced one more important album and with one more essential single. Like many of her earlier hits, it was originally a little-known folk tune, transformed by Flack into a new American standard.
“Killing Me Softly With His Song” was co-written by songwriters Charles Fox, Norman Gimbel, with help from the aspiring singer Lori Lieberman, who ended up first performing it. The inspiration, as its often told, came to Lieberman while she was watching singer Don McLean perform live. McLean was apparently the one “strumming her pain with his fingers.” Fox and Gimbel helped Lieberman flesh it out into a song, which she recorded and released it to no great acclaim in 1972.
Roberta Flack happened to hear the song as part of the in-flight audio on a plane and was mesmerized by it. She managed to track down the songwriters, and eventually recorded her own version, which became an instant classic. “Killing Me Softly With His Song” is as much Roberta Flack’s as it is Fox’s, Gimbel’s or Lieberman’s, and since then it’s been covered over 400 times by artists ranging from Perry Como in the 1970s to Lauryn Hill and The Fugees in the 1990s.
Here’s Roberta Flack’s iconic version now. This is “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - ROBERTA FLACK, “KILLING ME SOFTLY WITH HIS SONG”
Roberta Flack in 1973 with her Grammy-Award winning version of “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” And thanks for flipping through the pages of Roberta Flack’s New American Songbook with Me, on this edition of Afterglow.
MUSIC CLIP - SONNY STITT, “KILLING ME SOFTLY WITH HIS SONG”
Afterglow is part of the educational mission of Indiana University and produced by WFIU Public Radio in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana. The executive producer is John Bailey.
Playlists for this and other Afterglow programs are available on our website. That’s at indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow.
I’m Mark Chilla, and join me next week for our mix of Vocal Jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, here on Afterglow