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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This evening we want to leave you singing and it's all I can do not to break out in song right now. Roberta Flack has been an unmistakable voice in American music since the 1960's. Her hits, from the 1974 Feel Like Makin' Love to the chart-topping First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, are part of the soundtrack of many people's lives. NPR's Allison Keyes recently spoke with Flack about her career and her latest CD favorites.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

Roberta Flack says the best songs tell stories.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ROBERT FLACK (Recording Artist): Most music has the opportunity, if it is really worthy, there's a connection. You cannot hear (singing) there was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy, without thinking, wow, where's this story going to go. But the point is, there's a story there and you can follow that.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. FLACK: (Singing) The first time ever I saw your face I thought the sun rose in your eyes, and the moon...

KEYES: Flack chuckles as she remembers how unprepared she was to be a solo performer when she started doing Sunday brunch at a bar in Washington D.C. in 1968 while she was still a public school teacher.

Ms. FLACK: I started singing things that I had been singing to the kids. Like, I really taught First Time Ever I Saw Your Face to my junior high school girls' glee club to get their attention. By the time we got to (singing) the first time every I kissed your mouth, oh my, girl, I had 'em.

KEYES: Flack started teaching music after finishing her studies at Howard University. When she wasn't in the classroom, Flack was moonlighting at a now defunct opera restaurant called the Tivoli, a job that drew on her classical training.

Ms. FLACK: (Singing in German)

KEYES: It wasn't long before the staff at Mr. Henry's on Capitol Hill heard her and wooed her away. By the end of the summer, the owner Henry Yaffi(ph), who moved Flack from Sunday brunch to nightly gigs in the room he opened especially for her, displacing the guy who lived there.

Mr. RUDY APPLE(ph) (Former Manager, Mr. Henry's, Washington D.C.): When we come and said I come to play for Henry Yaffi downstairs, Henry decided that she was good enough that she should be playing upstairs and he had me evicted from my quarters.

KEYES: Seventy-three-year-old Rudy Apple first heard Flack sing at the Tivoli. He was managing Mr. Henry's and he said their shows there became legendary.

Mr. APPLE: A lot of people, if they weren't here in time, they just couldn't come in period.

Ms. FLACK: They would have to pull me off the stage. He would say to me, Can you please stop? Please stop singing.

KEYES: Flack made Mr. Henry's a hot spot and a sign still hangs above the venerable wooden bar reading Roberta Flack Trio, Tuesday through Saturday. Atlantic Records recorded her here and Rudy Apple still works here three days a week. He says no other performer since could grab the audience the way she did.

Mr. APPLE: There were other people that would try but I must say, honestly, I must say that there is only one Roberta.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. FLACK: (Singing) Here I stand lookin', looking around me, while all around me what do I see, unhappy faces...

KEYES: A lot of people heard Roberta Flack here. Jazz pianist Les McCann brought her to the attention of Atlantic Records. Liberace would sometimes sit in with her trio. In 1970, Flack did a guest appearance on a Bill Cosby television special and her career caught fire. She's worked with a lot of people, from Stevie Wonder to Dionne Warwick, and a variety of artists have covered her hits including Jeffrey Osborne who did his own version of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.

(Soundbite of Jeffrey Osborne singing)

Mr. JEFFREY OSBORNE (Recording Artist): (Singing) I felt the earth move in my hands...

Ms. FLACK: I have never heard Jeffrey Osborne do that. Okay, that's it. I'm doin' (singing) on the wings of love, up and above the sky. I'm gonna do it. I've always wanted to do that.

KEYES: Some of Flack's best-known work came out of her collaboration with the late singer and songwriter Donny Hathaway.

Ms. FLACK: (Singing) Where is the love...

Mr. DONNY HATHAWAY (Recording Artist): (Singing) Where is the love...

Ms. FLACK: (Singing) Where is the love...

Mr. HATHAWAY: (Singing) Where is the love...

Ms. FLACK: (Singing) Where is the love...

Mr. HATHAWAY: (Singing) Where is the love...

Ms. FLACK: (Singing) Where is the love...

KEYES: This is what most scholars of black music mean when they talk about soul music, says Miami University musicology professor Tammy Kernodle. But, she says, the emotional maturity of Flack's music helped extend the definition of black music and brought a feminist perspective to the popular music of the time.

Dr. TAMMY KERNODLE (Associate Professor of Music, School of Fine Arts, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio): If you look at 60's soul music, most of your discussions about love are very superficial, they're very idealized, and I think that when you look at Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack's Where is the Love, it's taking that discourse a little further. For me, it's very mature when compared to many of the love songs that were being sung by women in the 1960's.

KEYES: Kernodle says the vibe of Flack's music is in sync with the works of white singer/songwriters like Carole King and that it gave white audiences an alternative to the power-to-the-people music some African-American performers were doing at the time. Kernodle also thinks Flack, with contemporaries like Curtis Mayfield, planted the seeds for the emergence of a new generation of black artists, including Alicia Keyes, Kim and India Arie.

Dr. KERNODLE: The consciousness that you hear, and I mean consciousness on a whole lot of levels, not just political consciousness, I mean consciousness about who she is, the power of her music, the resonance that the stories are gonna have with the people that hear it. That kind of consciousness, you hear in this whole 'nother generation of performers.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. FLACK: (Singing) Strummin' my pain with his fingers, singin' my life...

KEYES: Flack's music definitely resonates with the younger generation of African-American artists, from the Fugees to rapper Kanye West, who sampled her for his song Hey Mama.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. KANYE WEST (Recording Artist): (Singing) Hey Mama, I wanta scream so loud for you...

KEYES: But Roberta Flack doesn't believe younger artists are obligated to tell the same stories with their music as those who came before them.

Ms. FLACK: Wouldn't it be strange if all of the young people who are so successful today tried to do what myself and Marvin and Gladys and, you know, what we did. How could they do it? The Temptations, how can you bring that back? You know what I'm saying? It's time in 2006 for there to be some fresh energy, some fresh pulse. It is the heartbeat that tells you what to write. It is your own pulse that tells you if it's okay.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. FLACK: (Singing) Don't send me away. Please let me stay here in your arms evermore...

KEYES: Flack says she's grateful to still be performing at age 67, but she takes nothing for granted and she has one thing she hopes to teach other musicians.

Ms. FLACK: Humbleness! Don't get so full of yourselves! Don't, don't forget to love everything that everybody does. Don't criticize anybody's talent. Don't censor anybody's art. Don't wave people off because you don't understand it. Open your mind. Open your heart. See what you can learn. Listen for the heartbeat. Listen for the pulse. It's there.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. FLACK: (Singing) Till the mornin' comes, till the mornin' comes...

KEYES: Roberta Flack performs tonight at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. FLACK: (Singing) I, I need your love, need it...

ELLIOTT: To hear more from Roberta Flack, go to our website, NPR.org. That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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