Roberta Flack Still Killing Them Softly Singer Roberta Flack reflects on her long career, including the story of how she was discovered, and the amazing chemistry she had with the late soul singer Donny Hathaway. "We had the R&B locked down," she said of her personal and professional relationship with him.
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Roberta Flack Still Killing Them Softly

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Roberta Flack Still Killing Them Softly

Roberta Flack Still Killing Them Softly

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I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

(Soundbite of song, "Where is the Love")

Ms. ROBERTA FLACK (Singer): (Singing) Where is the love?

Ms. DONNY HATHAWAY (Singer): (Singing) Where is the love?

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

Ms. HATHAWAY: (Singing) Where is the love? Where is the love?

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

CHIDEYA: Roberta Flack will tell you she's been devoted to, even obsessed with music since she was knee-high to a grasshopper.

Ms. FLACK: I would consider myself an overachiever. I remember a time (unintelligible) was in the sixth grade when I was nine and could have finished high school when I was 14 but I was held back in elementary school because they said I was too short. And I was, a little bitty(ph), short, squatty thing.

CHIDEYA: In spite of her size, Ms. Flack's skill at the piano won her a full scholarship to Howard University at the age of 15. By 19, she'd graduated. During the day, Flack worked as a teacher in the Washington, D.C. area. By night, she was becoming a sensation on the local music scene.

(Soundbite of song, "Where is the Love")

Ms. FLACK: (Singing) Where is the love? You say was mine all mine. Till the end of time.

It's not something that is just a whim or just a get-rich-quick scheme. But it was something that you do because you know how to do it, you've been blessed with the talent and the gift, and you, you know, dedicate yourself to developing that from the time you discovered it until you just can no longer, you know, work your vocal cords or move your fingers or whatever.

CHIDEYA: Speaking of discovery, you did a benefit for the Inner City Ghetto Children's Library Fund and that was a moment of discovery for the world of Roberta Flack. Take me to what exactly happened there.

Ms. FLACK: That was for an inner city. I love that word. Inner city is a word that became familiar to me during the '60s when I was teaching in junior high school in Washington, D.C. and people did not want to say ghetto. So they say -they wouldn't say I lived in - I live in the ghetto. They'll say I live in the inner city.

(Soundbite of laughter)

You know, whether it was the address was the same, but it was so - this was a benefit for inner city kids. And so I was all for that. Now, this was at a time when I had started to perform in Washington, D.C., I was still teaching school. It's moonlighting, which is, of course, against the law, against the rules of the Board of Education of D.C.

But I was doing it and I was not, you know, selling myself as a jazz musician. I was just having a good time on Capitol Hill, basically, with a bass player and a drummer. So it was just the three of us.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. FLACK: (Singing) A whole lot of things that's wrong. It's going down. I don't understand it. My point of view, I remember somebody said do unto other as you would have them do unto you, and then folks wouldn't have to suffer. If there was more love in these trying times.

Before I knew it, I was looking at somebody from the Johnny Carson Show. I had met Bill Cosby. All kinds of people used to come in. Duke Ellington came in once and critiqued me. He said you're not bad, little girl, you know. And so I had a lot of good things happening to me while I was on this ride, you know, to see where I was going. I had no idea. What happened was that I did this benefit at the Bohemian Cabins for the children, and Les McCann was working the Cabins that week.

So, here I am, you know, in the Bohemian Cabins on Les McCann's off night and he's there, and it sort of goes on from there. Les did a lot for me. He called Atlantic Records and got me an audition. I went up to Atlantic Records in New York City and they gave me, you know, like a few hours and I did like about maybe 35, 40 songs. That was actually my first album, which is called "First Take." And it's - and had "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" on it. And it just sort of mushroomed from there. And I don't want to dwell on that too long because…

CHIDEYA: Oh, let me just ask you, if you don't mind, just a little bit more about "First Take" because that's an incredible album and to think that you were able to do an album in 10 hours when some people take five years is extraordinary. Did you realize what you were doing at the time?

Ms. FLACK: No, but in psychology today, they ask a group of I think third and fourth graders: Who is God? And one little fourth grader said: When I hear Roberta Flack's voice, I hear God. Now, I'm not saying that to stick my chest out although it does make me very proud. But when I translated that - to me, for me, is that God is the voice of music. That's the music.

(Soundbite of song, "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face")

Ms. FLACK: (Singing) The first time ever I saw your face I thought the sun rose in your eyes. And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave.

The first time I got to that song, I taught it to my seventh grade girls' glee club at a junior high school. I was trying to get them to say...

(Singing) Do, re, re. Re, mi, fa, mi, do, so.

You know, read it in this Latin language. They weren't interested in do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do. But they loved it when I said...

(Singing) The first time ever I kissed your mouth.

Oh, kick and giggle, giggle, giggle, giggle. And when I got to...

(Singing) The first time ever I lay with you.

You know? And I finally got these kids to teach me that the way to teach this song and to deliver any other song is to start with what people know to get them to understand what it is you want them to know. So when I performed the song, even today, I'm in a moment that gives me the opportunity to say something, to tell a story. It doesn't even have to be about me. I think you have to be open to that.

(Soundbite of song, "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face")

Ms. FLACK: (Singing) I felt the earth move with my hand.

CHIDEYA: Let's talk about Donny Hathaway. You were musical soul mates. And both his life and his collaboration and, later, his passing must have influenced your life so deeply. Tell me about him.

Ms. FLACK: Well, Farai, it's not hard to tell you or the world about Donny Hathaway. But it is hard to recall that he is not here because, guess what? Give me 30 seconds, please.

CHIDEYA: Take the time you need.

(Soundbite of song, "Where is the Love")

Ms. FLACK and Mr. DONNY HATHAWAY (Singing): (Singing) Where is the love you said you'd give to me soon as you were free? Will it ever be? Where is the love? You told me that you didn't love him, and you were gonna say goodbye. But if you really didn't mean it, why did you have to lie?

Ms. FLACK: If I were to talk about Donny, as a musician, I would have to say that he was not only a wonderful extremely talented musician, but he was quick. We did our first album in three days. That was the album we did "You Got A Friend," "Where is the Love," "I Who Have Nothing," you know, did so many wonderful songs.

"Be Real Black For Me" is a song that Donny and I wrote together. Now, there is a song. Oh, boy. And they need it for their sake and the sake of the sales of the album, more songs. So (unintelligible) have you got any idea? I said, let's do it with him. Well, I was going to say "Amazing Grace" and then all of a sudden, pop. I went back to my days as a church organist.

(Soundbite of song, "Come, Ye Disconsolate")

Ms. FLACK: (Singing) Come, ye disconsolate.

Donny was playing keyboards. I was playing organ - a little bit. And Donny would look at me and say Earth. I said, I said Earth. He said, has. I said, has.

(Singing) No sorrow that heaven…

You know, I didn't know he was going to do that. But we were able to feed off of each other's musical energy. And I tell you, those were the good old days, Farai. We had the R&B locked down, let me tell you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Come, Ye Disconsolate")

Ms. FLACK and Mr. HATHAWAY: (Singing) Fervently kneel.

Ms. FLACK: Donny was so fast and so quick as a musician and as a producer that when the idea came to him, it just became reality. And if you listen to him, you can hear that. You can hear that now. I almost gave you - gave away a secret but I can't - I realized that I should not and cannot give that away. So all I will tell you is that I miss him. And if there's ever an opportunity for me to do anything like Natalie Cole did with her father, with Donny, I would do it in a heartbeat.

(Soundbite of song, "Come, Ye Disconsolate")

Ms. FLACK and Mr. HATHAWAY: (Singing) Earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot heal.

CHIDEYA: I want to ask you about the album that you are working on right now, a collection of Beatles songs produced by different young producers.

Ms. FLACK: Was so great, the pressure that you feel from having them expect it. No one has knocked on my door or called my phone and said, hey, where's that album. We want that Beatle album now. They haven't said that. But I just feel the pressure. Like one day, I went to their studio and I had done three songs. One of them was...

(Singing) Here come old flattop he come grooving up slowly, you know, come together

And they said, wow, you know. I even managed to give a little growl in there. Ow. You know, and they said is that you? I said, yes, that's me, and, you know?

But on the way out of the studio I saw this rug sitting in the middle of the floor and I said - and it was a huge rug - and I said, well, maybe not eight-by-10, whatever's less than that - seven-by-something. And I said, what are you doing with this rug here? He said, oh no, that's one of the Beatles' rugs from years and years ago. And he said, all you need is love. I said, I would love to have a rug like that. He said, this one is yours. I said, really?


Ms. FLACK: I mean, and that's how badly they want me to finish this album.

CHIDEYA: And you live in the same building that John Lennon once lived in.

Ms. FLACK: Yeah. Right across the hall, we shared garbage cans. We shared backdoor service elevators and things like that.

CHIDEYA: And I wonder if you could sing us a little bit of "Here Comes the Sun."

Ms. FLACK: You're kidding.

CHIDEYA: Only if you want to, we'd love to hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "Here Comes the Sun")

Ms. FLACK: (Singing) Little darling, I see the ice is slowly melting, little darling, it seems like years since you've been here, yeah, and here's comes the sun, the sun, the sun. The sun, and I say it's all right. It's all right.

See, what you're missing is…

(Soundbite of scatting)

(Soundbite of laughter)


Ms. FLACK: You know, it's…

(Soundbite of scatting)

Ms. FLACK: If I had a keyboard, if I'd known that I would have a keyboard in here, and I could have done it for you.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know what? That was just beautiful.

Ms. FLACK: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Roberta Flack, thank you so much.

Ms. FLACK: All right. thank you, Farai.

(Soundbite of "You've Got a Friend")

Ms. FLACK and Mr. HATHAWAY: (Singing) You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am, I'll come running.

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