Born into a musical family in Black Mountain, N.C., Roberta Cleopatra Flack arrived on February 10, 1937. She grew up in Arlington, VA, where her mother was a church organist. By her early teens Roberta was so skilled as a classical pianist that at age 15 she entered Howard University as one of their youngest students ever with a full musical scholarship. After graduating at age 19, Flack planned on additional studies but the sudden death of her father forced her take a $2,800 a year job teaching music and English in Farmville, N.C.
Tiring of Farmville, Roberta moved to Washington, D.C., where she taught junior high during the day and played cocktail piano in clubs by night. In 1968, jazz singer-keyboard player Les McCann heard Flack croon and play in the Tivoli Gardens restaurant. “Her voice touched, tapped, trapped and kicked every emotion I’ve ever known,” Les was to write later. “I laughed, cried and screamed for more.” McCann arranged an audition for Flack with Joel Dorn, a producer at Atlantic Records, which she easily passed.
Early in 1969, in a mere ten hours, Roberta recorded what become her debut album, “First Take.” That low-key LP, though, sold very poorly and was set to be dropped as a flop from the Atlantic catalogue. Then, in 1971, Clint Eastwood, making his debut as a movie director, worked a track from that album — “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” – into the soundtrack of his film “Play Misty For Me,” in which Clint played a California DJ. Eastwood fans, leaving theatres, flooded stores asking for copies of Roberta’s slow, achingly romantic recording as a 45 RPM single – but it wasn’t available. Atlantic, convinced that the song was too long and too jarringly different from everything else on the radio at the time to become a hit, hesitated for months before finally chopping a minute or so out of the LP version and finally releasing their shortened “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” as a 45 RPM single. To their amazement, what was perhaps the most intimate-sounding track to ever climb Billboard’s Hot 100 not only did so but in the spring of 1972 soared all the way to #1, where it stayed for five weeks. The result? Grammys for “Record of the Year” and “Song of the Year” – not bad for a recording which by then was already more than three years old. Incredibly, Roberta repeated the same feat in 1973 – when her version of “Killing Me Softly With His Song” won “Record of the Year,” “Song of the Year” and “Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.”
In total, Roberta Flack placed 18 love ballads on Billboard’s Hot 100 pop singles charts – everything from “Feel Like Makin’ Love” and “Making Love” to two duets with former classmate Donny Hathaway (“Where Is The Love” and “The Closer I Get To You”). Roberta also scored big singing with Peabo Bryson (“Tonight I Celebrate My Love”) and Maxi Priest (“Set The Night To Music”). Fans of the TV series “Valerie” (later retitled “The Hogan Family”) also got to hear Flack sing “Together Through the Years,” that series’ theme song, every week.
Roberta Flack was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1999 and currently works with the Artist Empowerment Coalition, an advocacy group for artists who wish to control all rights to their creative works.