In honour and celebration of her birthday, February 10, we revisit SoulMusic.com founder David Nathan’s first in-person interview with the legendary music icon Roberta Flack, the start of an enduring friendship between the two…
By David Nathan
New York City, in person at Roberta’s home at The Dakota in New York City, March 1978
AS MUCH AS the term has become overworked, misused, misinterpreted and abused, there are some people whose total musical and personal presence practically demand that you use the description “superstar”. Stevie Wonder is; Maurice White is; Aretha Franklin is; Quincy Jones is; Curtis Mayfield is; Gladys Knight is; Diana Ross is. Sam Cooke, Otis Redding were, Phyllis Hyman and Teddy Pendergrass will be.
Roberta Flack continues to be!
There are just so many ingredients that go into making any entertainer something special, ingredients that separate artists from one level to another. You could call it charisma; some say it would be a certain down-to-earth attitude which doesn’t allow ego to interfere with personality and become overbearing.
With each of the above-named such qualities are there in abundance if you take the time to check them out. And upon first meeting Ms. Flack, you are left in no doubt that this woman occupies a firm position in the upper echelons of what, for want of a better word, is termed ‘stardom’.
And yet, in direct contrast to all the reports that may have filtered down from who knows where, she’s charming, warm, friendly, very intelligent, totally knowledgeable about her art and the industry to which she has contributed so much.
Prior to this, our first interview together, your reporter had been subjected to all kinds of comments about Roberta’s temperament and disposition. She was, supposedly, difficult to talk to and definitely into a ‘star’ trip — whatever that means! So, with just a measure of trepidation, we approached the occasion cautiously. Since this writer has long been renowned for telling it like it is, we can report without any question or doubt that Ms. Flack is easily one of the nicest entertainers we’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking with. She’s eloquent and she positively enjoys speaking about her career, about music and all manner of things, and we found our interview to be one of the most enjoyable experiences in many a moon!
Naturally, Roberta’s many fans will be anxious to know why there was a two-year gap between the release of her last Atlantic album, “Feel Like Makin’ Love” and her current set, “Blue Lights In The Basement”. “That’s quite simple,” she reports. “We spent a long time going over material, trying to find the right combination of producers to work with and so on. We did some things with Gene McDaniels (who’s written many of Roberta’s best material including “Makin’ Love”, “Reverend Lee” and her first single from the new album, “25th of Last December”) but we wanted to work with some other people. You know, sometimes it’s necessary to leave a project alone to be able to get a proper perspective on it and that’s basically what happened with this. We actually finished up at the end of October last year and yes, I do like it, although it is hard for me to be totally objective, as I’m sure you understand. I think it has a lot of diversity, there are a lot of different things on there. Like the cut “I’d Like To Be Baby To You” which has a kind of ‘live’ atmosphere — cut in front of a few people to give that kind of club ‘feeling’. That’s where I started out and that particular cut came out so well that we may well do a whole jazz album at some point in the future.”
Roberta displays some definite concern about the acceptance of any new product she has and this particular occasion, with the release of “Blue Lights” was no exception. “It’s only natural that when you’ve put a lot of time and energy into anything that you’re going to be concerned that people like what you’ve done. You kind of assume that people will dig it the way you dig it! But you know, with this particular album, I was really concerned with time, with staying in the perimeters of a certain space because previously, I felt that I could duplicate on record whatever I did in performance. I’ll give you an example: something like “Suzanne” (the Leonard Cohen song). That goes on for several minutes and I felt comfortable when we recorded it that way. But now, I’m hip to the fact that we’ve had to be more conscious of the limits because, frankly, people won’t get to hear those mammoth cuts. Radio stations won’t play them, things like that. Well, with this album, we want people to hear the songs so we purposely kept a check on the time of each cut.”
She continues, “Sure, that does restrict creativity — I must tell you! Take the cut, “The Closer I Get To You” which we did with Donny Hathaway. You should really hear that one in its entirety! It’s about eight or nine minutes long and when we first finished it and I played it to a few people, they really dug it. I mean, if you heard the whole thing, it would really blow your mind because the end is just incredible — the ad-libs and stuff that go on between us. Believe me, I didn’t want it to be edited and if ever there’s a way of releasing that full version, I hope it happens!”
Speaking of Mr. Hathaway, Roberta reveals that she’s in the process of completing an album with said gentleman. “We’re just getting started into the new album and it’s going to be produced by me with some other people. Basically, it will include two or three songs that Donny and I will be doing separately and four or five duets together. After we finish that project, I’ll be working on my next solo album. One thing I did learn from this one is that it really isn’t good to allow as long a time gap between albums as we did just this last time.”
No doubt everyone will wonder what Roberta was doing between the albums aside from recording and she assures one and all that she’s hardly been sitting home doing nothing! “We’ve spent quite a long time doing concerts overseas, which is something that, in itself, can’t be done every single year, right? We went behind the Iron Curtain to Yugoslavia and Poland and that was really an experience. It was strange because my records aren’t released in those countries and people only get them really on the black market. And yet, everyone knew all the songs and there were hundreds of photographers at the airport — it was almost like a state visit!” she laughs. “I almost felt like an American diplomat — but it was really enjoyable and we got very strong response from the people. Then, I’ve been down to Jamaica, we’ve been to Australia, New Zealand and Japan on two separate occasions and there again, people reacted jsut so well. It was incredible. I think it’s very important to maintain visibility with faithful fans across the world and that’s why we’ve spent more time overseas within the last two years than touring within the States. Plus I was really concerned that we would only do dates in the States when there was new product to promote and something new for people to hear. Which is why we’re doing things at home right now.”
Perhaps one of the factors that has contributed as much as any to Roberta’s consistent acceptance by music fans everywhere is her incredible musicianship. She’s no fly-by-night talent and for those who just may not know, she has excellent scholastic qualifications in music, which is only natural considering that she taught the subject for many years in Washington D.C. prior to being introduced to Atlantic Records by none other than Les McCann. Nevertheless, in spite of her qualifications, Roberta doesn’t take anything for granted. “I think that anyone who’s in music and has taken the time to get into theory, sight singing and harmony is not nearly as limited as someone who hasn’t. It definitely enhances creativity. It’s like with vocal ability, I take voice lessons at least once a week,” Roberta stated much to the total amazement of this reporter! It’s necessary and there’s a very good reason for it: I look at it the way a fighter looks at training. You’ve got to stay in shape, even if you’re the greatest, right? It’s like when you’re a child: you learn to speak but as you get older, you perfect it. So it is with singing, and with the piano. That’s why I constantly practise at both aspects of my music because I want to stay in good shape all the time.”
Having achieved international status with her 1972 hit, “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (which she had, in fact, recorded three years earlier on her “First Take” album), Roberta has had to adjust somewhat to the attitudes that people have towards ‘stars’. She notes: “People think entertainers are special, that they’re different and I myself have had heroes and heroines. Like I remember the first time I met Sammy Davis Jr. and asked him for his autograph and I really felt embarrassed because he told me he liked my music and so on. I just grinned and blushed just like a kid! But it’s so strange the way people see entertainers. They expect you to be dripping with furs all the time. Like one time when I went to a department store and the girl there just refused to believe I was me because I wasn’t in fur from head to toe! It’s funny because people don’t look up to business executives the same way — the president of IBM and people like that. I guess people need to dream and need to have their heroes but at the same time, they should really understand that entertainers are people. Like, I love to go down the block to this little bar and play pinball — I really do! One time, the guy in there mentioned about me being ‘Roberta Flack’ and how could I just hang out like that? Now that kind of thing makes me feel horrible because I feel I should have the same freedom to do things like that if I want to. Don’t you agree? After all, we are all God’s children, right?”
Roberta has achieved much as a top entertainer in the last few years and we wondered what areas she really felt she wanted to tackle next. “Well, I’d like to do a little theatre, maybe a movie. But only something that I felt right about. And I’ll probably be spending as much time in the studio as on the road this year — I think it will be pretty evenly divided. Also, I’m concerned that my stage show is going to be more visual. Not phoney theatrics now! But incorporating some new ideas. I feel a lot looser about music now, more sensuous about it. And I’d like to project some of that ‘star’ Flack on stage!” she laughs. Although she won’t elaborate other than to say that ‘I’m working on a few ideas although you won’t see me in top hat with a cane! I think whatever we do will include some special lighting effects, something along those lines.”
In addition, Roberta wants to turn her hand seriously to songwriting. “My basic criteria for choosing material is based on several things: good lyrics, they’ve got to make sense without necessarily always being profound; and a good melody which allows room for creativity. “Basically, I need to be able to relate to a song either through my own experience or through something that I can have empathy with. There are many different things you can do with songs to have them suit your own style — things like changing tempos and so on. I must say that everything I’ve recorded I’ve cared for when I did it. I’ve never done anything I really didn’t like. Believe me, there are a lot of songs out there that I really dig but what’s essential is that I can add something to them.”
“People ask for instance about the song, “After You” which is on the new album. No, I didn’t record it after I heard Diana Ross’ version. I’d been working with Michael Masser on a few things — there’s another song which I’m sure will be on my next solo album which is truly incredible, called “To Love Again”. Anyway, I recorded it before I even knew that Diana had done it. And another song that I worked on with Michael was “So Sad The Song” but as you know, that went on Gladys Knight’s “Pipe Dreams” album.”
But, going back to our original statement, Ms. Flack is about to start into putting pen to paper herself and it’s just surprising that she’s never done that before. “I’ll be honest with you. I think songwriting is truly a full time occupation, unless you’re someone like a Stevie Wonder. It requires a lot of time and effort. Sure, I’ve had a lot of ideas for songs and I’ve jotted things down but felt that they were silly! But I am going to be giving it some serious attention now.”
Assuring Ms. Flack that she probably has a few musical masterpieces up her sleeve without even realizing it herself, we concluded what must go down as being one of the most interesting and enjoyable interviews this writer has had the pleasure of conducting. Certainly Roberta Flack is every bit the superstar that fans and critics around the world have hailed her to be: but more than that, she’s one of the warmest human beings you could want to meet!