Roberta Flack – 1969 – First Take /1970 – Chapter Two / 1973 – Killing Me Softly
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What can we say? We’ve heard this one a million times, it sold over a million copies – but it’s still incredible! The record is Roberta’s first, and it features her in a mellow trio format, augmented by some occasional larger arrangements by William Fischer. At most points, though, the sound is incredibly spare – with vocals that are much more soulful than any of Roberta’s other records, and a sound that hints at Nina Simone, but which has it’s own jazzy groove and deep sense of feeling.
A1 Compared to What 5:16
A2 Angelitos Negros 6:56
A3 Our Ages or Our Hearts 6:10
A4 I Told Jesus 6:10
B1 Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye 4:09
B2 The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face 5:22
B3 Tryin’ Times 5:08
B4 Ballad of the Sad Young Men 7:00
“First Take” is literally just that. Roberta Flack’s debut album captured in one single take that should rank among the great albums of the 60s like “Dusty In Memphis” but unfortunately isn’t so widely acknowledged as such outside a small circle of music fans and critics. It’s about time due recognition was given to this truly classic album by black music’s most underated diva. For a start, “First Take” has lost none of its spontaneity and magic more than 40 years after its release. The liner notes by Les McCann says it all. There are only eight tracks on the album, all of them exceptional and incandescent. From the live sounding opening jazz number (“Compared To What“) to the closing gay anthem (“Ballad Of The Sad Young Men“), Roberta has us under her spell with some of the most spinetingling and inspired singing ever to have been captured on record. Everybody loves or is at least familiar with “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (the #1 hit featured in the movie “Play Misty For Me“) but few appreciate just how much better it sounds in the context of the album. On route to it, you would have experienced some of the most passionate and honest music ever made, as evident in the awesome majesty of “Angelitos Negros“, the heartfelt beauty of “Our Ages Or Our Hearts” and the deep deep spirituality of “I Told Jesus“. Roberta’s take on the bluesy lament “Trying Times” is just great and truly definitive, rendering any subsequent attempts at covering it superfluous. In the same way, many artistes have recorded “Ballad Of The Sad Young Men” but none has gotten this close to the heart of the song. Finally, “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” shows what transforming powers a great artiste with the right sensibilities can have over any kind of material. If you have a problem with the hissiness (particularly conspicuous on “I Told Jesus”) which even Rhino’s remastering couldn’t eliminate, think of “First Take” as a live take and maybe your problem will go away. A classic 60s album.
A very hip second effort from Roberta Flack – with arrangements by Donny Hathaway and Deodato, and a sound that expands the intimate groove of Roberta’s first album nicely. The record’s a rich document of the soul underground that was breaking through in the work of Flack and Hathaway (and others) during the early 70s – and it includes loads of great numbers, like “Gone Away”, written by Hathaway, Leroy Hutson, and Curtis Mayfield and “Reverend Lee”, written by Eugene McDaniels.
A1 Reverend Lee 4:31
A2 Do What You Gotta Do 4:09
A3 Just Like a Woman 6:14
A4 Let It Be Me 5:00
B1 Gone Away 5:16
B2 Until It’s Time for You to Go 4:57
B3 The Impossible Dream 4:42
B4 Business Goes on as Usual 3:30
The album, like its predecessor, is an uncluttered affair, with the singer’s airy evocative vocals and cascading piano upfront. The citified jazz overtones that shimmered on First Take are absent on Chapter Two. Spare folk balladry dominates, and Roberta imbues songs like Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” and Buffy Sainte- Marie’s “Until It’s Time for You to Go” with a slow-burning gospel intensity. Early on, Roberta linked the eclectic interpretative powers of Nina Simone with the crystal emotionality of Judy Collins.
Her music didn’t neatly fit anywhere. She possessed the shouting power of Aretha but rarely went there. Still, her music retained a certain earthiness. A smart uptown coolness, reminiscent of Dionne Warwick, gave her music an attractive chill. But Roberta radiated warmth even on brutal,icy numbers like “Business Goes on As Usual.” Backed by little more than a marching drum beat, a spare bass and creeping strings, Roberta croons the anti-war ballad with no histrionics: “Business goes on as usual/Except that my brother’s dead/He was 25 and very much alive/But the dreams have all been blasted from his head.” The lines are more disarming as she delivers them in a direct, conversational manner.
Chapter Two plays like a suite of meditative numbers that broods on hard times and the ins and outs of love. The album opens with a saucy song about the seduction of a “very big, strong, black, sexy Southern Baptist minister,” Roberta says in the spoken intro to “Reverend Lee.” Spiced with funky horns arranged by the great King Curtis, it’s the only head-nodding groove on the album. Natalie Cole later remade it, overhauling it with the zest and sass she’s known for. But Roberta’s simmering take is definitive.
No matter how many times we’d heard Roberta Flack and winced during the 70s, we have to admit that we actually enjoy hearing her quite a bit these days – especially on material like this, pulled from her classic years at Atlantic when she was forging a whole new sound that was a unique blend of soul, jazz, and spiritualism. The album includes the famous title cut, remade by The Fugees years later – plus a version of Leonard Cohen‘s “Suzanne“.
A1 Killing Me Softly With His Song 4:46
A2 Jesse 4:00
A3 No Tears (In the End) 4:56
A4 I’m the Girl 4:52
B1 River 5:00
B2 Conversation Love 3:38
B3 When You Smile 3:42
B4 Suzanne 9:45
Calm,soothing and elegant collection of songs that starts with Flack’s magical interpretation of Lori Lieberman’s “Killing me softly” (and do check the original – it’s almost as powerful,in a different way) and from there it just floats in smoke circles.
Flack weaves magic around mostly ballad set,her mellow voice lulling listener into daydreaming – where others would scream and shout,she is 100% soul singer by the virtue of staying composed. The choice of songs is also very interesting because it hints at artists personality – instead of relying on hit-makers or trendy rock & soul covers, she reaches far into classy cabaret songbook (haunting “I am the girl” recorded decades ago by Sylvia Symms) or goes for mock-jazzy, quasi-1930s number “When you smile” that wouldn not be out of place in the movies like “Bonnie & Clyde” or “The Sting”.
On the other hand,in the hands of Roberta Flack,Cohen’s “Susanne” turns into hypnotizing,almost new-age dance – this is what covers should be, completely re-intventing originals and bringing a personal touch to them
You can also enjoy her 1972 album “Quite Fire” in our back pages here