Summer is finally here. It’s been unbearably hot and muggy for days. What everyone needs is a record to chill out with. One that is light and airy. One that blows through your mind like a cool breeze. Women in Rock readers, I offer you First Take by Roberta Cleopatra Flack.
Now, I know a lot of you are thinking Roberta Flack equals schmaltz. After all, she is known for a string of sentimental pop singles during the mid seventies like “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Killing Me Softly.” Famous rock critic, Robert Christgau, (also known as the guy wearing a Wussy shirt in The Replacements documentary) once wrote that she “…has nothing to do whatsoever with rock and roll or blues and almost nothing to do with soul.” That’s okay. Not everything has to be hard and heavy or even gritty. Ms. Flack isn’t trying to do a rock album. First Take is her first album and she’s trying to come off as a piano lounge singer. In this sense she actually rocks next to others of that ilk. She’s like a jazzy compromise between Barbara Streisand and Aretha Franklin, but it’s a perfect album for sipping a blender drink in an air-conditioned room.
Like a lot of soul artists she got her start singing in church. She took up piano as a child and was classically trained. Her first gigs were providing piano accompaniment for opera singers. During the day she taught English and music at a middle school. During intermissions for her classical gigs she would belt out blues, pop, and jazz standards. People really dug her voice so she began performing in D.C. night clubs. When jazz-man Les McCann heard her at he immediately tried to get her a deal with Atlantic. For her audition she played 42 songs in three hours. Before recording “First Take” she made 39 demos. By the time she recorded this album she was ready. The endless hours in clubs and all the demos paid off and First Take was done as one big loose session. The album came out in 1969, but didn’t go anywhere until Clint Eastwood used “The First Time…” in his movie “Play Misty for Me.” Suddenly, Roberta Flack had a number one hit. She won a Grammy for that song and followed it up the next year with another Grammy for “Killing me Softly.” After this I do think that she got pushed into an adult contemporary mold and I admit that her legacy made me reluctant to throw this on the turntable when it first came into my possession. I picked this up for the Leonard Cohen cover during a time when I was obsessed with Leonard Cohen. I wasn’t expecting much, but the first track blew my mind. Check out the first track here: Compared to What?
“Compared to What?” has a slinky upright bass line that vamps through the song. Her piano is angular. She slashes and chops ala Thelonious Monk. This cut is gritty and proves why she is on the same label as Aretha. It’s also a tough song written in 1966 about Civil Rights and Vietnam. It was even more relevant in 1969 after the assassinations and street fighting of 1968. The voice of this song is angry as it calls out the president, rails against discrimination and poverty, questions traditional religion and even mentions abortions.
But her voice…that’s what this album is all about. Les McCann wrote the liner notes on the back cover and concludes, “Roberta can take you all the way inside and clean your soul—out! And God said: “That’s Good!” And I say: She sings her ass off!” I confer. That first track is funky. It’s got grit and biting lyrics. It’s worth it to own this record for that track alone. Then she drifts into a Latin fusion groove with “Angelitos Negros” here you can hear the opera in her voice as she swings in Spanish. Throughout the album there are strings and a hint of the angelic. There is also true heartache and human pathos. “I Told Jesus” closes side one on a gospel note that could be the next step on a mix after Janis Joplin’s “Little Girl Blue” before making a last stop at Sister Rosetta Tharpe station.
Side two kicks off with the cover of “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” Check out her Leonard Cohen cover here: Cohen Cover. Flack is a great interpreter of songs and this is my favorite version of this tune. The big hit follows, but somehow the sequencing of this album makes me really appreciate this song. The flamenco guitar touches are cheesy, but it really fits here and her vocal range is impeccable. Especially in one spot where she hits this really low note that is echoed with a guttural cello. After that we’re back to upright bass vamping and topical soul jazz with “Tryin’ Times” …”We’ve got riots in the ghetto and a whole lot of bad things going down.” Heavy stuff for heavy times. Tryin’ Times
Roberta Flack is “Trying to keep it real…compared to what?” and the “what” is the breadth and depth of human emotion. She keeps it real, but she can soar you to a better place. So grab an icy Pina Colada and park yourself away from the heat and give this album a listen. Your ears will thank you.