When people think of famous female singers from the ’70s, most think of Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor, but there’s another artist who is sometimes forgotten but needs her due. Roberta Flack had three hits songs and was a platinum-selling artist in the ’70s, and her influence is still powerful today.
Roberta Flack is an American singer born in 1937 in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Like many American artists, she sang with her church choir and at age nine, she took interest in playing the piano. At age 15, she received a full scholarship to Howard University where she eventually changed to voice as a major and became assistant conductor of the University’s choir. She graduated at age 19 and began teaching music and English.
She moved to the D.C. area to teach and began singing in clubs on evenings and weekends. In 1968, she began singing professionally after she was hired as a performer at Mr. Henry’s Restaurant on Capitol Hill. American jazz pianist and vocalist Les McCann discovered Flack and arranged an audition for her with Atlantic records. During her audition, she played 42 songs in three hours and, for her first demo, recorded 39 songs in less than 10 hours.
In 1971, Flack has her first Billboard Hot 100 hit with her version of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” She also had the biggest hit of 1971 when actor Clint Eastwood picked her song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” for the soundtrack for the movie “Play Misty for Me.” (It was Eastwood’s directorial debut.) The song was released on her “First Take” album which went to #1 and sold close to 2 million copies in the U.S. after the release of the film. It went on to win a Grammy for Record of the Year in 1973.
Flack also won the Best Pop Performance by a Duo Grammy in 1972 for her song “Where Is the Love,” recorded with singer Donny Hathaway. They were later nominated again in 1979 for their collaboration on “The Closer I Get to You.” She and Hathaway recorded several duets together during the ’70s until Hathaway’s 1979 death.
Flack scored her most famous hit in 1973 with “Killing Me Softly with His Song” and received Grammys for Record of the Year (“Killing Me Softly”) and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female in 1974. The album was her biggest-selling and eventually became double-platinum. In 1975, she released the “Feel Like Makin’ Love” album and song of the same title. The song was her third and final #1 hit to date. She was the first artist to win a Grammy for Record of the Year for two consecutive years.
While some critics dispute her music as “boring” and “middle of the road,” there is no denying Flack influenced later artists. Her name was placed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1999 and her music is referenced and sampled today. The Fugees covered “Killing Me Softly” in 1996, and Flack’s music has been used in many television shows as well as in movies, including the 2014 Marvel movie “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” In 2012, Flack released “Let It Be Roberta,” a series of Beatles cover songs.
Today, Flack is a member of the Artist Empowerment Coalition that advocates for the right of artists to control their creative works. She is an ASPCA spokesperson and she provides free music education to underprivileged students at the Hyde Leadership Charter School in the Bronx of New York City.
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