BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Back-to-back Grammy award-winner Roberta Flack was on
the phone with us a few hours before the annual Grammys
ceremony last month. She wasn't attending — the call came
from her home in Barbados — and she wasn't even sure she
would watch the show.
"I'm not sure I can get it down here," Flack said, "and I
couldn't sit down that long even when I was going to those
Grammys may be old hat for Flack; however, even
when she doesn't attend, her presence often still permeates
the glittering music halls. This year, for instance, the
golden child of the evening was hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill --
once leader of the Fugees, a band that just two years ago
launched its formidable career by covering one of Flack's
signature early '70s hits, "Killing Me Softly With His
Flack herself has a unique place in Grammy history. In
1972, she took home trophies for Record of the Year and
Song of the Year for her recording of Ewan MacColl's "The
First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." She also shared a trophy
for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Group that year with
Donny Hathaway for the duet "Where Is the Love." That alone
was a nice haul, but the very next year Flack returned to
collect three more statuettes for "Killing Me Softly" — an
unheard-of one-two punch.
Then what happened? Well, therein lies the rub, as well
as what makes a musical artist distinct. The pop scene
changed — the fans' love of story songs in the early '70s
gave way to mindless disco beats — and Flack refused to blow
with the prevailing winds. She remains an unmistakable
talent at this point in her three-decade career precisely
because she didn't try to become a disco queen (a la Patti
Labelle) or a private dancer (a la Tina Turner). Flack was,
is and forever will be a balladeer.
That's not to say she hasn't dabbled. Her last album,
1995's "Roberta," opened with a kind of rap, and she's
tinkered with jazz singing, but Flack endures as a vocalist
who lures the simple, shining joy out of a ballad, from
those first two smash hits to her chart-topping duet with
Peabo Bryson, "Tonight I Celebrate My Love." She sings songs
that tell tales — timeless ones.
"I got started at the time people were really into songs
that told stories," Flack said in our conversation. "That was
a really good time, the early '70s. Even rock 'n' roll
artists, country and R&B artists — and this is when those
divisions were really clear — they were all trying to do
music that told stories. It wasn't necessarily a
once-upon-a-time story, but something people could connect
to, some personal experience they'd been through. The
exciting part about being a musician is recognizing that
when you're on stage, when someone connects with what
you're singing about, and you just watch them change.
"But everything has its season, and things changed.
Except me. The disco thing was next, and I'm not stupid
enough to hang in with that. I'm perfectly satisfied to
sing a beautiful ballad." The process of choosing
ballads sometimes is subject to whim or instinct. Flack
said she looks for ineffable concepts like "gorgeousness,
effect, meaning" in a song before she tackles it, with an
emphasis on that last one: meaning.
"I have to think that somebody other than me is going to
understand it," she said. "I don't want to sing and entertain
myself, or provide just therapy for myself. I want to be
sharing my feelings. I make sure I'm picking a song that
speaks to experiences and attitudes and moments in all of
Still, the meaning Flack may find in a song can be,
well, unique. "Killing Me Softly" is a lyric written about
the songs of Don McLean (telescope that notion through the
Fugees' version and see what you get!), but Flack said she
sung it because it reminded her of someone close. Plus, the
face she had in mind when recording "The First Time" in 1969
was small and, well, furry.
"At the moment I recorded that, I was singing to a little
cat," Flack said. "It sounds cornball, but it's true. I'd
never had a cat before, and my manager had just given me
one. I named it Sancho. About the time I got him was when I
got the chance to go to New York and record demos for that
first album ... In those two days, I recorded between 35
and 40 songs live. (Not long after) I got back, Sancho
died. Then, three or four weeks later, when I recorded the
album, I was thinking about little Sancho, that cute little
funny-looking, scrawny cat."
In concert, Flack said she tries to gauge the
temperament of her audience and chooses songs to fit that
perceived mood. Set lists vary from night to night when
she's on the road (the Tulsa shows are special
engagements). She's been known to nix "The First Time" in
favor of, say, John Lennon's "Imagine," because "the young
kids today" might identify with Lennon more readily than her
own signature work.
Those same young kids are still driving record sales,
and Flack's perceived distance from them is why she thinks
she's without a record deal at the moment. Not that it
troubles her greatly — she's looking, but she's got time and
options, she said — but she recognizes that she's not
"A lot of us don't have deals now — those of us who sing
those story songs well. There's just not a place for us in
the scheme of things. "We're not doing hip-hop, and if
you're not doing what sells," Flack said, "you're not going
to be doing."
With the Tulsa Philharmonic
When 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where Tulsa Performing Arts Center, Third Street and Cincinnati Ave.
Tickets $14-$58; PAC, 596-7111 and Carson Attractions, 584-2000
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.