BEST OF ROBERTA FLACK
Johnny Mercer grumbled, "How the hell can you write a song with the
word 'Killing' in the title?" The venerable lyricist, then at the
end of his career, was trying to make sense of one of the chart-toppers
from that year. What's odd is
that such a lyrical connoisseur couldn't appreciate the brilliance in
the phrase "Killing Me Softly With His Song." Or the accompanying
chorus lines: "Strumming my pain with his fingers" and "Singing
my life with his words."
"Killing Me Softly" begins this sixteen-song collection with
quiet majesty. If it had been Roberta Flack's only hit, her place in pop
history would be assured. But there's more. The first six songs here are
about as perfect examples of jazzy soul music as you could hope to find.
found a kind of formula early on. "Feel Like Makin' Love" and
"Where Is The Love" saunter along on delicate conga and bass
grooves, while her Fender Rhodes chimes in with sophisticated changes.
On Roberta's best songs, the Rhodes provided the signature foil to her
voice. And what a voice. If Aretha is the Queen of Soul, then Roberta
is the Ballerina of Soul. There's such an effortless, understated grace
in the way she pliés from note to note, and always a yearning quality,
as if she's reaching upwards for the all the sweet goodness of the heavens.
First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," despite being pushed to the limits
of good taste by everyone from Elvis to Celine, is, in Flack's hands,
still a heart-stopper. I can't hear the lines "The first time ever
I kissed your mouth / I felt the earth move in my hand / Like the trembling
heart of a captive bird" without getting choked up. Interesting side
note: the ballad was written by Ewan MacColl, an English folkie best known
for his strident songs of radical politics.
is one of many outside writers here, along with Norman Gimbel, Eugene
McDaniels, Ralph MacDonald, Stevie Wonder, Burt Bacharach and others.
That Roberta didn't pen any of her hits doesn't lessen her gift as an
interpreter extraordinaire. These songs may never have reached their heights
without her. "The Closer I Get To You" continues her duet romance
with Donny Hathaway, while the wedding standard "Tonight, I Celebrate
My Love" pairs her with silky tenor Peabo Bryson.
as the CD moves from the '70s to the '80s and early '90s, theres
a decline in quality, not so much in material, as in the arrangements
and production. While Roberta's voice is never less than wonderful, overwrought
tracks (and what '80s tracks weren't, really?) like "Oasis,"
"Set The Night To Music" and "You Are My Heaven" stray
into the slick territory of aerobic workout videos.
two songs, "'Til The Morning Comes" and the gorgeous B-side
from 1971, "Trade Winds," bring the singer back around to the
kind of delicate R & B that she does best.
collection is worth having, if only for the first six songs, which stand
as classics of jazzy soul.
out other photos by bill
track on the mr. rogers tribute album