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Roberta Flack

• Roberta Flack

In 1973, 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."

The terrific "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.

Flack 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.

"The 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.

MacColl 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.

Unfortunately, as the CD moves from the '70s to the '80s and early '90s, there’s 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.

The last 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.

This collection is worth having, if only for the first six songs, which stand as classics of jazzy soul.
• Bill DeMain            

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buy it here        visit robertaflack.com

check out other photos by bill king

hear roberta's track on the mr. rogers tribute album

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