Just for the record: You won’t get any flak for loving Roberta
A fortnightly review of music on vinyl
I may be speaking for myself here, but the first time ever I heard Roberta Flack, I felt the hairs stand on the back of my neck. How was it for you? I’m only asking because next month sees the (slightly belated) deluxe 50th anniversary edition of First Take, her debut album. Reissue specialists Soul Music have put together a limited edition package that includes the original album remastered on 180g vinyl and on CD, along with a second CD of bonus rarities, live performances and unreleased demos, all in a handsome hardbound coffeetable book.
The demos stem from sessions Flack initially recorded as part of an audition for Atlantic Records in 1968. She was by then a seasoned performer, a regular on the Washington DC jazz circuit, with a vocal delivery not unlike that of Nina Simone’s. Flack’s singing certainly impressed Les McCann, another pianist-vocalist on the scene who would prove instrumental in securing Flack a recording contract. “What I heard touched me on a level that I’ve never heard since,” McCann later recalled. “When my time on this earth is over, in my heart, I want to carry Roberta’s voice back home so the angels can hear.”
It took a while, however, before what McCann heard would be experienced by others. Flack was a difficult act to categorise. She lacked the “churchy” gospel fire of contemporaries such as Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples, or the raw blues spirit of Etta James or Tina Turner, and, unlike Diana Ross or Dionne Warwick, she wasn’t going to be an instrument of big studio production teams. Consequently First Take was largely ignored by the mainstream upon its release...