Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Kat's Korner: The Sensual Roberta Flack

Kat: It was 1974 and Atlantic was nervous and desperate. Not least of all because, in the Warner Communications universe, they were competing that year with the newly joined Elektra-Asylum, under David Geffen's leadership, which was hitting big with Carly Simon's Hotcakes, Joni Mitchell's Court & Spark, Bob Dylan's Planet Waves. (Geffen won the wooing of Dylan over Jerry Wexler who was trying to bring him to Atlantic.) And Atlantic needed something they could depend on, something they could market, something they could sale. While the Average White Band was going to give them any bragging rights, they needed something with prestige as well. 1973's Goats Head Soup was still selling and the Stones were already at work on their follow up (It's Only Rock 'n Roll). Roberta Flack had given the label a huge hit in 1973 with "Killing Me Softly With His Song" and was in the studio recording her follow up album. And recording it. And editing it. And still in the studio. Maybe pressure could be put on her to finish things quickly?

Not a chance. Joel Dorn was producing the album, however, the suits' constant demands to hurry up and their need to 'explain'(pressure) how it needed to be a hit led to his walking out on the project. That left it to Roberta to take control and hold it together. She'd spend eight months in the studio on that album which became Feel Like Makin' Love and would make the pop charts, the R&B charts and the jazz charts as well as produce a hit single with the title track. In fact, she'd finish with the lead single first and it would hit number one in August of 1974. But she was still working on perfecting the sound of the album and it wouldn't be released until March of 1975. The next album? It would take her nearly three years before she felt Blue Lights In The Basement was ready. (That album would contain her smash duet with Donny Hathaway "The Closer I Get To You.")

I tell all of that to set that stage and make sure everybody gets that a Roberta Flack album is a rare thing. She's no Emily Dickinson, that Roberta. In fact, she makes J.D. Salinger look positively prolific. Like Halley's Comet in the sky, a Roberta Flack album is a rare thing.

And when we're really lucky, it's a rare thing of beauty.

roberta flack

Let It Be Roberta: Roberta Flack Sings The Beatles is the name of the new album. (Still on sale as a download -- with booklet -- at Amazon for $3.99 as I type this. I don't know when that sale ends.) If you count Holiday (2003), it's been nearly nine years since Roberta released a new album. Holiday is a seasonal album (and basically her 1997 Christmas album with a new title), so I don't count it. So, for me, 1999's Friends: Roberta Flack Sings Mariko Takahashi is her last album of new recordings. That's nearly 13 years.

As I've noted many times at my blog, I'm a huge Roberta Flack fan. And I'm a huge Beatles fan. Which might make you think this album excited me as soon as I first heard about it. That is not the case. Mainly because I'd suffered through Judy Collins' awful Judy Sings Lennon & McCartney. That hideous collection had set the clocks back to 1986, soured us all so that even Rod Stewart's nice version of "In My Life" (Every Beat of My Heart) was going to get served (with Rolling Stone grabbing the carving knife). When I heard which songs Roberta was recording, that didn't comfort me any either.

So imagine my surprise when listening to the album turned out to be sheer joy. "In My Life." Every cover is the same. Judy Collins covered it in the sixties, everybody copied, it became a plodding number by the time it got around to Bette Midler (who's always been so good about copying Judy Collins). It was such a predictable, paint-by-number, route sing-along that Sheryl Crow could have done it. But what I was forgetting about Roberta is that she's no one's photocopy.

A true original. And one who has suffered for being that.

Doubt me?

Find another artist who could and did close Dylan's Rolling Thunder tour with him and also could hold their own in Soul to Soul with Tina Turner and Wilson Pickett? We're talking about the woman who made "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" a standard, the woman's whose hits (other than the ones I've already named) include "Where Is The Love," "Tonight, I Celebrate My Love," "Making Love," "Jesse," "You've Got A Friend," "Oasis," "Set The Night To Music," "If Ever I See You Again," "Back Together Again," "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" and so many more. She's landed over 33 singles on the pop, R&B, adult contemporary and dance charts. And this is the woman who not only helped create The Quiet Storm, this is a woman who is an album artist. She's not bubble gum, she's making statements and creating moods, painting on a large canvas.

But, please note, this is also the woman who doesn't even have a bio at Rolling Stone online. The "R"s include Ray Charles, Rhianna, Otis Redding, Ry Cooder, "Ross, Diana," Roy Orbison, Randy Newman and many others but no Roberta Flack. (For those who think she's in the "F"s -- "Flack, Roberta," no, she isn't. The Four Seasons, Frank Sinatra and others are there. But she isn't.) And though she's an albums artist with over eleven of those going gold and platinum, lots of luck finding a Roberta Flack entry in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide which moves from The Five Satins right onto Flaming Lips. Even worse, Barbara O'Dair's The Rolling Stone Book Of Women In Rock never once mentions her. Anita Baker? She's in the book. So's Sade, Etta James, Lisa Stansfield, Aretha Franklin, Jody Watley, Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, Madonna, Mary J. Blige, Patti Austin and a host of others you might not necessarily see as "rock." In fact, there's a ton of women you'll discover in the book that never even made it to one-hit wonder status but happened to please Babsie O'Dair and Jann Wenner at the moment the book was being put together and, were it not for this book, you'd never know they existed. (Doubt me? Pleasant Gehman is known today -- if at all -- as a belly dancer and writer -- not songwriter. Did Pleasant really rate four pargaraphs and a full page picture for a music career that wasn't going anywhere when the book was written and never went anywhere after it was published? To make room for 'musical' 'artists' like Plesant, Roberta Flack was ignored?)

Roberta Flack's a living legend. She's also one of our most overlooked ones. This despite her being a signature voice. "What do the neighbors say, when they hear us scream at night?" wonders Carly Simon in her "All I Want Is You" and she hooks you right away with that. So much so that when the chorus kicks in and Roberta's lush vocals float through the speakers, it's nothing but sheer enjoyment, sheer jubilation. The cherry on the top of the ice cream malt.

Carly's her contemporary. And Joni and Melanie and Janis Ian and Brenda Russell and Sade and Anita Baker and Aimee Mann and Tracy Chapman and Mary J. Blige -- women who're using the album to make an extended artistic statement.

And Roberta's done that again with Let It Be Roberta: Roberta Flack Sings The Beatles. As with "In My Life," she repeatedly finds a way to present the song that is new and fresh. "Hey Jude" is sung in almost childlike manner. And the rhythm in the song is rediscovered. "Oh Darling" retains a sensual feel but, as Yoko Ono observes in the liner notes, "With this collection, Roberta is adding a woman's voice of fun and joy and, again, making people realize how universal these songs are."

It's a gorgeous album that works as an album -- one filled with inspired touches. The percussion in "If I Fell," for example or the background vocals that come in at the end of that song. The music throughout the album is amazing, the strings, the drums, the bass and guitar. And maybe most amazing is how well "Here, There and Everywhere" fits with the rest of the album. Unlike the other 13 tracks, "Here, There and Everywhere" was not recorded for this album but is instead from her 1972 Carnegie Hall concert.

The main thing I would stress is this: Don't look at the titles and think you know what the album is going to sound like. On every track, Roberta's taken her own path. "I'm Looking Through You" was a revelation for me especially. Rubber Soul is an album I know in and out, up and down, every which way you can imagine. But she found a way to take the song and bring something so different that I wonder why I never noticed it before. She embraces the sorrow and regret on what was always to me just a kiss-off song. I long to be home on a rainy day, with the windows wide open this album pouring out of the speakers as surely as the rain falls down outside, so thick you can almost taste it inside the room. If one word describes Roberta Flack's recording career, it's probably "sensual" and that's a good one word description for this new album as well.