One might ask how someone could remain triumphant for over thirty years, staying at the top of her game, overcoming incredible challenges in this unpredictable and ever-changing industry. With her love, enthusiasm, and compassion for the human spirit, coupled with an unparalleled musical virtuosity and gift of storytelling, Roberta Flack has effortlessly soared across genres as diverse as jazz fusion to soul to pop and back to R&B, receiving the highest accolades, winning a permanent place in music history.
On November 20, 2004, Roberta Flack graced the prestigious new Lincoln Center’s Rose Theatre in honor of the Hackensack University Medical Center’s annual fundraising event. The first concert hall built primarily for the education of and commitment to jazz music, the Rose Theatre was the perfect venue for this special occasion. While magnificent in size, the theatre also had an intimate feel, and the exceptional acoustics gave the impression that Ms. Flack is singing directly to you.
Gracing the stage in her glittering purple blouse and black flowing skirt, she elegantly walked across the stage to the 13-foot Steinway Grand and began to play lyrical classical melodies, brilliant passages reminiscent of Chopin Etudes. She then rolled into her timeless classic "The First Time I Saw Your Face," in which the breathtaking lyrics still have the same impact on the audience as its first release thirty years ago, when it earned her a Grammy nomination and win for Best Original Pop Song.
Throughout the evening, Ms. Flack often shared the stage with each of her eight instrumentalists, graciously turning over the spotlight to the guitarist, sax player, bass, and drums so each of them could have their moments to shine. A spectacular addition to the show was the gifted back-up singer Tony Terry, who joined Flack in a duet version of "The Closer I Get to You." Their voices melded together in such passion one couldn’t help but become enchanted by their immense heartfelt admiration for one another, as they expressed their profound love for one another. Later in the evening, Terry’s spine-chilling performance of his original masterpiece "With You," was electrifying as Ms. Flack played the piano, smiling broadly and reveling in his glory. His simple yet powerful words "When I’m with you I hear a song that makes me laugh and smile and sing to you," which he sang with soulful and breathtaking feeling, demonstrating to the audience that Ms. Flack not only deserves her reputation as one of the greatest soul singer-pianists of our time, she also has impeccable taste.
She continued with her nostalgic songs "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Feel Like Making Love," as well as giving us her interpretation of Marvin Gaye’s "Save the Children," in which the uplifting swinging rhythms reminded us once again why we love the exceptional Roberta Flack: She can subtly point out the hardships we all face in our world while lifting our spirits and allowing us to see that beyond all the pain, there is hope. Encouraging audience participation during the ultimate closing song, Carol King’s "You’ve Got a Friend," the audience immediately stepped up to the challenge, having been reinvigorated and inspired by her magnificent performance throughout the evening. Like a gospel congregation that suddenly becomes alive, Roberta Flack enthusiastically inspired the audience to sing from their hearts.
Roberta Flack’s background lends itself to her creativity and exploration, as she was fortunate to grow up in a family where music was encouraged as a natural outlet for self-expression. A classically-trained concert pianist as a child, Ms. Flack was surrounded by music since she was born in the small town of Asheville, North Carolina. She grew up listening to classical music and being heavily influenced by her church music, in addition to gospel and blues singers including Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke. After graduating from Howard University on a full scholarship with a BA in music, where she met future collaborator Donny Hathaway, she was discovered singing and playing jazz in a Washington nightclub by pianist Les McCann, who recommended her to Atlantic Records. Her first two albums, First Take and Chapter Two, gained her much recognition, before she achieved huge success with Ewan MacColl 's ballad, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," which was later added to the soundtrack of the Clint Eastwood film "Play Misty For Me." Always one to follow her instincts, she insisted that she be allowed to sing it at the original slow tempo. Consequently, this album earned her the Grammy for "Record of the Year" in 1972.
The numerous awards that Roberta Flack has earned over the past 30 years are celebrations of her unparalleled dedication and hard work. Recently honored as one of "The 100 Greatest Women of Rock & Roll" she has continuously demonstrated her timelessness throughout her sensational career that has extended over three decades. Whereas many artists come and go, being prey to the popular demands of the ever-changing industry and public, this star has overcome every obstacle and shown the world that she is here to stay. Ms. Flack is a four-time Grammy-award winning artist, including best popular record, best song, and best duo performance. She ranked #45 on VH1's Greatest Women of Rock N Roll, and has earned acclaim on the charts in a multitude of musical categories, including pop, R&B, jazz and blues.
Roberta Flack always sings from her heart. Throughout her performance at the Rose Theatre, she demonstrated her gift of sharing her intense feelings of pain, love, fear, and rejoicing through her dynamic vocal prowess. There is a quality about her voice that makes the listener believe her words and immediately become enraptured in the story. Her phrasing, which is laid-back but distinct, gives evidence of her admiration for some of the great jazz legends, including her favorites Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell. " (They) fascinated me because there I was playing all this extremely difficult classical stuff, and they were playing stuff that sounded so simple, but I couldn't get it." Her magnificent technical virtuosity on the piano has helped her to create songs that are soulful and timeless. Combining elements of soul, jazz, gospel, and R&B, Roberta Flack has explored unfound territory and created her own musical language, crossing over the genres and finding her own way to reveal her stories.
Steadfast in her pursuit of utilizing her musical talents and achievements to support many social and political issues, she has actively contributed to charity organizations. These include her participation in "We Are Family" in response to the aftermath of September 11, her involvement in the "Come Back to DC Campaign" in collaboration with the Federal Government, an active board member of the Cancer Treatment Research Foundation, her vital participation in AEC, the Artist Empowerment Coalition for the advancement of artists’ creative property rights, and her unwavering support for Nelson Mandela. She proudly admitted, "We went to South Africa years ago. I had it written into my contract that I would meet with Nelson Mandela He said he loved everything we did." She then remembers that he had credited her songs for giving him strength to endure the hardships in prison.
Roberta Flack’s performance gave truth to the idea that music has the power to heal. She has continuously demonstrated that through song, one can experience a complete understanding and appreciating of the sacredness of life. As Ms. Flack once stated, "To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering." Time and time again, Ms. Flack has demonstrated the power of her words; through her music, love, and compassion, she has shown us the true meaning of survival.