Killing Me Softly: The Roberta Flack Story


Killing Me Softly: The Roberta Flack Story

Documentary profile of Roberta Flack, telling the story of the emergence of a different kind of soul singer, set against the turbulent backdrop of America's Civil Rights movement.


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Transcript


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# Strummin' my pain with his fingers

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# Singin' my life with his words

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# Killing me softly with his song...#

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In 1973, Roberta Flack's brand of soft soul made her

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one of the biggest selling female pop stars in the world...

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The first thing I think about when I hear Roberta record a classic

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is that I can't wait to sing it, you know?

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# Where is the love

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# Where is the love...#

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..and the kids of Middle America loved her.

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But 20 years earlier, the parents of those white kids

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wouldn't have allowed Roberta to sit next to them on the bus.

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We were living in a very radical time.

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It was madness going on throughout the South.

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But this isn't just a familiar rags-to-riches story

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of triumph over adversity.

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She raises this spectre of class.

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She is a quintessential product of the black middle class.

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Right down to where she's educated.

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Nor did Roberta Flack set out to be a pop star.

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In her voice you can hear both impact of her classical training

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and, the, you know, the kind of fineness of her ear.

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# Killing me softly...#

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But the lure of the pop stage proved irresistible.

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# Softly... #

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When you start to perform and you go through all of the physical motions -

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"Ladies and Gentlemen - Roberta Flack"

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and you come to where that spot.

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There's a moment that you reach for

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that that can only be described as blissful.

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# This is my prayer

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# This is my prayer#

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Aretha Franklin is everybody's idea of what a soul singer is.

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# For ever, ever...

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# Stay in my heart

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# Ever... Yeah #

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Passionate, loud and driven by the power of gospel.

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# Oh! Lovers together

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# We're together

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# To live without you... #

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For Clint Eastwood, an invitation to terror.

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WOMAN SCREAMS

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But when Eastwood featured Roberta Flack's The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

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in the film Play Misty For Me

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and propelled it to the top of the charts -

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a new kind of soul voice introduced itself on to the world stage

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# The first time...

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APPLAUSE

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# ..ever I saw your face

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# I thought the sun

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# ..rose in your eyes...#

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It was the first time that I'd ever heard a song

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recorded at that tempo.

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It was not the normal ballad.

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It was more, almost a testimony.

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# And the first time

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# ..ever I kissed your mouth... #

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She makes us redefine this whole notion

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of what black female soul music is as a sound.

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# I felt the earth... #

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You're getting as close inside of her head

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as her sound is going to allow you to get.

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# Like the trembling heart... #

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When I did, First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,

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sometimes when I first started to sign the song

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I'd be in tears, I mean...

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MIMICS CRYING

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# To the dark...#

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I didn't know that people could feel what I felt.

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You know, this deep, deep, deep thing.

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But they could get it. I'd look up and they'd be crying, too.

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And I would say, "Wonder why they're crying. What did I do?" You know?

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"Did I do something wrong?"

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And then I realised later that it wasn't that,

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I realised later that it's... It's the communication.

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# Till the end of time, my love...#

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Roberta is more lyrical in her approach,

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and her vocal prowess.

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She has a very, very clear haunting and soothing voice.

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Aretha will make you sweat,

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and Roberta makes you think.

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# The first time...#

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When I first heard it

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I almost wasn't sure, it was a black voice.

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# ..your face #

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Cos there is an enigma at the heart of it, you know.

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It's a kind of different soul voice.

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And it's obviously from a different tradition.

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So where did Roberta Flack's brand of soul come from?

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Despite being born in the segregated South in 1937,

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its roots were more in aspiration than they were in desperation.

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At any early age, Roberta's family migrated from North Carolina

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to Arlington,

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a then segregated suburb of Washington DC.

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When we talk about the segregated South,

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and, really, Arlington is still the South in this period,

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You're still talking about a community that is...

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constrained by Jim Crow.

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The so-called Negro movement is part of the attempted takeover

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of our country by the lazy, the indolent,

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the beatniks, the ignorant and by some misguided...

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On the other hand the benefits of those types of communities

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were that, um, you had your rich, robust lives

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where you have the entire class spectrum.

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There's a kind of shared sense of purpose

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and a kind of self-government because,

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if you imagine you know, an entire social order that presumes

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your inferiority,

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there has to be another set of ethics and norms and values

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that are established that can accommodate all the talents

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and all the gifts of members of the community.

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It was in this kind of self-contained segregated community

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that Roberta Flack was raised in the late 1940s.

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At that time Arlington was a relatively comfortable,

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black, middle-class suburb.

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One of four children,

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Roberta Flack's father had a government job in Washington

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and her mother was a music teacher.

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People who were Roberta Flack's age who come out of the South,

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I mean, you know, these are people for whom the opportunity

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to become middle class, where it is, where the money is a little better

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than it was for the generation before them.

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Where the housing opportunities are a little better, as well.

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And it's a product of a lot of hard work and sacrifice

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that your community and your parents put in.

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At the centre of these communities were the churches -

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and at the centre of the churches was the music.

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In Arlington, the biggest was the Macedonia Baptist Church

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and the music was gospel.

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# ..trying to get home

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# I'm climbing higher mountains

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# Trying to get home... #

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I could walk in any Baptist church

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and hear what we know of as traditional gospel

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with folks like Aretha Franklin and Sam Cook, Mahalia Jackson...

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# That is why I can shout

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# Because I know what it's

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# All about...#

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The people who so many years later

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got packaged into soul and turned into soul

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would have come out of your Baptist churches.

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The roots of Roberta Flack's brand of soul -

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also came from church, but of a different kind.

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She attended the more sedate Lomax AMA Methodist Church

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where her mother was both pianist and choir mistress.

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CONGREGATION SINGS HYMN

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I'd like to think of Roberta,

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as I always think of myself,

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as being a good girl.

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We are good girls, OK?

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Um, and her background, coming from a Methodist environment,

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Methodist church environment, mirrors mine.

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The choir sang hymns, and hymns are very, very straight-laced

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and to the point, and wonderful harmony.

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# Glory be to the Father...#

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When you think of, say, an Aretha Franklin,

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or even an Al Green or a James Brown...

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who have that kind of fiery, gritty kind of sweaty voices,

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Roberta Flack is not really known for that,

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her voice has more to do with the kind of quiet hymnals, right?

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And being able to just sing a song, straight,

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not alter and switch off the melody too much.

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She's very good at that,

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so I think a lot of that is definitively rooted in the church.

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# Come ye disconsolate

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# Where 'ere ye lie. #

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I had a lot of experience,

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or opportunity,

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to play the organ for church services at Lomax.

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When there were some incredible musicians in charge of the choir.

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I can remember a lady

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at my church, Mrs Lillian Thompson - God rest her soul -

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said to me one day,

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"Roberta, I hope that you never stop playing the piano and organ

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like you are doing now."

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And I said to her "Why would I do that?"

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Roberta's musical education in the church -

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was supplemented at her local high school,

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where she excelled in both classical piano and voice.

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In the segregated early 50s,

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Hoffman Boston was an entirely black school

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both in intake and in staff.

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All over black America if you were a high school principal

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you were probably that black person who had an advanced degree,

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from either one of the top black schools,

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or in some cases the Ivy League schools.

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But black educators couldn't work in those Ivy League schools -

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so you had a world that was separate

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and, in some ways, less than equal,

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some ways more than equal in terms of the quality of education.

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Those people were completely committed to providing

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first rate education, for people like a Roberta Flack.

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There was a term that was commonly used "to lift as we climb",

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meaning educational aspirations were not just for individuals

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but for the entire community.

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So segregated schools were these beautiful sites for self-creation

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and community formation.

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Roberta's blossoming musical talent was recognised

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and nurtured in Hoffman Boston.

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Roberta was just like we are, just a everyday young student.

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But when it came time to being serious about what she supposed to

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-she was very, very serious.

-Very focused.

-Yes. Yes.

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And she'd go to music lessons.

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You know, when her mother would send her to music higher...

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She didn't have time for us and that's good.

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A good thing she didn't because look where she is today!

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When Roberta Flack left high school in 1953,

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her church marked her out as somebody

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who could lift as she climbed.

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They granted her a scholarship at the age of just 15,

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to study classical music

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at the most prestigious African American college -

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Howard University.

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Howard University is one of a small group of really

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premier historically black college and universities

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and so, you get the best and the brightest in every possible arena.

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So it is the site where there's so much

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intellectual activity, politically relevant activity,

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the place where the litigation strategy

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for Brown v Board of Education was developed.

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Brown Versus Board of Education was the landmark case in 1954,

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which banned segregation in American Schools.

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It was a triumph for the university in Roberta's first year.

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But outside the cloistered walls

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the Southern states had no intention of going quietly.

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The following year, a young preacher emerged in the South

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to kick start the civil rights movement.

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"At present we are in the midst of a protest.

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"Just the other day one of the fine citizens of our community

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"Mrs Rosa Parks was arrested because she refused to give up her seat

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"for a white passenger.

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The movement was led by the African American educated middle class,

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of which Roberta Flack was now comfortably part of,

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back in the classical music department at Howard University.

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CLASSICAL SINGING

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At Howard Roberta Flack distinguished herself

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in a distinguished music programme.

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She studied both music and voice.

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She really was a musical prodigy.

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Really extraordinarily brilliant.

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When she directed Aida, at the school,

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the entire faculty stood and gave her a standing ovation.

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# All through the night

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# I'm gonna to let it shine... #

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Being a student at Howard served me well.

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I had a good time in school,

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I was very successful as a piano accompanist to, erm... anybody.

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Anybody wanted to sing they could find me.

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-< Any style?

-Any style! Find me.

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And I can play it.

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If I didn't know it I'd...pull it together some kind of way, you know.

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To make it sound like I did.

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Because I had a strong desire to please, too.

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And that was my - means of doing that.

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I think that Roberta Flack is absolutely a product

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of African Americans' long affiliation with classical music.

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Whilst listeners may not think of classical first when they hear her,

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her life is evidence and her music is evidence

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of that training and that awareness which came to her

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at different kinds of ways -

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from the church, from Howard, from her community

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and so she could not help but manifest that

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in her playing and in her singing.

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# I never dreamed you'd leave in summer... #

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She knew where to hit the keys

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so that the words would not be disturbed by the keyboard.

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That's really critical for someone who accompanies themselves.

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She knows how to maintain the body technique

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so that nothing is lost in the voice in that process.

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# And I thought the cold would leave by summer

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# But my quiet nights will be spent alone... #

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At Howard, Roberta had her heart set on a classical career,

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but the realities of a segregated America dulled those dreams.

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When Roberta Flack is at Howard there's not a lot of black people

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with those kind of skills in composition, arranging, conducting,

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you know, who are going to be in line,

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to take over the New York Philharmonic

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or the National Symphony Orchestra.

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I had a dean that advised me that as a Piano major,

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the doors would not be as open to me when I finished that course of study,

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and that I should take Education.

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I walked away from a potential career as a classical concert pianist.

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Let's try this right from the beginning.

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OK, let's do the doo-doo doo-doo part at the beginning,

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then we'll get into... We'll do that twice # Doo-doo doo-doo doo -

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and then right into the song. Here we go.

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# Doo-doo-doo-doo doo...#

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With her ambition thwarted, Roberta began teaching music

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in the public school system in Washington DC.

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So not only do you have to enunciate the words clearly,

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but you also have to put a little stress, a little emphasis

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on certain words - make the words almost picturesque.

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But as the '60s dawned there was a sense that things

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were about to change.

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# People get ready

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# There's a train a-coming

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# You don't need to no baggage

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# You just get on board... #

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The civil rights movement had gathered an unstoppable momentum

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with Martin Luther King's triumphant march, on Washington in 1963.

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The following year,

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a decade after Brown versus Board of Education

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the government were forced to bring an end to a century of segregation.

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# So people get ready for the train to Jordan

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# Picking up passengers

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# Coast to coast

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Throughout this momentous decade, Roberta continued to teach,

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but she hadn't given up on her own dream.

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I would teach school five days a week.

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I was trying to develop my skill to read music,

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interpret it, rearrange it - do whatever I needed to do with it.

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I thought I could do everything.

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And I felt comfortable enough to know that if I had a chance I could,

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I could show anybody that I could.

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It wasn't until 1968 that a 31-year-old Roberta Flack

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got her chance to shine.

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Mr Henry's was a late-night joint

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that catered to a fashionably mixed crowd.

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# Ain't no valley low enough

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# Ain't no river wide enough

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# Keep me from gettin' to you

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# Hold on, baby

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# Ain't no mountain high

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# No valley low, yeah... #

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You know, I was so excited.

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So excited.

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I'm teaching school, I was still teaching school five days a week

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and playing, um...

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at Mr Henry's.

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Five days a week, too!

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I was supposed to do two shows,

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I would wind up doing five in a night,

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cos I just couldn't get up - from the piano.

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# Come on, people... #

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Anybody that had come into town to do a concert,

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as she got more popular, more well-known,

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would come and...and listen to her.

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Liberace came once to hear her.

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I think somebody actually stole one the candelabras

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off of his limousine when it was parked out front.

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# Take that dream of her two young brothers

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# Gonna take that dream...#

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The thing that I remembered

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other than being captivated by her at the first hearing,

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we had a couple of guys with us that were, erm...

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out for fun!

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A couple of drinks, and one of them said "Sing one for Jesus!"

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And I buried my head and...

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# Save the little children... #

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So the next song she sang was # I Told Jesus

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# Be alright if he called my name #

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I said this woman is going to just have the most wonderful career,

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because nothing, nothing bothers her.

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# If you see me walking down the street

0:23:230:23:25

# And I start to cry

0:23:250:23:27

# Each time we meet

0:23:270:23:30

# Walk on by

0:23:300:23:34

# Walk on by. #

0:23:360:23:38

And I was performing in Washington, DC

0:23:380:23:40

and my guys, my rhythm section,

0:23:400:23:42

said they were going to go to this little club,

0:23:420:23:45

and there was a young lady there playing piano and singing and...

0:23:450:23:48

would I like to go?

0:23:480:23:50

I said, "Yeah, sure" and that was...

0:23:500:23:53

The young lady was Roberta Flack.

0:23:530:23:55

And, boy, she blew me away.

0:23:550:23:58

REALLY blew me away.

0:23:580:24:00

# Sister Jones was taken away

0:24:010:24:06

# She didn't live another day

0:24:060:24:11

# Sister Jones was taken away

0:24:160:24:21

# She didn't live

0:24:210:24:26

# Another day

0:24:260:24:30

# Sister Jones was taken away

0:24:320:24:37

# She didn't live

0:24:390:24:41

# She said Lord, Lord, Lord

0:24:440:24:46

# If you take him away...#

0:24:460:24:49

If you close your eyes and sing and...

0:24:490:24:52

feel and emote,

0:24:520:24:54

and not see anybody in the audience,

0:24:540:24:58

not think about anybody that you might see,

0:24:580:25:01

or who might see you - just be there -

0:25:010:25:03

it's a very interesting place to be.

0:25:030:25:05

And when you, once you get there it's...it's a...

0:25:050:25:10

It's very hard to leave.

0:25:100:25:14

# Yeah, yeah, yeah...

0:25:140:25:19

# She said Lord...

0:25:190:25:25

# Lord, Lord, Lord

0:25:250:25:28

# If you take him away

0:25:280:25:31

# I don't wanna live another day

0:25:310:25:35

# Yeah, yeah...

0:25:350:25:37

# Sister Jones was taken away

0:25:370:25:45

# You know, she didn't live

0:25:470:25:49

# She didn't live

0:25:510:25:55

# She didn't live another day...#

0:25:550:26:05

WHOOPS AND APPLAUSE

0:26:050:26:11

It was my moment. I was on stage.

0:26:160:26:18

I was right dead centre, where I needed to be.

0:26:180:26:21

And I had everybody's attention.

0:26:210:26:23

And I could take them where I wanted them to go.

0:26:230:26:27

Well, I can't describe her voice.

0:26:270:26:30

I can say that when I heard her sing... How it made me feel.

0:26:300:26:35

Tears to my eyes, a lot of deep feeling.

0:26:360:26:39

So I picked up recording equipment to record her and take the rec...

0:26:400:26:45

the recording to Atlantic

0:26:450:26:46

and once they heard the tapes, that was... It began.

0:26:460:26:52

After ten years, her teaching days were over,

0:26:540:26:57

Roberta transferred the songs she'd been performing at Mr Henry's

0:26:570:27:01

onto vinyl.

0:27:010:27:03

# I loved you in the morning

0:27:030:27:06

# Our kisses deep and warm...#

0:27:060:27:09

Released in 1969, First Take

0:27:090:27:12

was an eclectic mix of folk, jazz and show tune,

0:27:120:27:17

but this was also an album of its time.

0:27:170:27:20

I think it's a very, very fascinating record,

0:27:200:27:22

because there's romantic ballads,

0:27:220:27:25

there's covers of Leonard Cohen songs on there...

0:27:250:27:29

It's a very hybrid fusion record,

0:27:290:27:32

but it's one that is deeply rooted in black politics of the late 1960s

0:27:320:27:36

and I think part of the reason Roberta Flack doesn't get fully credited

0:27:360:27:41

for being a part of that political tradition

0:27:410:27:43

is because she's a woman.

0:27:430:27:45

Story goes African American popular music -

0:27:450:27:48

became explicitly political and socially critical

0:27:480:27:51

with Marvin Gaye's What's Going On in 1971.

0:27:510:27:54

# Mother, Mother

0:27:540:27:57

# There's too many of you crying...#

0:27:570:27:59

Roberta Flack's album comes out two years before.

0:28:010:28:03

Right? So really it's much earlier.

0:28:030:28:05

GUNSHOT

0:28:050:28:07

We have to recognise who our major enemy is!

0:28:070:28:11

In 1969, while black America was erupting after

0:28:160:28:19

the assassination of Martin Luther King,

0:28:190:28:22

and while the non-violence of civil rights was drowned out

0:28:220:28:25

by the rage of Black Power.

0:28:250:28:28

The major enemy is the honky and his institutions of racism -

0:28:280:28:31

that's the major enemy.

0:28:310:28:33

Marvin Gaye was too Busy Thinking About His Baby.

0:28:330:28:36

# Oh, yeah

0:28:360:28:38

# And I ain't got time for nothing else

0:28:380:28:41

But Roberta Flack was trying to make it real.

0:28:440:28:48

# Said I love the lie...#

0:28:480:28:50

ROBERTA SINGS

0:28:500:28:52

How bold is that?

0:29:250:29:26

This is your first album

0:29:260:29:27

and you decide this is the first song on the album -

0:29:270:29:30

Compared To What - where you're basically calling out everything.

0:29:300:29:34

You're just coming out of the black saying,

0:29:340:29:36

"You got to be real," You know? Compared To What, you know?

0:29:360:29:40

All of these sort of swirling around its like people were

0:29:400:29:42

trying to find centre.

0:29:420:29:43

It's a kind of wail against authenticity.

0:30:070:30:11

It's like make it real Compared To What?

0:30:110:30:14

Why am I not OK by myself?

0:30:140:30:17

I know this is what you say we are,

0:30:190:30:22

I know this is even what we say we are, but, you know,

0:30:220:30:25

let me just...take a minute here and see whether

0:30:250:30:28

I can offer you a version.

0:30:280:30:30

# Tryin' to make it real, yeah

0:30:300:30:33

# Compared to what...#

0:30:340:30:37

In that sense she's also, I think, part of a long tradition

0:30:370:30:42

of African American intellectuals and creatives

0:30:420:30:46

who've tried really hard to forge this space,

0:30:460:30:50

in which they can be individuals.

0:30:500:30:53

# Hang it up...#

0:30:530:30:54

When you see Roberta Flack in that tradition

0:30:540:30:57

she suddenly makes more sense.

0:30:570:30:59

I thought was a clever song it was Gene McDaniels,

0:30:590:31:03

it gave me an opportunity to express a point,

0:31:030:31:07

without hitting somebody over the head, you know.

0:31:070:31:11

# Callin' the name. #

0:31:110:31:14

Eugene McDaniels was one of a number of black songwriters

0:31:140:31:17

that Roberta Flack gathered round her for the making of the album.

0:31:170:31:21

# Making the...last time

0:31:240:31:28

# Like the first time

0:31:300:31:33

# Merging as one

0:31:350:31:39

# Fusing into the vast...#

0:31:430:31:46

Eugene McDaniels in terms of his aspirations,

0:31:460:31:51

is probably as close to a Bob Dylan

0:31:510:31:55

as black American music produced in that particular moment,

0:31:550:31:58

in the sense that this was somebody

0:31:580:32:01

that really wanted to make the lyrics the thing.

0:32:010:32:05

You told me... You called me and told me you had a song for me.

0:32:050:32:08

That's right, and you are the only person that I write exclusives for.

0:32:080:32:11

But why you playing my song for him.

0:32:110:32:13

He asked to hear it. He just asked to hear it. He can't have it.

0:32:130:32:17

Can't have it. It's yours.

0:32:170:32:20

-Is that a promise.

-Yes, ma'am.

0:32:200:32:22

Cos you know how I feel about your songs.

0:32:220:32:25

Sure feels great to have folks fighting over your music.

0:32:280:32:30

-It's really a trip, man!

-I'm not fighting.

0:32:300:32:33

Black songwriters felt comfortable being really intellectual.

0:32:330:32:36

People didn't have this anxiety of education.

0:32:360:32:40

People were actually proud to be able to express

0:32:400:32:43

really complicated thought about the world inside of popular music.

0:32:430:32:47

They felt that space had been opened up for them.

0:32:470:32:50

# Just pick up your papers

0:32:500:32:53

# Turn on your TV

0:32:530:32:56

# See a lot of demonstrations

0:32:570:33:02

# For equality

0:33:020:33:05

# Folks wouldn't have to suffer

0:33:050:33:08

# If there was more love, more love, more love

0:33:110:33:15

# These are trying times...#

0:33:150:33:16

Trying Times was written by an old friend from Howard university

0:33:180:33:22

- Donny Hathaway -

0:33:220:33:24

but it wasn't her political songs

0:33:240:33:27

that thrust Roberta Flack into the mainstream.

0:33:270:33:30

In 1972, Clint Eastwood choose one of her love songs

0:33:340:33:38

to feature in his directorial debut Play Misty for Me.

0:33:380:33:43

I was living in Alexandra, Virginia, with my mom and she said "Roberta",

0:33:430:33:47

I said "Yes", she said, "Somebody name Clint Eastwood is on the phone."

0:33:470:33:51

And I had, I thought she was either putting me on -

0:33:510:33:53

or was somebody playing a joke on me.

0:33:530:33:55

It was the real guy.

0:33:550:33:57

# The first time... #

0:33:580:34:00

I was very confused about him liking it, though I said to him

0:34:020:34:05

"Don't you want me to shorten it? Isn't' it too long?"

0:34:050:34:08

"No, I want it just like it is, all 5 minutes and 16 seconds."

0:34:080:34:13

Clint Eastwood needed the song

0:34:130:34:15

for an unusually long and wordless love scene.

0:34:150:34:19

His brave decision in this clip

0:34:200:34:22

to play The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face in its entirety

0:34:220:34:26

changed Robert Flack's life.

0:34:260:34:29

Mainstream white America fell in love with the song.

0:34:290:34:33

It became the biggest selling single of the year,

0:34:330:34:36

and the woman who wanted to be a concert pianist,

0:34:360:34:39

now found herself as one of the most successful pop singers in the world.

0:34:390:34:43

# Doo-doo doo-doo doo...#

0:34:480:34:51

I think I've done The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face 5,000 times,

0:34:510:34:55

and it is a beautiful song,

0:34:550:34:56

but there are other songs out there,

0:34:560:34:59

so to stay ahead of the game,

0:34:590:35:00

and keep things interesting for you,

0:35:000:35:02

you have to work with that, and I'm constantly concerned about that.

0:35:020:35:07

Now the search was on for the crucial follow up hit.

0:35:070:35:10

# I felt all flushed with fever

0:35:130:35:16

# Embarrassed by the crowd. #

0:35:160:35:20

I was on a plane coming from California to New York -

0:35:200:35:25

all I could hear was this song.

0:35:250:35:28

I was so just smitten.

0:35:280:35:29

I couldn't sleep the whole time for the flight.

0:35:290:35:32

I called Quincy as soon as I got to the airport,

0:35:320:35:35

and I got the music and recorded it.

0:35:350:35:39

# Strumming my pain with his fingers

0:35:390:35:41

# Singing my life... #

0:35:410:35:43

The song Roberta heard was Killing Me Softly by Lori Lieberman,

0:35:430:35:47

a white folky West Coast singer.

0:35:470:35:50

I was listening to Lori Lieberman's version of it,

0:35:510:35:54

which, of course, came first, was very, very lovely,

0:35:540:35:57

and I was, like, well, OK, so what happens between Lori Lieberman

0:35:570:36:00

and Roberta Flack?

0:36:000:36:02

And one thing she does, she gives it a stronger pulse.

0:36:020:36:05

# I heard he sang a good song

0:36:050:36:08

# I heard he had a style

0:36:080:36:12

# And so I came to see him

0:36:120:36:15

# To listen for a while...#

0:36:150:36:19

And so that frees her up

0:36:190:36:21

to be even more open with her vocals

0:36:210:36:23

because you have this thing that sort of propelling the song

0:36:230:36:27

and pushing it along.

0:36:270:36:28

Also she asked that ingenious, erm, "Oh" part...

0:36:280:36:33

# Ohhhh....

0:36:330:36:36

# Oh-ohhh... Oh-ohhh oh-ohhh oh-ohhh

0:36:360:36:41

# La la la la la la

0:36:410:36:44

# Oh-ohhh oh-ohhh oh-ohhh...#

0:36:440:36:46

..where she really just kind of airs out

0:36:460:36:50

and lets it stretch and lets it soar

0:36:500:36:52

and become this beautiful, beautiful moment.

0:36:520:36:55

Killing Me Softly was another massive hit,

0:36:580:37:01

winning three Grammy awards in 1974.

0:37:010:37:05

But despite this success, or maybe because of it,

0:37:050:37:08

Roberta Flack was not without her detractors.

0:37:080:37:11

In the 1970s, a lot of critics didn't really consider

0:37:110:37:15

Roberta Flack to be soul.

0:37:150:37:17

Partly that was because some critics felt her singing was very white.

0:37:170:37:22

# Suzanne takes you down

0:37:240:37:27

# To a place by the river...#

0:37:270:37:30

She wasn't singing like an Aretha Franklin,

0:37:300:37:33

she didn't have that kind of fiery quality.

0:37:330:37:36

She would stick to the melody - she would sing it straight.

0:37:360:37:39

# And you know that she's half crazy...#

0:37:390:37:43

Part of that comes from her family's background in the church,

0:37:430:37:47

and it's also her classical training.

0:37:470:37:49

# She feeds you tea and oranges...#

0:37:490:37:52

What appears on the surface to be this quietude,

0:37:520:37:56

this meekness, this... is in fact a...a granite persona,

0:37:560:38:01

because you needed to be really tough, right?

0:38:010:38:05

To find this additional energy

0:38:050:38:07

to pull away from this tradition of blackness that says

0:38:070:38:11

"I'm authentic, I come from the church, and we, you know,

0:38:110:38:14

"we grunt and we call and response, etc, etc..."

0:38:140:38:17

None of that's in her music.

0:38:170:38:19

And none of that's in her music

0:38:190:38:21

because she's deliberately decided that it shouldn't be there.

0:38:210:38:25

# I learned the truth at 17

0:38:250:38:29

# That love was meant for beauty queens

0:38:290:38:34

# And high school girls with clear-skin smiles

0:38:340:38:38

# Who married young and then retired...#

0:38:380:38:42

Roberta Flack was often seen in the context of a generation

0:38:420:38:45

of white female singer-songwriters who emerged in the '70s.

0:38:450:38:49

# The Friday night charade of youth...#

0:38:500:38:53

This was the dawn of the women's movement

0:38:540:38:57

when the personal was political.

0:38:570:38:59

# At 17 I learned the truth...#

0:38:590:39:04

But Roberta's brand of feminism was also rooted in her blackness.

0:39:040:39:08

This is a song about a very big, strong, black, sexy

0:39:080:39:13

Southern Baptist minister,

0:39:130:39:16

who thinks that he has his program all together,

0:39:160:39:20

until he runs up against a lady,

0:39:200:39:23

who shows him that he AIN'T got it together.

0:39:230:39:27

First time I heard Reverend Lee it reminded me

0:39:270:39:30

of a lot of these black preacher tales.

0:39:300:39:34

You know, the black preacher presents himself as, God's man,

0:39:340:39:40

but there are all these folk tales about preachers who go wayward.

0:39:400:39:45

# Reverend Lee, she said

0:39:450:39:49

# Said Lord knows I love you child

0:39:490:39:53

# I will not even place God above you...#

0:39:530:40:01

She actually has this interplay between the preacher himself

0:40:030:40:07

and this siren, this woman sent from Satan

0:40:070:40:11

who is luring this man.

0:40:110:40:13

# Oh, she was twistin' and turning

0:40:130:40:17

# She was beggin' and pleadin'...#

0:40:190:40:23

The siren always wins because in the end she's, like,

0:40:270:40:32

I have the power to pull you to a place

0:40:320:40:35

that even your religion can't quite save you.

0:40:350:40:38

# Oh, do it to me

0:40:390:40:41

# Reverend Lee

0:40:410:40:43

# Do it to me

0:40:430:40:45

# Reverend Lee

0:40:460:40:49

# Do it to me

0:40:490:40:51

You know, over the course of... of her career she...

0:40:510:40:55

I think the music that she's chosen to sing, um,

0:40:550:40:59

certainly speaks to her feelings about blackness.

0:40:590:41:03

Feelings about blackness had evolved in the mid-'70s

0:41:080:41:12

as the gaze turned inward.

0:41:120:41:13

Black consciousness was the byword.

0:41:150:41:18

# Yes...

0:41:180:41:20

# This is the ghetto

0:41:210:41:24

# Sure 'nuff now

0:41:240:41:26

# Mm-mm-hmm...#

0:41:310:41:33

At this time, Roberta Flack reignited her collaboration

0:41:400:41:44

with Donny Hathaway, her old friend from Howard University.

0:41:440:41:48

Hathaway had developed a unique politically charged soul sound.

0:41:530:41:58

# The ghetto, the ghetto, the ghetto...#

0:42:050:42:11

By that political moment,

0:42:110:42:14

in the early '70's is the period

0:42:140:42:16

we associate with of black consciousness -

0:42:160:42:20

we've struggled for these many years for inclusion

0:42:200:42:23

at the level of law and rights now we want to be recognised for

0:42:230:42:28

who we are, completely, physically culturally.

0:42:280:42:32

What does it mean to be a black human being in this world?

0:42:320:42:37

How does one embrace that?

0:42:370:42:39

How does one embrace that in the way one treats one's body,

0:42:390:42:44

and the way one talks about one's body,

0:42:440:42:46

and the way one thinks about how you move through the world.

0:42:460:42:51

Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway produced an album of duets

0:42:560:43:00

that perfectly expressed the mood of black America at the time.

0:43:000:43:05

# Your hair, soft and crinkly

0:43:050:43:10

# Your body, strong and stately

0:43:120:43:18

# You don't have to search and roam

0:43:200:43:25

# Cos I got your love at home

0:43:250:43:30

# Be real black for me

0:43:330:43:37

# Be real black for me. #

0:43:390:43:42

That's a love song

0:43:450:43:47

but it's a love song with deep political implications.

0:43:470:43:51

It is about love between black people, right,

0:43:510:43:56

and a kind of disrobing

0:43:560:43:59

a kind of being unfettered by what the world says you are,

0:43:590:44:06

and revelling in what you really are.

0:44:060:44:09

Some people identify blackness as this hard thing

0:44:090:44:12

and this thing that is only pain, that is only defence.

0:44:120:44:18

That song is the opposite of that.

0:44:180:44:21

It's tender and it's...and it's warm and it's inviting

0:44:210:44:25

but it's still talking and dealing with blackness,

0:44:250:44:29

and the acceptance of one's other blackness in another person.

0:44:290:44:33

# Be real black for me

0:44:350:44:38

# Be real black for me #

0:44:400:44:44

While Roberta was signing songs of black consciousness

0:44:540:44:57

her personal life made this complicated.

0:44:570:45:00

Her bass player was her husband and he was Caucasian,

0:45:010:45:05

so imagine living in Washington then and being married...

0:45:050:45:09

Mixed couple? Oh, my God!

0:45:090:45:11

So they were catching the hell.

0:45:110:45:14

When you hear her sing... you feel it. You feel it.

0:45:140:45:19

The hell she was catching, even came from within the family.

0:45:200:45:24

After seven years of marriage -

0:45:240:45:26

Roberta Flack had never even met her husband's parents.

0:45:260:45:29

Do you think that your mother and father would recognise me

0:45:290:45:36

if they knew they saw me on national television?

0:45:360:45:40

What do you think they'd do if they see me?

0:45:400:45:42

-Do you think they'd know who I am? They'd know I'm your wife?

-Sure.

0:45:420:45:46

-They know who you are.

-They do know who I am?

-Certainly.

0:45:460:45:49

-How do you know?

-We told them before we got married.

0:45:490:45:52

-You told them what my name was?

-Right.

0:45:520:45:54

But do you think they connect that with you know

0:45:550:45:58

whatever the image is supposed to represent now?

0:45:580:46:02

You don't think that they'd see me on television

0:46:030:46:06

and say that's the daughter... That's the girl that my son married?

0:46:060:46:10

I think they'd say that. And they'd also say that that's...

0:46:100:46:14

You really think they'd know who I am?

0:46:140:46:16

My first husband is Caucasian.

0:46:160:46:18

Young musician. Beautiful musician.

0:46:180:46:21

And I...I used to think a lot of those songs that I was singing...

0:46:210:46:25

"Yes, we're different, we're worlds apart, we're not the same -

0:46:250:46:28

"we laughed and joked, at the start like in a game.

0:46:280:46:32

# Like in a game...#

0:46:320:46:33

"You could have stayed around my heart, but in you came

0:46:330:46:37

"and here you stay until its time for you to go

0:46:370:46:40

PICKS OUT TUNE ON PIANO "Don't ask... Don't ask how of me

0:46:400:46:45

"Don't ask why of me

0:46:450:46:47

"Don't ask...

0:46:500:46:52

"..for ever...

0:46:540:46:56

"..of me...

0:46:560:46:57

"Love me...

0:46:590:47:00

"Love me now"

0:47:020:47:03

There's something else that you have to watch while you're building,

0:47:140:47:17

trying to achieve something in the business,

0:47:170:47:19

and that is to really FEEL like doing it.

0:47:190:47:22

I have to go out and travel two or three days in a row

0:47:220:47:24

with concerts each night

0:47:240:47:26

and at the end of it I'm just whipped.

0:47:260:47:28

"Roberta Flack, Going Down To The River, take one."

0:47:280:47:31

# I'm going down

0:47:310:47:33

# To the river

0:47:360:47:39

# To lay my burden down...#

0:47:430:47:47

She was pretty exacting in the studio

0:47:480:47:51

because this is her reputation.

0:47:510:47:53

I think we started about six in the evening,

0:47:530:47:56

and by about 2 o'clock in the morning she was satisfied.

0:47:560:48:01

Over and over and over and over.

0:48:010:48:04

I'm sure some people would say that she's a really hard sometimes.

0:48:040:48:10

A bit like me because I understand what she wants...

0:48:100:48:13

When you want something, you want something, and...

0:48:130:48:15

when it's right, it's right.

0:48:150:48:16

# For the first time...#

0:48:190:48:21

She's a studied musician, you know,

0:48:210:48:24

and I think that she was very conscious of the fact -

0:48:240:48:26

Well, hey, I'm the one that studied.

0:48:260:48:28

I'm the one that knows the difference between G and G-sharp.

0:48:280:48:32

I think all of that had to do with her exacting nature,

0:48:320:48:36

and the fact that she just wasn't going to let anybody push her around.

0:48:360:48:40

Male or female you kind of have to be that way,

0:48:400:48:43

but especially so, if you are female,

0:48:430:48:45

and a minority female in the music business, at that time especially.

0:48:450:48:49

We're talking the '70s.

0:48:490:48:51

# Somewhere deep in my body

0:48:510:48:55

# I feel that magical glow...#

0:48:570:49:02

When Roberta went into the studio to record her next album in 1974,

0:49:030:49:08

she decided to produce it herself

0:49:080:49:10

under the pseudonym Robina Flake.

0:49:100:49:13

I took so long to a finish Feel Like Making Love,

0:49:140:49:17

by the time I got through playing songs and hearing songs,

0:49:170:49:22

and listening to songs and recording songs,

0:49:220:49:25

and "No, I don't like that" and "Yes, I do" and "No", "Yes", "No", "Yes".

0:49:250:49:30

A year had passed.

0:49:300:49:32

Wow!

0:49:330:49:34

And Feel Like Making Love had been on the charts for a year -

0:49:340:49:37

Thank you, God!

0:49:370:49:38

# Strolling in the park

0:49:400:49:43

# Watching winter turn to spring

0:49:430:49:46

# Walking in the dark

0:49:500:49:53

# Seeing lovers do their thing

0:49:530:49:56

# Ooh-ooh-ooh

0:49:590:50:00

# That's the time

0:50:000:50:02

# I feel like making love to you

0:50:030:50:08

# That's the time

0:50:100:50:11

# I feel like making dreams come true

0:50:130:50:18

# Oh, baby...#

0:50:190:50:21

Feel Like Making Love was another number one hit in 1975.

0:50:230:50:27

Again written by Eugene McDaniels,

0:50:300:50:33

but this time with no sign of any political edge.

0:50:330:50:36

# And my feelings start to show. #

0:50:360:50:39

As the 70's progressed, Roberta Flack's music

0:50:390:50:42

was increasingly appealing to the more comfortably-off sections

0:50:420:50:46

of the African American community.

0:50:460:50:48

That black middle class that had created Roberta Flack,

0:50:510:50:54

Martin Luther King and the dentists who gave birth to Miles Davis

0:50:540:50:59

and the church leaders who gave birth to Aretha Franklin,

0:50:590:51:01

is formed inside the hub of segregation.

0:51:010:51:05

The post-civil rights period is about opening up American society.

0:51:070:51:13

And as the black middle class gets bigger

0:51:150:51:19

it then drives a wedge into the black political tradition.

0:51:190:51:24

There's definitely a difference of interests.

0:51:250:51:29

If you are a member of the urban black working class -

0:51:290:51:34

the majority of African Americans -

0:51:340:51:36

your sense of what the political future might be

0:51:360:51:40

starts to look very different to the son of a black dentist,

0:51:400:51:44

who's now gone to Harvard and got an MBA and is working at Goldman Sachs.

0:51:440:51:49

And those differences begin to be mirrored,

0:51:490:51:52

not just in the political arena, but also in the musical one.

0:51:520:51:57

As the '70s rolled into the '80s, Roberta Flack's music was

0:52:040:52:08

prominently featured on an American radio format called Quiet Storm.

0:52:080:52:12

Quiet Storm would be night-time radio

0:52:140:52:17

and it was all about, you know, slow the BPM all the way down.

0:52:170:52:22

It was really strong jazz influence R&B.

0:52:220:52:27

That's when you would have your DJ with the deep baritone voice

0:52:270:52:30

announcing, you know, that was Sweet Love by Anita Baker.

0:52:300:52:34

You know that's where R&B really started to leave youth behind.

0:52:340:52:38

# Soft and warm

0:52:380:52:42

# A quiet storm

0:52:420:52:44

# Quiet as when flowers talk at break of dawn

0:52:440:52:49

# Break of dawn...#

0:52:500:52:53

Because of, again, her vocal quality,

0:52:530:52:55

Roberta Flack was able to move into that realm

0:52:550:52:58

and continue to be a part of the conversation throughout the '80s.

0:52:580:53:04

The shift to sort of '80s R&B sound,

0:53:040:53:07

and politics almost entirely disappear.

0:53:070:53:10

The Quiet Storm era, generally.

0:53:110:53:13

I mean that's just a melancholy era. In black life.

0:53:130:53:17

# You short circuit all my nerves

0:53:180:53:22

# Promising electric things

0:53:220:53:24

# You touch me and suddenly there is rainbow rings

0:53:260:53:30

# Quiet storm...#

0:53:300:53:32

All of the regulation that came out in the '60s the Civil Rights Act,

0:53:320:53:36

aren't working how you thought they would, you know.

0:53:360:53:40

De-industrialisation of inner cities and white flight

0:53:400:53:43

are gutting inner cities.

0:53:430:53:46

So it's actually like a really ironic time

0:53:460:53:48

to have music that is so soothing

0:53:480:53:50

when the world is really kind of convulsive.

0:53:500:53:52

# Tonight I celebrate

0:53:520:53:56

# ..my love for you

0:53:560:54:00

# And hope that deep inside you'll feel it, too...#

0:54:000:54:08

In 1983, as the ghettos of black America were crumbling,

0:54:080:54:12

Roberta Flack found a new duet partner

0:54:120:54:15

after the sad death of Donny Hathaway a few years earlier.

0:54:150:54:19

She scored another big hit.

0:54:190:54:20

# When I make love to you...#

0:54:220:54:24

The first time I heard Tonight I Celebrate My Love,

0:54:240:54:27

I did not like the song.

0:54:270:54:29

The only reason I was interested in it was cos Roberta really liked it.

0:54:290:54:34

I knew it was special after the first pass.

0:54:340:54:37

Roberta is a stickler for pitch.

0:54:400:54:42

She's...

0:54:420:54:43

She's not demanding of it,

0:54:430:54:46

but you get the idea after a while that she wants it.

0:54:460:54:50

# Tonight there'll distance between us

0:54:500:54:55

# What I want most to do... #

0:54:560:55:00

Her music starts to feel more estranged

0:55:000:55:03

from the majority of black life.

0:55:030:55:05

But I think there's something to be said for consistency.

0:55:050:55:08

I mean she remained in the area of the heart, of intimacy,

0:55:100:55:14

of sexual relations...

0:55:140:55:16

She doesn't change from that.

0:55:160:55:18

But the priorities of African American life changed.

0:55:180:55:23

It's not entirely coincidence

0:55:240:55:27

that hip hop starts to emerge in the spaces of...urban poverty.

0:55:270:55:32

# Broken glass everywhere...#

0:55:330:55:37

The eruption of hip hop in the '80s

0:55:370:55:38

caused a chasm in African-American music

0:55:380:55:41

that would not be bridged for over a decade.

0:55:410:55:44

# A junkie's in the alley with the baseball bat

0:55:440:55:46

# Don't push me cos I'm close to the edge

0:55:460:55:51

# I'm trying not to lose my head

0:55:510:55:55

Ha-ha ha ha #

0:55:550:55:57

# Fight the power!

0:55:570:55:59

# Fight the power!

0:55:590:56:01

# Fight the power!

0:56:010:56:04

# Fight the power!

0:56:040:56:05

The sonic revolutions of hip hop - playing down in the hood -

0:56:050:56:09

and the slicker R&B sound

0:56:090:56:11

often entertaining a more uptown crowd.

0:56:110:56:15

# You got me feeling emotion...#

0:56:170:56:20

It would take another up town girl -

0:56:200:56:22

rummaging through her parents record collection

0:56:220:56:26

to eventually unite the warring genres and generations in 1996.

0:56:260:56:32

# I heard he sang a good song

0:56:320:56:35

# I heard he had a style

0:56:350:56:40

# And so I came to see him

0:56:420:56:46

# And listened for a while...#

0:56:460:56:49

The great thing about the Lauryn Hill version -

0:56:490:56:51

as wonderful as it is -

0:56:510:56:53

it did not replace the Roberta Flack version.

0:56:530:56:56

We let them live side by side.

0:56:560:56:59

# Killing me softly

0:57:000:57:02

# With his song #

0:57:040:57:07

We want to dedicate this to the hard-core, check it out!

0:57:070:57:11

# Ohhh... Ohh-ohh, ohh-ohh, ohh-ohhhh

0:57:110:57:16

# La la la la la la

0:57:180:57:22

# Ohhh... #

0:57:220:57:24

Most of the time people talk about

0:57:240:57:26

how many Queen Of Souls there've been who follow Aretha Franklin.

0:57:260:57:30

# Before I put on my make-up

0:57:330:57:36

# Make-up

0:57:360:57:37

# I say a little prayer ...#

0:57:370:57:40

# And I knew our joy...#

0:57:400:57:43

One thing you can say, now, is that Roberta Flack had descendants -

0:57:450:57:51

certainly Lauryn Hill, almost certainly Alycia Keyes.

0:57:510:57:53

# And it would last

0:57:530:57:59

# Till the end of time, my love...#

0:57:590:58:04

The moment belongs in equal measure

0:58:040:58:07

to those two traditions - those two women.

0:58:070:58:10

CHEERING AND APPLAUSE

0:58:140:58:19

I've had some good experiences.

0:58:190:58:22

Some wonderful moments in my life.

0:58:220:58:25

Do-dah, do-dah. SHE CHUCKLES

0:58:250:58:27

ROBERTA SINGS IN SPANISH

0:58:270:58:33

Roberta Flack's Grammy award-winning song The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face was America's biggest selling single of 1972. The following year her gentle, pure voice charmed middle America once again when Killing Me Softly with His Song reached the top of the charts and ran off with another Grammy for single of the year. In the early 70s Roberta Flack was one of the most successful pop stars in the world.

But Flack was no overnight sensation. She didn't have a hit single till she was 35 years of age. Nor was her success a traditional African-American rags-to-riches story. She came from the black middle class that had been born out of the self-contained hub of segregated America. She studied classical music at Howard University, America's top black university, and probably would have pursued a classical career had that door been open to her in 50s America. Instead, she taught music in Washington's public school system for 10 years while she struggled for her break.

In the race conscious times, she also had her detractors. While she was singing duets of black consciousness with soul singer Donnie Hathaway, she was married to her white bass player. Also, they said she sounded too white; the gospel-infused voices of Aretha Franklin and James Brown, which came out of the dominant Baptist church, were what real soul singers sounded like. What those critics didn't understand was that there are many musical traditions within black America and Roberta Flack came from the more restrained Methodist one where they sang hymns rather than gospel.

This is the story of the emergence of different kind of soul singer set against the turbulent backdrop of America's Civil Rights movement. Contributors include: Roberta Flack; Dionne Warwick; Johnny Mathis; Cissy Houston; Imani Perry - Princeton University, professor of African American Studies; Greg Tate - musician and critic; Fredera Hadley - musicologist; and John Akomfrah - filmmaker and critic.


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