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Music

Six Definitive Songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to Roberta Flack

Billie Eilish has no contemporary, but she does a predecessor in Roberta Flack, a singer who enjoyed immense success in the 1970s, going on to become the first artist to win two successive Grammys. Whether or not the lyricist and vocalist of ‘No Time to Die’ knows it yet, she’s following in the footsteps Flack laid out for her.

Flack has always transcended the barriers of genre, culminating in a voice that can translate to any particular melody. What the vocalist boasts is character, contradiction and tremendous gusto-not forgetting her innate versatility, shifting from low-key to barrelling gospel-oriented anthems.

And she’s maintained an impressive trajectory, culminating in a legacy that’s as much history at this point as it is art. Holding her own personality on every song she has sung, Flack caters to all sorts, whether it’s the Leonard Cohen fans aching to hear her interpretation of his classics, or a gospel fan determined to do justice to her rendition of ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’.

This article offers a selection of her work, geared towards the many styles she has on offer. From the boisterous ‘As Long as There’s Christmas’ to the gentle lyricism of ‘Tonight I Celebrate My Love’, this convoy of work hopes to offer a miniature mosaic from which you can jump from. It’s all glory from here!

Roberta Flack’s six definitive songs:

‘The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face’

Flack’s first hit is one of her best, precisely because it sounds so pure and pleasant. The song was written by Ewan MacColl, who also wrote ‘Dirty Old Town’, although this whimsical, yearning tune is the type of gem Shane McGowan could never pull off. His voice is too ragged, while Flack’s -delicate, and laced with a humble fragility – is precisely the type of voice the tune needs. 

Clearly, the tune needed an emotional voice, and thankfully she was drawn to the raw nature of the tune. “I wish more songs I had chosen had moved me the way that one did,” she admitted. “I’ve loved [most] every song I’ve recorded, but that one was pretty special.”

The vocal is urgent, soulful, stuck within the prescience of the lyric in question. The lover-whoever they are- has conquered the singer in a way they never quite thought possible. It’s a gorgeous tune, and one that will stand the test of time.

Where Is the Love

Now, this one’s interesting: Not only does Flack sing on this, but she also duets with fellow soul alumnus Donny Hathaway. Their voices blend well together as she soars for the higher notes, and he cements the recording with a series of guttural lower ones.

Cut in the heart of the 1970s, the tune is soaked in the trappings of pop and disco, making it an example of proto-Bee Gees soul. Better than that, the tune is brushed with attention to the smallest of detail, giving the piece a timelessness that stems from the holes between instruments.

The tune was popular with listeners across America, and it might have something to bridge the widening gap between black and white audiences. But Flack’s music was never about polemical gestures, but about uniting people under one inspiring voice.

‘The Closer I Get to You’

Hathaway returns for the shimmering ‘The Closer I Get To You’, a hybrid number that’s even more interesting to listen to than ‘Where Is The Love’. Flack flits in, poised like an angel scouring for a place on this earth to rest her wings, even for just a moment in time. Unlike ‘Where Is The Love’, there’s a distinction between the two singers, and the tune carries on like a dialogue between two opposing voices aching for resolution.

Hathaway is excellent, but Flack is the bonafide star, cascading from a waspy, whispery vocal to the soaring voice that casts a shadow over the exhilarating chorus. Love, it seems, has captured the chanteuse, and although there is romance at hand, it’s produced in a thoughtful manner that doesn’t place it in the realm of intractable.

Behind them comes the plinking chimes of a piano, eager to welcome the audience to a dance, a waltz and maybe something more intimate.Deeply romantic, the song has become a much sought after wedding number, as lovers lilt away to the sound of the two mellifluous voices.

‘Tonight, I Celebrate My Love’

“My affection for Roberta goes back to when she would seek me out to do anything with me,” said vocalist Peabo Bryson. “I mean, I was no one, and she was adamant about seeking me out. She’s a nurturer, a teacher by nature. After twenty minutes with Roberta in a room, you feel like you can conquer the world. She’s one of the most inspiring human beings I’ve ever been around. She’s very bright and extremely well read. Well lived, well travelled…everything. She’s so interesting in so many different ways.”

Bryson got his chance to sing across from his idol on this twinkling ballad, which featured a fittingly sparkling sounding keyboard rowing through it. But contrary to popular belief, it isn’t Flack playing the riff, although she does mime to the instrument during the promo. 

Instead, she throws herself into the vocal line, offering a vocal performance based on restraint and reverence to the narrative in question. It’s a deeply truthful track, and while Far Out would never insinuate that it’s something libidinous, there’s undoubtedly warmth felt between the two pirouetting singers. 

‘I Just Came Here To Dance’

This is the closest thing on the list to an Adult Oriented Paul McCartney and Wings number, and the tune recalls the jaunty playfulness of ‘My Love’ and ‘Silly Love Songs’, capturing the words of love to the backbeat of a sugar-coated guitar line.

Rock and roll it ain’t, but you’re better off listening to Prince if that’s what you’re into. This is the perfect ointment to a Saturday night, as adults are putting the children to sleep, before gearing them to the outside world where samba, sidewalks and stereos await them.

Best of all, the single holds a swaggering saxophone line, decorating the instrumental passage with the type of trembling line that was heard on every romantic pop record cut during the 1980s.

‘As Long as There’s Christmas’

By the time the 1990s turned around, Disney started to use pop vocalists on their animated projects, and although Flack doesn’t actually portray one of the characters in Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, she got the opportunity to sing this lilting number on the soundtrack to the direct-to-video sequel. 

Indeed, the song was a worthwhile venture, and it might explain why she decided to record a Christmas themed album in 1997. Festive albums tend to be hackneyed affairs, and The Christmas Album is a little different, but ‘As Long as There’s Christmas’ proves an undisputed highlight, decorating listeners with the hollies that made their younger days so plentiful and meaningful.

In fact, the tune works better outside of the Disneysphere than it does in it, inviting the audience an opportunity to visualise themselves in the singer’s place. For such a grand number, the song is delivered in an understated manner, leaving the whimsy to hang over the ripe, rich melody.