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Best Roberta Flack Songs: 10 Deeply Soulful Classics
List & Guides

Best Roberta Flack Songs: 10 Deeply Soulful Classics

Rejecting all labels, the best Roberta Flack songs are full of the intense emotions that have made her presence resonate over the years.

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A towering figure of 70s Black music, Roberta Flack is one of the most uncategorisable artists of her time. She moves effortlessly between disparate genres, including folk, funk, mainstream balladry and protest song. And, as the best Roberta Flack songs make clear, she rejects all labels, particularly the one most frequently applied to her: soul. “I’ve never thought of music as ‘soul’, rather ‘soul-ful’,” Flack said in 2015. “Music is a big wide area. It covers elements of soul in a very unique way.”

Though she is undoubtedly one of the best soul singers of all time, part of the reason for Flack’s flexibility is her incredible musical knowledge and technical skill. Before her fame, she taught music in Washington, DC, and she understands the breadth of musical expression that’s available to her. “I think that anyone who’s in music and has taken the time to get into theory, sight singing and harmony is not nearly as limited as someone who hasn’t. It definitely enhances creativity,” Flack reflected in 1978. “I look at it the way a fighter looks at training. You’ve got to stay in shape, even if you’re the greatest, right?”

In November 2022, Flack announced her retirement from singing, revealing that she had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. It was the latest development in a career that has brought Flack knocks and disappointments, alongside her undoubted triumphs. “It’s a hard business,” she has said. “But man or woman, you face difficulties in life. The song is the telling factor – if it catches you deeply, you hang on to that feeling.” This list of the best Roberta Flack songs is full of those deep, emotional moments that have secured Flack’s status as one of the most influential female musicians in history.

Listen to the best of Roberta Flack here, and check out our best Roberta Flack songs, below.

10: Tonight I Celebrate My Love (with Peabo Bryson) (from ‘Born To Love’, 1983)

Reputedly Flack’s own favourite song from her 80s output, Tonight I Celebrate My Love is a graceful, classy ballad with duet partner Peabo Bryson. Flack seems to thrive when building long-term creative partnerships with fellow artists, and she had previously collaborated with Bryson on 1980’s Live & More double album. As for this track, songwriters Michael Masser and Gerry Goffin originally wanted either Diana Ross or Barbra Streisand for the female vocal. Instead, Flack said, “I think I can sing that,” and a romantic classic was born.

9: What A Woman Really Means (from ‘Roberta Flack’, 1978)

Roberta Flack’s self-titled eighth album, released in 1978, was made under difficult circumstances. Her record contract demanded that she deliver an album every two years, but Flack had fallen behind schedule with her previous release, 1977’s Blue Lights In The Basement. This led to corporate pressure on her to rush something out in order to catch up. Furthermore, Roberta Flack was built around a track Flack personally disliked – the theme song from the film If I Ever See You Again. Amid all this turmoil, it’s amazing that the album’s opening track, What A Woman Really Means, is a perfectly crafted, laidback slice of magic among the best Roberta Flack songs.

8: Business Goes On As Usual (from ‘Chapter Two’, 1970)

The closer to Chapter Two, Business Goes On As Usual is a protest song which takes aim at the Vietnam War. In the early 70s, Black Americans were more likely to be drafted into the war than white Americans, and, by 1969, nearly half of all African Americans thought the Vietnam War unfair. Black artists of the time captured this sentiment, from Marvin Gaye’s seminal What’s Going On to I Say A Little Prayer, a song recorded by both Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick as a narrative of a woman’s thoughts of her drafted partner. Business Goes On As Usual powerfully evokes the Black men who left the US young and returned in a coffin, the futility of their deaths seared on the listener’s mind via Flack’s muted tones over desolate military drum rolls.

7: The Closer I Get To You (with Donny Hathaway) (from ‘Blue Lights In The Basement’, 1977)

Donny Hathaway was Roberta Flack’s most treasured duet partner. Their work together captures the essence of brilliant duets – they connect with each other, with the song and with the listener all at once. Flack and Hathaway recorded regularly together, right up to Hathaway’s death in 1979, and their collaborations include the 1972 Grammy-winning Where Is The Love. But it’s this underheard track, from 1977, that particularly stands out among the best Roberta Flack songs – and the best Donny Hathaway songs, too. Originally much longer, The Closer I Get To You was cut down because radio stations would not play it at its original length. “It’s about eight or nine minutes long and when we first finished it and I played it to a few people, they really dug it,” Flack said in 1978 of the song. “I mean, if you heard the whole thing, it would really blow your mind because the end is just incredible – the ad-libs and stuff that go on between us. Believe me, I didn’t want it to be edited!”

6: Sunday And Sister Jones (from ‘Quiet Fire’, 1971)

A gem from Roberta Flack’s third album, Quiet Fire, Sunday And Sister Jones was written by Eugene McDaniels, and is the first of three of his tunes included on this list of the best Roberta Flack songs. McDaniels was a former pop star, known for hits such as Tower Of Strength and A Hundred Pounds Of Clay, who then developed his songwriting to incorporate more specific African American issues. “When I first took my songs to record companies, they said that my tunes were not soulful enough,” he said in 1975. “From my point of view, street language is not the only way to communicate. The street level is one way but our society is growing to the point where they can accept something from a Black artist that is not of the street level.” This very much reflects Flack’s own viewpoint: that, though many thought of her as one of the best female soul singers of the era, she sought to make soulful – rather than soul – music, so it was unsurprising that the worldviews of Flack and McDaniels connected so strongly. Her sensitive handling of this treatise on death and grief is softly shattering.

5: Some Gospel According To Matthew (from ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’, 1975)

Feel Like Makin’ Love, Flack’s fifth album, was the first she produced herself (under the not-exactly-subtle alias Rubina Flake). She found the task difficult. “I made a lot of mistakes,” Flack said in 1978. “It was a very hard time for me. There were days when I just cried and cried. But you press on. You press on.” Nevertheless, she did an excellent job and would continue to produce herself on subsequent albums. Some Gospel According To Matthew in particular (written by Stuart Scharf, a prolific studio musician) embodies all those qualities loved by Flack’s fans – it’s an understated, refined, ambiguous song of quiet fire.

4: Reverend Lee (from ‘Chapter Two’, 1970)

“Roberta was a gracious lady to me, and she treated me like her own kin, her own family,” Eugene McDaniels said in 2003. “I will be forever indebted to her for life.” Reverend Lee, another McDaniels song, was Roberta Flack’s first taste of controversy, due to its lyrical mixing of sex with religion. “People from the Black church, Black ministers, or people representing Black ministers, were so offended by that song that it got taken off the radio,” producer Joel Dorn has said. “That whole sensibility shit, you know; it was still paranoid times.”

3: Compared To What (from ‘First Take’, 1970)

“Her voice touched, tapped, trapped, and kicked every emotion I’ve ever known,” jazz artist Les McCann wrote in the liner notes to Roberta Flack’s debut album, First Take. “I laughed, cried, and screamed for more.” McCann was writing of his experience seeing Flack live in a Washington, DC, club; he was so impressed that he arranged an audition for her at Atlantic Records, resulting in her signing to the label. McCann was also the first to record Eugene McDaniels’ Compared To What, a scorching panorama of the injustices and inequalities faced by Black Americans. It became Flack’s first single and the opening track on First Take. “My music is my expression of what I feel and believe in a moment,” Flack said in 2010, and it’s clear right from her debut that she saw music as a way to channel not only personal emotion, but also wider political consciousness.

2: The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (from ‘First Take’, 1969)

“It’s a perfect song,” Flack has said. “Second only to Amazing Grace, I think.” The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face was written in 1957, by British singer-songwriter and folk-music curator Ewan MacColl as a challenge: he was deliberately trying to write a love song rather than the political material which came more naturally to him. By the time Flack recorded the song, it was becoming a folk standard, and had been performed by artists including Bonnie Dobson, The Kingston Trio and Gordon Lightfoot. But Flack’s version is the definitive one, turning MacColl’s challenge to himself into one of the best love songs ever. “People just respond to it, they hear it and they don’t know what to do,” Flack said in 2015. “I never met Ewan MacColl, but I met his wife, Peggy Seeger, whom he wrote it for. He’s a perfect composer, and it says a lot about his talent and his romance for her that here I am, still singing it all these years later.”

1: Killing Me Softly With His Song (from ‘Killing Me Softly’, 1973)

Killing Me Softly With His Song was first released by Lori Lieberman in 1972, before being recorded the following year by Flack – and it has remained among the best Roberta Flack songs ever since. Lieberman claims she was inspired in the song’s concept by seeing Don McLean live, and was utterly moved by his effect on her. Flack heard Lieberman’s version on a plane, and has remembered her instantaneous reaction. “The title, of course, smacked me in the face,” she said in 2010. “I immediately pulled out some scratch paper, made musical staves, [then] play[ed] the song at least eight to ten times, jotting down the melody that I heard.” She called Quincy Jones when her plane touched down, and, two days later, she had the music. Flack quickened the song’s tempo, added background vocals and changed the vibe, turning the original into her own masterpiece of controlled passion. Indeed, so fully does she own it, Killing Me Softly With His Song is one of those songs people don’t realise is a cover, though its power is acknowledged worldwide, even by the song’s original inspiration. “I’m absolutely amazed,” Don McLean said in 1973. “I’ve heard both Lori’s and Roberta’s version and I must say I’m very humbled about the whole thing. You can’t help but feel that way about a song written and performed as well as this one is.”

Looking for more? Find out where Roberta Flack ranks among the world’s most influential female musicians.

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