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‘First Take’: Why Roberta Flack’s Debut Album Demands Repeat Listens
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‘First Take’: Why Roberta Flack’s Debut Album Demands Repeat Listens

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Ten hours. 600 minutes. That’s apparently how long it took to record First Take, the astonishing debut album by Roberta Flack. Quite some feat, particularly when you realise that it takes just 46 out of those 600 minutes to listen to it.

Listen to ‘First Take’ here.

The backstory: “What I heard touched me on a level that I have never heard since”

First Take may have been a debut album, but it came from one of the most schooled singers and pianists in the US – literally. Having gained a full music scholarship to the prestigious Howard University at the age of 15, Roberta Flack became a music teacher herself soon after graduating. Living and teaching in Washington, DC, she also performed regularly at Mr Henry’s Restaurant on Capitol Hill. Flack had become such a draw that the venue named a room after her and installed a sound system to her exact specifications. “Word spread about me,” Flack has recalled, “and people came to see me on Sundays.”

One of her audience members was Les McCann, a jazz vocalist and pianist with some two dozen albums under his belt. “What I heard touched me on a level that I have never heard since,” McCann said in 2019, remembering his first exposure to Flack. “Her voice, her pianowomanship were supreme.” McCann recorded Flack’s set at Mr Henry’s one night in 1968 and took the tapes back to Atlantic Records, the label he had recently assigned to. Soon Atlantic, in the form of producer Joel Dorn, went to see Flack for himself. She was signed up in November 1968.

The songs: “You express your feelings about the first time you ever see a great love”

Flack had an enormous repertoire, some 600-plus songs. She was confident in jazz, classical, R&B, soul and showtunes. With Dorn’s help, Flack whittled her song choices down to 28 possibilities for what would become First Take. Those 28 songs were then demoed in the RCA Studios in Manhattan, with Flack accompanied by bassist Marshall Hawkins and drummer Bernard Sweetney (both of whom regularly played with her at Mr Henry’s). Many of these precious demo recordings were finally released in 2020 as part of a deluxe edition of First Take.

When it came to recording the album itself, Flack described those ten short hours as a “very naïve and beautiful approach… I was comfortable with the music because I had worked on all these songs for all the years I had worked at Mr Henry’s”. She performed with a top-flight band including Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar, Ron Carter on bass and Ray Lucas on drums.

At home in multiple genres, Flack’s song choices were eclectic; some directly referenced the political mood of Black America at the turn of the decade. First Take’s opening song, Compared To What, was written by Eugene McDaniels and is a howl of pain and anger at racial injustice and the horrors of the Vietnam War. Angelitos Negros, which Flack sings in Spanish, dates from 1948, and in it, Flack asks why angels are always painted as white: “Don’t you know there are beautiful Black angels in heaven, too?” Tryin’ Times, written by Donny Hathaway and Leroy Hutson, is a powerful plea for equality and understanding in racially-conflicted America. These three tracks, taken together, form a powerful triptych of a nation confused, troubled, afraid of its people. They sit within a palette of other adventurous songs, including That’s No Way To Say Goodbye, a Leonard Cohen composition.

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face is different again. Though few people realise it is a cover, the song had been written more than ten years earlier, by British singer-songwriter, folk archivist and political activist Ewan MacColl. Composed for his partner Peggy Seeger, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face was something of a challenge for MacColl – his conscious attempt to write a love song rather than a political screed. “I loved the song, and taught it to the young girls in the Glee Club at the Banneker Junior High School in DC,” Flack said about her relationship with the track, which is now regarded as one of the best Roberta Flack songs of all time. “I regularly performed it at Mr Henry’s, so it was one of the songs I was very connected with when it came to choosing tracks for my first recording project. The tempo and arrangement of the song came as a part of the way I felt the story of the song – when you express your feelings about the first time you ever see a great love, you don’t rush the story.”

The release: “Music reaches beyond age, race, nationality and religion to touch our hearts”

Immediately after finishing First Take, Flack went back to her room at Mr Henry’s, and to teaching in her classroom. But it wouldn’t be long before her star shone too brightly for her to resume her former life. Upon First Take’s release, on 20 June 1969, with Compared To What lifted as a single, Flack received critical acclaim and commercial success. She began recording a follow-up, 1970’s Chapter Two.

Then she got an unexpected phone call. Clint Eastwood, the Hollywood actor du jour at the turn of the 70s, heard The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face playing on his car radio. He found Flack’s number, praised her performance, and offered her $2,000 to use it in his first directorial project, Play Misty For Me. Batting away Flack’s concerns that the song’s tempo was too slow, Eastwood used The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face in a pivotal scene and it sent Flack to No.1 for six weeks in 1972. The song was also played, that same year, as wake-up music to the astronauts of Apollo 17 as they returned to earth – the “face” referring to the face of the Moon.

“I always say that ‘love is a song’,” Flack reflected in 2020, as she looked back on her career as one of the most influential female musicians in history. “Meaning that music reaches beyond age, race, nationality and religion to touch our hearts.” With First Take she explored love in all its forms – for partners, for God, for her brothers and sisters, for her country (however tormented) – and did it with unparalleled sensitivity. One can only imagine these songs being performed in Mr Henry’s restaurant, the plush furnishings of her special room barely containing the audience’s rapture.

Find out where Roberta Flack ranks among the best soul singers of all time.

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