The portrait of an artist looking for an audience at the intersection of enlightened soul and contemporary singer-songwriter pop
Roberta Flack would not be hurried. She took a song, no matter what its provenance (Broadway, French chanson, protest-folk, modern soul), and mulled it over, examined it, with infinite patience.
There are only eight songs on Chapter Two, her (yes) second album, released in August 1970, as there were on her debut, First Take, from the year before. And after the relatively upbeat Gene McDaniels song “Reverend Lee,” a cousin to “Son of a Preacher Man,” each track on Chapter Two is like a meditation. You have heard some of these songs before, many times: “Just Like a Woman,” “The Impossible Dream,” “Let It Be Me,” “Until It’s Time For You to Go.” What could possibly be surprising or revelatory about them? It’s as though Flack were asking herself the same question in real musical time: what can I discover in here, if I just slowed down, and really dug a little deeper?
Although she was championed by jazz pianist Les McCann, who brought her to the attention of Atlantic Records, Flack isn’t, on those early albums, a jazz singer. Although she fit nicely in the Atlantic lineage from Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker to Aretha, you couldn’t really call her a soul singer. If she took a bit from gospel (she did “I Told Jesus” on First Take), it was gospel unusually restrained. Sometimes, it was like she was more like cabaret legend Mabel Mercer, who spent a little time on Atlantic’s roster, and Flack’s take on the piano-bar staple “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” showed how much she’d picked up playing at Mr. Henry’s Restaurant in Washington, D.C., where McCann first spotted her. What was it she was up to? Chamber Soul? Her first two Atlantic albums got her noticed by critics and aficionados, but nothing ignited until Clint Eastwood used her glacially-paced version of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” on the soundtrack for his 1971 directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, released around the same time as Flack’s third LP, Quiet Fire.
VIDEO: Scene from Play Misty For Me which features “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”
So the Flack of Chapter Two was an artist looking for an audience, and creatively the album brushes against what Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin were exploring around the same time, the intersection of enlightened soul and contemporary singer-songwriter pop, an insistence that Jimmy Webb (Flack does an exquisite version of his “Do What You Gotta Do”), Curtis Mayfield, and the Gibb Brothers all can co-exist. On Simone’s live Black Gold, recorded in NYC’s Philharmonic Hall, she covers Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” and songs from Hair; her repertoire from that period also included Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” (Flack did “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”; she and Simone might have been studying Judy Collins albums) and the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” (also a cut on Quiet Fire). Simone’s prior studio album included three Dylan songs, and Flack picked one that Simone overlooked, “Just Like a Woman,” which seems inspired more by Richie Havens’s Mixed Bag version than by Blonde on Blonde. Both Flack and Aretha were pulled towards “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and to Goffin & King (Aretha did “Oh No Not My Baby” on her summer-of-’70s masterwork Spirit in the Dark, and Quiet Fire has “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”).
Who knows what turn Flack’s career might have taken if Clint hadn’t rescued “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”? Atlantic clearly had high hopes for her: the albums she made in 1969–1971 are impeccably polished, and the label (and producer Joel Dorn) brought in an ace team. Two tracks on Chapter Two, “Reverend Lee” and “Gone Away” (a song first cut in 1968 by the Impressions on This is My Country), were arranged by Donny Hathaway (who also plays piano) and co-produced by Dorn and King Curtis; the rest of the album has string arrangements by Eumir Deodato. On Quiet Fire, the personnel include session guys like Richard Tee, Chuck Rainey, Bernard Purdie, and Hugh McCracken. But she was still in the regal shadow of Aretha. Then, with “The First Time” and “Killing Me Softly,” she won back-to-back Record of the Year Grammy Awards, and in the meantime, at the suggestion of Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler, she and Hathaway cut a duet album that featured the hit “Where Is the Love.”
Chapter Two, with its ruminations on familiar pop songs, its veneer of sophistication, was an against-the-tide album when it came out fifty years ago. Soul music—even at Motown—was getting freakier (it was the time of the Temptations’ “Psychedelic Shack,” and the bubblegum-Sly exuberance of the Jackson Five, Funkadelic, James Brown’s “Sex Machine,” and Curtis Mayfield’s solo debut). In the midst of all this commotion, there was this woman—not a kid, she was already in her thirties when she got signed—taking her own sweet time, creating a kind of musical suspense. “The first time…,” she sang, and then there was this pause: she has a story to tell. The song had been cut a lot of times before, by folk groups (the Kingston and Chad Mitchell Trios, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Smothers Brothers, and the Brothers Four…), by a wistful Marianne Faithfull, by Harry Belafonte, but it always sounded perfunctory, tossed-off, and there was that faux-antique folky phrasing (normal people say “the first time I ever…,” not “ever I”). But Roberta Flack found the handle for it, a memory being summoned up, in fragments.
Writing about Flack’s first two albums in Rolling Stone, the black activist-writer-musician Julius Lester said, “She is merely the transmitter and puts herself at the service of the song so that you not only hear the music, but become a part of it.” Do you ever have to hear “The Impossible Dream” again? Or “Let It Be Me” (in a nice piece of synchronicity, liner notes for Chapter Two were written by Jerry Butler, who did a definitive recording of it with Betty Everett)? I didn’t think so, but I hadn’t heard this album in quite a long time. It’s no small thing to wipe away all the dust that has gathered on songs, to face down all the schlocky versions that preceded you, and at her best, on Chapter Two, that’s what Roberta Flack does.