Roberta Flack is serenading me: The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, Killing Me Softly With His Song, a snippet of Pagliacci, a nod to her youthful opera studies. The R&B royal then spins me a few cool tracks from her new Beatles covers album, Let It Be Roberta. To say this is a thrill would be a swooning, drooling, mad-crushing understatement.
Flack is 74, but rest assured the Grammy-winning legend can still seduce and delight with baby-makin' classics Feel Like Makin' Love and The Closer I Get to You. Before her show this Sunday at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Flack called me to chat about Clint Eastwood and Donny Hathaway, and to ponder Where Is the Love in today's pop.
Before you first tasted stardom in your 30s, you were a perfectly happy music teacher and classically trained pianist. How did slow 'n' easy benefit your ultimate career?
How about this: The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face was a song I taught the girls in glee club! I knew it from the duo Joe and Eddie, who were background singers for Harry Belafonte. I was teaching at Banneker Junior High in Washington, D.C. It was part of the city where kids weren't that privileged, but they were privileged enough to have music education. I really wanted them to read music. First, I'd get their attention. [Flack starts singing] Stop, in the name of love. Then I could teach them! Ha!
You have to do all sorts of things when you're dealing with kids in the inner-city. I knew they'd like the part where it goes [Flack starts singing again] The first time ever I kissed your mouth. Ooh, "kissed your mouth"! Once the kids got past the giggles, we were good. Teaching was a strange but beautiful but tenuous situation. Eventually I started teaching during the day and working clubs at night. That's where I first did First Time Ever I Saw Your Face for real.
Soon enough, Clint Eastwood heard your performance of that song and used it for his 1971 movie Play Misty for Me. A few months later, Roberta Flack was the hottest soul singer in the country.
Clint was pivotal and extremely important for my career. A lot of people don't know he's an excellent musician, a jazz musician. He's a big fan of mine, and for that I'm grateful. I really say that humbly, too. Clint said the first time he heard First Time he was driving down the Los Angeles Freeway and was so mesmerized by my performance he almost drove into a ditch!
Whoa. Roberta Flack almost killed Dirty Harry.
[Laughs] No, no, no.
When it comes to duets and ballads on the radio today, many of which are angry and sexed-up, I ask you, Roberta Flack: Where is the love?!
This is a different time. Music continues to evolve, it must evolve, it must change with the times. What's good for the people is good for the people, you know? If they want to hear duets, that's great. If they don't, that's okay. It's all about evolution.
Scores of artists have covered your songs. Do you have a favorite? My pick is Johnny Cash doing First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. That gets me.
Oh, I love what the Fugees did with Killing Me Softly With His Song because it's indicative of the evolution I was talking about. I love Lauryn's [Hill] take on it.
Your preferred duet partner was Donny Hathaway: Where Is the Love, The Closer I Get to You. If he hadn't died at age 33, what would Donny's legacy have been? Some of my colleagues didn't know him.
Really? Did you educate them? I don't know if he would have been bigger than Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, but he would have been as big. Donny was a classically trained musician as well, so there's no telling what he could have done. He was amazing, I tell you. That boy was amazing.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.