A Conversation with Roberta Flack
Mike Ragogna: Roberta, how are you?
Roberta Flack: Doing well, Mike. How are you?
MR: Very well, thanks. Your new album is Let It Be: Roberta Flack Sings The Beatles, so maybe we should start by talking about your early memories of The Beatles?
RF: Well, you know, we sort of popped out of the oven at the same time musically. I mean, they'd been around for a while by the time I came out, but around the time that I came onto the scene, my name may have been listed with the likes of them. I think it was probably because of the type of music that people associated with me. I mean, "The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face" was one of the all-time great lyrical ballads. Then you had songs in a similar vein coming from The Beatles like "Hey Jude" and "Let It Be." All of those songs were flowing so easily off of everyone's tongues at the time.
MR: Did your family listen to a lot of The Beatles' music?
RF: Not really. I was living with my newly divorced mother when I really started to work as an artist. I was a classically trained musician as a child and very focused on practicing and holding on to everything that I'd done up to that point artistically, but I listened to everything. I listened to music all day long, every day. When I say we didn't play music, I mean that there was never loud music playing throughout our household. I always listened to my music on headphones because I wanted to listen, learn, and know more about the kind of musical mind that I have.
MR: Roberta, you were 15 when you received a scholarship from Howard University. Really?
RF: That's right. (laughs) And I thought I knew everything about music until I heard some of those kids. I'm from Green Valley, Virginia, which was the only part of Arlington, Virginia, where black people were allowed to live at that time. We weren't allowed to move further north. But Green Valley was the place that most black people gathered as a community, so I didn't really get to see what was happening outside of the world I lived in. When I got to Howard University, I thought I knew what I knew - everything. I had been kind of playing since I was about four because my mother played the organ at church. Then I started studying classical piano when I was about nine. When I was 15, I was done with high school and ready to go on to college on scholarship and I thought I was a bad ass little somebody - that is, until I walked in and heard someone from somewhere around Hilton Head, South Carolina, sit down and play Chopin. So, I gained really great experience through all four years of college at Howard as a piano major.
When I was about to graduate, the Dean of the School of Music heard that I'd been playing at a little off-campus club, and he told me that I wasn't allowed to do that. My scholarship was for school, room, board and nothing else - everything else had to come out of my pocket. In that regard, I didn't have everything that I felt I needed as a teenage girl. So, when I got the chance to play there, I did, and made a little money. Once the Dean told me to stop, I did. When I got ready to graduate, he called me into his office and said, "Very few black people are able to have careers as solo musicians. And there's a saying that tells us, 'Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.'" He told me that I could do, but that I had to learn to teach so that I could take care of myself. Because of that, I had to take some education courses before I graduated when I was 19. That, coupled with the teaching experiences I had prior to graduation, were absolutely essential to my development as a musician because it taught me to be in front of an audience. When I started out as a singer, I didn't have a repertoire. I didn't grow up around people playing jazz or gospel music. I was the person in my family that loved music. So, I've been very fortunate to have had some experiences that have enlightened me and broadened my understanding of what it is to be a performer.
MR: Eventually, you were discovered by Les McCann at a Washington, D.C. night club.
RF: That's right. I was at a little bar on Capitol Hill called Henry's - mostly a gay bar, but not totally. I started playing there for their Sunday Brunch. At that time, that was a hot place to go because brunch was still unusual around there. I would see all kinds of people when I played my shift from two to six - Mike Mansfield used to come in with his family, even a few of the Kennedys. The place was gaining a reputation because the food was good, and because I was starting to make a scene in the area as a teacher. One day, I was singing a song that talked about being in "my beautiful balloon" with my students, so I put a bunch of balloons in a box and released them right before I started the song. They went crazy...they loved it! I was sort of teaching my classes and getting my repertoire together as a musician at the same time. It was fun and helpful. I believe in destiny, and I think it was all planned. Most people may not know this, but I am generally a shy person. I get very nervous in front of people, especially one-on-one or twenty-on-one. (laughs) This background of being creative with music was so helpful to me and it taught me so many ways to interpret a song. That's how I truly developed "The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face" as a solo piece.
I taught it to my junior high school girl's glee club. If you've ever watched the television show Glee, you know how important it was for me to be there at that time and to be the one to teach them to sing all the hit songs in three part harmony. I was trying to get them motivated to learn more about music - how to read it, write it, and understand it. I wanted them to be able to do something more than just imitate what they heard someone else do. In order to do that, it was important for me to start with what they knew. But in order to make "The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face" my own, I had to change it from glee club mode to more of a confessional, slow feel. People asked me all the time who I was thinking about when I sang that song, and I always told them it was my cat. (laughs) Then, once I graduated on to a more serious relationship, the song took on a deeper meaning as most songs do. Funny story - years later, I was somewhere performing that song and one of my fans came up for my autograph and told me that when they were dating in college, her husband learned that song on the guitar and serenaded her with it. She thanked me, and I looked over at the gentleman with her and asked if it was her husband and she told me, "No." She said that was her second husband. (laughs) I didn't know what to think. (laughs) The reason I share that is because I think it's amazing the way that people relate to music. It's beautiful.
MR: It really is. On your new album, you recorded a particularly inspired version of the song "Hey Jude." Can you tell us about what that song means to you?
RF: That song, I sort of approached like it was a hymn. I wanted people to respond to it like they were hearing "Amazing Grace." I don't know if you've ever witnessed it, but "Amazing Grace" is one of those songs that you can hear in any country for any solemn occasion, you know? I only used my voice and guitar on the song. I'll be performing the song on Jimmy Fallon, and The Roots will be accompanying me and singing all of the background vocals. It's going to be truly beautiful.
MR: To me, it seems that the approach you took the song is like a nod to your early career, your early recordings, would you agree?
RF: Yeah, and I thank you for noting that. It is very much full circle for me. It's about coming back to basics and simplicity. Simple is always good because it's accessible. Music has to be accessible.
MR: What is it about music that speaks to you?
RF: The thing that engulfs me in music is the pulse. If I can find that heartbeat, I can live in there in that music. And the pulse can't always be found on two and four - sometimes it's erratic, you know? But if I can find the pulse, I can live inside that music. I think that's the same for everyone. I also think that that's what makes a song a hit.
MR: Speaking of paying respects to your earlier sound, the track "Here, There, And Everywhere" is actually from your Carnegie Hall 1972 performance.
RF: Oh, yes. I love it. And I had to use that one because, boy, I was feeling it that night. That was not too long after my divorce, and I was so sad and so in love, but mostly in love with the opportunity to sing and play that song. I had just met Joe Zawinul from Weather Report, and I was touring with him occasionally. We would go out on little tours, and during those performances, I was so influenced by the simplicity of his piano music. He would always tell me to play what I feel, and I always wanted to do that, so I played that song. As a matter of fact, I played one of his songs at that concert. I "tried" to play it at least. (laughs) It turned out pretty well. I just love the idea of taking a song and letting it own you while you own it as far as the interpretation goes. That's one of the reasons that no one has been able to sing "Happy Days Are Here Again" like Barbara Streisand does, because we all have an up-tempo song in our heads rather than the way she sang it. It was very important and personal to her. This recording of "Here, There And Everywhere" from Carnegie Hall is the same for me, I think. It's the height of my feeling for music and of my desire to be onstage singing.
MR: Beautiful. I also see a picture of you, John Lennon and Yoko Ono together on the packaging of the CD. What and when is that from?
RF: I think that was from a concert I did in the '70s at Madison Square Garden.
MR: Your album also came with glowing liner notes from Yoko Ono. Are you pals?
RF: Yoko lives right across the hall from me. I had the privilege of knowing both her and John because we all moved in the same year. We've been neighbors all these years and had some wonderful, beautiful, and interesting moments together. Also, some very sad moments, of course.
MR: Of course. I understand you've also started the Roberta Flack School of Music at the Hyde Leadership Chart School. Can you tell us about that?
RF: Sure. That school is a very big part of what I am trying to do at this moment. I have always had the feeling, and I believe this in my heart, that music is available to young people these days in so many ways that are not fundamental, but they're good and they qualify. It's almost like what's happened in the last 20 years with the gaming phenomena. Years ago, there were only games like pinball, and it was great. We had all kinds of games that required you to think and required some sort of strategy. Later, we moved on to playing games on TVs and computers. Now, we can play games anytime we want on our cell phones - that's how Alec Baldwin got in trouble. (laughs) I want music to be the same for these young people. I want them to be able to access it in a way that they weren't able to before. I want them to be able to move beyond what music used to be and be the innovators of what's next. In order to do that, we have to provide them with the correct tools. And not just the basic tools - it's letting them be exposed to amazing musicians like Stevie Wonder and The Beatles. My dream is to have Stevie Wonder come to the school and teach.
MR: That's wonderful.
RF: It's funny because I had a close friend by the name of Morris Pleasure say to me that he could probably teach Stevie Wonder a thing or to...and he probably could! (laughs) He was either the musical director or conductor for Michael Jackson's This Is It. One of his claims to fame was being the horn arranger for Earth, Wind & Fire for years. He's brilliant - I've worked with him many times before. In fact, in the version of "Come Together" on this album, he's the one playing the funky synth part. I deliberately work with people like him because I'm trying to inspire the young people at this school to the things that can be done with music when you work with people like Morris. More than just pushing buttons and coming up with cool melodies, they can be the people who create the buttons to push. That's what I'm trying to do, give them enough exposure to writing, reading, and playing music so they can become the next great songwriters and musicians. Kids these days are bodacious, and my goal is to give them more by teaching them the basics. If they want to be the next ones creating music, they need to know the background.
MR: So, is there any advice you would give to an artist pursuing a career in music?
RF: Study however you can. You can study by listening, practicing, working with someone - the list goes on. But most of all, never, ever, ever give up on the vision of what you see yourself doing. If you see yourself rapping, go ahead and rap. Everyone will be okay with it, and if it isn't, they'll get over it. People will like it or they won't. If they don't, it becomes your job as a musician to figure out why not. I never aimed for success. I aimed for success in the sense that when I performed a song, it had to move me. I want to give myself goose bumps. (laughs) I don't want to be analytical, I want to be satisfied. In order to do that, you have to do quite a bit of preparation up front. Some people don't, but that's rare. I always felt that Michael Jackson was one of the people that didn't have to prepare that much, even from the time he was a very little kid. Have you ever seen the video that I did with Michael called "When We Grow Up"?
MR: I did, it was very sweet.
RF: It is! I mean, I think I'm sweeter than he is in the video with my pony tails. (laughs) But I'll tell you, it was such a joy to work with him because he was so bright and sharp. We didn't have to do it a bunch of times. We did it a few times, and it was a lot of fun. When you have that sort of innate and instinctive gift, you can sort of relax and let it flow. But sometimes, you have to be truly inspired. Even Michael had to be truly inspired. He surrounded himself with a lot of hip-hop artists towards the end of his recording career. He found a lot of connections with artists who were on the cutting edge of modern hip-hop, which brings me to another point. You need to be able to talk about music. You need to be able to express musically what you want to accomplish, and that's what I'm trying to instill in these young people. Stay focused and inspired.
MR: Great. Kids, that's advice from Roberta Flack and you better take it!
RF: No, not "better take it"! (laughs) It couldn't hurt, though.
MR: (laughs) Nice. Roberta, what can we look forward to seeing you do in the next year?
RF: Well, I'm finishing an album called The Real Artists' Symposium or R.A.S. That's the name of my label and also the name of a group of musicians that I work with from Julliard and Berklee and all over the country. There are always a wealth of young musicians who can write string parts, play instruments, sing, and so on, that want to come out and work with me and the group. And we have had some incredible people involved - Luther Vandross, Marcus Miller, Katreese Barnes, and a lot of people more talented than I could ever imagine myself to be. But these people come and want to work in a setting that allows them to open up and create in that atmosphere I'm trying to provide for them. So, I'm working on an R.A.S. album, and we've already done a lot of recording on that. I'm also planning on making a Marvin Gaye tribute album in the future.
MR: You're just putting out albums all over the place, ain't ya. (laughs)
RF: That's right. I'll also be doing a lot of symphony dates, the biggest of which is a three night engagement at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony in October. I'll be doing a lot of The Beatles' stuff. I'm so excited, I can't stand it.
MR: Roberta, this has been a joy for me.
RF: I hope you can tell that I've had fun.
MR: That's so cool, thank you so much for your time and love ya much, Roberta.
RF: Thanks, Mike. Love you too.
1. In My Life
2. Hey Jude
3. We Can Work it Out
4. Let It Be
5. Oh Darling
6. I should Have Known Better
7. The Long & Winding Road
8. Come Together
9. Isn't It A Pity
10. If I Fell
11. And I Love Her
12. Here, There, and Everywhere
AMAZON "DAILY DEAL" ALERT!
As part of a special promotion with Amazon.com, the digital download of the full album will be available for purchase at Amazon's MP3 store for $3.99 as part of their "Daily Deal."
Transcribed by Evan Martin