Introduction: Killing Me Softly (02:04)
By 1973, Roberta Flack had become one of the best-selling female pop stars in the world, adored by the kids of Middle America. But the parents of those white kids would not have allowed her to sit next to them on the bus 20 years earlier.
Clint Eastwood Features Flack (03:26)
Flack’s recording of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in his 1971 film, “Play Misty for Me,” propelling the single up the charts and introducing America to her brand of soul. Her approach was more affecting and lyrical than many other singers.
Creative Roots (06:07)
Flack was born in the segregated south in 1937, but she spent much of her childhood in Arlington, Virginia, which was a relatively comfortable black suburb in the 1940s. Flack was exposed to hymns at church where her mother was a pianist and choir director.
High School and College Years (02:52)
Flack attended the all-black Hoffman-Boston High School where her musical talent was recognized and nurtured. She was only 15 when she earned a scholarship to Howard University, a historically black college where the strategy for Brown v. Board of Education was formulated.
Civil Rights Movement Heats Up (03:50)
The Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional, but the southern establishment did not surrender quietly. A young preacher named Martin Luther King emerged as a leader of the civil rights movement. Meanwhile, Flack distinguished herself in Howard’s music program.
Classical Aspirations (02:17)
Flack had her heart set on a career in classical music, but the realities of racism made her dream seem unattainable. She was encouraged to teach music instead, but there was a sense that things were about to change at the dawn of the 1960s.
Residency at Mr. Henry's (05:51)
Flack continued to teach, but she had not given up on her own dream; she started performing at a trendy nightclub in Washington, DC. Her act grew increasingly popular and drew the attention of such touring performers as Dionne Warwick, Johnny Mathis, and Liberace.
"First Take" (06:24)
Jazz musician Les McCann gave a Flack recording to Atlantic Records, leading to a record deal. The singer recorded songs he had been performing at Mr. Henry’s for her debut album. The album was eclectic, but rooted in black politics of the 1960s.
Mainstream Breakthrough (02:20)
Eastwood’s inclusion of one of the “First Take” tracks in his directorial debut brought Flack to popular culture. He needed “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” for an unusually long and wordless love scene and white America fell in love with the song.
"Killing Me Softly" and Backlash (04:09)
Flack was on a cross-country flight when she first heard the ballad originally recorded by folk singer Lori Lieberman. Flack’s version was a massive hit, earning the singer three Grammys in 1974; but closeminded detractors accused her of sounding white.
Black Consciousness (03:45)
Feelings about blackness had evolved in the 1970s as the gaze turned inward. Flack reignited her relationship with Donny Hathaway, an old friend from Howard University who had developed a unique, politically charged brand of soul. The duo released a critically acclaimed album of duets.
Complicated Interracial Marriage (02:40)
While Flack was performing songs of black consciousness, her personal life made this complicated. She was married to bass player Steve Novosel who was white. Flack had yet to meet Novosel’s parents after seven years of marriage.
"Feel Like Makin' Love" (04:29)
Flack was very demanding in the studio and protective of her reputation. In 1974, she produced her own album under the pseudonym Rubina Flake. The title track was a big hit.
Quiet Storm and Peabo Bryson (03:35)
Flack’s music was prominently showcased by a new American radio format in the 1980s. At its core were apolitical, jazz-inflected R&B ballads that belied the dire state of urban America. Flack scored a hit with “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love,” a duet with Peabo Bryon.
"Killing Me Softly" Redux (02:56)
The emergence of hip-hop as a dominant format in the 1980s created a chasm in black music. Lauryn Hill and the Fugees helped bridge that gap as they released a remake based on Flack’s recording.
Credits: Killing Me Softly: The Roberta Flack Story (00:32)
Credits: Killing Me Softly: The Roberta Flack Story
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