Roberta Flack suffered a stroke in 2016 that has kept her from performing in public, but the 83-year-old singer-songwriter and pianist remains active and creative. She helped archive the bonus tracks for the 50th anniversary release of her debut album, First Take, out July 24, and appeared at the Grammy Awards last January to receive a lifetime achievement award. ("It was breathtaking to be there. And to receive hugs and congratulations from Joni Mitchell and Lizzo in the same 24 hours is something, you know?") Flack made her last recording three years ago, but has been back in the studio of late. Will she ever perform in concert again? “You're going to have to keep an eye out for me — wait and see,” she teases. Here, in an email interview, she talks about it all, and about the astonishing connection between music and the brain.
Q: How have you fared during the pandemic?
Roberta Flack: I am thankfully healthy. I've tried to use the time well and thoughtfully, with weekly practices with my musical director and vocal coach. And my team and I have a lot of projects in the works: a documentary film about my life and music; my biography; and a children's book, The Green Piano, based on my life, that is due out for the holidays.
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Q: When you listen to First Take, what goes through your mind?
RF: Especially with the songs on the bonus CD that had never been released, I'm taken back to my days performing at Mr. Henry's on Capitol Hill in D.C., and the intimacy I had with my audiences. The sign is still at Mr. Henry's that says “Roberta Flack Trio — Tuesday through Saturday.”
Q: “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” debuted on this album. Clint Eastwood included that song in the soundtrack of Play Misty for Me, and it became one of the biggest hits of 1972.
RF: Clint has always been a musical visionary. He told me that he heard my version of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” while he was driving down a Los Angeles freeway and had to stop his car. He called me out of the blue and said, “I'd like to use your song in this movie about a disc jockey.” I was floored, but I said, “I want to do it over again. It's too slow.” He said, “No, it's not.” That's the version of the song that you know, and that gives you a snapshot of his ability to see the beauty in simplicity and to use music to convey emotion.
Q: Donny Hathaway cowrote two songs on this album. He had been your friend since college, and later your duet partner. What impact did his 1979 suicide have on you personally?
RF: This is still hard for me to talk about. I loved Donny. He was a musical genius, and I don't use that word lightly. Donny had his struggles through the years — he suffered from severe depression — but when he sat at the piano and sang for and with me, it was as if nothing was wrong. It was magnificent.
Q: How has music played a part in your recovery from your stroke?
RF: To me, music is everything. It's the language of emotion, expression, and connection. It reaches across race, age, religion, borders and time to connect us. When I was at the Grammy telecast, I was able to see artists like Demi Lovato, Alicia Keys, Ariana Grande, and I love that connection to other artists because through their music, I understand what young people today are thinking and feeling. No matter what challenge life presents, I am at home with my piano. I can find my way when I hear music.
Q: There's a magical connection between music and the brain that often survives trauma and Alzheimer's.
RF: Yes. It is a great wonder that my mind delivers lyrics and music to me. Nature, time, and evolution may have something else in mind, but music is ever-present and crystal clear to me. In May, I received an email from a fan. He told me that his wife had Alzheimer's disease and had been almost totally nonresponsive for many years. Then one day, “Killing Me Softly With His Song” came on the radio. His wife turned to him and said, “Dance with me.” For four minutes they turned back time and danced as they had done years before.
Q: The Reverend Jesse Jackson once described you as “socially relevant and politically unafraid.” Do you feel that way?
RF: I'm deeply saddened that many of the songs I recorded 50 years ago about civil rights, equal rights, poverty, hunger and suffering in our society are still relevant in 2020. I hope that people will hear these songs in a new way as they connect to their lives today, to this pandemic, to the growing economic disparities, to Black Lives Matter, to police brutality, to activism versus apathy, and the need for each of us to see it and address it. I will continue to use my music to touch hearts, tell my truth, and encourage people always to do whatever they can, however they can, to make the world better.