Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Roberta Flack, Best-Of Edition

GORDON: Acclaimed songstress, Roberta Flack, is heading into her fourth decade of music making. With classics like Feel Like Making Love, The Closer I Get to You, and Killing Me Softly With His Song, she's one of the great music makers of our time. Her latest release, The Best of Roberta Flack, is a collection of those great hits. The Grammy-winning North Carolina native told me the first time she remembers achieving success was not in the recording studio but inside the classroom.

ROBERTA FLACK (Grammy-winning Singer): What I did, my first teaching job, Ed, was in Farmville, North Carolina. I was 19, almost 20, when I got that job. I was hired as an English teacher. I taught 12th grade English literature but every two-and-a-half, almost three weeks, I would see at least every child in that school, and this was what they call a coordinated school, which meant for that area it was the only black school available. And so I had kids from preschool all the way through 12th grade, and I taught every one of them something musical.

GORDON: Most artists who sustain a long career have, what most critics will talk about, as their peak period, artistically. If someone has a signature song or two, I'm sure they sit back and salute that, but the fact, Roberta, that you have been and so identified with so many songs, I mean, we could run a list of literally probably 10 songs that not only are identified with you, but have stood the test of time, don't sound old, don't sound dated.

Ms. FLACK: Yay!

GORDON: How amazing is that?

Ms. FLACK: It's amazing, it's amazing. See, I had the opportunity to study with people, I worked in Todd Duncan's studio for a minute as a piano accompanist, and I worked longest in a studio that was run by a man named Frederick Wilkerson who introduced me to Maya Angelou; when I was like 20 years old I met Maya. Wow. I had all this exposure. He introduced me to James Bolen. James Bolen would say, come here, sister. This was not part of my upbringing. You know what I'm saying?

I had so many contacts with so many people who made me know that the path that had been given to me and that I had chosen to follow was worthy. And it just--I mean, that's how I met Donny. When I met Donny, I mean, please. I thought I had heard some talented kids at Howard University when I walked in, and there were talented kids there. But Donny Hathaway just surpassed and just climbed over all of us in terms of his ability. He was just so--I mean we did our first album in three days and that's the one that has You've Got a Friend, Where is the Love. You know, it's not like it was just…

GORDON: Right.

Ms. FLACK: …okay, let's go in and do it, you know?

GORDON: That and some filler, yeah.

Ms. FLACK: Yeah, some filler. No, it was good.

(Soundbite of song, “Where is the Love?”)

Ms. FLACK: (singing) Where is the love? Where is the Love? Where is the love? Where is the love that you gave to me so that you and me…

GORDON: Let me ask you about the new project, The Very Best of Roberta Flack.

Ms. FLACK: Yeah.

GORDON: When you--when you have all of those songs back to back, the one thing that you hear, Roberta, and I know that you've heard this really since the beginning, it really came out from critics from the day we heard it, is how clear your voice is. People liken it to a bell. You've heard all of the praise, I don't have to list it. But you must understand how uniquely clear that voice is.

Ms. FLACK: It is. In addition to working in studios where black vocal instructors were teaching young black students who were interested in being opera singers the art of singing, you put me in a room with Leontyne Price, which I had the opportunity to do, to play for her, an aria from Puccini's opera, La Boheme. When you're exposed to Leontyne Price's voice and you can--you can sponge that up, you can register that. Her pitch is immaculate. That made a very profound impression. And then I had a dean at the School of Music at Howard University who would say to me, Roberta, go sit in there with the tenors; sing with the second sopranos. Because I had perfect pitch. Somebody would say, dah, and I would say, no, dah. I could get it up, you know, just by picturing it. So--so that's a part of the clarity of my voice.

(Soundbite of song, “Killing Me Softly With His Song”)

Ms. FLACK: (singing) I heard he sang a good song heard he sang a good song. I heard he had a style, and so I came to see him, to listen for a while…

GORDON: Let me ask you finally, Roberta, and I don't want to play psychiatrist or psychologist here, but it seems to me that you are very happy right now…

Ms. FLACK: Mm-hmm.

GORDON: …in your life and where you are. You know, you…

Ms. FLACK: Except I am looking for a man, and I'm saying it publicly.

GORDON: Many people have…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: …many people have read that you went on a weight reduction program.

Ms. FLACK: I did. I did.

GORDON: Talk to me. You seem like--you seem to be in a very happy place.

Ms. FLACK: I am. I didn't grow up with a very broad perspective of what my life could be and so I was very shy, and therefore a person who found my comfort and pleasure in eating, like some other people that we know who are very famous. It's very hard to move away from that. I don't care how successful you are in some other areas; it's hard to move away from a biscuit with gravy. Can you imagine a biscuit with gravy? What could be more unhealthy? You know what I'm saying? But delicious. Okay? What could be--what could taste better than some greasy French fries? You know what I'm saying? Really greasy, not just, you know, nicely sliced potatoes and, you know, lightly sautéed in olive oil, no, no, no, no, no. We want them dipped in some, you know--and you can hear them cracking and all that kind of stuff. I mean, that's how I grew up, you know?

I can remember getting up when I first moved to New York--getting up, going to look for someplace to get some food. I could only find delicatessens. It was cheese and tomatoes. Uh-uh, I want some fried chicken. You know, it could be 2:00 in the morning. And so we changed our life and we're happy because we're healthy.

And I'm trying to go to South Africa to get some children. And I'm thinking about going to Liberia. I'm thinking about trying to see what I can do. I'm building a school in Harlem, as you probably know. It may not wind up--it may wind up not being in Harlem, might wind up being in the Bronx, but it's going to be a school just to give these young people who may think they don't have many options a chance to see that they do.

So I'm really, really happy and I thank all of my fans and people who love me…

GORDON: And the music continues to make us happy, whether it's the great solo things or the wonderful duets you've done, not only with Donnie Hathaway, but our friend Peabo Bryson.

Ms. FLACK: Love Peabo Bryson. That's a singing child.

GORDON: That is a singing man right there.

Ms. FLACK: Oh my goodness, I mean, I was singing the other night--I was walking through my house singing, I want to feel the fire. You know, I mean, oh.

GORDON: And certainly we're looking forward to the things to come. Roberta Flack, so, so good to see you.

Ms. FLACK: Thank you, Ed, likewise.

GORDON: As always. The CD, The Best of Roberta Flack, is in stores now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.