Mention Roberta Flack’s name, and most people automatically think of two songs, The First Time I Saw Your Face and Killing Me Softly. The story of First Take is one where if fate hadn’t intervened, might have resulted in the album forever remaining a hidden gem. Having been released in 1969, First Take which was rereleased by WEA Japan on 26th March 2013 wasn’t a commercial success. Remarkably, when First Take was released in 1969, The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face wasn’t released as a single. Instead, Compared To What was the first single released from First Take. It wasn’t until two years later, in 1971, when fate intervened and The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face featured in the Clint Eastwood movie Play Misty For Me. This lead to the song being released as a single, giving Roberta her first US number one single. Spurred on by sales of The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face, First Take started selling, transforming Roberta’s career. Two years after its release, First Take would go on to sell over one-million copies, resulting in the album being certified platinum. However, things might have been very different, if The First Time I Saw Your Face hadn’t featured in Play Misty For Me. Before I tell you about the music on First Take, I’ll tell you about the background to the album.

First Take was Roberta Flack’s debut album for Atlantic. She was then thirty-two, and had been working as a teacher, while singing at weekends before signing to Atlantic. Les McCann had been in the audience when Roberta performed at a benefit concert for the Inner City Ghetto Children’s Library Fund. Having been smitten by Roberta’s performance, Les arranged for Roberta to audition for Atlantic. During the audition, Roberta played forty-two songs in three hours for producer Joel Dorn. Soon, Roberta found herself signed to Atlantic, recording thirty-nine songs in less than ten hours in November 1968. After this, the next time Roberta was in a recording studio would be record her debut album First Take.

Recording of First Take was scheduled to take place at Atlantic’s Recording Studios in New York. Eight songs were chosen for First Take, none of which were written by Roberta. Among these tracks were Gene McDaniels’ Compared To What, Donny Hathaway and Leroy Hutson’s Tryin’ Times, Leonard Cohen’s Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye and Our Ages of Our Hearts which Donny Hathaway and Robert Ayers cowrote. One other track was Euan McColl’s The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face, a track which two years later, would prove crucial in Roberta’s future career.

Once recording of First Take was underway at Atlantic’s Recording Studios in New York, Roberta’s band didn’t waste time. Together, guitarist John Pizzarellli, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Ray Lucas accompanied Roberta, who played piano. Recording started on 24th February 1969, ending on 26th February 1969. In total, First Take was recorded in just ten hours. Later, strings and horns were overdubbed, with First Take set for release in June 1969.

On the release of First Take on June 20th 1969, but the album wasn’t a commercial success. Only one single was released from First Take Compared To What, which failed to chart. This must have been hugely disappointing for Roberta, Les McCann who’d discovered Roberta and producer Joel Dorn. However, that wasn’t the last that would be heard of First Take

Fast forward two years to 1971. By then, Roberta had release the followup to First Take, 1970s Chapter Two and 1971s Quiet Fire. Both albums had proved commercially successful, being certified gold. First Take must have seemed a long time ago for Roberta, until a film was released. Clint Eastwood released the movie Play Misty For Me in 1971 and It featured The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face, which was a track on First Take. Given the success of the film and how many people loved The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face, Atlantic decided to release the track as a single. This resulted in First Take becoming belatedly, becoming a huge commercial success.

The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face was released in January 1972, reaching number one in both the US Billboard 100 and US R&B Charts. Spurred on by the success of The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face, First Take reached number one in both the US Billboard 200 and US R&B Charts. Eventually, First Take sold 1.9 million copies, resulting in the album being certified platinum three years after its original release. I’ve always wondered whether this commercial success might have happened sooner if The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face had been released as a single instead of Compared To What back in 1969? At least First Take found the success it deserved, if somewhat belatedly. However, why did it take three years for First Take to become a commercial success? That’s what I’ll tell you, after I’ve told you about the music on First Take.

Opening First Take is Compared To What, the only single originally released from the album. Written by Gene McDaniels, the track is jazz-tinged from the start. Just a standup bass and piano accompany Roberta’s vocal. Her voice quickly grows in power, full of emotion and frustration that’s perfect for the thoughtful, powerful lyrics. Bursts of blazing horns dramatically punctuate the arrangement, while Roberta’s small band leave space for her vocal, which is impassioned and emotive.

Flourishes of piano and a slow moody bass combine, creating a spellbinding combination as Angelitos Negros opens. Then Roberta’s vocal enters, accompanied by a light military beat, quivering strings and Spanish guitar. She articulates the lyrics beautifully, delivering them in such a way that’s deeply moving and powerful. Later, strings add to the track’s beauty, and are the perfect accompaniment to Roberta’s heartfelt, poignant vocal.

Donny Hathaway and Robert Ayers cowrote Our Ages Or Our Hearts. Here, producer Joel Dorn’s understated arrangement allows Roberta’s vocal to take centre-stage and shine. It’s just Roberta on piano, accompanied by strings that evoke a sense of sadness that precede the introduction of her vocal. When her vocal enters, it’s poignant, full of sadness and regret. The reason for this at the thought of two lovers being kept apart because of the difference in their ages. Wistful strings are ever-present, a constant companion to Roberta’s vocal on this very beautiful, but poignant song.

I Told Jesus is a traditional song, arranged by Roberta. Lush strings sweep slowly, while an equally slow, meandering standup bass accompanies it. As Roberta’s vocal arrives, it’s thoughtful and considered. Gradually, it grows in power and emotion, with bursts of rasping horns punctuating the arrangement. The longer the song progresses, the better Roberta’s vocal gets. It takes on a spiritual quality, growing in power, feeling and emotion.

Having heard various versions of Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye written by Leonard Cohen, this has always been one of my favorites. Roberta songs unaccompanied, before a the piano, acoustic guitar and bass enter. So good is Roberta’s vocal, that you find yourself mesmerized by it. There’s both a warmth and passion in her vocal, resulting in her bringing out the beauty in Leonard Cohen’s lyrics. She’s just accompanied by flourishes of strings, before guitar, bass and piano take over. This understated arrangement, allows you to focus on not just one of Roberta’s best vocals on First Take, but one of producer Joel Dorn’s best arrangements.

Why The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face wasn’t released as a single when the album was released in 1969 seems strange? Quite simply, it’s the best song on the album. It was written by folk singer Euan McColl, and producer Joel Dorn’s arrangement brings out the beauty in the song and its lyrics. Key to the song’s success are a beautiful, but subtle arrangement. Just an acoustic guitar, bass and Roberta on piano accompany her vocal. Roberta’s vocal is slow, delivering the song  with feeling, articulating the lyrics gently and softly. Wistful strings drift in and out of the track, as Roberta’s almost half-speaks the lyrics, delivering the as if she means them, feels them. Her delivery of some stunning lyrics, plus Joel Dorn’s arrangement results in not just a beautiful, very romantic song, the highlight of the album, but a true classic song.

Tryin’ Times is another song Donny Hathaway cowrote, this time with Leroy Hutson. As the track begins, Roberta’s band play subtly. Drums are played with brushes, while the bass is slightly more prominent, repeating the same line over and over again. Then when Roberta’s vocal enters, it offers a contrast. It’s louder, much more powerful, but full of frustration and disappointment at the Tryin’ Times Americans are experiencing. Poverty, inequality and conflict are the cause of Roberta’s disappointment and frustration. Later, percussion, piano and the bass combine, playing with a similar power as Roberta’s vocal. This helps Roberta reinforce Donny and Leroy’s message, doing so with equal amounts of sincerity, sadness and frustration.

Closing First Take is Ballad Of The Sad Young Men, a track where Roberta seems to have saved one of her best vocals. She’s accompanied just by swathes of strings, flourishes of acoustic guitar and drums played with brushes. This works really well, allowing Roberta to demonstrate just how talented and versatile a vocalist she truly is. Her vocal is tinged with sadness and a poignancy that suits the lyrics.

For a debut album, First Take, which was rereleased by WEA Japan is an accomplished album where Roberta Flack demonstrated just how talented a vocalist she was. This talent had been honed and refined over many years, before she signed to Atlantic Records in 1968. Having released her debut album First Take in 1968, she must have been hugely disappointed and saddened that it wasn’t a commercial success. Then luck, fate or whatever you want to call it intervened, when The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face featured in the Clint Eastwood film Play Misty For Me. It resulted in The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face being released as a single. It reached number one in both the US Billboard 100 and US R&B Charts, while First Take reached number one in both the US Billboard 200 and US R&B Charts. By then Roberta had released two other albums, both of which had been certified gold. However, The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face is a song that’s become synonymous with Roberta Flack. Together with Killing Me Softly, these are two of Roberta’s best known songs. While The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face is the best known track on First Take, it’s an album with much more to offer than just one track. Listening to First Take thirty-three years later, it’s an album that doesn’t sound like it was recorded in 1968 and released in 1969. Instead, it jazz-tinged sound sounds like it was recorded earlier, with just the understated combination of standup bass, drums and guitar accompanying Roberta. That’s part of First Take’s charm and beauty. It allows Roberta’s vocal to shine, and you to wallow in its quality, emotion and beauty. On the eight tracks on First Take, Roberta interprets them is such a way that she brings out their nuances, subtleties and charms. In doing so, Roberta Flack produced in First Take a classic album, which belatedly found the commercial success and critical acclaim it deserved. Standout Tracks: Angelitos Negros, The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face, Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye and Our Ages Or Our Hearts.



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