ROBERTA FLACK-KILLING ME SOFTLY.

ROBERTA FLACK-KILLING ME SOFTLY.

In a previous article about Donny Hathaway, I mentioned how closely he had worked with Roberta Flack during his tragically, short career. I also mentioned how the pair were recording an album of duets just before his death. Ironically, the album that preceded Killing Me Softly, which was rereleased by WEA Japan on 30th April 2013, was an album of duets with Donny Hathaway. This was the first album of duets the pair had recorded entitled Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. At the time of Donny’s death in 1979, they were recording a second album of duets, but had only recorded two songs before Donny tragically died. The two songs were released on Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway, which was released in March 1980. Like the first album of duets, it was certified gold, reaching number twenty-five in the Billboard 200 and number four in the US R&B Charts. However, it’s the album that followed 1972s’ Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway the first album of duets, that this article is about. That album is Roberta Flack’s 1973 album Killing Me Softly, which would become her biggest selling album.

By the time Killing Me Softly was released in 1973, Roberta Flack was a hugely successful artist. Three of her four previous albums had been certified gold, and the other platinum. Her debut album First Take, released in 1969, reached number one in both the US Billboard 200 and US R&B Charts, and was certified platinum. This was quite remarkable for a debut album, but when she released Chapter Two in 1970, it only reached number thirty-three in the Billboard 200. It however, was certified gold, as was her next two albums. They were 1971s’ Quiet Fire which reached number eighteen in the Billboard 200 and Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, released in 1972, which reached number three in the Billboard 200. So, when Killing Me Softly was released in August 1973, on Atlantic Records, she was hoping to replicate the success of previous albums. Little did she know, that Killing Me Softly would prove to be the biggest selling album of her career. On the album’s release, it reached number three in the Billboard 200 and number two in the US R&B Charts, and was certified double platinum, selling over two million copies. In 1974, the album was nominated for a Grammy Award, but lost out to Stevie Wonder’s album Innervisions. This was just one of four Grammy Awards that Roberta had been nominated for. The other three were for a song that she would become synonymous with. 

One thing that must have helped sales of the album, was the success of the title track, Killing Me Softly WIth His Song, when it was released as a single. It reached number one in the Billboard Hot 100, spending four weeks there. Roberta won three Grammy Awards in 1974 for her version of the song, winning Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal By A Female Performer. Since then, a multitude of artists have recorded Killing Me Softly WIth His Song, but it’s widely recognized that Roberta’s version is the definitive version. One of the most recent versions was by hip hop group The Fugees in 1996. In 1999, Roberta’s version of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and both Rolling Stone magazine and Billboard include the Killing Me Softly in their lists of the greatest songs of all time. Killing Me Softly is also the track that opens the album, which I’ll now tell you about.

Killing Me Softly opens with the title track, and a song that regardless of what she did before or after, Roberta Flack will always be synonymous with. Written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel and originally recorded by Lori Lieberman in 1971, it was two years later in January 1973, that Roberta made the song a huge hit. When the track opens, straight away, you’re enveloped in the song’s beauty. Roberta sings gently and tenderly, as multi-tracking backing vocals accompany her. Keyboards melodically play, a gentle acoustic guitar is strummed while a slow, thoughtful bass, subtle percussion and metronomic, atmospheric, drums accompany Roberta’s vocal. It’s a combination of tenderness and thoughtfulness, she delivers the lyrics with, bringing the beautiful lyrics to life. Meanwhile, guitars chime, while the bass sits at the bottom of the mix. Drums and percussion are used sparingly. The keyboards are at the heart of the arrangement, their soft melodic sound key to the success of the track. However, what made this track such a huge hit and a timeless classic is Roberta Flack’s delivery of some beautiful lyrics. Her voice and the key she sings the song in, is just perfect. Combine that with an arrangement that’s subtle and sympathetic, and you’ve the recipe for a timeless classic. 

The song that has to follow Killing Me Softly has a lot to live up to. After all, how do you follow one of the best songs ever recorded? Here, the track chosen is Jesse, written by Janis Ian, another slow and gentle track. It opens with piano and strings drenching the arrangement in pathos and sadness. When Roberta sings the lyrics she gets across the sadness of the lyrics about someone who is missing, and how they still await their safe return years later. Her delivery is perfect, bringing the lyrics to life, so much so, that you can almost picture the scenes unfolding before your eyes. Like Killing Me Softly, the arrangement is subtle, but here, it’s stripped down to piano, strings and bass. This is effective, suiting the song and Roberta’s delivery. Overall, it’s a lovely song, beautifully sung and arranged, even though lyrics have a slight saccharine quality.

No Tears (In the End) opens with a piano grandly playing before percussion enters. Things move up a gear when funk laden, chiming guitars reverberate, and the rhythm section enter. Roberta’s voice is louder and stronger, her delivery considered and confident. Horns blazing, inject their rasping sound, while the funky guitars and rhythm section help drive the song along. Later, what sounds like a gospel influenced choir of backing vocalists unite soulfully and brilliantly. They really help lift this song. Their voices combine really well with Roberta’s. A combination of great vocal and a much fuller, joyous sounding arrangement, make this an irresistible and excellent track. By the end of this bright, uptempo sounding track, a very different side of Roberta has become apparent. 

After a much more uptempo track, Roberta drops the tempo on I’m the Girl. It’s a song about love lost, and an old love affair, where she knew her partner loved someone else. Written by James Allan Shelton, it features another understated arrangement from producer Joel Dorn. Again, a piano and strings combine to accompany Roberta’s strong vocal, which again is thoughtful, but tinged with sadness. Apart from Roberta singing and playing piano, the arrangement features just strings and a really subtle contribution from an upright bass. This really suits the song, allowing Roberta’s vocal and delivery of the lyrics to take centre-stage. Her delivery of the track is hugely powerful, bathed in sadness, tinged with regret at what might have been. Like other tracks, she brings the song to life, allowing the listener to imagine the scenario unfolding scene by scene.

River, has a different sound and feel. Chiming guitars and rhythm section combine. Drums pound repetitively, their sound metronomic, controlled, before Roberta’s vocal enters. When it does, her voice is high, but always in control. Then, backing vocalists unite, accompanying her with their joyous, gospel tinged sound. This meeting of voices and styles really lifts the track, improves it. Still, the arrangement features just the guitars and rhythm section, with the drums at the forefront of the arrangement. Offering some variety are strings which sweep in, while the guitars seem to want to inject a modicum of funk into proceedings. What’s almost a wah-wah sound is straining at the leash, but is never unleashed. The same can be said of the track. Throughout it, I always expect it to break out into something joyous and beautiful, maybe Roberta interacting and feeding off the backing vocalists. Sadly this never happens, and it seems a missed opportunity. Instead, the track has a slightly flat feel and sound. Although not a bad track, it isn’t the best on the album by a long shot. 

Hopefully, Conversation Love will make amends for the previous track, River. Straight away, things sound promising, when a piano, flute, string and rhythm section combine with Roberta’s voice which is deeper, richer and charismatic. The arrangement is fuller, grander, with lush strings sweeping while the piano’s contribution is subtle, while the rhythm section provide the track’s heartbeat. Waves of music rise and fall dramatically, with the strings shimmering and sweeping beautifully, responsible for this. This is a much better track, mainly because of Roberta’s beautiful, considered delivery of the lyrics, and the much fuller arrangement, which is bathed in drama and atmosphere. It’s very much a return to form for Roberta, after the slight disappointment of the previous track.

Things change quite dramatically in terms of style on When You Smile, when Roberta rolls back the years, delivering the song in a style that brings to mind ragtime and big band music. The track bursts into life with rhythm section, piano and banjo combining with Roberta’s vocal. Her delivery of the lyrics is in a dramatic, big band style, with horns serenading her. Talking of the lyrics, they’ve a lovely sentiment, and you can’t help but smile when you hear them. Quite simply, you can’t help but be seduced by the catchiness of the track, it’s totally melodic and hook laden. A combination of an excellent vocal and infectiously catchy arrangement by Joel Dorn easily make this one of the track’s highlights.

Killing Me Softly closes with a cover of a Leonard Cohen track Suzanne, which Roberta delivers dramatically and thoughtfully, against a suitably subtle arrangement. It’s an epic version of this song lasting nine and a half minutes, and is up there with Leonard Cohen’s version of the song, as the definitive version. As the track opens it’s just piano and percussion that combine before keyboards and bass then enter. They play gently, subtly and thoughtfully before Roberta’s tender and gentle vocal enters. Straight away, it’s apparent Roberta’s slowed down version is transforming the song totally. She seem to enliven the lyrics, so much so, that you can visualize and empathize with Suzanne’s plight. During the track, the tempo rises and falls, with the arrangement a mixture of subtle and dramatic. Both the piano and strings are responsible for increasing both the tempo and drama, while a combination of melodic keyboards, gentle chiming guitars, percussion and rhythm section all play with a subtlety. Like the arrangement, Roberta’s vocal rises dramatically, demonstrating her power and versatility, delivering the lyrics with drama, passion and soul. By the end of the track, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is my favorite version of the song. I even prefer it to Leonard Cohen’s original version. To me, the combination of Roberta’s excellent vocal and an arrangement that’s a mixture of drama and subtlety transform this song totally. Just as the album opened with a brilliant song in Killing Me Softly, Suzanne provides a fitting ending to the album.

I’d long planned to write about Killing Me Softly, hich was rereleased by WEA Japan on 30th April 2013, since I wrote about Donny Hathaway’s album Everything Is Everything. My reason for wanting to write about this album is that when people talk about R&B and soul music nowadays, people seem to forget about Roberta Flack. This to me is strange considering how hugely successful a career she had. Between 1969 and 2003, she had seven albums and five singles that were certified gold and three albums that were certified platinum. That demonstrates just how huge a star she was. Nowadays, people seem to remember her for two of her most successful singles The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face and Killing Me Softly. One of my reasons for writing this article was to remind people that there was much more to Roberta’s career than these two singles. Granted both are brilliant songs, with Killing Me Softly being the outstanding track on the album Killing Me Softly. On that album, Roberta demonstrates her versatility and talent as a vocalist, singing songs in different styles, including soul, jazz and R&B. Killing Me Softly is an excellent album, containing some wonderful music. Apart from Killing Me Softly, the album contains an outstanding version of Suzanne, a Leonard Cohen song, and When You Smile which features an arrangement that has its roots in ragtime and big band music. These are just some of the great tracks to be found on this album. Should you have never heard Roberta Flack’s music, Killing Me Softly and First Take are the perfect introduction to the career of a hugely talented singer, songwriter and musician. Standout Tracks: Killing Me Softly WIth His Song, I’m the Girl, When You Smile and Suzanne.

ROBERTA FLACK-KILLING ME SOFTLY.

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