Earlier this year, Roberta Flack joined an illustrious circle of honorees as a 2020 recipient of the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Now the 1969 debut album that set the singer-pianist’s 50-year professional career in motion — First Take — is available again for a limited time.
First Take: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, released today (July 24, Rhino), comes packaged as a two-CD, one LP remastered set. The vinyl LP replicates the original Atlantic Records eight-track album — produced by Joel Dorn — which features “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”
Flack’s first No. 1 pop and adult contemporary single topped those charts after Clint Eastwood tapped the song to appear in his 1971 film directorial debut, Play Misty for Me. The song later won Flack the first of two consecutive Grammy Awards for Record of the Year. She won the category again the following year for “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” whose imaginative cover by the Fugees became a huge hit for the hip-hop group in 1996.
The first of the deluxe edition’s two CDs sports the original eight tracks plus three bonus cuts: single edits of the aforementioned hit and the Les McCann/Eddie Harris jazz classic “Compared to What” plus the song “Trade Winds.” However, the 12 previously unreleased demo recordings comprising the second CD further foretell the success to come.
Opening with a live version of Flack performing the Frank Sinatra standard “All the Way,” the CD spotlights a dauntless newcomer switching effortlessly as well between folk (“Frankie and Johnny“), jazz (“Afro Blue”), R&B (“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”) and pop (“To Sir With Love”).
“This reissue underscores Roberta’s timeless ability to express human experience and the depth of her musical genius,” Flack’s personal manager Suzanne Koga tells Billboard. “When I attended the Grammys with Roberta in January, she was greeted with such love, respect and reverence by Lizzo, Ariana Grande, Usher, Babyface, Khalid and others whose music has been touched and inspired by her. Between this reissue and future releases of hundreds of unreleased tracks recently found in her vaults, Roberta will continue to be regarded as one of the great storytellers of popular music.”
It was jazz musician McCann who discovered Flack playing at the Washington, D.C. club Mr. Henry’s in 1968 and arranged an audition with his label Atlantic. “What I heard touched me on a level that I have never heard since,” writes McCann in one of two essays for the 50th anniversary reissue. “When my time on this earth is over, in my heart I want to carry Roberta’s voice back home so the angels can hear.”
Premiering in tandem with the release of First Take: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition is another of the 12 demo recordings, the standard “Hush-A-Bye.” Including liner notes by music journalist/author David Nathan, the limited edition of 3000 copies is available exclusively at SoulMusic.com for one year. The deluxe package will then be released to streaming services in summer 2021.
While sharing reflections about First Take via email, Flack also assessed her estimable career:
Why was “Hush-A-Bye” chosen to record as a potential track for First Take?
I used to sing this song in my sets at Mr. Henry’s. I used this lullaby to illustrate the travesty of slavery as seen through the lens of a mother singing to her unborn baby with both hope and despair. Today, this song speaks to the importance of connecting our nation’s shameful cruelty to our current understanding of the imprisonment of oppression. I also included this song when I performed in Ghana at the “Soul to Soul” festival in 1971.
I went with the Staple Singers, Ike and Tina Turner, Santana, Wilson Pickett and many others to see the port from which slave ships departed for America. We were profoundly moved to stand where our ancestors had in the last moments before they left Africa for a life of slavery and suffering that’s continued through the generations to this day.
“Tryin’ Times” did make the final album. Why is that song still important 50 years later?
In the late ‘60s, “Tryin’ Times was about the Vietnam War and civil rights. Sadly in 2020, Donny’s [Hathaway] song is about the present: this pandemic, growing economic disparities, police brutality, activism vs. apathy and the need for each of us to see it, address it and do what we can to make this all better. We must always remember that love and what connects us is stronger than fear, hate and what divides us.
I always say, “Love is a song,” meaning that music connects over time, borders, religions, age and race. It’s a universal language that touches our hearts. In my performances, I’ve seen people from all walks of life, different generations and different nationalities coming together because music makes us feel our life’s experiences at a level that connects us all as human beings.
Having been recognized by the Recording Academy this year, how do you view the music legacy you’ve built?
It was breathtaking to be acknowledged for what I’ve tried to give the world throughout my career. I’ve told my truths as simply and as honestly as I could, always keeping in mind that “less is more” to quote my friend Les McCann. Love — finding love, losing love, making love, creating love — is what defines the most powerful and transformative experiences in life. I believe deeply in the need to nurture and educate our children, who are our future. I hope my music will continue to inspire people to find their courage to feel their truth and tell their stories.