“The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the endless skies, my love.” - Ewan MacColl, sung by Roberta Flack
Her voice is in the soundtrack of many of our lives, her lyrics and tunes engrained in our brain.
Roberta Cleopatra Flack was born in Black Mountain in 1937.
She moved to Arlington, Virginia, when she was nine and it was there she began classical training on the piano. By age 15 she was awarded a musical scholarship to Howard University in Washington, DC.
After college graduation with a degree in music education, she taught music and English at a public school in Farmville, NC, and then taught in Washington, DC. She also studied had voice lessons, studying opera in her spare time. Her voice teacher, however, encouraged her to consider a career in pop music and she started broadening her horizons.
To supplement her teaching income, she sang in night clubs and it was while doing that she was signed by Atlantic Records. Jazz musician Les McCann was responsible, after hearing her sing. He was awed by the depth of her talent.
At her Atlantic audition, Flack already had a repertoire of more than 600 songs. They set her recording immediately.
Her very first album, “First Take”, was released in February of 1969. It included the song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, though the first single released was penned by Eugene McDaniels - "Compared To What." The album, recorded in just ten hours, didn’t sell well, but it got her a second album.
She met future collaborator Donnie Hathaway when he arranged her second album “Chapter Two” in 1970.
It wasn’t until 1972, after her third album was released when actor Clint Eastwood included “The First Time” in his movie “Play Misty For Me”. This was the move that catapulted her to stardom.
In 1973 she ruled the Grammy awards, where “The First Time” won Record of the Year and Song of the Year and her duet with Donnie Hathaway, ”Where is the Love?”, won for Best Pop Vocal for a Duo.
It was also in 1973 “Killing Me Softly” was released - her fourth album and the title single. It would win Grammies for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Vocal by a Female.
Flack received Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020. In 1999, a star was revealed at Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
But you can’t stop with music when talking about Flack. She has been an active humanitarian and forever a teacher, starting both a music school in New York City and a foundation that supports causes related to animal welfare and music education.
You can see the magnificent Roberta Flack mural on the side of the Black Mountain Brewing building, located at 131 Broadway Ave., in Black Mountain, NC. This is the work of artist Scott Nurkin, who is capturing NC music legends on murals all over the state with his NC Murals Project.