First Charted: January 1970
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 54
Certified Gold: 4/19/72
With the appearance of her first album a little less than a year ago, Roberta Flack immediately established herself as worthy to enter the pantheon with the two other truly great black female singers of the Sixties, Aretha and Nina Simone. It is impossible to classify her. She is not a "soul" singer like Aretha, who emphasizes gospel rhythms and blues harmonies. She is not a shouter like Aretha, either. She is not a jazz musician, as Nina Simone essentially is, though, Roberta resembles Nina in her amazing ability to get further inside a song that one thought humanly possible and to bring responses from places inside you that you never knew existed. However, where Nina Simone overpowers one with her strength, bitterness and anger, Roberta Flack underplays everything with a quietness and gentleness. More than any singer I know, she can take a quiet, slow song (and most of hers are) and infuse it with a brooding intensity that is, at times, almost unbearable. WIth her, Leonard Cohen's "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye" and Ewan MacColl's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" become the basis for meditation.
Her singing is characterized by an adherence to the melody line, with occasional embellishments that have adumbrations of the Baptist church, but never to the point where the embellishments have taken over, as they do in Aretha's singing. Roberta emphasizes the melody of songs and de-emphasizes rhythm. Where Aretha adapts every song to her particular style, Roberta Flack tries to convey the essence of the song without remaking it. The meaning of the song is everything and everything is made to serve that one end. The result is a kind of purity that is rarely heard in this world.
Like Nina and Aretha, Roberta accompanies herself on piano, but it is difficult to know what her playing is like because of the string and brass orchestra backing her, sometimes for the better, more often for the worst. She takes a solo only on one cut, "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye," and it is merely a succession of chord changes which follow the melody clearly, not improvisation. However, it is tasteful and exquisite.
Her weakness is uptempo songs and the weakest song on this album is the first cut, "Compared to What." Her gentleness fails to convey the bitterness and sarcasm of the song. Les McCann's rendition is far superior and truer to the song. But that is the album's only failure. First Take is one of those rare albums that has the power to enlighten the emotional content of one's life. You feel the world differently after listening to it.
The hallmark of Roberta Flack is an ability to make sure that nothing stands between you and the experience of the song. She is merely the transmitter and puts herself at the service of the song so that you not only hear the music, but become a part of it. If you can stand the intensity and don't mind risking your life, listen.
- Julius Lester, Rolling Stone, 10/29/70.
Put on your wig hat, honey. Dress warmly, and don't forget your shades. Now! Run to your nearest record outlet and buy not one, but two, maybe three of Roberta Flack's First Take. You'll need at least two copies of this fabulous debut album for one of the following reasons: (a) you'll wear out one copy almost immediately; (b) you'll want to give this record to someone you really love; (c) you'll need to save one for a future day when, God forbid, it is out of print.
Roberta Flack is that best of all possible things -- a musician's musician. She is a perfectionist with impeccable taste in her incredibly varied repertoire. Expertly recorded on this showcase album are protest songs, jazz, folk-rock, ballads, and soul. All reveal her deep, sensitive devotion to her art. I find it impossible to pick one oh-so-special accompaniment on the piano. Her genius is always her artful and intelligent interpretation. She is skillfully backed by guitar, bass, drums, and horns and strings arranged by William Fischer. On two songs, a small brass section is added. But the additional personnel's purpose is to accompany and aid Roberta.
Where did this wonderful woman come from? Since this is her first album I feel honored to introduce her. She started out as a scholarship music student, then taught English and music in a segregated South Carolina school. As late as 1962, she was a part-time accompanist to opera singers in a Georgetown restaurant. In 1967 she was singing five nights a week on K Street in Washington, D.C. By May of that year she was "discovered" and booked into Mr. Henry's Downstairs on Capitol Hill. The great jazz artist Les McCann taped her and presented the tape to Atlantic. God bless Les McCann (and Atlantic). God bless this beautiful child -- she's got her own.
- Rex Reed, Stereo Review, 1/70.
The album that launched Roberta Flack's career. She had been doing background vocals and also recording with Les McCann, who helped her land at Atlantic. The single "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" zoomed into the pop stratosphere after it was included in Clint Eastwood's film Play Misty For Me. * * * *
- Ron Wynn, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
The canvas is almost blank when Roberta Flack begins "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." There's barely a discernible tempo -- activity, such as it is, comes form idling acoustic guitar chords. A bass creeps in, and Flack drops in little sprinklings of piano ornamentation on top. The lullaby mood changes when she begins to sing: Suddenly what had been a neutral atmosphere is flipped into something stately, pensive, almost regal. Flack captures Scottish songwriter and playwright Ewan MacColl's recollection of love with a quiet, and very internal, lucidity. It's as if she's talking to herself, remembering, with a kind of awed reverence, someone extraordinary.
A former junior high school teacher, Flack recorded "The First Time" on her debut, First Take. The album drew positive notices from jazz critics -- Flack was "discovered" by organist Les McCann, and the album included a sassy reading of his "Compared to What" as well as two Donny Hathaway songs. But it sold little until Clint Eastwood put "The First Time" into his film Play Misty for Me. That essentially kick-started Flack's career: The song hit number one in early 1972, lifting the album to the top of the charts for five weeks. Flack then made several strong albums, each with a least one transfixing ballad -- the best known is "Killing Me Softly with His Song," a monster hit in 1973. The subsequent recordings are pleasant showcases for Flack's easygoingness, her ability to improvise without relying on showbiz dazzle. But "The First Time" stands apart: So slow it'd never get a chance on radio tody, it's the rare song that makes time stand still.
- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.
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