Recorded over a period of just 10 hours, the future star’s breakthrough 1969 debut captured her idiosyncratic mix of soul, jazz, and folk and her singular vision as a bandleader.
Throughout most of the eventful year of 1968, the soon-to-be-famous Roberta Flack was ensconced in a residency at Mr. Henry’s in Washington, D.C., an unfancy but inimitably hip jazz club located at the corner of 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, playing three nights a week to rhapsodic audiences. All around, the world was diligently unraveling. Following the April 4 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., riots broke out in several cities, including the District. Flack continued performing her sets, lines forming around the block. Those coming to hear someone make sense of the chaos chose astutely. No artist working in the moment was doing a finer job of chronicling those tenuous, terrifying, revolutionary times.
Her talent was otherworldly: The Black Mountain, North Carolina-born pianist and singer was admitted to Howard University’s top-flight music program at the age of 15, possessing prodigious jazz and classical chops and a voice splitting the difference between Sarah Vaughan’s elegant alto and Etta James’ deep-blue expressiveness. D.C. wasn’t a center of the music industry like Los Angeles or Nashville—places where gifted aspirants went to be discovered. But Roberta Flack wasn’t your average gifted aspirant. She spent some wilderness years teaching high school, but word of mouth spread, and soon enough they came to her. When visiting jazz legend Les McCann was dragged along by friends to see Flack perform one night, he immediately provided his most forceful recommendation to Atlantic, and soon after she was signed.
Flack’s debut, First Take, was recorded over a period of 10 hours at Atlantic Studios in New York, in February 1969. Her extraordinary backing band, consisting of stalwarts Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar, Ron Carter on bass, Ray Lucas on drums, and other heavy hitters gelled with seamless immediacy, as Flack lead them through a repertoire of brilliantly chosen soul and folk material she had spent countless hours perfecting at Mr. Henry’s.
An opening rip through the Gene McDaniels-penned standard “Compared to What,” with its stabbing horns and unyielding groove, anticipates both Marvin Gaye’s socially conscious landmark What’s Going On and Sly and the Family Stone’s negative-vibe masterpiece of a rejoinder There’s a Riot Goin’ On by two years. The elegiac second track “Angelitos Negros” is borrowed from the soundtrack of the 1948 Mexican social-realist film by the same name, which addresses the prohibition of interracial relationships. Flack’s interpretation—entirely in Spanish—is profoundly moving on its own merits and the more so for connecting inequities between two cultures over generations. A tremulous Donny Hathaway/Robert Ayers collaboration, “Our Ages or Our Hearts,” and an inspired slow-burning take on the traditional “I Told Jesus” round out Side One in bravura fashion, ably setting the stage for the album’s astonishing back half.
Beginning with a definitive take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”—a track that belongs on any short list in the competitive category of finest-ever Cohen covers—Flack raises the spiritual, romantic, and political stakes to towering levels on Side Two, ultimately rendering a song cycle which acts as both a spiritual cousin and equal to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, released the previous year. Her epochal reading of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” a composition by British folk singer Ewan MacColl, transforms the original’s tender devotions into an evocation of love so fixed and immutable it causes the firmament itself to tremble. Her devastatingly understated vocal conveys not so much pain or joy, but instead something like total awe at the power of two hearts in lockstep, be it mother and child, soulmates in tandem, or god and creation.
The supple groove of “Tryin’ Times”—a second collaboration with Hathaway, abetted by the Impressions’ Leroy Hutson—musically quotes Miles Davis’ “Freddie Freeloader” while depicting a Phil Ochs-worthy tableau of a society unraveling at the seams from its institutions to its family structures. Album closer “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” doesn’t explicitly mention Vietnam, but it may be the single greatest protest song written about that endless, insensible bloodbath. On first blush, it could be a stray track left off Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours—an agreeably purple, Runyonesque account of callow youths whiling the hours away in some urban watering hole. Only over the course of the song’s seven-minute run time does it begin to dawn on the listener who these men “trying to forget” truly are. Because the deferment system established in 1951 protected college-enrolled men from the draft until 1968, the vast preponderance of those conscripted into the first years of the war were poor, racial minorities, or both. “Who is burning?” John Fogerty wondered, in that same year, about that same conflict. “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” is the proportionately painful answer to that wounding question.
A generous new 50th year reissue is festooned with interesting tidbits. A spirited series of demos recorded in 1968 with a different group of musicians demonstrates the extent to which the idiosyncratic mix of soul, jazz, and folk that comprises Flack’s timeless sound is indeed the deliberate and singular vision of a taskmaster bandleader. Romps through everything from the contemporary Marvin-Tammi hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to the traditional “Frankie & Johnny” are proof of Flack’s capacity to move seamlessly not only through genres, but entire eras, a profoundly rare skill shared by the likes of Dylan, Prince, and Joni Mitchell.
It took seven months for First Take to enter the Billboard charts, a testament to both the unbound-by-genre unusualness of her sound and the inevitability of its sheer brilliance. Over decades, Flack would enjoy a legendary and influential career and eventually the well-earned successes of a hitmaker and household name. But First Take was before all of that, recorded in the violent blinding flash of a moment when absolutely nothing seemed certain. “And it would last ’til the end of time,” she sang. So it has.