Sophisticated soul icon Roberta Flack is coming to the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center October 12. The evening promises to be filled with gorgeous singing from Flack and from her talented group of background singers, accompanied by an incredible band.
It will be far from Flack’s first time in the Hamptons, she notes. “I have so many friends who have homes there, so I’ve been there many times.” Flack has also performed out here, including at a benefit for the Ross School a few years back, and she is eager to take the WHBPAC stage.
Flack’s trademark smooth style—which combines R&B with jazz, pop, soul and even folk—made her a part of the new generation of soul singers that emerged in the early ’70s. While earlier soul acts tended to emphasize dancing and good times, often in a musical language borrowed from black gospel, these new performers explored a broader range of themes and emotions with a more varied musical palette. Flack’s sensuous voice, inflected more by jazz then by gospel, was perfectly suited to this new soul sound. Her first smash hit was the soft-spoken, contemplative ballad “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Featured in Clint Eastwood’s 1971 film Play Misty for Me, the song spent six weeks at number one, was the number one single of 1972, and won Flack a Grammy for Record of the Year.
Then, of course, came Flack’s recording of “Killing Me Softly with His Song”—one of the most successful singles of the 20th century. Released in 1973, the song spent a total of five weeks at number 1 and won Flack a second Grammy for Record of the Year.
Nowadays, in a twist of fate, “Killing Me Softly” is also closely associated with Lauryn Hill and the Fugees, who released a hit hip-hop cover of it in 1996. “The Fugees kicked the song into the 21st century,” explains Flack. This poses a certain challenge for her as a performer, as younger members of her audience might be expecting a heavy dance tune and be surprised to hear Flack’s smooth, supple version. But she hasn’t switched to doing the Fugees’ version.
“I have made a few changes since I first recorded it, many moons ago,” Flack laughs. Rather than a thudding dance beat, however, Flack instead uses her strong musical training—she graduated from Howard University’s School of Music and studied to be an opera singer—to take the song in an even more sensual direction, inspired by Brazilian drumming. It’s entrancing.
Flack’s most recent CD is a set of covers of Beatles songs. It’s something that she was asked to do, but it was also a natural fit for her, as she knew John Lennon quite well—Flack was Lennon and Yoko Ono’s neighbor at the Dakota in New York City.
“This project touched my heart in so many ways,” Flack says. “John and Yoko lived next door to me for many years. We are good friends and besides sharing a common back door, we shared many experiences. Beatles songs—their songs are timeless and some of the best music of our time. Who wouldn’t explore that material now or at any point in time?”
Naturally, she filters the Beatles songs through her own sensibility. “I tried to sing the songs from the point of view of my own life. I told their stories as I could understand and experience them. I sang them as I could best express them, and the arrangements were just an extension of this.” The result is a soulful set of some of the most iconic songs in pop history. And Flack’s audiences love it. According to Flack, “they have embraced these songs as I hoped they would. They join me in honoring the legacy of these great artists.”
Of course, the audiences are also honoring the artistry of the great Roberta Flack.
Roberta Flack will perform at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach, on Sunday, October 12 at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $125. For more info, visit whbpac.org or call 631-288-1500.