Photo credits: Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Roberta Flack (pictured) gave voice to a universal music score of allure, anguish, romance, heartbreak, wishes, and conflict in songs like “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Killing Me Softly,” among other songs.
To present music icon Roberta Flack, a fantastic musician who revolutionized popular culture – with respect to her distinct vernacular – American Masters: Roberta Flack highlights the intersection of real life, memory, and storytelling. The project shows how Flack’s musical prowess was inextricably linked to her lifetime dedication to civil rights by using exclusive access to her archive of screenplay, live shows, media appearances, family videos, pictures, and pop singles. The national premiere of American Masters: Roberta Flack airs on PBS (check local listings), pbs.org/americanmasters, and the PBS Video App on Tuesday, January 24, 2023, at 9 p.m. ET.
This documentary of Roberta Flack offers a close-up look at her creative process, personal struggles with race and gender, as well as victories both within and beyond the music business. Interviews with political figure and minister Reverend Jesse Jackson, actor, director, and producer Clint Eastwood, musician Yoko Ono, activist Angela Davis, singer-songwriter Eugene McDaniels, producer Joel Dorn, singer-songwriter Peabo Bryson, producer Valerie Simpson, musician Les McCann, music scholar Jason King, and musician Sean Lennon help to shed light on Flack’s story. The movie also features an original score by heralded composer Martin Perna of Antibalas (Fela! : The Musical), in addition to the timeless music of Roberta Flack.
As a wunderkind on the piano, Flack started learning classical piano at the age of nine. At the age of 15, she received a musical scholarship at Howard University. When Flack was moonlighting as a nightclub performer in Washington, DC, in 1968, jazz legend Les McCann saw her distinct skill. He set up a demo for Flack with Atlantic Records, which resulted in the production of her inaugural album, First Take. Clint Eastwood personally chose Roberta Flack’s song “First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” from First Take for his directing debut Play Misty for Me; the song would go on to win a Grammy. She became the first artist to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in back-to-back years the year after winning one for “Killing Me Softly” the previous year.
Flack got differentiated instruction from Donny Hathaway, Luther Vandross, and Peabo Bryson when it came to making big-time records. Songs like “Feel Like Makin’ Love” and “The Closer I Get to You” are just a few of the numerous hit songs that Flack has produced throughout her legendary career, which has spanned decades. The movie reveals how Flack utilized her influential presence to make songs, which referred to Black America’s experience throughout her groundbreaking career. She overcame criticism for having a white spouse, faced overt prejudice in the music business, and paved the way for Black women to be the producers of their records.
At the age of 80, she published her most recent album, Running, and in 2018 received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020.