top of page

Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye - Roberta Flack

Roberta Flack was born in the town Black Mountain in North Carolina, home to the legendary cultural seat of avant garde arts education, Black Mountain College, whose alumni including dance choreographer Merce Cunningham, Composer John Cage and poet Robert Creeley, all gamechangers in their particular fields, although she never went there, her family moving from the city when she was a little girl. I like to think that somehow, the college had an influence on her as she became an accomplished classically trained pianist who didn't decide which way to go (ie: classical or popular music) until she was in her thirties.

This is one of the three Leonard Cohen staples (see last post) but also one of the best Cohen covers ever, largely due to Flack's precise yet beautifully soulful vocals and her fabulous piano playing and the bass by the immortal Ron Carter, surely the second best bassist of all time (behind Jamie Jamerson). The thing about early Roberta Flack - and this is from her first album, released in 1969 - is that just as you fall in love with her voice again on each new song, her exquisite piano playing sneaks up on you and finishes you off. Listening to Roberta is a visceral experience which makes her one of the best interpreters of other people's songs that there is, turning hackneyed standards into newly found diamonds, fresh out of the ground.

Interestingly, for those familiar with the Cohen original and the other two songs that comprise the big three, "Suzanne " and "So Long Marianne", the voice that supplies the distinctive female backing vocals on the originals is that of Nancy Priddy, singer and actress, and mother of Christina Applegate, founder member of the Pussycat Dolls and actor famous for her appearances on "Friends" as Rachel's " sister" and as Veronica Corningstone in the movie Anchorman. Which goes to show that the American dream is more often attained in two generations, as opposed to the traditional one.

Flack did it in one, quitting her teaching job when offered a three day a week singing opportunity in Henry's Restaurant on Capitol Hill in Washington DC where she was then spotted by one Les McCann, a jazz singer and pianist who put her in touch with Atlantic Records. Her first LP, "First Take", was recorded in less than two days. "First Take" is one of the most assured debuts you have ever heard, and McCann's footnote to the original record sleeve of my copy still carries that frisson of excited enthusiasm:

" For those of you who have never (and also those who have):

Been: to the Downtown-Eastside-Get It On-Sock it mto 'Em-Tear Out Your Hair-Do Da Name Ruby Begonia Ring A Bell-Go Tel It On The Mountain-Zion Ebenezer Baptist Church,

Roberta can take you all the way inside and clean your soul-out!

"And God said: That's Good!"

And I say: She sings her ass off! "

They knew how to write sleeve notes in those days.

bottom of page