‘First Take’: Why Roberta Flack’s debut album demands repeat listens

Ten o’clock. 600 minutes. That’s apparently how long it took to save First take, Roberta Flack’s amazing debut album. Quite a feat, especially when you know that it only takes 46 of those 600 minutes to listen to it.

Listen to “First Take” here.

The backstory: “What I heard touched me on a level I haven’t heard since”

First take It may have been a debut album, but it came from one of the most educated singers and pianists in the United States – literally. After earning a full music scholarship to the prestigious Howard University at the age of 15, Roberta Flack became a music teacher herself soon after graduating. Living and teaching in Washington, DC, she also performs regularly at Mr Henry’s Restaurant on Capitol Hill. Flack had become such a draw that the venue named a venue after him and installed a sound system to his exact specifications. “Word spread about me,” Flack recalled, “and people came to see me on Sundays.”

One of his audience members was Les McCann, a jazz singer and pianist with some 20 albums to his name. “What I heard touched me on a level I haven’t heard since,” McCann said in 2019, recalling his first exposure to Flack. “His voice, his skill as a pianist were supreme.” McCann recorded Flack’s set at Mr Henry’s one night in 1968 and took the tapes back to Atlantic Records, the label he had recently awarded. Soon, Atlantic, in the form of producer Joel Dorn, went to see Flack for himself. She was hired in November 1968.

The songs: “You express your feelings about the first time you see a great love”

Flack had a huge repertoire, over 600 songs. She was confident in jazz, classical, R&B, soul, and showtunes. With Dorn’s help, Flack narrowed down his song choices to 28 possibilities for what would become First take. These 28 songs were then demoed at RCA Studios in Manhattan, with Flack accompanied by bassist Marshall Hawkins and drummer Bernard Sweetney (both of whom played with her regularly at Mr Henry’s). Many of these valuable demo recordings were eventually released in 2020 as part of a deluxe edition of First take.

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