Washington — We are sitting around, looking at the Gouda cheese and the grapes on the table, when Roberta Flack makes her entrance. And it is some entrance, given the fact that she is not a statuesque woman.
Roberta Flack sashays into the room wearing, to take it from the top, a gold lame skull cap over dozens of tiny braids like black rain falling on her shoulders, which are covered by a violet silk blouse that tucks into a purple jersey skirt that slaps a little against snuff brown suede boots she bought in St. Thomas. She is wearing violet arcs of eyeshadow, ruby lipstick, three diamond rings on her right hand and a huge, oval, ivory ring on her left.
She glances apprehensively at a photographer. "Maybe it's the tribe, the African tribe that's my ancestors; there are some tribes where it's against their principles to take pictures. But I have never wanted to pose. . . ." Then she dazzles the camera with a 1,000-watt smile, before she moves on to set the record straight on corn row.
"Black women are wearing corn row long before Bo Derek braided her hair so famously in the movie '10,'" she says. "Is this corn row? No, corn row is braiding of hair to the scalp. These are braids or plaits. This takes 12 hours. . . . I took issue that they made such a big thing about Bo Derek and corn row. I can see this Bo Derek doll going out, the '10' doll, with braids. And they'll make a zillion dollars off it." She is ticked off at the white appropriation of black culture, in this case corn row.
At Atlantic Records, Roberta Flack is grouped in the soul music category along with other black singers like Aretha Franklin and Sister Sledge. Speaking of her music, she says, "I want it to be visual, to live. And you can do that easily with black music especially, if it is of the tragic nature we expect it to be, of the difficulty of carrying our burdens and our crosses and struggling from the womb to the tomb.
"That, you know, is easy. But to sing a song that is universal, that has no ethnic stamp on it is much more difficult." She feels she's done that with her Grammy Award winners, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and "Killing Me Softly," and with a song "You Are My Heaven," which she recorded with her collaborator, the late Donny Hathaway, who died tragically. "Heaven" is on her new album, to be released this month, titled "Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway."
Still there's always the black echo in her music, as there must be for someone who grew up in the shadow of a nation's segregated capital. Roberta Flack, raised in nearby Arlington, Virginia, must find a certain bittersweet pleasure in checking into a posh suite in the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel. As a black child, she wasn't even allowed in the bathroom of the five and dime store here.
How did she view that prejudice?
"Well, it was understood, you know, and accepted . . . . And there were certain places you didn't go -- to the movies. It was the law. And no restaurants. And you could go into the five and ten cent store, but you couldn't use the bathroom . . . .
"The first real incident I had with prejudice was when I started practice teaching [as the first black teacher] at . . . a school here in Washington near Chevy Chase . . . . And this was long after the civil rights movement and schools had been integrated, long after that . . . . I walked through the school yard, and there were these high school kids, and there were, like, bunches of crab apple trees around there. They pelted me all the way to school; they pelted me and followed me, and I was scared to turn around . . . ."
She had been born in Black Mountain, North Carolina, but at four moved with her family to Arlington, where the family of nine (four children, parents, relatives) shared a two-bedroom basement apartment. Her mother worked as a domestic, her father doing any job he could get. Both worked for white people. "I lived in a family where [prejudice] was never discussed, never dealt with . . . . I suppose it could have been [my parents'] interest in the security of our family, but it was never discussed. We were brought up to love each other and everybody in the world. That that was just it -- tolerant, you know, very tolerant . . . .
"I didn't have to spend a lot of time fightin' to get to the front of the bus. When I grew up it was understood that the back of the bus was where you sat, and you didn't question it . . . . I was so glad to be getting on any bus and goin' to Washington, because nobody else in the family was goin' Just me."
Roberta's mother was organist at their A.M.E. Zion Church in Arlington, and the family spotted Roberta's talent at the piano early. By the time she was nine she was taking that bus into Washington for the piano lessons that launched her into Scarlatti sonatas and resulted in her winning a full music scholarship to Howard University at 15 as a piano major.
She later changed her major to music education, and by the time of her graduation at 19 she had already directed a performance of "Aida". Roberta Flack had just started graduate studies in music when her father's death forced her to quit college and find a job. She found it in Farmville, N.C., where she taught basic grammar and music for $2,800 a year to high schoolers in a segregated community.
It was after a six-year stint teaching high school back in Washington that she got her first break in the professional music world. She went from piano accompaniment in a local club to a gig in a Capitol Hill restaurant doing blues, folk songs, and pop music. While there she was asked to do a benefit for the Inner City Ghetto Children's Library Fund. There jazz pianist Les McCann discovered her and arranged to have her audition for Atlantic. The result was her first album, "First Take," an immediate hit that won Grammy awards for record of the year and song of the year with "The First time Ever I Saw Your Face."
The nine albums she's made since then run the gamut from blues through pop, soul, gospel, soft rock, disco -- enough of a range so that you wonder how Roberta Flack characterizes her own music.
She answers, "Well, here's the thing, see: I'm a studied musician, you know, and I cannot remove myself from that. So music to me . . . is usually on one level; it is either appealing or not appealing . . . . It was always the experience, the total musical experience that made me decide to choose a song.
"A musician is a person who is challenged by the very mystery the music holds . . . to try to unfathom it and find some meaning in it for yourself and then to transfer that meaning in a vocal or instrumental way to other people so they can hear it.
"You know, you develop a style or sound that pleases you only after you've made a lot of mistakes and you've tried a lot of things. I have a voice teacher who told me that the [lyric] was the most important thing. It wasn't the pitch, and it wasn't the resonance and the quality. All of that, he says, will be there if you sell the song, if you make it understood.
"And, of course, we know that works when we look at people who haven't studied but who can sell a song, people like James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight. These people haven't studied, but they get the same kind of emotional responses from people all over the world because they know how to get out there and sell a song."
Everyone in the room nods. Everyone includes Roberta's entourage: her current collaborator, Eric Mercury, singer, composer and producer; her make-up man, Kevin Broad; her publicist from Atlantic, a woman with the startling name of Simo Doe; her business manager, Mervin Dash; a photographer; and this reporter. The early afternoon light, shot with river haze from the Potomac below, falls softly on their faces. Hospitality platters of fruit and cheese sit on tables in the vast suite decorated with slubbed gold silk wallpaper and tweedy furniture.
From time to time during the interview, Roberta Flack sings. She sings a few bars from "Only Heaven Can Wait," the song she and Eric Mercury wrote together. Her voice a capella is sweet, plaintive, bluesy, less forceful than the Roberta Flack of the record tracks.
"There," she says, going over four bars "where my voice is soft and fragile, his [Eric's] voice is very strong and rough . . . ." Like most singers, she thinks of her voice as an instrument. "I once wrote a transcription of an air for violin taken from a sonata by Corelli, the one in G minor." She hums it. "I once did that for piano and voice. And I was determined to put this one on record. I worked with my voice teacher. He had me thinking of my voice as a viola, [making me] strum and pull low-bowed phrases. So . . ., yes, at times there is a viola in my voice.
Her voice teacher told her, "Okay, you're a pop singer, and this is not pop music, but you're going to play it like a pop song."
after all that work, she decided not to release the record because "it was such a dirge . . . . It was not warm enough. It was not pop enough -- to much of the classical them." She wrinkles her nose. It is a cute, appealing gesture.
Roberta Flack describes herself as cute, as impatient, and as confident. Confident she must be, to do what she's been doing in addition to the singing: producing. In the pop music business, woemn producers are as rare as dotted sixteenths. She is on the record as saying that "there are very few female producers in the record business, and that's just ridiculous."
She warms to the subject: "As far as women producers in the business are concerned, that's just an old, tired, tacky attitude among people who think that a woman's place is where a woman's place is . . . . There are a lot of women who get trapped and are threatened and afraid to say they know what they know, especially in the recording studios, because most of that wolrd is dominated by men, not by men who look at women as equal but as singers, or writers, or singer-song- writers-piano players but never musicians, people who can cover the whole spectrum."
She defines producing as "finding material, the right song, casting it, finding the right musicians to play the right song . . . . It's finding the right musical embellishment to what every song is and making the choice that could make the difference about whether it gets heard or not. As an artist-producer, it's difficult to be able to sit on both sides of the microphone . . . ."
Roberta Flack has already produced two of her own albums, herself, and co-produced albums for singers Marion Williams, Donal Leace, and Wayne Davis. But she says that she will probably not produce an album for herself alone again (her newest was co-produced by Eric Mercury). Producing her own albums alone, she says, "is too painful . . . . You agonize over it. You need someone who is to ally objective, who can remind you of what you felt when you first heard it. You can ruin your career by being analytical and editing."
In that dual role, she goes from producing in the studio to performing a few seconds later, and she finds that the two clash. "Sometimes I'm in the studio singing . . . . I've just left the chair in the control booth, where I was producing -- maybe some background voices or adding some other instruments to the track . . . . And when I'm on the other side [singing] I've got to go inside [myself] and let the love come from inside out, and not worry about whether we'll run out of tape."
She has just spoken about letting the love come from inside out. "If you are a real artist, you will always have the need and the ability to love . . . . Love is, well, first of all. There is no way you can sing love or love what you're singing unless you understand what it is you're doing . . . . Even if you don't have the same love -- whether it's love of children or love of animals or love of another person forever . . . -- I think the ability [to love] is more important than the need to be loved."
She wanders briefly into a story about Judy Garland belting out a song on Broadway night after night and always breaking into a real sob on one particular note, the right note. "I think the great singers and great actors and actresses are able to come up with a perfect combination of real feeling, what they're really feeling, what the character is supposed to be all about. You have to be at once the person who listens to yourself and the person who does it so someone else can listen."
One of the songs that moves her most is one she sang to audiences as a protest song when she first began performing at a Washington restaurant called Mr. Henry's. It's a traditional black song, called "All the Pretty Little Horses." There are hundreds of variations, she says, but she did her own, based on a tune her grandmother used to sing and one she found in a schoolbook. It's about a young, pregnant black woman in the days of slavery, singing a lullaby that wishes for her unborn child the most beautiful thing she can think of -- "pretty little horses, dapples and grays, blacks and bays . . . ." But it ends with the death of hope that he'll ever have a life different from hers as a slave.
As she describes the mother and the song at length, her open, mobile face shifts like an actress's from one strong emotion to another. She is asked if, since her face is so expressive, she has ever thought of acting.
"Yeah, I want to act. I really do. At one time we were talking about doing a film on Bessie Smith, her life story . . . . At that time I was doing a lot of blues tunes that were associated with her, like 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out.' . . ."
So far, no Bessie Smith. But her next project does have to do with film. She and Eric Mercury are scoring the music for a film that Richard Pryor has written and directed, "Family Dreams." It stars Cicely Tyson as a teacher of special children, many of them orphans, who buck the board of education when it says their classes will be broken up for lack of money. "It's a very exciting movie, and it's a family movie, and it's a black movie," she says. "And we're writing some music that's beautiful and touching and fun, and you can dance to it. Then Eric is writing a script for a film that he will definitely be in, and if I'm lucky I will, too -- and get a chance to move my mobile face -- so we're just forgin' ahead."