I can imagine what it must have been like when Roberta Flack stepped onto the scene, a breath of fresh air unlike no other. Like so many other greats I've written about on this blog, she seemed to defy categorization. She was kind of a cross between Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Barbara Lewis, Nancy Wilson, and Nina Simone. She fit perfectly within the aesthetic of the singer-songwriter and yet she recorded mostly compositions written by others. Perhaps it was her individualized interpretations of those songs that made them seem like they were her own.
Take for example my selection of the day. Flack's minimalist version of a song made famous by Little Willie John as a bold power ballad. She has stripped it down to pure sentiment. It's a quiet late night conversation between forbidden lovers, rather than the declaration from a mountaintop given by Little Willie (I love both versions btw).
Roberta Flack's massive crossover success opened new roads for soul music, roads that were softer and quieter. The pathway to the music of someone like Sade seems like a straight line from "Killing Me Softly". She certainly made a lasting impact.
On another note, when I listen to this song I can't help but reflect on how much has changed for gay people in the past 20 years. Just two decades ago I was playing various versions of "Let Them Talk" on my radio show, using it as a veiled message song, a comment on gay love as an act of defiance in a less-than-tolerant world. No one had "come out" on tv yet. Society at large was happy to have us hide in the shadows.
These days the concept of "forbidden love" almost seems like a faded memory. But, of course there are still a lot of dangerous homophobes out there. There are still tv hosts who think we won all of our rights "too quickly". There is a still a judge in Alabama taking a stand against equality like a new George Wallace. There are still so many battles to fight for trans people. We still have a long way to go. But I sure am happy to feel free to come out from the shadows most of the time.
Happy Birthday Roberta Flack and thank you for your delicate version of this gay anthem. A quiet fire indeed.