Thursday, August 4, 2011

August 4: Roberta Flack, "Killing Me Softly"

Artist: Roberta Flack
Song: "Killing Me Softly"
Album: Killing Me Softly
Year: 1973

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While there have been many fantastic voices throughout the course of music history, there are a handful that regardless of the passage of time, never seem to lose their impact.  It is this elite group of performers that can be recognized instantly by the tone and tenor of their singing, and while countless followers attempted to copy their voice, none come close in comparison.  Within every generation, one can cite one or two such artists, and during the 1970's, few voices brought a similar soul and sensuality than that found within the catalog of Roberta Flack.  Stringing together an absolutely astounding succession of chart topping, Grammy winning singles, there were few artists that were as vital to the music scene of the time, and yet in retrospect, there are few performers that are as consistently overlooked for their impact than Flack.  Easily working within the confines of nearly any style, whether it was r&b, soul, folk, or even some songs that were unquestionably disco, Roberta Flack proved to be one of the most diverse singers in history, and there are few moments throughout her first few albums that are anything short of spectacular.  It is due to this largely unrivaled level of musical achievement that makes it difficult to cite any single song as her definitive moment, and yet as one looks over the course of her influence as the generations have passed, there are few songs that show all of Roberta Flack's talents better than her classic 1973 song, "Killing Me Softly."

The mixture of instrumentation and influences that run throughout "Killing Me Softly" are nearly as amazing as Flack's vocal track, as one can hear everything from early disco to folk to Latin sounds in the musical arrangement.  The Latin, even "island feel" is led by guitarist Eric Gale, who stands today as one of the most iconic studio musicians in history.  The light, jazzy feel he injects into the song is absolutely fantastic, and it also lends a great deal of intimacy to the overall mood.  This is perfectly complimented by the percussion from Grady Tate and Ralph MacDonald, as their array of drumming and other instrumentation keeps things light and swaying as the song progresses.  Bassist Ron Carter adds to this fantastic arrangement, providing a superb sense of movement that runs throughout the entire track.  However, it is the amazing tone from the electric piano played by Flack which defines the song and gives it its phenomenal atmosphere.  There is an almost ethereal tone within her playing, and the level of soul and emotion she is able to convey through the piano pushes the song far beyond almost anything else at the time.  It is the way in which the instruments seem to move back and forth on the track, creating different emphasis at different points which add depth to the track, and the core hook which they all follow has become one of the most recognizable in history, cementing its iconic status.

Yet even with this flawless musical performance, there is no question at any point that the "star" of the song is the voice of Roberta Flack.  When it comes to a sound that seems completely effortless, the sheer beauty and power within Flack's singing truly knows no peers, as she has a presence within her singing by which one cannot help but become completely captivated.  Easily working all across the vocal scale, it is when she is in the mid and lower registers where she is at her most potent, as her deep, soulful sound is often overwhelming.  It is also the way in which she combines these strong vocal passages with intense emotions that push the song to such great heights, and though she did not pen "Killing Me Softly," her proximity to the theme can be easily felt.  The level of love, if not infatuation, that Flack sings of on "Killing Me Softly" is certainly universal, and yet at the same time, there has rarely been a lyric that so perfectly encapsulated the feeling as perfectly as one can experience on this song.  The idea of what "the song" is can be interpreted on a number of levels, as one can easily make the case that while it can be read in the literal sense, it can just as simply be seen as a euphemism for countless other attributes.  It is within this ability to be interpreted in so many ways that gives "Killing Me Softly" its endless appeal, and the way that Flack grabs the audience with her voice makes it an absolutely unforgettable classic.

The initial impact of "Killing Me Softly" was almost as amazing as the fact that it has so easily survived the passage of time, as the song was nominated for a trio of Grammy awards, winning the prize for Best song, record and female pop vocal in 1975.  When she was awarded the "Best Record," Flack was placed into one of the most elite groups of musicians in history, as she is one of only two performers to ever win the award in consecutive years.  Furthermore, as the decades have passed, the song has managed to continue popping up across the music scene of that time, and it received a massive "revival" when it was slightly altered and covered by The Fugees on their own award winning 1995 album, The Score.  While this cover was certainly a fantastic effort, it still pales in comparison to the soul and spirit of the original, and if nothing less, the latter version helps to highlight the level of emotion and beauty within Flack's vocal performance.  Yet at the same time, Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly" manages to sum up all of the stellar performances she had been recording for years, as one can experience her boundless vocal range along with the aforementioned emotional delivery which is combined with one of the finest piano arrangements of her career.  Though she remains somewhat overlooked when one considers the great musical performers of the 1970's, there are few songs that can hold their own in comparison to Roberta Flack's magnificent 1973 single, "Killing Me Softly."

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