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How Roberta Flack is still killing us softly

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Roberta Flack in 1974 accepting her best Song Grammy Award for Killing Me Softly. In the background stands Issac Hayes

Roberta Flack in 1974 accepting her best Song Grammy Award for Killing Me Softly. In the background stands Issac Hayes

Roberta Flack in 1974 accepting her best Song Grammy Award for Killing Me Softly. In the background stands Issac Hayes

After Roberta Flack's first British concert at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1972, she told New Musical Express that "one day I'd like to come back and conduct the London Symphony Orchestra".

Listening to the recently released 50th anniversary deluxe edition of her debut album First Take, it is obvious that the North Carolina-born singer (to parents Laron, a draughtsman, and Irene, a church organist) was so talented she could have conducted the orchestra with her hands tied behind her back.

She sang at the funeral of Jackie Robinson, Major League Baseball's first black player, in 1972, performing the traditional spiritual, I Told Jesus, to almost 3,000 mourners at the Riverside Church in New York. Roberta, who had sung a year earlier at the Soul to Soul Festival in Ghana with Tina Turner, was on fire.

Roberta was friends with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the 1970s. They were neighbours in New York: Roberta was the first black person to buy an apartment in the Dakota building on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Hearing her sing Compared To What from the new edition of First Take, it is obvious why the Lennon-Onos took to her:

"The President, he's got his war/Folks don't know just what it's for/Nobody gives us rhyme or reason."

Roberta's singing of The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face, her big hit in 1972, is just as powerful. The iconic folk singer Ewan MacColl, who wrote the song in 1957 for Peggy Seeger, said after hearing Roberta's version that "an hors d'oeuvre became the main course".

In 2015 when Karen O of The Yeah Yeahs give birth to her son, she wrote on her social media: "Shortly after we brought him home I held him in my arms and listened to Roberta Flack singing this tune… I felt my heart exploding in my chest with a love."

Roberta won a Record of the Year Grammy for The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face in 1973.

The following year she picked up the same award for Killing Me Softly With His Song. She was the first solo artist to win the Grammy for Record of the Year two years in a row. (In 1996, The Fugees covered it on their album The Score; VH1 ranked it at 25 on their Greatest Songs of Hip Hop in 2008.)

Despite the critical acclaim, Roberta suffered both for the colour of her skin and for the body she was born in.

In a 1978 interview with The Los Angeles Times, she said: "Like everything else in this society, the record-production process is male-dominated. There are no great women producers because they have such a hard time getting started. A black woman has an even tougher time getting started. No man in the business would say it's racism or sexism, but the fact remains the women producers aren't there."

A black feminist icon who toured with Miles Davis in the 1980s and brought President Bill Clinton to an AIDS Fundraiser in Harlem, Roberta would years later cite the words of Be Strong, her favourite hymn from her childhood by 19th-century Methodist minister Maltbie Davenport Babcock: "Shun not the struggle, 'tis God's gift."

Roberta added: "I think everything you do as a black person in this country [America] represents a struggle for survival. I have intelligence that no one can ever take away from me."

And that voice.

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