Roberta Flack: Quiet Fire

This week’s vinyl find is Roberta Flack’s third album, Quiet Fire, released in 1971. It’s been a while since I’ve heard it but there was no question of picking up a copy for a mere $6. I’d rate the condition as maybe VG. Cover has respectable wear, the patina of a record that was played quite a bit but was loved nonetheless.

by Marshall Bowden

Quiet Fire is the culmination of a remarkable three-album run by Roberta Flack. Beginning with her debut, First Take and continuing with the followup Chapter Two, Flack created a path for herself that danced between all the raindrops. She eschewed the full bore gospel attack of Aretha Franklin, who already eclipsed every other black voice in popular music at the time and was about to explode into supernova status. 

Roberta studied piano and music, learning to play Chopin as well as hymns from her mother, a church choir organist. It would be fair to say that she understands the art of song and of songwriting deeply because while she is a strong musician and sometime songwriter, it is her ability to inhabit the songs of other writers which she rearranges to suit her aesthetic that sets her apart from her contemporaries.

Though Nina Simone is also known for boldly reimagining popular songs of the day, she does so in a way that typically places her at the center of the performance. Roberta Flack is willing to apply control, to subvert her ego and technique in the service of the song she is singing. Rather than noticing how much she has interpreted the song, the listener is instead simply left with its gentle essence.

It is an approach that invites listeners to notice the song rather than the singer, with the result that Flack may have sunk below the radar with many listeners precisely because her artistry was about disappearing into the songs, making herself less visible. 

None of this should be taken to suggest that Roberta Flack is somehow less steeped in traditional African American musical styles, that she is somehow less black than her counterparts. Any notion of kowtowing to the prevailing white pop music styles is blown away by the Quiet Fire cover photo, a headshot of Roberta with a full Afro hairstyle. In 1971 the Rod Bristow photograph was a political statement, a statement of solidarity with so much that was resonating throughout the black community. 

Roberta Flack: “Go Up, Moses”

So is Quite Fire’s opening track “Go Up, Moses” a black power chant with a rock-solid foundation laid down by Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey, guitar fills by Hugh McCracken, and organ by Richard Tee. The song, credited to Flack, Dorn, and Jesse Jackson is a powerful statement of purpose and an exhortation:

My people, let pharaoh go
Without you there is no pharaoh
So all you have to do to let him go is to let him go
Just wake up tomorrow morning and say
Bye, pharaoh… Honey
You been down too long

Then there’s the matter of the album’s title: Quiet Fire. It defines Flack’s approach in so many ways. Flack breathes the fire of a talented black woman who is sure of the talent she possesses and her ability to tell stories that will connect with listeners of differing races, differing cultures, and differing musical styles. She is not dissuaded by the usual racist, sexist, music business bullshit.   But she wields her power quietly. Thoughtfully. Mindfully, with a full understanding of how she is presenting the song to the listener. 

It is telling that Roberta’s first three albums were produced by Joel Dorn, one of Atlantic Records’ star producers. If you look carefully at many of the artists and projects he championed over the years–Rahsaan Roland Kirk, The Neville Brothers, Bette Midler, Leon Redbone–it becomes clear that these are artists whose musical style was not the prevailing flavor at the time. They are artists out of time, fitting nowhere and everywhere at once. They cannot be easily classified and their audience is not comprised of one overwhelming market share, instead of drawing listeners from a variety of musical tastes, political and social beliefs, and personal style. 

I’ll always remember what Dorn told me in an interview:

“Basically, I capture what people do. I don’t tell them what to play. When I talk about these records, I know that I’m the producer on them, but I’m not talking about me. I’m talking about the artist. So if I say I think a record’s terrific I don’t mean ‘listen to my drum sound or my snappy edits.’”

Artists like Flack, who ignore and cross genres and cultural boundaries as a consequence of pursuing their musical interests and natural talent, are usually a much harder sell in the marketplace because they don’t fit into a neatly defined niche. Often such performers are canaries in a coal mine, pointing towards the place where different sounds will coalesce in the future. 

Roberta picks pop songs that were performed by Aretha Franklin (“Bridge Over Troubled Waters”) and the Nina Simone (“To Love Somebody”), as well as Carole King and Jerry Goffin’s anthemic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” All of these songs are handled like the precious gems that they are, with Roberta offering perfect settings that reflect back their multi-faceted brilliance. She takes the Simon & Garfunkel song out of time, allowing its phrases to linger in the air like swirls of gentle smoke. The gospel bubbles there, just under the surface, but it doesn’t break out the way Franklin’s electric-piano fueled version does. Aretha sings it like a motivational sermon from the start, whereas Roberta Flack just lets it be a benediction.

Flack chooses “You Don’t Know What It’s Like” for her sermon, a bluesy affair that slowly builds on Purdie’s rock steady drum figure and organ and guitar responses and a group of backup singers that slowly build into the arrangement. She takes the slower tempo defined by Carole King’s version of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” from Tapestry (released the same year), but she keeps it very simple, and the string arrangement by William Eaton is complementary rather than distracting. 

By 1976, when Melvin Lindsey and Jack Shuler were looking for a name for their WHUR radio show, a late-night mix of ‘beautiful black music’ they selected the title Quiet Storm after the Smokey Robinson song. It could just as easily have been Quiet Fire, as Roberta had pioneered that blend of jazz, blues, Broadway, soul, art song, and pop music.

In ’75 she cemented her place at the head of the table with the release of Feel Live Makin’ Love, on which she played electric piano and produced herself (under the pseudonym Rubina Flake), a task she found difficult despite having worked closely with Dorn on the recording of her first group of albums.

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