THE GREATEST SONGS OF THE 1960s THAT NO ONE HAS EVER HEARD
701) Roberta Flack — “Tryin’ Times”
Times like these need a song like “Tryin’ Times” (written by Donny Hathaway (see #573) and Leroy Hutson (the Impressions)). Elizabeth Nelson says it “depict[s] a Phil Ochs-worthy tableau of a society unraveling at the seams from its institutions to its family structures.” (https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/roberta-flack-first-take/) Two years ago, Roberta herself said that “We must always try to advocate for change to make this world better, kinder and more peaceful. I’m sorry that songs like . . . “Tryin’ Times” . . . are still so relevant, but they are.” (https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevebaltin/2021/04/25/sunday-conversation-roberta-flack-on-social-activism-in-music-great-collaborations-and-grammy-love/)
Mtume ya Salaam rhapsodizes:
Roberta’s version has two elements that subsequent versions (include Donny’s) hardly ever match: the masterful bass work of Ron Carter and the sublime vocals of Roberta Flack. Roberta overwhelms you with subtlety rather than shouting. Her floating long tones seem as effortless as breathing while sleeping, but nevertheless, the calmness in her delivery increases rather than diminishes the urgency of the lyrics. It’s almost as if her whispers are louder than any shout, and for certain are more beautiful. Ron Carter’s contribution is so distinctive that one can hardly think of the song without hearing that flowing four-note/three-note bass pattern. And of course, his vamp perfectly complements the pure long tones of Roberta’s phrasing, which are both caressing and arresting.https://www.kalamu.com/bol/2006/05/20/roberta-flack-%E2%80%9Ctrying-times%E2%80%9D/
Elizabeth Nelson gives us some background:
Throughout most of the eventful year of 1968, . . Roberta Flack was ensconced in a residency at Mr. Henry’s in Washington, D.C., an unfancy but inimitably hip jazz club . . . . Following the April 4 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., riots broke out in several cities, including the District. Flack continued performing her sets, lines forming around the block. . . . No artist working in the moment was doing a finer job of chronicling those tenuous, terrifying, revolutionary times. . . . [She] was admitted to Howard University’s top-flight music program at the age of 15, possessing prodigious jazz and classical chops and a voice splitting the difference between Sarah Vaughan’s elegant alto and Etta James’ deep-blue expressiveness. . . . She spent some wilderness years teaching high school, but word of mouth spread, and soon enough they came to her. When visiting jazz legend Les McCann was dragged along by friends to see Flack perform one night, he immediately provided his most forceful recommendation to Atlantic, and soon after she was signed. Flack’s debut, First Take [including today’s song] was recorded over a period of 10 hours at Atlantic Studios in New York, in February 1969. Her extraordinary backing band, consisting of stalwarts Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar, Ron Carter on bass, Ray Lucas on drums, and other heavy hitters gelled with seamless immediacy, as Flack lead them through a repertoire of . . . material she had spent countless hours perfecting at Mr. Henry’s.https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/roberta-flack-first-take/
Steve Huey tells us of her later career:
Classy, urbane, reserved, smooth, and sophisticated — all of these terms have been used to describe the music of Roberta Flack, particularly her string of romantic, light jazz ballad hits in the 1970s . . . . Her first two albums[, including] 1969’s First Take . . . were well received but produced no hit singles; however, that all changed when a version of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” from her first LP, [see #61] was included in the soundtrack of the 1971 film Play Misty for Me. The single zoomed to number one in 1972 and remained there for six weeks, becoming that year’s biggest hit. Flack followed it with the first of several duets with Howard classmate Donny Hathaway, “Where Is the Love.” “Killing Me Softly with His Song” became Flack’s second number one hit (five weeks) in 1973, and after topping the charts again in 1974 with “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” Flack took a break from performing to concentrate on recording and charitable causes. . . . A major blow was struck in 1979 when her duet partner, one of the most creative voices in soul music, committed suicide. Devastated, Flack eventually found another creative partner in Peabo Bryson, with whom she toured in 1980.https://www.allmusic.com/artist/roberta-flack-mn0000290072/biography
Here is a live version from ,71:
is Donny Hathaway’s take:
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