Listen: The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face / Roberta Flack RobertaFirst.mp3
One of the first signs of major label desperation started to reveal itself around ’04. I worked A&R at Columbia, and it was obvious many young, debut acts were being file shared, as opposed to purchased on CD. So the making of new recordings by classic artists became the MO. Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand were having #1 albums, after struggling to get any real sales blips for years. So Don Ienner, our chairman, suggested we find classic acts who were still relevant – even though most people had forgotten they were….still relevant. Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, Bette Midler, Burt Bacharach and umm, Wilson Phillips.
I wanted to sign Roberta Flack.
Coincidentally, I had seen her a few weeks prior at B.B. King’s, and she was jawdropping. Voice 100% intact, beautiful and get this – hysterical. Her between song banter was a riot, more like Millie Jackson than the Roberta Flack I expected. We all blushed more than once. First rule: if she plays anywhere near you – GO. You will be knocked out.
I’m convinced I have a great idea and mention this to Vicki Wickham, figuring she may have a contact for Roberta. Sure enough she instructed me to leave it with her. A few days later, I get buzzed “Roberta Flack is on line one”. Holy shit. I pick up meagerly and she says “Kevin, this is Roberta Flack”. I apologetically put her on hold quickly, literally screamed, then went back calmly to proceed with the conversation. What a lovely lady. We talked for ages about making an album, even getting the songs Stevie Wonder had written for her and Donny Hathaway out of storage. She offered to call him, thereby inviting his voice on the potential duets now that Donny was gone. Sounded amazing.
Well Donnie Ienner passed. His gut wasn’t feeling it I suppose.
The major label world is a funny one. When you’re hot, you’re hot. Or when the boss is feeling good about you, your ideas are exciting, if not – there’s no winning. Yet the next guy down the hall can have the same idea and it flies. Who can say where Roberta and I fit in to that time line.