Listen to this track, a superlative soul duet from two of my favourite singers in any genre; Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. It’s “Be Real Black For Me”, as taken from their classic 1972 album appropriately titled Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway.
You’ve heard of Roberta Flack; a multi-grammy winner, and with a number of now-standard pop tunes under her belt in “Killing Me Softly”, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, “The Closer I Get To You”, and many others. You may also have heard a song called “Where is the Love?” which is a duet, with a lesser-known singer in the pop culture stakes: Donny Hathaway.
When I think of this album, I think of it as the soul equivalent of the duets between Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. This is not because Flack and Hathaway have contrasting voices so much as it is because, like Ella and Louis, the two of them are so in command of themselves in relation to one another, yet are complementary too.
“Be Real Black For Me” is a shining gem on a shining gem of an album, infused with love and positivity, and wrapped in the gospel overtones which both singers knew inside and out, and enough to infuse something of their own personalities into it too. And there are layers of meaning here to be found too. Is this a love song between two lovers, or an ode to a culture and a heritage?
Whatever the answer to this, if there is one, this is what makes this song, and all of the songs on the album, so essential to anyone interested in this type of music. Often with duets, you get the impression that the two singers are in competition with each other, even if the chemistry is there. Also, duets albums have a bad rap because they are usually too sugary and sentimental by half – especially if it’s between a man and a woman. They are often contrived, forced. Not so here. There is real respect between the two singers that bursts out of every number. You can hear that they love each other in a way that the sentimentality that plagues so much of the R&B duet subgenre can only imitate.
Hathaway in particular is a force of nature on this, although Flack remains to be one of my favourite singers. The music he brought into being here is as far above the pit of despair as it can be, buoyed up by the voice of his friend Roberta who would mourn him years later. In seven years after this recording, Hathaway would be dead by suicide, or rather as a result of deep depression that he struggled with for a good deal of his life. Still, his influence is felt in the work of contemporary R&B/soul singers John Legend and Alicia Keyes, among others.
This album’s success would help to decide the trajectory of both careers. Roberta Flack would have a stellar career mostly thanks to how her light-as-air voice suited 1970s and 80s MOR radio, along with more hit duets with Hathaway acolytes like Peabo Bryson, and later by the 90s with Maxi Priest on their “Set the Night To Music”.
For more information about Roberta Flack, check out robertaflack.com.
And also, check out Donny Hathaway on All Music too!