Roberta Flack & Donny Hathway Sing “Be Real Black For Me”

roberta_flack__donny_hathaway_album_coverListen 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

And also, check out Donny Hathaway on All Music too!


Song rendition showdown: Killing Me Softly, Roberta Flack vs The Fugees

This is the third round of a series where you the reader vote on the best version of a classic tune. This week, it’s pop classic, “Killing Me Softly”, which was first a hit in 1973 for Roberta Flack, revisited in 1996 by hip-hop/R&B collective the Fugees.

The song itself is one of my favourites of all time, with a sort of Astrud Gilberto lilt to it. I wonder if she ever covered it? I must find out. Anyway, the tune’s strength lies in the melody for me, and because of the open-endedness of the narrative. The scene is set with the narrator at a concert, hearing a tune which sets her off in some way, flushed with fever and embarassed by the crowd. Just what is it about what the guy is singing that is getting to the narrator anyway? What were in those letters of hers? Does it matter? Not really. But, the mystery of it makes it kind of sexy. Apparently, this was a true story based on a trip to a concert by, wait for it, “American Pie” singer Don McLean. I somehow doubt that “American Pie” caused feelings of embarrassment. It was probably another tune of his. But you never know.

Anyway, onto the contenders…

Roberta Flack

Roberta Flack Killing Me SoftlyThis is of course the breakthrough version and an enormous radio hit in 1973 for Flack from the album Killing Me Softly. Flack had a hit the year before with “Where is the Love?” with Donny Hathaway, and another one before that with the superlative “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. But “Killing Me Softly” is the one which shot her voice into the stratosphere, creating as it did an instant classic that would be celebrated and butchered by club singers thereafter. Roberta Flack’s voice has a sort of aching quality to it, which really serves the material. She doesn’t over-sing this, although the temptation to do so might trip up someone of less interpretive skill. This is a story about quiet desperation, of inner turmoil, while trying to maintain composure. As such, Flack nails the tone of it exactly, with a seemingly effortless delivery. This is one of the sexiest vocals ever recorded.

The Fugees

The Fugees The ScoreIn 1996, The Fugees put out their album The Score to rightful acclaim. Part of the reason for this was this excellent take on the track in question. Singer Lauren Hill, with compatriots Wyclef Jean and Pras take on a Herculean task – bringing something new to this song without crapping all over it. The results are impressive, with Hill showing as much restraint vocally as this tune demands. As I said before; this is a song about being vulnerable, and not wanting others to catch wind of that vulnerability. In the age of over the top melisma which seems to dominate R&B singing since Whitney Houston and her followers established the standard, it would have been easy to let one’s ego get in the way. But, this version is ego free, with an obvious love for the source material by all concerned pretty evident. In terms of phrasing, Hill adds a few things of her own (I love the Jamaican patois she adds in there – “there he was this young bwoy…” ), but she plays it close to the original which makes for a pretty clean delivery that might have otherwise been too cluttered. And the addition of the beat is subtle enough not to get in the way of the voice.

So, which is it to be, good people? Roberta Flack? Or, the Fugees? Is there another version that trumps both of these?

Vote for your favourite now!