As debut albums go, Roberta Flack‘s ‘First Take,’ released by Atlantic Records in June 1969, is one of the most impressive in the history of soul music. It was a compelling showcase for the warm, intimate vocals and understated piano of a 32-year-old North Carolina singer who had caught the ear of jazz singer/pianist, Les McCann while performing in a Washington DC club. McCann was smitten by what he saw and heard, persuading Atlantic to sign her. But ‘First Take’ was a low-key release and didn’t take off in terms of its sales and finding a receptive audience until 1971, when actor/director Clint Eastwood used one its songs, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,’ in his thriller movie, Play Misty For Me. In April 1972, four years after its initial release, ‘First Take’ finally reached the summit of the US pop albums chart, where it spent five weeks and turned Roberta Flack into a bona fide soul superstar.
Half-a-century on, ‘First Take’ is now reissued and expanded in a combined vinyl LP and 2-CD package that not only includes the original album but also premieres a dozen previously unissued studio recordings from the same era. Remarkably, the original eight-track album, produced by Joel Dorn, has lost none of its lustre or potency. Flack’s inspired funky readings of Gene McDaniels’ ‘Compared To What’ – a commentary on the absurdity of life – and Donny Hathaway and Leroy Hutson’s ‘Tryin’ Times’ seem to resonate even more in the age of COVID 19 and Black Lives Matter. And her haunting take on Ewan MacColl’s much-covered folk song, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,’ has never been bettered. The vicissitudes of romance are also the focus of the poignant ‘Our Ages Or Our Hearts,’ where strings augment Flack and her quartet, and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye.’ Strings also feature on the album’s two spiritually-inclined performances: the luminous ‘Angelitos Negros’ and a stunningly simple arrangement of the traditional gospel hymn, ‘I Told Jesus’: it’s deep and powerful enough to make a firm believer out of a confirmed agnostic. Appended to the original album tracks are single edits of ‘Compared To What’ and ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.’ The latter song’s B-side, ‘Trade Winds,’ a memorable Ralph MacDonald-William Salter tune later recorded by The Three Degrees, Lou Rawls and Randy Crawford, is also included.
For those that are already familiar with the album, the wealth of bonus material on the package’s second CD offers an incentive to buy ‘First Take’ again. There are thirteen songs, the first of which, a live rendition of the jazz standard, ‘All Of Me,’ was taped in 1968 by Les McCann using his own reel-to-reel recorder (and came out previously on an obscure McCann album in 1991). The other twelve songs are all previously unissued and were recorded as part of a preliminary recording date for Atlantic under Joel Dorn’s supervision in New York during November 1968. The session, done with a trio, was canned and three months later, Flack would cut a new selection of tracks that would make up ‘First Take.’ Highlights of the unreleased material include a unique version of the traditional tune, ‘Frankie & Johnny,’ which Flack reconfigures with a groove borrowed from Miles Davis’s ‘All Blues.’ Noteworthy, too, is a song called ‘Groove Me,’ whose funkafied feel Flack later repurposed on her version of ‘Compared To What.’ She also offers a spirited cover of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s Motown classic ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ and a lengthy version of Mongo Santamaria’s jazz classic, ‘Afro-Blue.’
Rounded off with insightful liner notes from David Nathan, ‘First Take’ is a must-have reissue for Roberta Flack aficionados as well as serious soul music collectors. It’s released on July 24, 2020, and limited to 3,000 copies. The set is only available from https://store.soulmusic.com/first-take-50th-anniversary-deluxe-edition-1.html