Roberta Flack - vocals, piano; Eric Gale - guitar; Richard Tee - electric piano; Terry Plumeri - acoustic bass; Jerry Jemmott - Fender electric bass; Ralph McDonald - percussion; Grady Tate - drums
A classy singer with a kind of Carole King-meets-Gladys Knight sound, Roberta Flack came to prominence in the pop world during the 1970s on the strength of a string of hit singles that gained frequent radioplay on MOR-oriented adult contemporary stations. The first was a haunting version of Ewan MacColl's, "The First Time Ever I saw Your Face" from her 1969 debut album, First Take. She scored a hit in 1972 with "Where Is the Love," a romantic duet with her college classmate Donny Hathaway, and followed up in 1973 with "Killing Me Softly With His Song" and in 1974 with "Feel Like Makin' Love," both chart-toppers.
Flack's appearance at the 1972 Newport Jazz Festival came on the heels of the April release of the best-selling Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway. With a stellar crew of New York's finest session musicians—guitarist Eric Gale and pianist Richard Tee (who would later go on to form the group Stuff), electric bassist Jerry Jemmott, drummer Grady Tate, and percussionist Ralph MacDonald—Flack entertained the crowd at Yankee Stadium with soulful renditions of familiar tunes, along with some surprises.
They open their Sunday evening set with a moody, moving rendition of "Suzanne," Leonard Cohen's meditation on love and madness, featuring some rather experimental two-handed tapping on the guitar neck by Gale. From there they head into Flack's buoyant pop hit from that year, Ralph MacDonald's "Where Is the Love," which gains instant audience recognition from the Yankee Stadium crowd. The Ralph MacDonald thoughtful ballad "Trade Winds," an ode to "tomorrow's youth," is handled with elegance and soul by the polished singer. Flack's gospel piano roots come across on a spirited rendition of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," an Ashford & Simpson composition originally written in 1967 for the singing team of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Gale also layers on some wicked wah-wah guitar licks on this Motown classic.
She closes the set in dramatic fashion with a stirring, gospel-flavored treatment of "Somewhere," the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Soundheim tune from the 1957 Broadway musical (and 1961 film) West Side Story. In the middle of her rendition, Flack announces to the crowd, "This has nothing to do with West Side Story, y'all," adapting the tune as a kind of civil rights anthem.
Flack's career trajectory was on a definite upswing following her appearance at the 1972 Newport Jazz Festival. Riding high on the successes of 1973's "Killing Me Softly" and 1974's "Feel Like Makin' Love," she seemed destined to become one of the more prominent voices on the scene during the '70s. Tragedy struck, however, in 1979 with the suicide of her duet partner Donny Hathaway. Devastated, Flack dropped off the scene for a time. She later found another duet partner in Peabo Bryson, and the two scored a hit in 1983 with "Tonight, I Celebrate My Love." Flack spent the remainder of the '80s touring and performing, often with orchestras, and also appeared several times with jazz great Miles Davis. She returned to the Top Ten once more in 1991 with "Set the Night to Music," a duet with Maxi Priest that appeared that year on the album of the same name.
In 1999, a star with Flack's name was placed on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. In 2010, she appeared on the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards, singing a duet of "Where Is the Love" with the R&B artist Maxwell. (Milkowski)