In five minutes, by the end of reading this, you will have discovered, or possibly rediscovered, an absolute belter of a song, so bear with me…
I’m going to ask you to listen to a relatively obscure forty five year old album track I recently discovered. It has been rattling around in my head and it is by an artist I couldn’t have imagined ever listening to before.
I think we can all agree that if ever there was a song so sickly sweet that it would give the listener severe and acute toothache it is the 1983 duet between Peabo Bryson and Roberta Flack titled “Tonight I Celebrate My Love”. This record is so sugary it’s a wonder that every copy isn’t surrounded by ants. It is so full of cloying sweetness the listener’s only hope the toothache induced by the song might subside is that they are distracted from the toothache by the nauseous feeling in their stomach as they continue to listen.
I don’t make a habit of being negative on this site, but if I am honest, in the eighties there were few songs I disliked more.
And then I discovered the song had been covered by Katie Price, Peter Andre and an auto tune machine in 2006. This fresh horror appeared on the celebrity couple’s 2006 album “A Whole New World”, an album title presumably shortened by the record company when they removed the words “Of Pain” at the last minute.
There’s a great story that the Andre/ Price album was certified gold in the UK, (100,000 copies shipped), only for 40,000 copies to be later found rotting in a barn in Hertforshire, having been returned by stores unable to sell them.
The barn with the other sixty thousand has yet to be tracked down by police.
I did wonder whether either Price or Andre might have been conceived to that song – making it doubly worse – but that would have required a time machine, which neither of their parents are believed to have had access to.
The song does, in short, neatly sum up everything I disliked about a certain kind of music in the eighties, and why I fled into the denim clad arms of Status Quo et al for many years. Say what you like about The Quo, but they never wrote anything like “Our spirits will be climbing / up a sky made up of diamonds / when I make love to you.”
The idea of Francis Rossi whispering that into your ear, probably whilst chewing gum and bobbing from side to side playing his telecaster is, I’m sure you will agree, the stuff of nightmares.
Hearing this track has hitherto meant that I have had no interest in listening to Roberta Flack. I mentally filed her under “bad eighties songs”, and felt no compelling reason to revisit that opinion, even when The Fugees covered “Killing Me Softly” that “one time”.
That is, until I popped into Carmel Records in Westcliff-on-Sea recently. Carmel Records is a tiny shop not far away from where I live, run by a chap called Paul Despy and is filled to the rafters with interesting records. I only recently discovered it, in a turn of affairs which has the potential to be deeply harmful to my bank balance.
I told Paul I had been listening to some Atlantic soul recently, and, spotting an opportunity, he surreptitiously put on Roberta Flack’s second album, cunningly titled “Chapter Two”. There were four people in the shop and midway through the second track one of them piped up at random “Who is this knocking it out of the park on every song?”
The answer was “Roberta Flack” and the song that stood out to me was this one, called “Gone Away”. The song, written by Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway, originally appeared on The Impressions’ 1968 LP “This Is My Country”, but Flack’s version adds Leroy Hutson – Mayfield’s successor in The Impressions – to the songwriting credits and her version transforms a simple, ordinary pop song to an epic anthem. The song builds. There’s some interesting bass lines in there, some strings that just about veer away from being too cloying, and then you realise this song is Roberta’s “Stairway To Heaven”. To be more precise, it is her “Hey Jude” mixed with the chords from “Hey Joe”, yet this a song that was never a single, from an album that didn’t sell huge volumes, and thus is something of an obscure gem.
So who was Roberta Flack, and how did she come to record a song so good and a track so (in my view) bad?
I know, I’m sounding like that awful scene in High Fidelity when Jack Black’s character throws out a customer from his record shop for trying to buy Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You” for his daughter…
Jack Black: “Is it in fact unfair to criticise a formerly great artist for his latter day sins? Is it better to burn out or fade away…?”
Roberta Flack made her reputation as a jazz singer in 1960’s Washington which led to Atlantic Records’ Jazz department taking an interest. Flack was a classically trained pianist, and had an exceptional voice.
At her audition Flack played 42 songs in 3 hours for chief assistant at Atlantic’s jazz department Joel Dorn, a former jazz DJ. Her 1970 debut album, produced by Dorn,
First Take, was aptly named: it took just ten hours to record.
It took longer than that for Flack to be appreciated, however. Flack’s “supper club” tones sold well for a jazz artist, but it wasn’t until 1972, when Clint Eastwood included “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” from that 1970 debut album on his directorial debut, the chilling psychological thriller “Play Misty For Me”, that Flack’s music reached a wider mainstream audience.
It had been an unusual choice of song – in original form it was a folk song written by Ewan MacColl and sung by Peggy Seeger.
Flack’s cover hit the top of the US charts for six weeks in the summer of 1972 and won her the first of two consecutive Grammys for Record of the Year.
Flack never looked back, and the next solo album “Killing Me Softly” was a huge hit, with the title track winning that second consecutive Grammy.
By the way, none of this mitigates Peabo Bryson’s participation in that Voldemort of a track of course. That eighties-record-that-must-not-be-named is a stain on his character, and his records remain a closed book to me. Over to you, Peabo: do you have an undiscovered gem that might redeem you too?
If anyone knows of one, feel free to let me know…