The Essentials: Chapter Two and Quiet Fire by Roberta Flack

It’s early Saturday morn, not even 7am yet, and Roberta Flack’s sterling rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is wafting through the headphones. Yesterday, Rhino released 50th anniversary editions of Flack’s sophomore set, Chapter Two, and her third effort, Quiet Fire. Both are remastered and only available in digital form – either as downloads or via the streaming services. The lack of physical products and insightful booklets/liner notes, a la last year’s reissue of First Take, is a shame, but it is what it is.

That said, whether streaming or download, seek them out. The sonics are impeccable – and the songs and performances are as good, if not better. Chapter Two, which was released in August 1970, follows a similar blueprint as First Take, with an eclectic selection. The album opens with the Gene McDaniels-penned “Reverend Lee,” a taut and tawdry tale about a preacher tempted by Satan’s daughter, includes cool versions of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” and Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” and originally ended with the antiwar number “Business Goes on as Usual.” Now, however, it concludes with a bonus track: a rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Midnight Cowboy,” which the songstress wrote in hopes of it being used in the 1969 movie of the same name. (Best that I can tell, it only surfaced once – on the Flack-produced debut of singer Donal Leace in 1972.) Where or when this version was recorded, who knows? I assume at the same sessions that produced the album. 

At the time of its release, Chapter Two received raves from most critics. The Detroit Free Press’ Bob Talbert, for example, wrote that “Roberta Flack grabs you with such intensity it takes your breath away and makes your heart skip” in a Sept. 9th review, while the Minneapolis Star’s Walter Lide called it “one of the most modest yet excellent discs around” in an Oct. 15th article. Meridee Merzer of the Philadelphia Daily News, meanwhile, captured the essence of Flack and Chapter Two in an October 29th roundup: “Flack just doesn’t get into a song. She becomes the song.” And Don Lass, in the November 15th Asbury Park Sunday Press, called it “a marked improvement over her first, which was excellent.”

It did well in the charts, too, peaking at No. 33 on the pop charts, No. 4 on the R&B charts and No. 2 on the jazz charts. 

Quiet Fire, released in November 1971, also received praise. Bob Talbert, in the Dec. 19th Detroit Free Press, noted that “this lady will grab your mind and head and won’t let go. ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ is 7:13 long, but I wanted it to go on forever.” In the Jan. 1st, 1972 edition of the Hartford Courant, J. Greg Robertson opens a record roundup with, “The mind is flooded with superlatives trying to describe Quiet Fire by Roberta Flack. There is more feeling and power in any one of these eight exquisitely arranged cuts than in the life’s work of most recording ‘artists.’” Not everyone loved it, however, as the Wikipedia page demonstrates – Robert Christgau rated it a C.

Sales-wise, it rose to No. 18 on the pop charts, No. 4 on the R&B charts and No. 5 on the jazz charts; and, like Chapter Two, eventually went gold.

The album opens with “Go Down Moses,” which Flack co-wrote with Rev. Jesse Jackson and producer Joel Dorn. It’s funky and gospel, upbeat and a great opener. Another gem is the song Talbert singled out for praise: “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I won’t go so far as to say it’s the best-ever cover of the much-covered song, but it’s definitely in the running.

The rest of the original album matches the quality of those two tracks. Highlights include another Gene McDaniels song, “Sunday and Sister Jones,” plus her renditions of the Goffin-King classic “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody.” Unlike Chapter Two, the bonus tracks are bountiful, including a cool cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”…

…and a hypnotic version of James Cleveland’s “Free at Last.” The other bonus tracks include a Gene McDaniels song, “Chasing the Sunshine,” written for an Eastern Airlines commercial; the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere”; the Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child”; “With These Hands,” which was a hit for Eddie Fisher in 1953 and again for Tom Jones in 1965; and the much-covered Delaney & Bonnie song “Superstar.” It would be nice to know where and when they were recorded, whether they were considered for Quiet Fire or b-sides, etc. However, whether that info is ever shared, their inclusion here only strengthens what was already a great album.

The track lists:

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