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Black History Month: Robert Flack and Quiana Lynell's "Trying Times"

Roberta Flack, 1976
By Atlantic Records
Public Domain
Roberta Flack, 1976

In 1969, Roberta Flack debuted with her album “First Takes.”  It included her version of a song written by Donny Hathaway, “Trying Times,” which addressed the civil disorder of the era.

Roberta grew up in North Carolina, where her church-organist mom encouraged her interest in music. Roberta was 9 years old when she began to play classical piano, and she continued her studies through her time at Howard University, which she entered when she was just 15.

Roberta graduated from Howard with dreams of becoming an opera singer. Her teachers knew that would be an uphill battle because of racial discrimination, so they steered her toward music education as a career. She taught music and English in Washington D.C., and at night, she sang and played piano at local clubs.  That’s where she was discovered and mentored by soul-jazz icon Les McCann.

Roberta’s tendency to slow everything down gave her songs tempos that made them dreamy, romantic and, best of all, allowed her to focus on the message. She defied the categories and the definitions of what "soul music” should sound like, blowing out every stereotype about the kinds of music a Black artist could successfully sell.

A bit later in her career, Roberta was the only prominent woman recording artist of color to produce her own albums. She fought against the sexism and racism in the male-dominated music industry. 

Fifty years later, in 2019, Quiana Lynell’s first album, “A Little Love,” also included the song “Trying Times.”

Quiana’s interest in music also came from the church, and there was no secular music allowed in her childhood home in Texas.

When she got to Louisiana State University, Quiana’s plan, like Roberta’s, was to sing classical music professionally. But she came to realize that she didn’t really belong in the classical world. She had a tendency to bend and break rules and not fit herself into categories.

So, like Roberta Flack, Quiana turned to teaching, but mainly because it allowed her the freedom to tour and do concerts during the summers. She taught elementary school music and beginning band, and she is now an adjunct professor of music at Loyola University. Quiana had the good fortune to be mentored by trumpeter and New Orleans native Terence Blanchard. 

Roberta Flack has retired from performing due to health issues while Quiana Lynell’s story is just beginning. Let’s hope she makes it through these “Trying Times.”

Celebrating strong songs and strong women for Black History Month.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.