Having been a teacher and a local club singer for years, Roberta Flack was happy to have her single “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” become an underground hit in the late 1960s.
“Someone would send me something and tell me how the song had moved them,” the singer said. “It was such an eye-opening experience to have people respond to me like that, and I loved it.”
Then Clint Eastwood decided to use “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” to anchor a Big Sur love scene in his 1971 movie “Play Misty for Me,” and the song’s popularity exploded. Suddenly, the underground tune was a monster hit, winning two Grammy Awards and eventually becoming Billboard’s No. 1 hit of 1972.
“I will be eternally grateful to Clint Eastwood for loving the song so much,” said Flack, who performs Wednesday in San Luis Obispo.
Flack’s smooth, sophisticated jazz vocals would eventually be featured in eight Top 20 hits.
Her musical endeavors began at age 9, when she began taking piano lessons.
“My family background is musical,” said Flack, who celebrates her 76th birthday next week. “My grandma played fiddle, which was an old beat-up violin played upside down. And my mother and father were piano players.”
Flack was especially adept, earning a full musical scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C., at age 15.
“I could have gone at 14,” she said. “I like to say that because it sounds phenomenal.”
While she was younger than the other students, she didn’t feel awkward — even when she joined a sorority at age 16.
“I felt noticed,” she said. “But I didn’t feel out of place.”
Graduating at 19, Flack landed a teaching job in North Carolina. After a year of teaching there, she returned to Washington, D.C., where she taught English and music at public schools for another 4½ years.
In the evenings, however, she sang, performing primarily at Mr. Henry’s, a nightclub owned by Henry Yaffe.
“I started one or two nights a week, then it got to be three or four,” Flack recalled
As her performances increased, her teaching career began to lose priority.
“She (Flack) told me if I could give her work three nights a week, she could quit teaching,” the late Yaffe told the Washington Post in 1997.
“Then Mr. Henry decided to fix up the upstairs part just for me,” Flack said.
With a room built to her specifications, Flack would sometimes perform three or four shows a day.
“I was so excited about the audience,” she said. “It was really a wonderful time.”
Eventually, the audience included famous faces like Burt Bacharach, Johnny Mathis, Bill Cosby and Woody Allen. When musician Les McCann saw Flack sing, he arranged for her to have an audition at Atlantic Records.
Three months later, she recorded her debut album, “First Take,” in 1969. While the album was well-received, Flack remained relatively unknown for another two years, until Eastwood paid $2,000 to use “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in his directorial debut, a thriller about a radio DJ who is stalked by an obsessed fan.
While “Play Misty for Me” was a watershed moment in Eastwood’s Hollywood career, it proved to be even more important for Flack.
With one giant hit under her belt, others would come more easily, including “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” “Feel Like Makin’ Love” and “Where Is the Love,” a duet with a former Howard classmate, Donny Hathaway.
After becoming a household name, Flack moved to a suitable home — the famous Dakota apartment building in New York City, which has housed celebrities such as Judy Garland, Leonard Bernstein, Rosemary Clooney and Boris Karloff. Flack found herself living next door to the building’s most famous resident, John Lennon.
“I moved there almost the same time he and (wife) Yoko (Ono) moved in on the same floor, back-to-back apartments,” she said. “They had the major portion of the apartments on the seventh floor, and I had my one little one.”
Flack often socialized with Lennon and Ono.
“I actually heard him playing ‘Imagine’ through the wall,” she said.
Flack’s love of Beatles music led her to record an album of Beatles covers, “Let It Be Roberta,” in 2012.
While Flack and Ono continue to live in the Dakota, Lennon was shot and killed outside the building in 1980.
“I was very upset — and still am — by his untimely murder,” said Flack, who was not home at the time of the shooting. “John and I were buddies. It was hard not to recognize him because he was so profound.”
7:30 p.m. Feb. 4
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$37.40 to $91
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org