In the 1981 comedy-drama Bustin’ Loose, Richard Pryor stars as a parolee tasked with relocating eight troubled, orphaned kids to rural Washington and ends up teaming up with them to save their future home owned by Vivian, played by Cicely Tyson. The storyline of children overcoming adversity was one that stuck with Roberta Flack, who produced, composed, and arranged the nine songs of Bustin’ Loose soundtrack, which was reissued in early 2022. A longtime advocate for children, she founded The Roberta Flack Foundation in 2010 to help support children with their education and projects centered around music as well as animal welfare efforts.
Out of print for decades, the Bustin’ Loose soundtrack was the lovechild of Flack and her close-knit collaborators Peabo Bryson, co-writing and singing “Ballad for D”—and later recording the R&B hit duet “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love” with Flack in 1983—and Luther Vandross, who worked with Flack since her 1969 debut First Take with Donny Hathaway and co-wrote and duetted with her on the Bustin’ Loose track “You Stopped Loving Me,” a song he would later record for his 1981 debut Never Too Much. Flack’s lost opus includes five songs she co-wrote and two instrumentals written by the artist.
Still connected to her journey, Flack, now 85, can reflect on her musical life before Bustin’ Loose, earning 19 No. 1 hits, including “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” “Where Is the Love,” and her very first, a cover of the Peggy Seeger- and Ewan MacColl-penned folk song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in 1972.
Flack, who knows how the meaning of a song can change throughout life, shared the relevance of Bustin’ Loose today, and explains why she’s listening to newer pop like the Jonas Brothers and Ariana Grande.
American Songwriter: It’s now more than 40 years later and here you are circling back to Bustin’ Loose. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think back on the making of this album?
RF: [It’s] not just one thing, but many things come to mind: memories of collaborating with the gifted team of musicians—Luther, Marcus Peabo, Barry [keyboardist Barry Miles], Buddy [Buddy Williams, drummer]—still inspire me when I listen to the music that we created together.
AS: When writing the songs for the album and film, what was your intention in terms of the narratives you initially had around each track and the overall storyline of the film? How did you work these around each song?
RF: The theme of the movie about children who were so challenged and marginalized having a chance at a better life moved me to write the soundtrack. The process of writing songs for the story was fluid and collaborative. We’d pick a musical theme and build off it, finding a groove, finding chord changes and lyrics that we felt flowed with the stories each song told.
AS: You already had some history working with Luther Vandross. Why did you specifically want Luther and Peabo (“Ballad for D”) to be part of a more prominent part of the songs?
RF: I was working with all of them around this time. They were gifted in such different ways and could tell the stories of the songs differently.
AS: Oftentimes, the way songs are written and come together can shift over time. In thinking back to Bustin’ Loose, or even further back to First Take or Quiet Fire , do you feel like songs still come to you in the same way?
RF: The songs always come to me in different ways through the years. Each time I sing a song, the story that I choose to tell is different based on what’s happening in that moment. “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” I had originally sung about my cat who had died. Later, it was about someone I was in a relationship with, and another time about my godchild.
AS: What kind of songs do you find yourself gravitating toward now?
RF: It depends on what my mood is. A few years ago, I was listening to everything that Babyface ever recorded. Recently, I listened to all of Dionne’s [Warwick] recordings. My goddaughter Kira plays current pop hits for me—Jonas Brothers, Ariana Grande, Lizzo, Megan Trainor. Of course, I will always love India Arie, Lisa Fischer, and Kathleen Battle.
AS: Now that everyone can revisit Bustin’ Loose or experience it for the first time, is there a song, or songs on the album that you feel never got the attention deserved?
RF: The entire album didn’t get any attention for so many years now. Generations of children never heard these songs that I wrote with them in mind. Now they can hear what I hoped might inspire them. “Lovin You (Is Such an Easy Thang to Do)” has always been one of my favorites on this album. Let’s see if people enjoy it today as much as they did when the movie was released.
AS: Why do you still feel so connected to this album four decades later?
RF: The story about children being given a chance at a better life and overcoming adversity with a ragtag team that would never be expected to succeed is a story that is timeless, in my opinion. Having been in their shoes, I am forever an advocate of children and their right to opportunity, love, and hope. My foundation is built on this premise, and my deep belief in their right to education and opportunity.
Photo: Jeri Jones / Reybee PR