“I like to think of myself as a musician who has found some original meaning in songs that maybe everybody else has done.” says the legendary Roberta Flack when describing Let It Be, her extraordinary new CD of Beatles tunes. “I’d like to think that my producers and I found some new directions and new meanings. I think that’s the sign of a good interpreter of music. I didn’t write these wonderful songs, of course, I’m only expressing what I feel about them. And what I feel about them – hopefully – is universal enough that people will say, ‘Yeah.’
The universality that Ms. Flack speaks of can be located in her own long and deep personal history with the songs on this collection. Right from the start of her career, when she was a young woman juggling her career as a schoolteacher with her calling as a performer, Beatles songs played an important part, proving their boundless appeal.
“When I made the transition from the classroom as a schoolteacher and was moonlighting at nightclubs in Washington, D.C.,” she recalls, “I chose songs for both settings from the songs we all heard on the radio. As a teacher, I tried – like the TV show Glee suggests now – to teach my kids by using those songs because I found that they already knew the melodies. It was my responsibility to teach them something about music theory, and I used these songs as a means to do that because they already knew and loved them – ‘Hey Jude,’ ‘Yesterday,’ and so on.”
It wasn’t just the school kids who knew and were moved by the music of the Beatles, however.
“I tell you,” she says thoughtfully, “when I sang ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ in gay bars all those years ago, I’d sing the words “Love never dies,” and I would look up and see men not only kissing, but holding on for dear life. That let me know there was something alright with the way I was singing this song.”
The magic she wove for fans in gay bars (and students in classrooms) oh so many years ago is present in abundance on Let It Be. The collection kicks off with “In My Life,” and immediately lets the listener know she or he is in for inspired re-imaginings of the classics.
Most artists who cover “In My Life” go for an obvious tug-at-the-heart-strings effect, leaning heavily on the feelings of loss and grief expressed in the lyrics. But here, the elegiac is conveyed, paradoxically, through a joyful celebration of that which has passed – friendships, transformative relationships and, of course, that one true and seminal love. Lilting guitar threads through a world-music inflected overhaul of the melody, which retains (and in its own way underscores) the wistfulness of the original.
The heartache is there, but it throbs beneath the gratitude for what was.
Much beloved tracks such as “Hey Jude” and first single “We Can Work It Out,” likewise, showcase a lightness and playful expressiveness in Ms. Flack’s voice that actually serves to draw out the poignancy of the lyrics. But there is also an undercurrent of melancholy in “We Can Work It Out” which underscores the fact that the song’s message is needed as much today as when it was first released – maybe even more, now, as the world convulses with conflicts all around the globe.
The unfortunate similarities between past and present social and political strife actually provide the opportunity to consider the groundbreaking career of Ms. Flack.
Artists are forged by their times. Roberta Flack, a child prodigy who won a music scholarship to Howard University at the age of fifteen, came of artistic age and political consciousness just as America was convulsing on its own terms of existence.
In the political sphere, the Viet Nam War, the Civil Rights movement, a vital new chapter in the women’s rights movement, and the burgeoning gay rights movement, were all simultaneously roiling. On the big screen, glitzy Hollywood musicals were giving way to Easy Riders and Midnight Cowboys. TV was slowly being integrated by the likes of Bill Cosby and Diahann Carroll. Soul music – from the grit of Stax to the gloss of Motown – was redefining how the world saw and heard Black Americans, and therefore America. The Beatles were rewriting every rule of pop culture. And suddenly, right there in the midst of it all, with an iconic Afro, a staggering talent, and a vision of music as a tool for both joy and enlightenment, was Ms. Roberta Flack.
Starting with her classic debut album, 1969’s First Take, she carved out a career filled with massive radio and chart hits (“First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” “Jesse,” “Feel Like Making Love,” and – with the late, great Donny Hathaway – “Where is the Love?,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “The Closer I Get to You,” “Back Together Again,” and so many more), countless awards (including four Grammys) and worldwide critical acclaim for her singing and peerless musicianship.
And to prove the steadfastness of Ms. Flack’s trailblazing artistry, we need look no further than the love she and her work are shown by a new generation of innovative artists who celebrate her influence: Lauryn Hill, who famously covered “Killing Me Softly” with her former group, the Fugees, and kick-started her own dazzling solo career; R&B romantic icon Maxwell, with whom Ms. Flack performed a show-stopping version of her classic hit “Where is the Love” on the 2010 Grammys; and revered underground hip-hop producer Flying Lotus, who created a fan-favorite track titled “Roberta Flack,” in tribute to the lady herself.
Let It Be is in many ways a full-circle artistic statement from Ms. Flack, and it’s an absolutely exquisite re-imagining of Beatles songs. She’s justifiably proud of it but also laughs that, “It’s hard to mess up a Beatles song unless you just don’t know what the ham sandwich you’re doing.”
And in explaining both what she thinks makes the music of the Beatles so enduring, and what moves her to continue making music, she says simply, “I think music is such a powerful means of expressing what the world needs now, and that’s understanding between individuals, between races, between countries. I think music has the potential for being the answer to all those deep questions we ask ourselves as human beings.”