Roberta Flack has a voice that can stop you in your tracks – quite literally. Don’t believe me? Just ask legendary Hollywood actor and film director, Clint Eastwood. According to the former school teacher-turned-singer, in the early ’70s he was driving down the LA freeway when he heard her haunting and indelible rendering of Ewan McColl’s ‘The First Time I Saw Your Face‘ on the radio. He told Flack that he was so overcome with emotion that he almost had to pull over on the side of the road. Not long afterwards, of course, he used the song on the soundtrack to his 1971 blockbuster thriller ‘Play Misty For Me’ and that helped catapult Roberta Flack to international fame.
A welter of chart smashes followed for the North Carolina-born singer in that decade, both solo (such as ’73’s ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song‘) and in tandem with her duet partner, Donny Hathaway (’72’s ‘Where Is The Love‘ and ’77’s ‘The Closer I Get To You‘ were both US chart toppers for the pair). She picked up a Grammy, too, along the way and continued to evolve as a performer and recording artist as the ’70s led into the 1980s. More recently, however, Ms. Flack’s new studio recordings have been few and far between but now, some nine years after her last release (the Christmas album, ‘Holiday‘) she has unveiled a new, freshly-minted, long player. In essence it’s a homage to Liverpool’s ‘Fab Four,’ The Beatles, and finds the veteran performer putting her own distinctive take on the songs of not only John Lennon and Paul McCartney but also George Harrison too. SJF’s Charles Waring recently spoke to Roberta about her new studio project and other aspects of her long and successful career…
What’s the background story behind your new Beatles’ tribute, ‘Let It Be, Roberta’?
I love all the songs that they’ve done. I think when I made the transition from teaching in the classroom in the ’60s – which was when I entered the fray as a person who was a recording artist – I was listening to the Beatles. They were so big. Everybody was listening to the Beatles. We couldn’t help it. And their music is so important, not only because the songs are easily accessed by even the lay man’s ears, but also by musicians.
Can you remember when you first became aware of The Beatles?
I remember seeing them appear on Ed Sullivan’s show. I actually saw that. I was teaching school. They created a lot of discussion in the black community, particularly in the black community of music, because during those days we had a lot of doo-wop groups and we had Chuck Berry and we had Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and James Brown. And it seemed to me that when these guys came busting out of England, they busted out with all that influence. You could hear Chuck Berry, you could hear Otis Redding. You could hear it. It was wonderful. When I did ‘Oh Darling’ (on the new album) I thought it was a throwback to what they intended to say. I thought ‘Oh Darling’ is a blues. I don’t care how you look at it – it has blues (chord) changes. I didn’t change any of the chords, I just sang it like it was a blues.
Many of their songs have stood the test of time. Why do you think that is?
Because they’re good. Take ‘The Long and Winding Road’ – not only is it a great song for a whole number of obvious reasons but also if you think about the title they created that melody so that it sounds like something is moving. I loved that and I love that about all of their music. I had so much passion for their songs that I just decided to go ahead and give it a try. And I tried a lot: I’ve been working on this album for a number of years.
What influenced your choice of Beatles’ songs for the album?
I love what I did with ‘Here, There, And Everywhere’ early on in the ’70s (live at Carnegie Hall) and that’s why we put it on the album. I thought it was very, very, good and I still think it’s very, very good. The other songs were just influenced by my love for the melody. I also liked ‘I’m Looking Through You’ (a Fab Four album track from ‘Rubber Soul’). I love that. Sometimes I would play the piano and sing it off stage or either at rehearsal by myself and I couldn’t get through it because I’d be in tears. I don’t know why. It wasn’t because I was thinking of a person but I thought where did these young guys get their musical intelligence, especially poetically and lyrically? Where does that come from? It comes from an intense, wonderful, beautiful, universal place that everybody can understand. The idea (in the song’s lyrics) that “love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight” just blew my mind. I said OK, I’ve got to do that one. And the songs kept adding up. I dropped a lot of them – like ‘All You Need Is Love’ and ‘She’s Leaving Home.’ I did cuts on those but I didn’t include them because the other ones kind of grabbed me by the neck and said come on, let’s go. I tried different versions with my ideas and worked with several other people but I settled on this collection because I felt a heartbeat when I came up with the arrangements. I felt a pulse and I felt like, okay, this sounds like 21st-century; this sounds like 2012. I wanted all the young people who didn’t get a chance to grow up with The Beatles like I did to be exposed to them, and to be exposed to them in a way that they could immediately associate with, which of course for this generation is basically the beat. There has to be a beat. Today the beat is developed first before the music. As long as it works well when it’s put together and there is some cohesion happening and people that want to buy it can understand what it is you’re singing, then it’s all right.