Roberta Flack takes on the Beatles’ canon


Still killing us softly more than 40 years since the release of her first album, Roberta Flack, who says she was sure that she “was going to be the first short black girl from North Carolina to be applauded for her knowledge and ability to play Scriabin,” has turned her attention to the Beatles. On “Let It Be” (429), the diva who ruled the charts in the 1970s and ’80s leaves her distinct mark on a dozen Beatles classics, renewing and refreshing them in ways that only she could.

I spoke with Flack about her new album and her career in February. 

Gregg Shapiro: With such a vast array of Beatles material to choose from, how did you select the songs on “Let It Be”?

Roberta Flack: I think there’s 1,088 or more … and it wasn’t it easy. What was involved in the final selection was my commitment to try to do something that I thought the songs deserved, their work deserved, in terms of … my musical abilities. 

Looking back at your catalog of studio albums, were you surprised to discover that you hadn’t included a Beatles cover on any of them until now?

I wasn’t surprised. You probably know that I came up through the clubs ‚Äì a club in Washington, D.C., on Capitol Hill (called) Mr. Henry’s. I had artists in the audience at all times handing me songs and telling me about stuff that wasn’t even known by the general public at that point. They would say, “Why don’t you sing a Spanish song? Here I’ll give you the words to ‘Angelitos Negros.'” Or they would say, “Bette Midler is doing this song, why don’t you do that one?” I had that kind of support. But I did do “Here, There, and Everywhere,” “Let It Be” and “Yesterday,” all of the obvious ballads. Because I was in a club where people adored me and let me do that, I could try anything. I’m the kind of musician, if I hear it in my head, my fingers somehow can find the notes. I had a lot of fun while the Beatles were in my head and everybody’s heads. (When I sang) “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” people would substitute the word “hand” with another word … I won’t say what (laughs).

Reading what Yoko (Ono) wrote in the liner notes, it’s clear that she gave you her blessing for the project. Was it important for you to have that?

Yeah, as opposed to something else (laughs), whatever that might’ve been. Yoko and I have a very nice relationship. I had just come back from Iceland with her, where she goes every year since John’s death to light the Peace Tower. This incredible light that goes up to the sky. Once she lights it on his birthday, it stays lit until the day he was assassinated. I was so moved by her invitation to come. A lot of serious music industry people were there. … There I was. I was overcome and overwhelmed. I thought, I’m going to ask her. She had heard a little bit of the album and she said, “Oh Roberta, I like that.” I had not really expected her to make a comment. … And I asked her to write the liner notes, and she sent me back a note saying, “I’m tired, but I’ll listen to the album and I’ll make a comment.” And she did, it was just wonderful.

You mentioned Mr. Henry’s. Was that where you developed your gay following?

Yes. That’s where I developed myself, because the people in my audience, and they were gay and straight and undecided, especially back in the ’60s, and not telling and telling. But it was wonderful because the one thing that we all had in common was our love for music. That’s how I got “Ballad of the Sad Young Men.” Somebody came up to me one day and said, “Roberta, there’s a show on Broadway called ‘The Nervous Set,’ and here’s a song from it, ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men.'” And I embraced it and it embraced me back. I got a lot of response from my audience for that song. That is so important. Not necessary, Gregg, but important. 

In 1982, you recorded the theme song to the gay movie “Making Love,” which was considered a daring move at the time. 

It was a daring move to make the movie. We were still living in the dark ages. I don’t know if it was don’t ask, don’t tell or don’t think about it. As an artist you took chances if you did something like that. Here’s my interpretation about songs, especially songs with words. You can take a song and interpret it anyway you want it. People have asked me, “Roberta, what were you thinking when you recorded ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face'”? I was actually thinking about my cat. I had come home after my first job away from Washington, D.C., at a club in Detroit, and my cat was in the yard, dead. I was so torn up about it. It was a little black cat that I had named Sancho Panza. I really adored that cat and he adored me. That was the first time I had a pet that was mine. But here I am, a married woman, and my piano tuner gave me a cat for a birthday present. At any rate, when you can sit down at the keyboard or at whatever your instrument is and sing the song that interprets exactly what you feel but at the same time, Gregg, giving everybody else the chance to say, “I know what you mean.”

Making it universal. 

Yes! And that’s what music is. My point is, there’s nothing sacred about creativity. Once it becomes something that’s in the universe, that palpitates and has heartbeat and pulse, it’s up for grabs.

Have you sung at or been asked to sing at any same-sex weddings or civil union?

No, but I would sing! If you know somebody who’s getting ready for one, (tell them) have I got a surprise for you!

Well, I just had mine on Sunday. I wish I would have known.

You should have waited! You could have called me and asked me. Well, congratulations to you my love.


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