Voice, Piano, and More: Roberta Flack’s Let It Be, a tribute to the Beatles

By Daniel Garrett

Roberta Flack, Let It Be
Producers Sherrod Barnes, Jerry Barnes, Barry Miles,
Ricardo Jordan, Roberta Flack
Executive Producer Roberta Flack
429 Records/Sony ATV Music, 2012

The song “In My Life” is one of those songs that seem to grasp and deliver the meaning of human existence and relationship.  The current affirmation of love at the center of “In My Life” seems merely the latest, though the most important affirmation, in the song, which is given a light, pleasantly percussive sound by the girlish sounding Roberta Flack on her Beatles tribute album Let It Be.  The song’s instrumental sound is very contemporary rhythm-and-blues, with a big, bright beat and glossy chorus (first I thought the beat light, then loud), but the clearly contemporary aspect of the sound is both its easy attraction and its limits, as the beat is repetitive, the kind of repetition that dims rather than enlivens attention.  Unfortunately, Flack’s singing, amazing for its youthful quality, and limited for that quality too, does not surprise positively in terms of interpretation, as one wants more complexity, but the melody and lyrics of the song are sturdy enough to survive.  I note these facts—or, more precisely, perceptions and beliefs—with sadness, as I think very highly of Roberta Flack and some of her work; and I was looking forward to this album, Let It Be, very much.

Intimate, with advice to young love and what sounds like acoustic guitar, the durable quality of “Hey Jude” is proven, and durability has made it and other songs by the Beatles nearly public property (yet, they remain too lucrative to become public property).  Flack performs the song “Hey Jude” with a confiding, childlike simplicity, and it is sweet, possibly too sweet.  Flack told journalist Mike Ragogna of Huffington Post, posted February 6, 2012, that she approached the song as if it were a hymn; and she also said, “It’s about coming back to basics and simplicity.  Simple is always good because it’s accessible.  Music has to be accessible.”  However, wisdom can be conveyed in tone of voice—wisdom and strength, and those qualities can be a great gift to a child, more so than matching the innocence of a child.  The acoustic guitar sound is the most pleasing aspect of the song.

Flack’s voice is confident but soft in “We Can Work It Out,” in a very contemporary setting, with a male choral chant of “work it out, work it out” over a large, slow, slick beat, and a female chorus that becomes more active as the song continues.  Flack’s interpretation does not have the urgent drama of some of her significant early work.  (Chaka Khan, a soulful connoisseur of song, has produced some very intelligent albums, and on one of them has her own version of the song—I think that was on Khan’s What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me album—that is more frantic.)  Not enough of the frustration and determination of sustaining a relationship can be heard in Flack’s voice; rather, she sounds as if she has discovered and entered her second childhood—its sign may be read in her use on the album cover of a photo of a young girl, presumably Flack herself.  With the sprawling notes of rock guitar, the song “Let It Be” is more secular and singular than social gospel in tone; and Flack’s voice attains a more serious sound than on the songs that preceded it.

Roberta Flack is a gifted singer and pianist.  Born in North Carolina and reared in Virginia, Flack was influenced by church music and was drawn to the work of Sam Cooke as well as Mahalia Jackson, and she began piano lessons as a girl, developing a love for European classical music.  “I’m from Green Valley, Virginia, which was the only part of Arlington, Virginia, where black people were allowed to live at that time,” Flack told Mike Ragogna of Huffington Post (February 6, 2012).  Roberta Flack graduated early from grade school, entering Howard University with a scholarship to study music at 15, and was a college graduate at 19; but she had been told—and believed—that teaching would pay the bills.  Flack taught in North Carolina and in Washington, and began to play music in clubs (the Tivoli Club, the 1520 Club, Mr. Henry’s), offering a diverse repertoire.  The musician Les McCann heard her perform at a benefit, and brought her to Atlantic Records and producer Joel Dorn, with Flack soon recording her album First Take.  Roberta Flack’s discography contains the albums First Take from 1969, and then Chapter Two, Quiet Fire, Killing Me Softly, Feel Like Makin’ Love, Blue Lights in the Basement, and later Roberta Flack featuring Donny Hathaway in the early 1980s, and the mid-1990s jazz recording Roberta, released after Natalie Cole and Diana Ross had produced jazz albums.  It was also around that time, the mid to late 1990s, when Roberta Flack did a weekly music radio show that I, like others, enjoyed, “Brunch with Roberta Flack.”

The highest expectations were inspired and fulfilled by Roberta Flack’s album First Take, which contained the songs “Compared to What,” “Angelitos Negros,” “Our Ages or Our Hearts,” “I Told Jesus,” “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “Tryin’ Times,” and “Ballad of the Sad Young Men.”  I love the songs on that album—I love her performance of those songs, to which she brought imagination, intellect, musical mastery, and passion—though Flack has said that many of her early recordings were done with the first take.  Roberta Flack presents a dignified ideal in “Angelitos Negros,” and a touching dilemma in “Our Ages or Our Hearts,” and with “I Told Jesus (It Would Be Alright If He Changed My Name)” delineates the price of religious conversion, of any significant change—your father, mother, and brother won’t know you; and it is so convincing and rich a performance that even an atheist can believe in its felt integrity.  “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” has a beauty without age or price, and the “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” has a timeless and melancholy modernism.  Some of Roberta Flack’s subsequent work, but not all, contained a similar strength; and her jazz recording was the recovery of some of American and African-American culture’s high musical accomplishments.

One thinks of Roberta Flack and sees a woman seated at a piano, singing softly, thoughtfully, a predecessor for Anita Baker and Alicia Keys.  Roberta Flack adopted the songs of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Buffy St. Marie, Carole King, Stevie Wonder, Burt Bacharach, Ashford and Simpson, Marvin Hamlisch and other composers, making them hers.  Roberta Flack’s tribute to the Beatles, Let It Be, is an intelligent and loving idea, a respectable and pleasing work; and I wish that I liked the album much more than I do.  Marc Myers has written about Roberta Flack and the album for All About Jazz and the Wall Street Journal; and in AAJ (February 3, 2012) Myers called the song collection a “bold, revisionist interpretation of Fab Four hits that strips away the all-too familiar trappings and replaces them with soul, folk, gospel and electronica.”  John Lennon, one of the principal songwriters in the Beatles with Paul McCartney, was a neighbor of Flack in Manhattan, near Central Park; and his widow Yoko Ono has written a brief and approving note for the jacket of Flack’s album Let It Be.  The project was initiated when a colleague of Roberta Flack, the producer John De Mairo, heard an archival recording of Flack’s great live interpretation of the Beatles song “Here, There and Everywhere” at an early 1970s Carnegie Hall concert, and suggested Flack do a Beatles album.  That live recording creates a high standard; and it concludes Let It Be, which Flack has been preparing for about five years, and each listener can hear that old recording and compare it to the other songs.

On Roberta Flack’s album Let It Be, she performs some of the best-known and cherished songs of the last century; and that makes the album a musical and a cultural statement.  It draws us back to work on which many people can agree: “Oh Darling” and “The Long & Winding Road” and “And I Love Him.”  Less blues confession than calm reassurance, despite the blues notes of a bass guitar, “Oh Darling” has nice, jazz piano, and its musical setting allows a moodier, more sensual, more enveloping atmosphere, though Flack does not expose any personal torment, though evidence of doubt or torment can be what says the most about a serious relationship or about one’s understanding of love in a precarious world.  This raises a recurring question, Is pain to be taken more seriously than joy?  Is the sharing of joy more useful than the recognition of suffering?  For the sake of happiness and health, one must prefer joy; and yet one misses the drama.  To be fair, one has to judge the work that has been made rather than the work one wanted to hear.  It is possible that Roberta Flack has decided to think of the work of the Beatles as a kind of classical music, with beauty of form more significant than passion or spirit.

“I Should Have Known Better” has a contemporary sound, with a heavy beat but with a quick, interesting rhythm and other music effects (there are voices, guitar, possibly strings—or electronics), but that means not only that it is comparable to current rhythm-and-blues sounds, but its resonance is as thin: it does not carry the aura of significant experience, making the song’s subject the occurrence of a thought that may be true not very important.  Yet, a complete, if not complex, experience is indicated, and that seems one of the album’s stronger productions.  Downbeat, almost spare, is “The Long & Winding Road,” which has a guitar that almost sounds like harpsichord; and it features Flack’s duet with a male singer, Sherrod Barnes.  Flack’s voice is pretty, and believably sincere; but it does not convey the crazy drama that Aretha Franklin conjures in her own performance of the song on To Be Young, Gifted and Black.

The listener can understand the lyrics in Roberta Flack’s treatment of “Come Together,” which cannot be said of all versions.  “One thing I can tell you is you got to be free,” she sings, as others have before her; though what one will do with freedom is almost always another matter.  With a sultry rhythm and near-surreal lyrics, “Come Together” is funkier than what Flack does with it; and she ends with an affirmation of unity that contains no imagination of distance or threat.  “Isn’t it a pity…how we break each other’s hearts, and cause each other pain?” asks Flack, in what seems a brief shadow of a thought on a sunlit day.  “Isn’t It a Pity” and “If I Fell” are pleasant enough, but I think Nina Simone sang “Isn’t It a Pity” with darker motive, deeper achievement.  A song about reassurance at the beginning of a relationship, “If I Fell,” with pleasing acoustic guitar, articulates a customary emotional vulnerability, one that is impossible to placate entirely—only time will tell.  “And I Love Him” is sweet, a secular devotional song with something of a foreign flavor, but its heavy beat is too simply repetitive; and the chanting in the song may be its most interesting feature, because it is indecipherable, giving the song mystery.  “Here, There, and Everywhere” is a great, old live performance by Flack from the early 1970s; and it is complex, dramatic, entrancing—unsurpassed, unequaled.

Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  Daniel admires classic and modern literature and philosophy, and likes painting and sculpture, French film, Afghan and Indian food, jazz, rock, and world music; and his writing has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.