WASHINGTON — John, Paul, George, Ringo — and Roberta?
No, Roberta Flack was never a member of the Beatles, but in her new CD, “Let it Be Roberta: Roberta Flack Sings the Beatles,” the soul songstress sings classics from the legendary Fab Four and makes them her own.
“I love the romanticism of the music of the Beatles,” Flack said in a telephone interview. “When I started to record … the Beatles were hot, hot, hot. You couldn’t turn on radio or the TV even without hearing something from them. It never left my brain, stuck in my heart, I love it.”
The CD is Flack’s first solo recording in 13 years and a testament to her fondness of the works of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. She recorded with other artists and toured regularly during the 13 years, but nothing wowed her enough to go into the recording studio solo until now.
“I’ve never been one of those ‘an-album-or-two-albums-every-two-years’ people — in the beginning I tried to do that,” said Flack, who turns 75 on Feb. 10. “What guides me to do whatever it is I do and what determines how long it takes to do that is my heartbeat. My heart has to be with the words, the melody, with the harmony, with the pulse.”
“Let it Be Roberta” is a bit of a turnaround for Flack, a Grammy Award-winning artist whose hits like “Killing Me Softly,” “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love” have been covered by the likes of The Fugees, Alicia Keys, the Jackson 5 and the late Luther Vandross.
This time, she’s the coverer, not the covered. But make no mistake: The CD isn’t a Beatles tribute or the usual Roberta Flack release. She’s taken 12 Beatles songs and infused them with gospel, neo-soul, hip-hop, or smooth jazz rhythm and beats to go along with her distinct alto voice.
“For example, on ‘Hey Jude,” I started out with a much bigger instrumental base with orchestra strings, a little drum beat or something, just a little pulse, and then I changed my mind,” said. “I was also was going to do ‘La-la-la-la’ (the ending of the original Beatles version) and then I changed my mind. All of a sudden, one day I started hearing ‘Hey Jude’ in context with ‘Amazing Grace,’ very hymn-like, very beautiful. I thought I’m going to leave out the ‘La-la-la-la’ and stick to the part of the song that is very, very much like a hymn.”
The familiar final refrain may be gone from the CD version of the song, but it won’t be when Flack performs it live. She kicks off a tour Feb. 9 that starts in Costa Mesa, Calif., with stops in Tucson, Ariz., Greensboro, N.C., Newberry, S.C., and San Diego.
“I thought when I’m onstage doing it, at the end of my performance I’ll say ‘OK, now it’s your turn and I’ll go, dot, dot, dot, dot, sing! La-la-la…,” she said, counting the beats as if she was still the Washington, D.C., junior high school music teacher she was before her recording career took off in the early 1970s. “I thought it would give them a chance to get emotionally involved, musically involved. I thought it would be fun.”
Still, omitting the famous final refrain from the “Hey Jude” CD track might seem blasphemous to some die-hard Beatles fans. But the classically-trained Flack trusts her ears and her instincts.
“I’m not a songwriter. I wouldn’t say I’m the greatest interpreter of other people’s music but I have had songwriters like Stevie Wonder trust me enough as an interpreter to say ‘Ro, I wrote a song for you’ and send it to me,” the Black Mountain, N.C.-born Flack said. “I attribute that to my good musical ear, which I think is exceptionally good because I’ve had the opportunity to study classical piano.”
While recording the CD, Flack ran her Beatles project by both Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s widow, who lives in the famous Dakota co-op building in New York with Flack. Ono wrote the liner notes for the CD.
“He (McCartney) heard some of it before it was finished, ‘Hey Jude,’ because he was in the studio with his son. He liked it,” Flack said. “She (Ono) lives right across the hall from me, so we talk. She liked what she heard. She said it sounded like fun.”