Interview: Roberta Flack
You haven't lived until you hear Roberta Flack sing Feel Like Makin' Love over the phone. Her folk-soul voice is still so warm and rich. In today's Wall Street Journal (go here), I write about Roberta's new Beatles album, Let It Be Roberta. This CD isn't your typical pop-tribute album. Instead, It's 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. In short, it's wild and peaceful.
Born in Asheville, N.C., where her mother was a church organist, Roberta's family moved to Washington, D.C., in 1961. She won a piano scholarship to Howard University at age 15, taught grade school after graduating, and began performing at Washington, D.C., clubs. Discovered by pianist Les McCann, she was soon signed to Atlantic Records.
On First Take, her initial album in 1969, Ms. Flack recorded The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, a 1957 folk song. The album floated along until Clint Eastwood used the ballad in his movie Play Misty for Me in 1971. The exposure turned the song into a hit and put Roberta in orbit.
Here's my interview with Roberta Flack, 74, in which we talk about her earlier hits, her new album and her vision for the music...
JazzWax: Did you know Ewan MacColl, the composer of First Time Ever I Saw Your Face?
Roberta Flack: I was so young and innocent in the entertainment business back then in the late 1960s. Do you know the love story behind the song? Peggy Seeger told me that she was at a folk festival in Canada in the late '50s with her husband, and Ewan was with his wife there. Apparently he looked at Peggy and wrote the song: I thought the sun rose in your eyes, and the moon and stars were the gifts you gave, to the dark and empty skies. Wow. Peggy eventually became Ewan's wife.
JW: Did you speak with Seeger about your version?
RF: Yes, after Ewan died in 1989. She paid me a powerful compliment. She said she loved what I had done with the song and that she was sure my rendition was exactly what Ewan would have wanted to say.
JW: Feel like Makin' Love in 1974 had one of earliest hustle beats, didn't it, along with George McCrae's Rock Your Baby?
RF: Yes it did. Wow, listen to you! You're on top of your game. That song's success had a lot to do with [pianist]Dave Grusin, [bassist] Gary King and [drummer] Ralph McDonald. When Gene [McDaniels] first called and sang his song to me, he just strummed it. Strum strum, strum and singing. [Roberta sings the opening lyrics.] I basically had that feeling in my mind when I went into the studio.
JW: How did the soft dance beat wind up in there?
RF: I wanted the song to have that feel. I wanted it to move along without too much of a sentimental feeling. I felt it said what it had to say. I sang it down one time, and Gene said, Whoa, that was really great. Now can you do it once more, making some of the phrases more rubato?"
JW: What did you say?
RF: I said, Nooo, I love that." We played it back, and Ralph McDonald [pictured] said, I think that's it Ro." Everyone agreed. I did that song in one take. Much of what I recorded in the early days was done on the first take.
JW: Was it McDonald's idea to add the beat?
RF: Yes. I just had to sit down and sing. Once they captured my voice, Dave [Grusin] and Ralph and others sat down and added their tracks. Ralph put that beat in there.
JW: So who came up with the idea for your new Beatles album, Let It Be Roberta?
RF: Johnny De Mairo. He's a dance-record producer and DJ who used to work at Atlantic. He produced and remixed my last album for Rhino back in 2006 [The Very Best of Roberta Flack]. It's a compilation of my love songs. He had heard a tape while at Atlantic that hadn't been released.
JW: What was it?
RF: The Beatles' Here, There and Everywhere. He heard my live recording at Carnegie Hall [May 7, 1971]. It was to have been part of a live album that was never released. When he heard that song, he thought an album of Beatles material would be great. He pitched the idea to Sony, and they loved the idea. The first taste we gave them was Here Comes the Sun. It's really speciallisten [Roberta plays the track]. I first did this arrangement about 22 years ago.
JW: The album places a lot of emphasis on beats and guitars.
RF: I know, don't you love it? I wanted a lot of attention placed on the guitarsacoustic, electric, everything. Some sound folk, others sound like Jimi Hendrix. They remind you of the Beatles but they also make it contemporary.
JW: On Let it Be, you have a hard rock guitar wailing away.
RF: I had a vision of calling in the mighty Prince to record the guitar track. I saw him play on a tribute to George Harrison, and he was the last guitarist to come out. He jammed so hard on that. I said to the album's producer Sherrod Barnes [pictured], I want a little bit of Jimi here." I told him I wanted to call Prince. Sherrod [pronounced SHARE-od] said, Uh, OK." Then one day I came in and Sherrod was laying down guitar tracks to Let It Be. He totally wiped me out. He was totally channeling Hendrix. Sherrod sings the song's words through his guitar.
JW: Have Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney heard the album?
RF: Paul has heard Hey Jude and Here Comes the Sun. I'm sure he has heard the rest of it. I just spoke to his rep. And yes, Yoko loved it. She wrote the liner notes. JW: You put a lot of trust in Sherrod Barnes.
RF: He came to me 12 years ago. He called from North Carolina and said he wanted to come to New York. I helped him come up here. He's worked for me and then went on to work with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, and he has produced Beyoncé. Sherrod also has done a lot of work undercover on other albums. On my Beatles album, I wanted to give him a chance to be out front as a producer and arranger because he does both so well. Whenever we're on stage, I just need to hear two or three notes from him and I turn my head and say, Yeah, Sherrod."
JW: But an album like this is certainly a risk.
RF: How so?
JW: Your older fans may think it's too far out, while younger listeners may feel it's not freaky enough.
RF: The music takes care of that. How freaky can anyone get on here? You can, but then it's a mockery. We're making music, not a mockery. I know some of my older fans are going to say, What the ham sandwich was she thinking?" [laughs]. When I've played it for younger kids, they say, Yeah, yeah."
JW: So what happened in that cab in 2010? In the digital age, how could you have been traveling with a suitcase filled with CDs?
RF: It wasn't all recordings. I've been working on the album for five years. I had every possible thing related to a Beatles song in therebooks, articles, everything.
JW: Why so much stuff?
RF: I need to know everything about a song before singing it. Many of the Beatles materials in that suitcase were out of print. I found all the items and paid dearly for them. Then I studied them. I had all of that in the suitcase plus my let's see if this works" moments on CDs.
JW: You must have flipped out
RF: I did. The driver was so nice. I came out of a hotel where I had been meeting with someone rolling my small suitcase. It was raining, and the doorman took my bag and put it in the seat behind me. Once we started rolling, the driver started talking to me. He recognized me.
JW: What did you talk about?
RF: I told him about the Beatles project, and he starts singing Yesterday. It was so warm and friendly. When I pulled up at the courthouse downtown, I got out and went into jury duty. Of course, once I got in there, I realized I didn't have my suitcase. But by then, I was locked in. I told the people at the courthouse what had happened. Fortunately I had a receipt, and they tracked down the driver.
JW: Then what happened?
RF: He came back. Fortunately he still had my suitcase. He even waited around to take me home. He got a big tip.
JW: On The Long and Winding Road, who's singing with you?
RF: That's Sherrod. That's what I'm telling you. He's amazing. He can do it all. We're working on three other CD projects now. One is with my Real Artists Symposiummusicians I have worked with in the past. We're also revamping a Christmas album. And the third is a collection of songs I want to do. Hold on, I want to play a track for you. No one has heard this yet. I'm so bad at this computer stuff. Hang on...
[Roberta plays a track of her singing Stevie Wonder's Come Back as a Flower".]
RF: Stevie recorded it on his album Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (1979). He called me right after his divorce from Syreeta in 1972, God rest her soul. He told me he had just written a song for me. Then he played it for me on the phone. Later, Syreeta wound up singing the lead vocal on the album because by then she was very sick.
JW: You have a real ear for talented younger musicians.
RF: They have a real ear for me. They come from great music schools and say to me, Ms. Flack, I can play gospel,"and then they play gospel, Then they say, I can play hip-hop and avant-garde jazz," and they do, making you think Thelonious Monk is sitting right there. They also can write for an orchestra. At the end, they say, I want to work with you." What am I supposed to say? Even if I don't have the money, I say, Let me see what I can do." [laughs]
JW: There's something's missing on Hey Jude, isn't there?
RF: [Laughing] Yes, I did. Listen to this [Roberta puts on the song]. I decided to leave out the la-la-la-la's at the end. They're lovely vowels to sing and verbalize, but I wanted my interpretation to be quieter and more sentimental. When we do it live on stage, when we get to that part I'm going to say to the audience, Now it's your turn."
JW: As a long-time neighbor of Yoko Ono and John Lennon, Hey Jude has special meaning, doesn't it?
RF: It does. Paul wrote the song for John [Lennon's] son Julian. I just felt from my research that it deserved a more quiet treatment by me accompanied by acoustic guitar. Guitar and voice throughout the centuries have not been a losing combination.
JW: There's a distinctly young flavor on this albumbut there's a traditional church feel here, too.
RF: You know, there's a lot to be said for the rock-era songwriters like Elton John, Carole King, Stevie Wonder, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and many others.There's a lot of church in their music. I purposefully chose Beatles songs that felt like hymns. Lyrics that can be repeated, and melodies that are accessible to the public's ears. [Roberta starts to sing Killing Me Softly With His Song] Songs that felt like that. The melody and the thought behind them is so easy for people to get to. That's what makes a great hit tune in terms of interpretationits hymn-like quality.
JW: Oh Darling has a blues thing going on.
RF: Yes it does. I wanted to channel B.B. King. At first I thought of Ray Charles but resisted strings. But as I sang the song, I channeled Ray. I actually moved from side to side to get that groove. I found guitarist Dean Brown to play behind me. He's a genius.
JW: And yet I Should Have Known Better is nothing like the 1964 original.
RF: Yes, it's completely different. I was worried about taking those chances. The essence of how I wanted to make the song and define it is, I should have known better, a literal feel. I've visualized doing that song on the Grammys. My dream would be to perform it as a duet with Lady Gagawith the two of us on grand pianos. Wouldn't that be something?
JW: For sure. How do you keep your voice in shape? It sounds sound young and amazing.
RF: I take a voice lesson every week for an hour or soto stay in shape and clear my mind. After all these years, that's a big concernwhat's in my head. Stuff now constantly gets in there. I ask myself, Is that going to be alright?" Should I do that again?" When you're young, you just gurgle it out. After so many albums, you start to question everything.
JW: A touch of self-doubt?
RF: It's not self-doubt. It's trying to determine the best direction and approach at a time when so much is changing. These lessons allow me to work on my voice and my mind.
JW: It has been eight years between new albums. What have you been doing?
RF: Working with the Roberta Flack School of Music at the Hyde Leadership Charter School in the Bronx [which she started in 2006]. I'm just trying to keep the school going, and it's not easy. Prince generously gave an initial donation. But raising money during the recent recession hasn't made this task easy. I'd like to expand beyond 9th grade to the 12th grade. I want the kids to have choices. They are the ones who are writing the hits these days.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Roberta Flack's Let It Be Roberta at iTunes and Amazon. The album will be released on Tuesday.
JazzWax clip: Here's Roberta Flack's rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Water, from her 1971 album Quiet Fire. It's a smoldering rendition that Roberta said compelled Elton John to send her a letter later that read, Dear Roberta, I have never heard anything this beautiful in years..."
Here's Roberta singing Killing Me Softly With His Song...
And here's an astonishing clip of Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Sarah Vaughan and Peggy Lee...