Interview recorded February 27, 2012
By virtue of an illustrious career that spans over forty years, eighteen albums and timeless classic hit songs, Roberta Flack has ensured her place in contemporary popular music. Her last U.S. release was 1994's ROBERTA but she's back on the charts now with a new album in tribute to the music of The Beatles . LET IT BE ROBERTA once again demonstrates her distinctive ability for musical interpretation and David Nathan - who's been doing interviews with Roberta since 1978 - welcomes the opportunity for another great conversation with this consummate artist...
DN: There are many times that I have done interviews for SoulMusic.com where I begin by saying “It’s my pleasure” or “It’s my honor” or “It’s a privilege” to welcome whoever it is I’m going to be speaking with. Well, I can say all of those things, but I can also add to that, that it’s also so great to be talking to someone who I’ve had a wonderful association with going back to 1978, when we did our first interview, but whose music I had been listening to for at least ten years prior to that. And we’ve had many wonderful moments together, wonderful conversations together and let me just say, by way of introduction, before I bring this incredible artist and musician to the phone, that it is really always a pleasure to have a conversation with someone as articulate, as clear and as soulful as Miss Roberta Flack.
RF: Hi, David!
DNNathan: Welcome to SoulMusic.com!
Roberta Flack: Thank you. It’s a joy to be with you.
DN: Well, of course the immediate conversation is going to have is about your brand new album, LET IT BE ROBERTA. Let’s start with the fact that this is the first entire album you’ve done that’s in tribute to anyone or any songwriters, or in fact any other musician or artist. So, why did you choose The Beatles?
RF: Well, you know of course the obvious answer, the easiest answer, is why not? They are composers of, I think somewhere upwards of 1,088 songs, maybe more or a few less, but many of the songs are sort of stamped in the minds of everybody around the world, forever I feel. Many of the songs have universal messages. I feel that we’re living in a time when music, which does its’ fabulous job anyway, has the responsibility of making people look at things two or three times, maybe differently…. maybe try to find some meaning in the message of The Beatles’ songs.
I always felt that The Beatles, as a group of writers, were very prophetic anyway, and I felt that they had been especially blessed as song writers because they would come up with such lines as “love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight”. I thought how could somebody, as young as they are, know really the depth of that statement, but then of course they do, because love does have a nasty habit of disappearing overnight! And, once you’ve been there, you don’t have to wait until you experience it 25 more times and say “oh yeah”.
I think that I have had such an incredible long time admiration for the melodies and the words and how they’re put together, the simplicity, the accessibility, the directness; I could go on and on. I just love their music, as most people who hum a Beatles tune will tell you, “I love that song.” Even if they don’t know some of the lesser-known songs, they love the songs that they know.
DN: Do you recall the first time you heard their music?
RF: Yes I do. It was “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. I was in Washington D.C. That was a big hit in Washington D.C. I didn’t listen to a lot of regular pop radio, but The Beatles, and this is another fact that I hadn’t even thought to mention in my conversations with people, The Beatles seem to have been able to get the attention of everybody. I came up as a listener of radio music when you could hear black music on certain stations, David, and other stations did not play it. Or you could hear people like Elvis Presley, who seemed able to, because of his associations with black artists early on in his career, he seemed able to cross that line, you could hear him, see him, “Be Bop A Lula”, or anything else he felt like singing, even a Gospel song, which was traditionally accredited to black artists or black musicians, but The Beatles then came along and sort of changed that for everybody because all of a sudden we were all going [singing] “I wanna hold your hand” and it was very important to be able to understand the impact that they had in my community, with songs like, the early songs like “Let it Be”, “Golden Slumbers” - boy I loved that song, I wish I had added that to my collection… so many songs, but always with a melody.
Then when I dive deep into their music and I found “The End”: “The love you take is equal to the love you make, the love you make is equal”, which one is it? “Equal to the love you make”, which I thought, that’s an incredible way to say “love your neighbor as yourself” and I had grown up in church hearing that, so I knew all about it.
I just think they’re absolutely, they’ve absolutely been blessed by the hand, that great wonderful music muse in the sky and they have been given the responsibility of creating all of these songs and making them singable for all of us, and listenable to all of us, and I just count myself in with that large number of Beatles fans.
DN: When did you first start doing any of their music in your own repertoire?
RF: Well, when I was singing at Mr. Henry’s. That was the perfect place to do songs because another thing about the Beatles’ music is, and you being a writer, may or may not agree with this statement I’m about to make, but one of the things is they are able to do is to provide opportunities for a lot of subtext and interpretation.
So, they would say something and I would go in another direction almost
completely based on my understanding and my ability to do that as a musician and as a lover of words and literature and prose and poetry too. When they said things like “Let it be”, for instance, I didn’t think they were all ushering us into the Catholic Church; I did not feel that. I thought that they were trying to explain, or to suggest, that there was a way of letting go of all the stuff that was holding you back, holding you down, keeping you from moving forward. If you just let it be, which is a simple way of saying it, which I guess if I were a psychiatrist I could get really deeply involved in information and say that, you know, letting it be is something that can happen at the suggestion of a song, but probably needs the help of a therapist, you know, as well!
DN: Okay, so next question is really given your history with the Beatles, given your history with their music, I should say, how did you narrow down the selections? It must have been a really difficult task.
RF: It was an incredible task, and I hope I made the selections that I want to hear the rest of my life. That’s the most important thing for me. That was very hard for me to commit to. ‘This is it. This is it.’ So, it took me almost five years to complete the project because I kept adding things and taking things away and doing things with the arrangements, with the ideas, with the musical ideas and when I finally settled on something; when something hit me, I just let it go. I said, “Okay, that’s it.” The same way I was able, for instance, to hear somebody else singing “Killing Me Softly” first, before I touched it, and able at the same time to super impose my voice in that song, if you understand what I’m saying.
So, by the time I got off the plane from Los Angeles to JFK in New York, I had written out a music score, five lines across, or whatever, just the top treble part. Not the bass and all the other parts. I had written the chords and the melody and the words for “Killing Me Softly” because I absolutely heard myself singing “strumming my pain” and that’s exactly what sort of kind of led me and guided me with The Beatles. If I could hear my voice singing “Let it Be” - and it wasn’t difficult because I had done “Let it Be” at Mr. Henry’s in Washington as I started to sing, and it had gotten the approval, I had gained the approval of my small dedicated audience, and those who didn’t like it, or who wanted to make a suggestion, were free to do that. I’d had a lot of influence at a personal level in terms of what I decided to sing and how I decided to sing it. It’s not all the telling of my own deep personal story. It’s not that.
DN: Is there a particular song on here that, from what you just said, is there a particular song on here that does have personal significance for you?
RF: A particular song that has personal significance? I suppose “Here There and Everywhere” from my concert at Carnegie Hall. That has personal significance to me because I had met Joe Zawinul, as a matter of fact, I was traveling with Cannonball Adderly and Joe Zawinul was his keyboard player and he said to me, “You know, you can really play the piano, you should do some things where you play,” and that was a fresh experience, traveling with them. I had signed with [manager] John Levy, God rest his soul, and I had started to work with Les McCann, it was a group, Les McCann, Don Hathaway, Joe Williams, Gene McDaniels, Cannonball Adderley and myself.
And we would travel around, not all the time all of us, but several of us, of the groups, would travel around and work and I started playing and I had already played “Here, There and Everywhere” at Mr. Henry’s and had a fair amount of favorable response, so I decided to do that again and I did it sort of as a last minute selection at Carnegie Hall because the Carnegie Hall concert was myself and Donny. Donny did first half, I did second half, and then we did the last half together, which was a wonderful experience, and very very musical. We had a full band, full orchestra. It was fabulous, but this was included on my portion. I thought it was great and I just wanted to include it in this project. I thought it sounded good. I had to go through a lot of political wrangling and tangling to get it, but I stuck to my guns because I just felt that it was worthy of a larger number of people hearing.
DN: What was the most challenging song on here for you to record? Just challenging from a musical standpoint?
RF: From a musical standpoint, let’s see, what was the most challenging? I don’t know because all of them I have a familiarity with. I would say, I don’t know if musically challenging, “Oh Darlin’” because I always wanted to do that as a blues, and everybody that was associated with that was trying to talk me out of it, and finally, I wanted to do that as a straight blues. I kept saying, “No, but you guys, B.B. King, you know? [Sings] ‘If you leave me…’” I wanted to do all of those things, and he, he meaning my producer, and other people who were involved, some of the Sony folks were saying, “Lets, okay, go to Ray Charles,” I said “Ray Charles, yeah,” “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” , with strings and stuff, and I thought about that and we tried it, but it didn’t work.
So, finally, I have a real strong association with a guitar player named Dean Brown. I don’t know if you know him or not, but Dean Brown lives in California and works with everybody and has his own quintet of jazz musicians that he plays with, and I said, “Listen, I want to do this…” and he said, “let me do it.” And I said, “Okay,” and when he finally did it and gave it to me he said, “I can’t wait for you to hear this. I played my ass off.” I said, “Okay.” And he surely did.
Once I heard it with just his guitar and the original [take]. We had the original keyboard and vocals. The keyboard, drums, bass, and that was it, and my lead vocals. We did that, then I changed some of the vocal parts so that he and I would sound like we were talking to each other. It was really good. I enjoyed that part of the project, that song.
That wasn’t challenging as much as it was involved. Nothing was really challenging. I did “Come Together” about two, almost three years ago, and I wanted to do it and make it like a universal song. I don’t know if a lot of people got that from listening to what I did, because I didn’t hammer it away. I’m not so involved with, “He come moving up slowly; he got juju eyeballs.” I was more interested in “People all over the world, come on”. You know, people all over the world. And I wanted young kids to sing that and if we ever get a chance to do a video, I’ll have them doing something wonderful that shows that we can live together as people who love the Beatles’ songs or don’t get a chance to hear them at all. I’m very happy with “Come Together”.
I love everything on the album. “Hey Jude” wasn’t so much a challenge as much as it was just getting into the finalness of the instruments. That’s the way it started. It started out with my voice and background vocals and then we added guitars, lots of guitars, and bass, and then drums, and then we took it all out eventually.
DN: At what point did you consider it finished? There must have been a point when you said, “Okay, that’s it. I’m done. It’s finished.”
RF: When I got too tired to play anything else! And I said, ‘okay, I don’t want to go in the studio. I’m through singing “If I Fell”. I did it already. That’s it. I’m through with “Hey Jude”. I’m through with that. I’m through with “And I Love Him”’… and then [for percussionist] Ralph McDonald, there was a tribute in Stamford, Connecticut, and Jimmy Buffett was there and a lot of other fabulous musicians and I played. I was playing my album for Valerie Simpson who was there as well, and she said, “I love that,” and so then my goddaughter who is eighteen came and said, “God Mommy, what’s that?” And it was the “And I Love Him” thing and she said, “Who wrote that?” and I said, “The Beatles” and she said, “That’s not a Beatles song,” and so she said, “I love that! You have to play that; let me play that for my friends.” And I said “okay”. So, I got little clues from personal situations like that that I had really finished. There was no point in doing anything else.
DN: I assume you felt really good when you finally said, ‘That’s it. It’s done. I’m finished’ and when you listened back to it. Did you feel like you fulfilled on your objective?
RF: Yes. I do. I feel like I could have done a few more. Have you heard “Here Comes the Sun”?
DN: I have not.
RF: “Here Comes The Sun” was slated for a bonus track and that’s a good thing, and I’ve been doing that for about 25 years. That’s my arrangement and I got it together [because] a one of the people on my staff was very depressed and was having personal problems with his marriage and he came into my room and said, ‘man I feel like jumping out the window,’ and I said, ‘no,’and he said, ‘I do,’ and although he didn’t lift a leg and go in that direction I said, ‘please don’t,’ and I sat down to try to talk to him, and then my guitar player came in, Philip Hamilton, who is very spiritual and we started talking to him, and then I just went into my living room in the suite we were in at the moment and started playing “Here Comes The Sun”, except I didn’t feel like saying, “Do do dodo, do do dodo,” I didn’t feel like the fast up tempo part. I felt like just, “Sun, sun, here it comes,” just hold on. I want to see the sun. I want to feel the sun, and so I can’t wait for you to hear that and tell me what you think of it.
DN: Great. Of course, one of the questions I know people I’m sure ask you all the time, or they may ask you, there is usually a lengthy period between Roberta Flack albums, I think that’s historically true. Do you still have the same response to that that you had back in the day?
RF: What was my response?
DN: Well, I think it was really that ‘I’m not going to record, I’m not going to put out a record until I’m really ready, until the music is ready’…
RF: The music is ready. That’s the important part.
DN: Yes. ‘Until I have something that I want to present. ‘
RF: And this is a different time. Times are different in your career as a recording artist, as you know, being one yourself, and the thing is that if I had the money and I was involved at an ego level, which is required I think, if you’re going to be a musician, if you’re going to be a performer of music, certainly you have to have a great level of ego in there so that you don’t get scared and you just go ahead and do it, because you know how. If I had all of those, everything at my control, I would do it more often.
If I could put the music out that I wanted to put out without any worry about how it was going to be promoted, or any of that, I would certainly take chances because everything that we do as artistic people and creative people is not always perfect even for our own standards. We listen to it later and we go, ‘Dag gone it, why did I do that? I should have done the other thing,’ or whatever, but the point is, I don’t have those means. I don’t have the means to take those chances to put out something that may work or may not work. When I put it out, I have to be sure that at least this is what I mean. ‘This is what I mean, y’all. I mean to say this right here!’
DN: Right, right, right.
RF: And they can like it or not, you know? I was reading some of the reviews for this album, and I’m thinking, ‘Hmmm. I never read any reviews for FIRST TAKE. I wonder how many people didn’t like that,’ but a lot of the people who are writing reviews in the States seem to be comparing this album to my earlier albums and I have myself to blame because I haven’t done that many. The last one that I did, which I felt was a gem, was my album called ROBERTA and we were nominated for a Grammy. Didn’t win, but came close, we were nominated with Tony Bennett and Barbara Streisand, Willie Nelson and somebody else, I forgot, but I said, ‘Hey, put Roberta Flack in there.’ I was sticking out my chest anyhow.
That’s good company, and we did some wonderful things on there. Atlantic as a record company, supported it to a point, but not really, and I knew that that was going to be the case. Not until the record came out, till I decided not to do another one until I knew that I could live with the results. If the record company supports it fine. If they don’t, I can live with the results. If it becomes a humungous hit, of course I would be oh so happy. For the first time in years, we’re on the Billboard charts. So, that’s a good sign. If I don’t move up, I’m not going to be mad, because I’m on the charts!
DN: Well, the thing is, I think there are some artists who can say, ‘Well, look, I’ve made forty albums,’ and then there are those like yourself who haven’t made forty albums, but it really is the quality because the truth is, that, particularly in your case, the number you’ve made hasn’t made any difference to the fact that you have established yourself in contemporary music by virtue of those albums, and particular songs. So, I guess in one sense, it’s a little irrelevant that you haven’t made forty or thirty or twenty.
RF: I think so. I think you’re absolutely right. I also think that if my name were Rodena or Lady Gaga, who I love by the way, I love her musicianship. If that was my name, if my name were Lady Gaga or Rihanna, and I decided to do an album, it would be looked at even if it weren’t loved. If I do an album now, if I did an album ten years ago, or even fifteen or sixteen whenever my last album came out, fourteen, thirteen years ago, people would be looking at it and comparing it to what I did in 1969.
I don’t think anybody has a recording career that just goes on infinitely, forever. Tony Bennett looks like he’s trying to do it, but even he has to call on the help of some very, very, very modern day recording artists who have hits. He had Amy Winehouse, he had Lady Gaga. How could he go wrong if you just say, “Featuring Amy Winehouse, featuring Lady Gaga?” People will buy that out of curiosity, but I think people who buy my album will have to listen to it at least go on iTunes, download the sampling and decide if they want to buy the whole album, one or none. I think we’re living in a different time in terms of recording careers and here I am in the middle of it, and I’m very happy about that, period.
DN: I know we only have a short amount more time, so I must ask you an important question, for me anyway. You have been recording for, well we say 1969, but around that time. When you look back at your career, when you stand now in 2012 and you look back, how do you feel about what you’ve accomplished?
RF: I feel good. I would have liked to have a larger catalogue of successful recordings, but I think I’ve done a lot. I think there’s a lot of music, I love living in the age of technology that allows us to look aback at our own stuff without having to go into piles of dusty bins and dig it up, and see if we can find the cut or whatever. You just go to iTunes and put your name in there, or YouTube and put your name in there, and even on other people lines, tweets, spaces, and Facebook pages, I’m all over there, and I think it’s rewarding, because some of it makes me go, ‘Ooooh,’ and other stuff makes me go, ‘What is that? Oh my goodness. I never saw that!’
Somebody put up their phone and recorded me singing somewhere, lets say, twenty years ago. Had a little recording device with them twenty years ago! You don’t think about that, but it’s rewarding. So, I think that I have so much to be grateful for that if I could complain about something, I wouldn’t know where to start because overall, it has been good. I just think, as I said, that the best part is that you can go on your computer and see the history, check the history of my recordings. I did start to record, my first album was in ’69, that was FIRST TAKE, and before that I was singing at Mr. Henry’s and that’s that. My second thing was in ’72 for “Killing Me Softly” [Editor’s note: Roberta’s second album was CHAPTER TWO in 1970, her third album QUIET FIRE in 1971 and KILLING ME SOFTLY in 1973] and I mean, I’ve had some wonderful moments. People have been covering me, and now I’m covering The Beatles. I think it’s wonderful. It’s great.
DN: I have two more last questions. You can’t have two last questions! (Laughs) I have one question, and one last final question. As a result of doing this project, are you inspired to want to do a similar kind of project with any other composers in mind?
RF: I don’t know. I’m so in love with The Beatles. I still want to chance to sing, “Once there was a way, to get back home again” [from “Golden Slumbers”]. God, that chord, “to get back home again,” the chords that are played as accompanying chords, wipe me out. Most of the time I can’t get past that musically because it’s so incredibly beautiful. I have been talking to the people at Sony, who hold the publishing, about the possibility of doing a second album. They’ve suggested it, and I don’t know, I would be happy to do a bunch of songs, cover a bunch of songs. I’d like to write some. I have an album that is going to be out sooner rather than later called THE REAL ARTIST SYMPOSIUM, featuring myself. The Real Artist Symposium being a group of, a gathering of course of highly intelligent and extremely musical folks in this instance. We do a lot of songs that are brand new, that some of the members of the symposium have written for me, and for themselves. I think you’ll like that too. I’m going to see if I can get up a sampling of that and send that to you early, if you promise me not to play it for anybody else!
DN: I promise not to! I have one final question. Just jumping off of something you said a few moments ago about rediscovering your own music. In the process of doing that, when you have in fact gone on iTunes, or you’re on your computer, have there been any of your recordings that you’ve listened back to and really marveled at? That you had forgotten about?
RF: Yes. On BLUE LIGHTS IN THE BASEMENT, a song that Michael Masser wrote called, “After You” because I actually had the nerve, for want of a better word, to say to myself and to the people that I was working with as producers, ‘you know I see myself at a French café, out doors, with the long...’ - in those days I was smoking cigarettes - ‘with a long cigarette holder. With fabulous cigarette smoke puffing.’The words say, ‘and this little drizzle of rain coming down, and there I sit like one of those English maidens from booklore. Raining again, I ought to get out from under. Sometimes I wonder.’ Do you know that song?
DN: Yes. I love that song. It’s a gorgeous song.
RF: I do too! And there’s another one, “After You” and the other song I love is a song by Gene McDaniels called “Early Ev’ry Midnight”. Love that. And I also love “Love Is The Healing”. I think those songs, people miss those songs because they sound more like, instead of being pop tunes or tunes that when the album was released, we can put them in a category of pop, R&B, whatever. Something kind of jazz/pop/R&B, but them some were because the lyrics were so good.
When Gene McDaniels says, ‘Early ev’ry midnight, you’re going to hear me calling your name’, come on now. How you feel when you hear, when you hear it straight from the heart. It’s so beautiful. It’s wonderful. So, I think those songs were missed and a lot of songs on the album that I did with Arif Martin, there’s a young lady named, she’s going to kill me, I can see her face, can’t think of her name. [Editor’s note: Roberta is referring to Madeline Stone]. Anyway, she wrote a song called, “When Someone Tears Your Heart In Two” and I sing that song with Chaka Khan’s brother, Mark Stevens. Have you heard that song?
DN: I have. I have. I absolutely have.
RF: You should, you should try to make that available to somebody else, if you would like to share it because it’s a great song. This girl can write and Arif did a great job. The fortunate or unfortunate thing about working with great producers like Sherrod Barnes, I just finished working with him, and Arif and Ricardo Jordan, is they tend to put you [in a musical setting], even if you don’t want the performance to be dated.
I’ve tried my best not to sound like I’m still recording in the ‘70s, [like] I’m still recording in the ‘80s, but you have to be very careful. You have to work with people who know how to use the heartbeat and the pulse of today. So, when I read a review and the guys say, “’Well, what happened to so-and-so?’ I say well, ‘Where are you? Are you listening of music of today? Do you hear anything that sounds like that? And Do you think I should still be singing- I’m seventy-something! What should I be singing? What should I be singing? Should I be singing what makes my heart skip a beat? And makes me light and makes me want to dance? Or should I sing something that takes me back 25 or 30 years ago, and drags me down in terms of my musical energy?’ I’m not going to do that so there we go.
DN: Alright, well that’s the perfect note to complete our interview. It’s always a pleasure and an honor, a privilege, and all those things I said at the beginning, to talk to you. I love talking to you and I know we could talk for absolutely hours.
RF: I know we could, David. I love you. Take care of yourself.
DN: You take care of yourself and before we get to the next one, we want to make sure everyone listens to this one.
RF: Thank you, David!
DN: Okay, take care Roberta, bye.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.