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KPBS Midday Edition

Roberta Flack Sings The Beatles

Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and musician Roberta Flack.
Brian T. Silak
Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and musician Roberta Flack.
Roberta Flack Sings The Beatles
GUESTRoberta Flack, Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and musician.

ST. JOHN: You're listening to Midday Edition on KPBS. I'm Alison St. John. Roberta Flack will be in San Diego this weekend, playing with the symphony summer pops at the embarcadero perform pops south. One of her earliest grammy-winning songs was in 1974. We all know this one. (Audio Recording Played) ST. JOHN: Roberta Flack joins us by phone. Thank you so much for being with us. FLACK: My pleasure, Alison, how are you today? ST. JOHN: Real good. So a lot of water has flown under the bridge since that song. So let's talk about your latest album, which is called -- FLACK: Oh, I'm happy to hear you say that! [ LAUGHTER ] ST. JOHN: It's called let it be, Roberta Flack sings the Beatles. FLACK: Actually the way to say that is let it be Roberta. Like little kids say let it be me! It's my turn! So we found this little picture of me, you know, when I was about 4 years old with my hand up on -- by my forehead, and holding some sort of toy or something. And I happen to have another picture that was used for an earlier album, and I said let's put those together and come up with this little let it be Roberta. I thought it was just a clever idea. ST. JOHN: And that feels good too, doesn't it? FLACK: Yeah! ST. JOHN: So what are the qualities of the beetles song that made you want to sing them? FLACK: Well, melody, lyrics, stories, timelessness, with all of those characters. A certain element of timelessness. And the melodies don't get old, they don't get stale. They're not clever, they're wonderful. They're beautifully written and based on all that I've learned as a classically trained musician, correctly written, in terms of the forms. And therefore they last. It's like I say to some people sometimes when they say well, what do you attribute this kind of longevity to? I say it's the same thing that a song like amazing Grace has. And it goes all over the world. You can hear it sung in the jungles, they're doing some sort of ceremony, and all of a sudden you hear amazing grace. You know? And the same thing is true about the Beatles and hey jud, and let it be and those songs. I think they were sent by some musical masters from another planet or another sphere, you know? Another level of musical thinking and production to bring these songs to us, because I remember I was teaching school when the Beatles became popular, and I was just overwhelmed by all of that. And before that, before the Beatles, I had studied as I said, and it was the classical melodies of Chopin and Schubert, and folks like that, which of course are still around. And that's a testimony again to the Beatles, because I predict, and I'm not a soothsayer, but I do predict that many, many, many years from now, people will still be talking about the Beatles. Just like we're talking about Johan Sebastian Bach, and Chopin. They were the Beatles of their time. The melodies they wrote were after all folk melodies and melodies of the people. Most of them written so people could dance, you know? Whatever the little dances were during that time. And I think the Beatles have the same appeal with the melody. It's very strong, very, very strong. Here comes the sun. And just the words, something in the way she moves me. Come on! How much plainer can you be in terms of expressing what you feel about a person? And when I got into it and discovered they had written so many, over 1,000, but that's a lot of songs. ST. JOHN: It must have been really hard to choose. FLACK: Yeah, how do you come up with 1,088 songs? Who are you that you can keep writing over and over again without repeating yourself? You know, without coming up with a variation on some other melody? ST. JOHN: But somehow you made them very much your own, didn't you? So let's hear you singing one of them. Your version of come together. FLACK: Yes. (Audio Recording Played) ST. JOHN: There is such softness in your voice! And talk about how you approached that song, how you went about crafting your own version. >> Well, I didn't think that I could get raunchy. And every version that I've heard has been so suggestive, and well-done, I might add. You know? And raunchy. Except that when I listened to John sing it, in the original incarnation of what the Beatles did, and he just sang it in his voice. I happen to be a person who's lived across the hall from John and Yoko for all these years. ST. JOHN: Oh, when was that? >> New York, yeah, and we moved in the same year, and we lived here, and I knew him very well. And I know yoko, and that's why she wrote the liner notes. And John was a straight-ahead singer, everything he did. Going to be a revolution! He didn't try to fix his voice. He just made his point as best he could vocally, and that was it. So that's all I wanted to do on the song. I wasn't trying to be clever. I thought okay, what am I going to sound like? Strolling in the park, and that was it want ST. JOHN: Did you guys ever sing together? FLACK: Well, I did not do any singing with them actually, but I did get invited to the studio when he was doing the last album that he was working on. And I was singing to myself, but I didn't record my voice on any of the tracks, no. ST. JOHN: And you're still friendly with yoko? FLACK: Yeah, I did record a song with yoko after he passed. She did an album, and she wrote a song called goodbye sadness. And I recorded that album, and I did it like a reggae song, and she loves, and I loved it too. ST. JOHN: Let's hear more music from your new album, let it be Roberta. (Audio Recording Played) ST. JOHN: We're going to like to hear that one in San Diego after our May gray and June gloom! [ LAUGHTER ] ST. JOHN: What qualities you were looking for in covering these songs? FLACK: Well, just something that grabbed me and wouldn't let go. And that was hard too. It wasn't easy at any step in the process. It was very difficult. And I tell you, I still have so many unfinished that I started, you know? That I just sort of had to put aside because these others were calling me and nudging me and kept bugging me, and I kept singing them and performing them in some sort of way. I would sit down at the keyboard on stage and I'd say you guys know what's up? I've been doing Beatles. I'm talking to an audience of 12,000 people, and they go yeah! And they would start to sing with me. ST. JOHN: So were there some favorites that I just had to give up because their wasn't space for them? FLACK: Oh, yeah! Absolutely, absolutely. And something was one of them, something in the way she moves or he moves. And there was just a lot of them, you know, I wanted to do that I just could not do because there was no space. ST. JOHN: It's so great to hear your version like here comes the sun, sounded so different. Let's listen to your version of we can work it out and then talk about it, okay? FLACK: Yeah, yeah. (Audio Recording Played) ST. JOHN: That's Roberta flack singing we can work it out. I'm sitting here bopping in my seat. It's got an almost hip hop beat to it, doesn't it? FLACK: Yeah, I don't mind that at all. I think music evolves, and if it doesn't, lord help us! [ LAUGHTER ] FLACK: You know? I say they're selling coligate toothpaste with hip hop music. How can anybody not like it? You don't have to like it, you just have to like with it. ST. JOHN: Well, I really like that one. You mentioned earlier, you studied classical piano. In fact you entered Howard University on a musical scholarship at the age of 15. Very talented. Did you grow up around a lot of music? A lot of classical music? FLACK: No, not at all. I did have classical music in my life, but I didn't grow up around it. My father was a self-taught piano player. My mom studied a little bit and played the church organ that we attended. My uncle, her brother, was a self-taught pianist, and my grandmother played what she called a fiddle, it was an old violin that she turned upside down and sat on her knee and plucked that and played that. Lots of musicians, singers, sisters sang. I had a sister who sang, and brother who sang and cousins, everybody. Music was the thing. I tell a story when I do my concert, and I will do the song. In San Diego I do a jazz version of sweet Georgia brown. And I came to that arrangement because I started thinking back to not only the -- what's the name of the ball team? The Harlem globetrotters used that song as their theme song, and they used to do a little tapping sound. And you could hear somebody tapping. But that reminded me of growing up in North Carolina, and I don't have strong memories of this, more recollections of people talking about it than anything. But we didn't have a club to go to, you know, to party and stuff like that. It was way before things were desegregated, and black people were not allowed to do that. And even if some instances, there were a lot of after-hour joints in people's homes. But kids like me were not allowed to go. I was considered too young. ST. JOHN: But you were such a talented pianist. Did you think that you were going to become -- FLACK: Well, that was God's gift. I started studying piano when I was 9 years old, with a lady who had studied at Howard herself and taught at Howard. Then my next teacher was hazel Harrison, a great, great, great classical trained black pianist who studied in Europe for years and years and years. And by the time I got to her as a student outside of Howard University, when I was 14, she was in her 70s, you know? MAUREEN ST. JOHN: I believe that one of the songs that changed your career from being a classical pianist to a singer was first time ever I saw your face. Let's listen to that and talk about that. FLACK: Thank you. (Audio Recording Played) ST. JOHN: Roberta Flack, of course, sing first time ever I saw your face. How did that song get discovered? FLACK: By me? [ LAUGHTER ] FLACK: I discovered it on an album of two young men called Joe and Eddie who had been background singers for harry bel fonte, and did their first album called coast to coast. I was teaching school in Washington DC, and one of my -- I had a little hustle going, I had little private students that I was coaching, working in a voice teaching studio and coaching some of his students. And one of the students I was coaching said here's a song you might like. So I said for what? He said I don't know just -- and he let me hear it on the record, and I fell in love with it. The first time I decided to even touch it as a piece of music for me to do, I taught it to my southern high school girls' glee club. ST. JOHN: Then someone else discovered it too, right? FLACK: Yes. ST. JOHN: Talk about how that affected your career. FLACK: Clint Eastwood. Well, it -- perhaps the start of it. I record today in 1969. Gosh, when I say that, that sounds like eons ago. What century was that? But it was a wonderful thing because in those days, you didn't record a song that you expected to be played on the radio that was longer than two minutes and 40 seconds tops. And it would have to be a Beatles song to be played like that. But the producer said to me, Ro, can you make that shorter and I said no. This is the way it goes. Because I'm thinking musically, I'm not thinking money-wise, I'm not thinking hit tune. I'm thinking about the song. About three years after the record had been released, the song had been released, I get a call from Clint Eastwood who asked me if he could use it in a film. And of course I said yes. But the first thing I said was Mr. Eastwood, I'd like to rerecord the song. I'm doing it faster now. Of he said what? I said when I'm performing it, I pick up the tempo a little bit. He said I don't want you to touch it. I want every nuance, every breath, every slow moment, every pause. I want everything. And so that's the way it was released. And it became successful. ST. JOHN: Well, Roberta Flack, it's been a pleasure talking to you. For your listeners, if you want to hear Roberta, she's performing here in San Diego on Friday and Saturday night as part of the symphony's summer pops concert series. Thank you so much for talking with us. >> Thank you, Alison, nice to talk to you today.

For over 40 years, Roberta Flack has been singing her way into the hearts of global audiences. Her first big hit "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," recorded in 1969, caught the attention of many, including Clint Eastwood who insisted on using it in his 1971 film "Play Misty for Me," which helped send it up the Billboard charts. A string of hits followed, including "Killing Me Softly With His Song," "Where Is the Love" (one of a few duets with Donny Hathaway) and "Feel Like Makin' Love."

This year, Flack released her latest album, "Let It Be Roberta," a collection of interpretations of her favorite songs by The Beatles. For Flack, it's the melody, lyrics and stories of The Beatles' songs that make them so timeless and so beloved. "The melodies don’t get old, they don’t get stale. They’re not clever, they’re wonderful, beautifully written and therefore they last," she shares with KPBS.

KPBS Midday Edition speaks with Flack about her new album, musical upbringing and being neighbors with John Lennon and Yoko Ono.


Roberta Flack performs with the San Diego Symphony as part of its Summer Pops series, Friday and Saturday at the Embarcadero Marina Park South in downtown San Diego.

Roberta Flack "Killing Me Softly With His Song"
Roberta Flack "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"