Born in North Carolina to a draftsman father and a church organist mother, Roberta Flack was surrounded by music from an early age. Her first experiences were of accompanying her local gospel choir on the piano, and her prodigal talent was soon noticed by the local music college, which offered her full scholarship to study classical piano.
However, she soon became obsessed with singing and, in her final year at Howard University, changed her major from piano to voice. By the mid-1970s, she was already regarded as one of jazz’s rising stars.
Her first hit was with a rendition of Ewan MacColl’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, and thanks to its inclusion on the soundtrack to Play Misty For Me, she won a Grammy. Flack went on to win a second prize in 1974 with her version of ‘Killing Me Softly With Your Song’. Since then, Roberta has released a host of stunning albums, including Let It Be, Roberta, a collection of The Beatles covers. The jazz singer has spoken of her affection many times and used the album as a way of exploring the group’s influence on her life and work.
Of The Beatles, Flack said: “I started finding my voice around the time the Beatles started playing and I bought everything they recorded. I learned all of their songs and taught them to my students in junior high school in Washington DC.”
After graduating from Howard University at 19 – after being the youngest student ever to attend the institution – Flack became a student teacher, working in a school near Chevy Chase, Maryland. However, following the death of her father, Flack moved to Washington, where she started performing pop, folk and blues covers (including the odd early Beatles single) in local clubs, honing her voice and piano technique.
“What appeals to me about the Beatles is their purity,” Flack continued. “They weren’t waiting for somebody else to come up with the idea, it just came out of them. They were several steps beyond the original. When it came to recording my Beatles covers album in 2012, I had found my own space with their music and was able to interpret their songs in my own way.”
But Flack’s relationship with The Beatles went beyond an appreciation of their music. She was close friends with John Lennon and his partner Yoko Ono. Flack and Lennon ended up meeting each other after they both moved into The Dakota apartment building in 1975 and ended up living across the hall from one another.
Let It Be, Roberta is the perfect tribute to The Beatles originality. Throughout the album, Flack finds something unexplored in each of the songs and carves out a space for herself. She imbues all of the classic tracks on the record with a summer-ready sweetness, transforming them into something fresh and new in the process. Notable highlights include a ’00s R&B rendition of ‘We Can Work It Out’, and a more traditional arrangement of ‘Come Together’, which vibrates with ’70s blues cool.
You can listen to ‘We Can Work It Out’ from Let It Be, Roberta below.