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Roberta Flack's Long And Winding Road

Roberta Flack's new album, Let It Be Roberta, is a collection of reworked Beatles favorites. (Courtesy of the artist)

Roberta Flack has been singing in a way that plucks at the heartstrings since 1969, when she recorded the breakthrough song "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." She followed that hit with many, many more, including, "Killing Me Softly with His Song," "Where Is the Love" and "The Closer I Get to You."

Flack has released more than 15 albums during her career. On her latest, Let it Be Roberta, she sings her own distinct versions of songs by her fellow travelers through the 1960s and '70s: The Beatles.

"There's a lot of great music in the world, and The Beatles are certainly responsible for a whole bunch of it," Flack says. "I love the stories the songs tell. I love the simplicity — the fact that they're so accessible. When I got ready to do this album, I had to smack my hand and say, 'Keep going!' I just got so involved."

Here, Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon speaks with Flack about the new album, living across the hall from John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and a fateful performance of the Beatles classic "Here, There and Everywhere."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Roberta Flack has been singing in a way that plucks at the heartstrings since 1969.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KILLING ME SOFTLY")

ROBERTA FLACK: (Singing) Strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words...

SIMON: She had many, many more hits, including "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," "Where is the Love" and "The Closer I Get to You." Roberta Flack has released more than 15 albums during an outstanding career. Her latest is called "Let it Be Roberta." She sings her own distinct versions of songs by her fellow travelers, The Beatles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET IT BE")

FLACK: (Singing) Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be. Whisper words of wisdom, let it be...

SIMON: Roberta Flack will join many other great musicians and stars at the funeral of Whitney Houston in New Jersey later today. We spoke with her a few weeks ago from our studios in New York about this new Beatles album and asked why Beatles?

FLACK: Well, you know, the obvious answer, Scott, is why not, you know? There's...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Let it be, yeah.

FLACK: ...there's a lot of great music in the world. And when I considered how I started, made the transition from the classroom - I was a teacher - and to the little stage in the clubs that I worked in in Washington, D.C., the music that was on the radio was not mine. It was the music of the Beatles. I love the simplicity, the fact that they're so accessible. The thing that just overwhelms me is how these young musicians were able to write so deeply and so intensely and to be so correct that here we are talking about it all these years later. People all over the world know the songs - and they still know them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME TOGETHER")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) You come on flat top, he comes groovin' up slowly, he got juju eyeball, he wants...

FLACK: (Singing) Holy roller, he got hair down to his knees. Got to be a joker, he just do what he please, yeah.

A lot of what I did with the Beatles song on the album has this universal love kind of undertone. When I did "Come Together," at the end of "Come Together," we had children sing: People all over the world, come on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME TOGETHER")

FLACK: (Singing) Come on, people all over the world, come on...

Every day almost I would find out something different or something new, something fresh, about the music. But it was really kind of interesting making the final choices - I'll put it to you that way.

SIMON: Well, how did you make the final choices?

FLACK: Well, painfully. I decided to put "Here, There and Everywhere" on the album because it is a beautiful song and it is a song that shows my early posturing as a performer, as a soloist, a pianist, singer, in a great situation - Carnegie Hall. I had studied classical piano for years and years and years, and even after that continued to study. And my real ambition was to be a concert pianist and to play Schumann and Bach and, you know, Chopin - the romantics. Those were my guys. And I'm recalling the joy that I felt, and at the same time I'm very misty-eyed, because I was really sad that I had not reached my goal, which was to play at Carnegie Hall. I got there, but I got there by playing songs like "Here, There and Everywhere," "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." So, it was not difficult to make the decision to put that song on the album.

SIMON: Let's listen to a little bit of you, Carnegie Hall 1972, if we could, "Here, There and Everywhere."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE")

FLACK: (Singing) Here, making each day of the year, changing my life...

I was so young. It was so personal. I was so sensitive. And at one point, my voice cuts off - I say there...you know, like, there. I can't say there. I say there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE")

FLACK: (Singing) There is something there. There, running his hand through my hair...

By the time I get to the end, I'm screaming love never dies, you know. I think you have to be innocent to a certain degree to be able to do that, to really let it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE")

FLACK: (Singing) Well, baby, it's love never dies, watching their eyes and hoping I'm always there. Let me help you here, there, here, there, here, there, and everywhere.

SIMON: That is a startlingly wonderful version.

FLACK: I'm glad you like it. It still makes me very emotional when I hear that.

SIMON: There's a picture of you on the CD cover of - well, a picture of you and Yoko in later years and then a picture of you, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, looks like it would be late '60s, early '70s. How well did you know them? Do you have memories?

FLACK: Oh, yeah. I lived right across the hall from him.

SIMON: I guess I didn't know that. Well, those big New York apartment buildings, you know.

FLACK: Well, it's the famous Dakota. I moved in in '75, as did they, and we wound up right across the hall. So, one might say that I had the privilege of hearing him play. I heard, you know, little pieces of music coming through.

SIMON: You mean in the mid-1970s Roberta Flack could overhear John Lennon and Yoko Ono playing music, and I assume, given the volume of your voice, they used to tell their friends that: you'll never believe it, we can listen to Roberta Flack at night.

FLACK: Probably.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRST TIME EVER I SAW YOUR FACE")

FLACK: (Singing) I thought the sun rose in your eyes, and the moon and the stars were the kiss you gave to the dark and the endless skies, my love. To the dark...

SIMON: What difference do you think the music the Beatles did and the music that you were singing and made to people?

FLACK: Gave them a chance to say, yeah, that's my life. I had a lady walk up to me once and she said, Ms. Flack, I need your autograph and I want to tell you that I met my husband with your song. He proposed to me. He learned to play guitar and to play "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," and he stood under the window of my dorm and screamed my name and sang it the best he could. And she's standing there with this guy and two children. And I say, aw, how nice. And this is your husband. She says this is my second husband.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Enough songs for a second album, you think?

FLACK: Yeah. They've asked me to do one already. I'll probably include "Golden Slumbers," "All You Need is Love," "Blackbird," "Penny Lane." So many.

SIMON: Well, we'll look forward to that too. Ms. Flack, thanks so much. Pleasure talking to you.

FLACK: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH, DARLING")

FLACK: (Singing) Darling, please, believe me...

SIMON: Roberta Flack, joining us from New York. Her new album, "Let It Be Roberta," is out now. To hear more songs from Roberta Flack's new album, you can come to our website, NPRMusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH, DARLING")

FLACK: (Singing) Believe me when I tell you, I'll never do you no harm...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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