ROBERTA FLACK / “To Love Somebody”
Mtume, it’s your fault. As you know (and as none of our readers know), I had already made my selections for this week’s Cover songs. I thought I had something hip. Well, really, the selections are hip and I won’t ruin this write up by saying what I first selected. Besides, they will get posted, probably in the next two or three weeks. But anyway, I had it all planned out and then you came with your Classic selection and I went to the CD cabinet and I pulled out my Roberta Flack…. It’s a couple of hours later. I’m still listening to Roberta Flack. Roberta Flack is love. That feeling. Whatever you think of as the pinnacle of your love life, the moment of total tenderness that you hold in your heart of hearts as the reference for this (seemingly always all too brief, i.e. much sought, seldom caught) elusive human emotion. Whatever the concept of love conjures in your breast, swells your chest, makes every muscle achingly quake, and excites your imagination to the summit of both spiritual and sexual arousal. That kind of love. That is Roberta Flack. Her voice. What it does and induces. See, Macy is a freak. Aretha is deep. But Roberta, she got that inner glow, the lingering taste of goodness that you hope never goes away, and even after it’s gone, all it takes is one listen to the dulcet tones of Ms. Flack and you are back together again, in that special someone’s arms, aglow like a firefly on a warm summer night. I believe Roberta Flack is the master interpreter of other people’s songs. She does other people’s love songs better than anybody else I can think of. And I lay before the court of public opinion the following three songs from the quintessential album Quiet Fire: “To Love Somebody,” “Let Them Talk,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” “To Love Somebody” is a Bee Gees songs, or at least, used to be a Bee Gees song. Roberta took it, stone snatched it up and did something else with it. This is a bragging song that is not conceited. Roberta drops down in the pocket (Mtume, check out that she is doing that ¾ thing with a backbeat on the bottom; the girl is bad!) and gives us an aural argument that in its essence does not stress the inadequacy of others but rather argues for the depth, breath and downright profundity of her singular brand of loving. What this chile is really saying is: until you been loved by me, you don’t know what love is like. And guess what, while you are listening (and smiling) to her music, you believe her. You believe this woman embodies the essence of human love. Exhibit two is an old Little Willie John song. Man, that was one of my slow jams back in the day. I’d grab Thelma (probably a little too eagerly) and we’d rent a tile, “dancing” (a euphemism for slow grinding) in one spot, and I didn’t care who was looking at us or what they was saying about us. “Let Them Talk.” Yeah, let ‘em talk, they didn’t know. How could they? As I got older, I realized that most everybody got a Thelma somewhere in their past, a someone who first woke you up to the glory of love, and I don’t mean puppy love or one of them shallow schoolgirl/boy crushes. Again I’m talking about a lifelong reference. My final example, my ace in the hole, is Roberta taking Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” completely to the other side of forever. I have heard a ton of versions of this song but none move with the devotion implicit in Roberta’s vow to be whatever one might need in order to push on through the sundry storms of our life travels. If someone knows of a finer version, let me know. Don’t bother quoting Aretha. I’ve got Aretha’s 4CD, complete Live at the Filmore (three versions) and I know her many recorded versions. Aretha is without peer as a shouting soul singer but at the whisper level, I believe intimacy is Roberta’s house. (And I don’t just mean Roberta’s bedroom, I also and more importantly mean her altar, in whatsoever room the altar maybe placed). Roberta Flack’s passion, while undeniably physical, nevertheless clearly and at its core, is spiritual. Listen as Roberta elegantly drapes her long tones over the melody, those swells and diminuendos she does giving the held note not only longevity but also a wonderful arc that approximates the arc of life: birth, growth, maturity, decline, death; that’s the way she holds and hands us a note. No screaming, no hollering but the quiet sound of tears of joy streaming down your cheeks. What noise does the sound of tears make, howsoever it sounds to you, that is the sound of Roberta Flack. There is more greatness to Quiet Fire than these three selections. In particularly there is the lead-off song “Go Up Moses” which softly urges us to leave up from under Pharaoh’s command. Specifically saying “my people,” Roberta declares we “don’t need Pharaoh,” don’t need his “trinkets”—and it is clear that by “trinkets” she means more than literal throwaways, she means all the material things, the “bling,” this society uses to seduce us; but I won’t get off into all of that right now. At this moment my focus is on Roberta’s ability to take well-known songs and recast them; on her ability to turn romantic moonlight into sublime spiritual sunshine; on her vocal gift that she adroitly employs when she sings to us, sings songs for us, especially songs written by others. (The beauty and goodness of Roberta's singing is a gift, but undoubtedly, it is also the result of disciplined study and practice. After all, she is a Howard University music major grad.) Roberta takes musical compositions and intones the notes and lyrics into the atmosphere, creating a deeper meaning by investing her luminous soul into the music. As a result, her music making appeals to our (her audience’s) innate sense of beauty and goodness—and that’s all we need to know. —Kalamu ya Salaam A lot of substance I agree in general, although not necessarily about these specific songs. Of course, Roberta has so many great interpretations of other people's records that four or five of us could name a few covers each that are our favorites without us ever naming the same song twice. If I had to name three, I'd go with Roberta's versions of Bob Dylan's "Just Like A Woman," Grover Washington Jr.'s "Mr. Magic" and her #1 hit "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," which was originally a pop/folk song. But Kalamu's right. Roberta was never a shouter, but she excelled at that smoldering slow-burn. If you're not paying attention, a lot of her music can just float right by you like aural window dressing, pretty but insubstantial. But particularly in the case of the first half of her catalog, that prettiness hides a lot of substance. Roberta had a talent not just for performing other people's songs well, but also for picking substantive songs to begin with. —Mtume ya Salaam
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