If there was ever any doubt as to the versatility, adaptability and endurance of the songs of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, it would certainly be dispelled by Ace’s new release of Let It Be: Black America Sings Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. The latest volume in the label’s Black America Sings series (also encompassing volumes dedicated to Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, and the team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David) and the second dedicated to the music of The Beatles, Let It Be features a staggering array of soulfully fab reinventions. In true Ace tradition, the selections range from the familiar (Earth Wind & Fire’s slick, brassy hit version of “Got to Get You Into My Life”) to the blissfully obscure (Maceo and All the King’s Men’s beautifully understated “For No One”).
Though the songs here are the stars, there’s no shortage of wattage among the artists. Forever Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin strips the baroque air from “Eleanor Rigby” on her 1969 rendition of the haunting Revolver tune, altering the lyric and the melody as she lathers on effortless funk and makes the song wholly her own. Tina Turner follows Aretha’s example on “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” with then-husband Ike. In this 1972 performance, Tina blazingly rewrites the lyrics over barrelhouse piano, potent brass, and nonstop rhythm. Nina Simone brings depth and a pristine beauty to George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” aided by the tasteful musical direction of Broadway’s first African-American conductor, Harold Wheeler. Dionne Warwick’s “We Can Work It Out,” from her Chips Moman-helmed Soulful LP, showcases the fiery gospel spirit that was only occasionally tapped in the era of her flawlessly controlled, impeccably sophisticated Bacharach/David productions. The legendary Ella Fitzgerald swings happily on Harrison’s lightweight “Savoy Truffle,” with producer Richard Perry adding requisite groovy touches on this 1969 track. Perry also produced Fats Domino’s jovial “Lovely Rita” (from one year earlier) heard here.
Naturally, there’s no shortage of Motown here. A quartet of tracks from Berry Gordy’s musical empire are among the strongest selections here. The Supremes’ version of Peter and Gordon’s Lennon/McCartney-penned “A World Without Love” is one of the strongest tracks from the trio’s British Invasion salute, A Bit of Liverpool. It features Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard singing tightly and beautifully in unison (with a brief Diana solo and some harmonies) – unfussy, elegant, and truly lovely as only the original Supremes could be. The Four Tops offer up a gentle, orchestrated take on “The Fool on the Hill,” with The Temptations heard on a powerful “Hey Jude” that boasts a lead vocal shared by all five members.
The Undisputed Truth’s dramatic “With a Little Help from My Friends” is closely patterned on Joe Cocker’s storming reinterpretation rather than the Fabs’ cheerful original; if the great Norman Whitfield’s production here is straightforward, founding member Joe Harris brings deep feeling to his lead vocal. Similarly, Gary “U.S.” Bonds, producer Steven Van Zandt, and The E Street Band didn’t reinvent the wheel with the lilting “It’s Only Love” but added muscle and top-notch musicianship to their cover. Mary Wells gets a track here from her post-Motown days at 20th Century Fox: a languid, almost too-cool reading of “Do You Want to Know a Secret.” Like the late Mary, vocal group Boyz II Men also got their start and experienced their greatest successes on Motown, albeit decades later. Their dreamily-harmonized 2009 recording of the tender “In My Life,” from their 2009 Decca album Love, is the most recent song on this collection.
Still other cuts here respect the songs while still taking them in new directions. Randy Crawford’s delectable “Don’t Let Me Down,” from 1976, is as light as The Beatles’ original is heavy, while Isaac Hayes stretches and caresses Harrison’s immortal “Something” into an 11+-minute epic soul jam. Bill Withers’ “Let It Be” takes Paul McCartney’s melody to church – as other artists including Aretha did – but few renditions are as lithe yet moving as his 2-1/2 minute take here.
The most bizarre cut on Let It Be is surely “Sweet Soul Music” singer Arthur Conley’s 1969 recording of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Recording at Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios with producer Tom Dowd, Conley didn’t bring his own R&B sensibility to the track, instead paying tribute to Paul McCartney’s original reggae-inspired beat – albeit with Duane Allman wailing on slide guitar! Not far behind is Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ gruff stab at “A Hard Day’s Night,” recorded in 1964 but shelved until 1999.
Let It Be includes a 16-page, full-color booklet with detailed, track-by-track annotations written by producer Tony Rounce, and Duncan Cowell has superbly remastered each of the 22 songs. Indeed, so rich is the songbook that countless volumes of Black America Sings Lennon, McCartney and Harrison could still be in the wings. But this dynamic volume will be a tough act to follow, and one you’ve got to get into your life.
- Eleanor Rigby – Aretha Franklin (Atlantic 2683, 1969)
- Dear Prudence – The 5 Stairsteps (Buddah 165, 1970)
- Got to Get You Into My Life – Earth, Wind & Fire (Columbia 10786, 1978)
- Do You Want to Know a Secret – Mary Wells (20th Century Fox LP TFS 4178, 1965)
- The Fool on the Hill – Four Tops (Motown LP MS 675, 1969)
- Lovely Rita – Fats Domino (Reprise 0775, 1968)
- Here Comes the Sun – Nina Simone (RCA 74-0467, 1971)
- Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da – Arthur Conley (Atco 6640, 1969)
- A World Without Love – The Supremes (Motown LP M 623, 1964) (*)
- Tomorrow Never Knows – Junior Parker (Capitol 2951, 1970)
- Don’t Let Me Down – Randy Crawford (Warner Bros. LP BS 2975, 1976)
- With a Little Help from My Friends – The Undisputed Truth (Gordy 7122, 1972) (*)
- A Hard Day’s Night – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (rec. 1964 – issued Sequel CD NEMCD 921, 1999)
- She Came In Through the Bathroom Window – Ike and Tina Turner (United Artists LP UAS 5598, 1972)
- For No One – Maceo and All the King’s Men (Excello LP EX 8022, 1972)
- It’s Only Love – Gary “U.S.” Bonds (EMI America LP SO-17051, 1981)
- We Can Work It Out – Dionne Warwick (Scepter LP SPS 573, 1969)
- Hey Jude – The Temptations (Gordy LP GS 949, 1969)
- In My Life – Boyz II Men (Decca CD 0602527237374, 2009)
- Savoy Truffle – Ella Fitzgerald (Reprise 0875, 1969)
- Something – Isaac Hayes (Enterprise LP ENS 1010, 1970)
- Let It Be – Bill Withers (Sussex LP SXBS 7006, 1971)
All tracks stereo except (*) mono