Go down enough rabbit holes on YouTube and eventually you’ll come across a video of Roberta Flack performing at a televised Duke Ellington tribute in 1973 alongside Peggy Lee, Aretha Franklin, and Sarah Vaughan.
They were all major stars at the time, and each had her own distinctive style as they traded verses in a medley of songs. Peggy smoldered, Sarah mesmerized, and Aretha was a volcano, ready to erupt at any minute.
And then there was Roberta, looking radiant and still riding high from the success of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” the breakthrough hit that would win two Grammy Awards later that year. She eased into her notes, fine and mellow, knowing when to hang back and when to bring up the volume. She was sublime.
That performance was an early glimpse into the less-is-more approach that would become Flack’s signature move, both as a solo artist and in timeless duets with Donny Hathaway and Peabo Bryson. She doesn’t want to part your hair; she wants you to think about a lyric, a melody, and then see where it takes you.
That aesthetic, and her emphasis on economy, has served Flack well during her long career, right up to last year’s “Let It Be Roberta.” She revamped some of the Beatles’ most iconic songs, reimagining them with funk, jazz, and R&B accents. The album was a labor of love, particularly because she had been close friends with John Lennon and still is with Yoko Ono. In fact, they’re neighbors at the Dakota in New York.
In a rare Boston appearance — enough so that she can’t even remember the last time she was here — Flack comes to City Hall Plaza on Wednesday for a free concert. We caught up with her recently on the phone.
Q. Were you a fan of the Beatles from the start?
A. I was. I had been teaching school at the time and out comes, I think, “I Saw Her Standing There.” My musical studies made me incredibly aware that this was a very special moment in pop-music history. These were English guys trying to lean a little bit into the soul sound, which at that point in my life you could only find in my neighborhood on a black radio station. We heard people doing that every now and then like Elvis Presley, but then all of a sudden the Beatles are doing it and they’re everywhere.
Q. This new album is a reminder of the way you dismantle songs and rework them in new contexts. How much time do you spend with a song’s original version before recording your own?
A. As much as I need to. That can be just a moment — I can hear something that I absolutely fall in love with so hard. It just has to be something I can hold on to. [She starts singing the chorus of Jay Z’s “Young Forever.”] I sing that song onstage. I do it because the age group of my audience varies. I get young people because of my association with the Fugees [who had a hit with “Killing Me Softly” in 1996] and the fact that so many rap and hip-hop artists have [sampled] my songs, from Kanye to T.I. I can sing the old songs knowing that they know of the music because it’s been covered by so many young artists they’re familiar with. That’s a good thing. And then there are the folks who are in my age group who grew up with me and tell me, “Girl, let me tell you how I met my husband. We were in college when I heard ‘Killing Me Softly.’ The first time I heard it, he was outside of my dorm window playing it on guitar — and my husband does not play the guitar. But he learned to play that song, and then he asked me to marry him and here we are all these years later.’”
Q. Are you still finding new ways to use your voice?
A. Well, I take a voice lesson every Thursday at 2 o’clock. I was in Rome many moons ago, and Sting was there. I was going back to my dressing room and I heard some vocalizing. I said, “I have to find out what that is.” I went and talked to him, and long story short, he introduced me to his voice teacher, whose name is Joan Lader. She’s just a genius when it comes to using the voice and preserving the voice.
Q. It was poignant to see you perform with neo-soul singer Maxwell at the Grammys in 2010. It felt like a passing-of-the-torch kind of moment. Do you see and hear the spirit of your legacy in younger artists?
A. I don’t know that I do. As a classically trained musician, in my studies I learned so much about the creation of music and about what lasts. We know that what lasts is Johann Sebastian Bach and Frédéric Chopin. There’s so much to hold on to, but I don’t know that I hold on to what I hear in terms of how young people approach music they write for themselves or how they approach covering my music. I’m too much of a purist at heart. I would love to hear them do their own stuff in their own way. I’d like to encourage that. Let’s open the door for more Stevie Wonders. Sing your own stuff and make your own sound with your heart. It’s not difficult if you love it, but you must love it. That’s important.