Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: January 25, 26 and 31, April 30, 1969; January 4, 1970
Released: March 11, 1970
14 weeks; no. 1
Channeling the church-born soul of Aretha Franklin, Paul McCartney started writing "Let It Be" in 1968, during the White Album sessions. (Aretha's cover of the song was released before the Beatles' version.) McCartney's opening lines — "When I find myself in times of trouble/Mother Mary comes to me" — were based on a dream in which his own late mother, Mary, offered solace, assuring him that everything would turn out fine. "I'm not sure if she used the words 'Let it be,'" McCartney said, "but that was the gist of her advice."
At that point, the Beatles were in their own time of trouble. A month of on-camera rehearsal and live recording had been intended to energize the bandmates and return them to their beat-combo roots. (They had pushed George Martin into the background: "I don't want any of your production shit," John Lennon told him. "We want this to be an honest album.") Instead, it was a miserable experience, during which the petty arguments of previous albums turned into open hostility. Lennon wasn't crazy about "Let It Be"; he poked fun at the song's earnestness in the studio, asking, "Are we supposed to giggle in the solo?" But the band worked for days on the song, recording the basic track at Apple Studios on January 31st, 1969.
After wrapping up the filmed sessions that day, the Beatles turned a mountain of tapes over to engineer Glyn Johns to assemble into an album, tentatively titled Get Back. George Harrison didn't like his solo on the version of "Let It Be" that Johns picked, so he replaced his part with a new take, in which his guitar was run through a rotating Leslie organ speaker. That solo, with its distinctive warbling tone, ended up on the single.
At the beginning of 1970 — almost a year after the initial recording — McCartney, Harrison and Starr convened to do touch-up work on a few songs from a year earlier, including "Let It Be." (Lennon, who had effectively quit the Beatles after the recording of Abbey Road, was in Denmark with Yoko Ono.) McCartney replaced John's bass part with his own, Harrison recorded another guitar solo (the one used on the album mix), a brass section scored by Martin was added, and Harrison and Paul and Linda McCartney sang backup vocals.
Lennon had been impressed with producer Phil Spector's work on his "Instant Karma!" single, and in March 1970, he and Beatles manager Allen Klein called in Spector to work on the January 1969 tapes. "He was given the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever, and he made something out of it," said Lennon. Spector did the LP mix of the title track (after the single had already been released) and is credited with producing it, although it's mixed from the same tape as the single. McCartney later declared that Spector's version "sounded terrible."
Johns said he preferred his spare mix of the song, the one done before "Spector puked all over it." Spector called the atmosphere between band members a "war zone" and felt he'd done the best he could under the circumstances. "If it's shitty, I'm going to get blamed for it," he said. "If it's a success, it's the Beatles."
"Let It Be" was released on March 11th, 1970. A month later, on April 10th, McCartney took the occasion of the release of his first solo album to announce that the Beatles had broken up.
Appears On: Let It Be and Past Masters