Come Together: Black America Sings Lennon & McCartney (Ace), a spankin’ new compilation of Beatles covers from the golden age of soul, starts with incongruous dynamite: Chubby Checker, the Twist king of the pre-Beatles era, catching up with a jet-speed R&B-orchestra version of “Back in the U.S.S.R” from The White Album. Checker’s single, issued in 1969, was a chart stiff. But its nerve and verve sets the tone and standard for this collection. The 24 tracks, many cut in the immediate wake of the Beatles’ own recordings, cover the soul-age spectrum from the slower silken hurt of Maxine Brown‘s 1966 take on “We Can Work It Out” and the Vibrations‘ plaintive harmonizing that year in “And I Love Her” to the 1970 hard-funk spin on John Lennon‘s “Come Together” by Chairmen of the Board and the blunt demand of blues guitarist Lowell Fulson‘s ’69 jam on “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.”
There are striking liberties taken. In her 1965 stab at “Please Please Me,” Mary Wells rewrites a line to reminds folks how she cut through Beatlemania in ’64 with her Number One single “My Guy” (“Last night I said these words to my guy . . .”). Paul McCartney‘s gunfight “Rocky Racoon” gets pimped out in a black-ghetto setting – the old “Stagger Lee” tale draped in psychedelic Stax – on a 1970 LP version by New Jersey vocal group the Moments.
But these singles and deep cuts – by, among others, a very young Al Green, the unjustly obscure singer Donald Height and David Porter in a rare solo turn away from Sam and Dave – are also acts of reclamation, exposing the R&B in the Beatles’ roots while lunging for a piece of that Fab Four magic. Otis Redding made everything sound like he owned it, including “Day Tripper,” cut for 1966’s Dictionary of Soul. (The take here is a rare alternate.) Little Richard, who toured Britain in 1962 with the Beatles as his opening act, was in one of his periodic revivals, in 1970, when he throttled “I Saw Her Standing There” like a piece of “Tutti Frutti.” And in the year the Beatles broke up, Aretha Franklin lifted “Let It Be” to soul-hymn excelsis – the way McCartney claimed he envisioned that benediction, in Franklin’s hands, as he wrote it.
The Beatles learned how to be a band – and songwriters – by loving and covering the great black music of their day. Come Together is a circle completed and big payback.