Listen while you read: “Reverend Lee” (audio)
Roberta Flack is perhaps best known for her influential performance of the song “Killing me softly with his song” back in 1973, recently re-covered by the Fugees (if 1997 is “recent” to anyone else). Flack’s early work, before the years of disco set in and had their deleterious affect, is particularly impressive in terms of her vocal performance and the overall emotional effect of the music. The music really captures you and brings you along for a ride. Flack injects new life into the songs she covers. (Flack herself did not write the music or lyrics, in the early days at least).
I recently picked up her second album, appropriately called Second Chapter (© 1970 Atlantic). And, no, I did not listen to it when I was one year old — but I do now! Flack’s warm, welcoming voice is a pleasure to listen to, and the jazz-soul instrumentation is excellently performed and produced on this album (in other words, the tasteful and understated cover of the album is indicative of the quality overall). Her version of Bob Dylan’s “Just like a woman” is a nice change from the original, as much as I appreciate Dylan.
The song you are listening to now is definitely the outstanding performance on the album, however. “Reverend Lee” was originally written and performed by Gene McDaniel’s in the early 1970s (read a story about him on the Wire). But Flack’s version makes all the difference!
This song tells the tale of a southern pastor struggling with lustful thoughts (in a dream) and, ultimately at least, winning the battle. Here lust is personified as a young woman, “Satan’s daughter”. The association of women with Satan and notions of the woman as temptress unfortunately have a long history in western civilization, which you can read a bit about here (including a reference to Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused”).
Here are some of the lyrics from “Reverend Lee”:
Reverend Lee, he went to the water
And he prayed to the Lord about old Satan’s daughter
It seems in a dream, child, while he lay sleepin’
She climbed in his bed, starts rubbing and weepin’
Oh, she was twistin’ and turnin’
She was beggin’ and pleadin’
lovin’ and burnin’, pantin’ and breathin’, haah haah
. . .
Reverend Lee, he lifted his arms high
Said, “Heavenly father, take me home to the sky.”
He said, “Lord please don’t test me, not down where she touched me.”
“Oh, my mind is so hazy, Lord, my body is hungry”, oh yeah.
God rolled the thunder, then hurled the lightnin’.
He seemed to be angry, oh, so it was frightenin’.
Thunder grew louder, louder, darkened conditions
Just then a voice said, “God cannot be petitioned.”
Just then the devil emerged from the water, and he said in a dry voice,
“Your God will not barter.”
Reverend Lee ran screamin’ from the water
He was hotly pursued by old Satan’s daughter
“Reverend Lee”, she said. “Reverend Lee, Reverend Lee . . . oh do it to me”.
“Reverend Lee do it to me” (by Eugene McDaniels; Longport, BMI).