When the great US singer-songwriter, producer, saxophonist and trumpeter, Eugene McDaniels wrote this song, it was at a turning point in his music career. It was the late 1960’s and he had turned his sights to politics which, in turn, shifted the sound of his song writing. This transition was a pinnacle moment. One of the first politically orientated songs he wrote was Compared To What, a protest song against the Vietnam War and the then President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson.
The song has been covered by more than 270 artists, including Billy Paul, and Della Reese. but the first recording appears to have been done by American jazz pianist and vocalist Les McCann, for his 1966 album Les McCann Plays the Hits.
However, out of all these versions, only one works for me and that’s Roberta Flack’s!! Compared To What was recorded by Flack in 1969 for her debut album First Take. The dual release of this by Flack and McCann was not a coincidence either. As a matter of fact, Les McCann had helped Roberta Flack join Atlantic Records after attending one of Flack’s performances in a Jazz bar in Washington DC. So enthused was McCann about Flack that he arranged an audition with Joel Dorn, the famous producer of Atlantic Records. Moreover, McCann was close to Eugene McDaniels, the author of the song.
Both Flack and McCann sing this song with fire and earnest, the words resonate in their powerful deliveries. I read somewhere in a review that described Roberta’s singing as “fiery” and “rhythmic”, ..”reminiscent of the throbbing motion heard during congregational singing at Southern Baptist churches”, and couldn’t have put it better myself really. Who else could deliver this lines with such passion: “The president, he’s got his war / Folks don’t know just what it’s for / Nobody gives us rhyme or reason / Have one doubt, they call it treason”