Roberta Flack is a legend—an O.G. diva. At 75, she’s set to receive the Voice Foundation’s VERA Award on Friday at a black-tie affair that will also honor Denyce Graves, the mezzo-soprano star of the Metropolitan Opera, and Parliament-Funkadelic’s William “Bootsy” Collins.
The Voice Foundation is the world’s largest organization dedicated to voice research, and its annual international symposium, Care of the Professional Voice, takes place in town through June 1.
PW managed to get Flack on the phone for an extremely brief and sleepy D.C.-bound phoner. She shared a few memories about her discovery and early strides toward recording artist icon status.
After teaching music in the Capitol district, Flack started gigging at clubs on nights and weekends, with runs at the Tivoli Club and 1520 Club, but at Mr. Henry’s Restaurant she caught lots of folks’ attention, including that of Les McCann. “[He] came by with his recording equipment, and we decided to record some songs,” she said. “I was so anxious and so happy, and I still am, but it was all a brand new experience, and I probably sang too many songs.” She laughed. As myth has it, she sang 40-plus songs over the course of three hours and, obviously, Atlantic Records liked it. Her debut, 1969’s now-classic First Take, was born.
“I was scared to death all the time that I had the chance to do what I do,” she confessed. Seems like even supremely talented musicians get nervous, too. Her life’s taken her to working with the School of Music at the Hyde Leadership Charter School, full circle from her teaching days.
When asked about duets, Flack said, “I love singing with people because my first musical job was as a teacher. It’s just natural to me.” Her legendary collaborations with Donny Hathaway and Peabo Bryson have yielded some of the best duets in her catalogue, namely “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love” (with Bryson) and “Where Is The Love” (with Hathaway).
But her Grammy-winning singles “Killing Me Softly with His Song” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” may never have happened without encouragement from her first piano teacher.
“She said to me, ‘Roberta, you continue to practice and you could be great,’” Flack said, citing Tchaikovsky and Bach as piano inspirations, and oversimplifying her path to great success: “And I took that to my heart and that’s what I’ve tried to do: practice as much as I can.”
Fri., May 30, 6pm. $250. The Westin Philadelphia, 99 S. 17th St. 215.735.7999. voicefoundation.org
PW's Music Issue 2014