Roberta Flack’s Road to the Grammys Began in Arlington

The vocalist known for "Killing Me Softly" and other hits grew up in Green Valley.
Roberta Flack

Music legend Roberta Flack grew up in Green Valley in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Jeri Jones Photography)

“When I played, that was when I felt the presence of God,” says Roberta Flack in a new PBS documentary on her music career.

Flack, a vocalist and pianist known for hits such as “Killing Me Softly With His Song” and “Where is the Love,” began her music career in Arlington. She often played classical repertoire on the piano, as well as hymns at Lomax A.M.E. Zion Church in Green Valley where her mother, Irene, also played.

“My mother used to look at me and shake her head because she didn’t understand my mind. I’ve always been in my family considered sort of different,” she says in the film.

On Feb. 19, Arlington Public Library joined The Black Heritage Museum of Arlington and WETA in a screening of American Masters: Roberta Flack at Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse. The 87-minute documentary chronicles Flack’s career, including her advocacy for civil rights as well as her challenges with racism and sexism. Producer and director Antonino D’Ambrosio introduced the film.

Flack, 86, was born in Black Mountain, North Carolina, in 1937 and spent the bulk of her childhood in Green Valley (formerly “Nauck”), a historically Black neighborhood in Arlington. At age 9, the child prodigy was playing piano and organ, though her interest in keyboard instruments goes back to her toddler days.

Local historian Dr. Alfred O. Taylor grew up down the street from Flack in the 1940s and often played with her brother. As a youth, Flack mostly accompanied the choir at Lomax, but occasionally played at Macedonia Baptist Church to experience more contemporary gospel music, Taylor says.

“She was very talented,” Taylor remembers. At age 13, Flack won top honors in a statewide contest for her take on a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti.

Hbhs 1953 Pg 13 Flack

Flack attended Hoffman-Boston High School as a teen before earning a music scholarship to Howard University. (Photo courtesy of the Center for Local History, Arlington Public Library)

At 15—while attending Hoffman-Boston School, a high school for Black students during segregation—she earned a music scholarship to attend Howard University. Years later, she taught music at Louis Charles Rabaut Junior High School in D.C., as well as at other schools in the District and in Farmville, Virginia. Taylor’s late son was one of her students.

“[She had a] great influence,” says Taylor, whose son would go on to have his own career in gospel music.

In the 1960s, Flack began performing at D.C. clubs, including the Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights and Mr. Henry’s on Pennsylvania Avenue. She started a residency at the latter in the late ’60s, where she played so often that the restaurant designed an upstairs stage for her performances.

There, jazz pianist Les McCann saw her act and helped facilitate an audition with Atlantic Records. In 1969, Flack recorded her first album, First Take, incorporating performances she had workshopped at Mr. Henry’s. (The venue also appears on the album artwork.) Four years later, she received a Grammy—her first of five—for “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” from the album, which was featured in the Clint Eastwood movie Play Misty for Me.

Roberta Flack Cover

Flack’s debut album, First Take, featured the Grammy-winning song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” (Image courtesy of Shock Ink)

Flack, who in 2022 was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, continued to record into her 80s, including a 2012 Beatles tribute, Let it Be Roberta. Earlier this year, she released a children’s book about her first piano, an upright her father brought home from a nearby junkyard.

“[I had] dreamed of my own piano when I tap-tap-tapped out tunes on tabletops, windowsills,” she writes in The Green Piano: How Little Me Found Music.

Flack’s upbringing in Green Valley played a role in her music career, says Taylor, a past president of the Green Valley Civic Association. He writes about Flack and dozens of other local luminaries in his book Bridge Builders of Nauck/Green Valley: Past and Present.

“The community was always pushing their youth into whatever aspirations [they had]. … The community was really education-oriented,” Taylor says. “The church, everyone was very supportive of Roberta, just like they were supportive of all of the kids.”

Taylor and his wife frequented Flack’s performances in D.C. in the early days of her music career. He says he never saw a hint of ego.

“She was always Roberta.”

American Masters: Roberta Flack screened at 6 p.m. on Feb. 19 at Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse. The event was co-presented by Arlington Public Library, WETA and the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington. 

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Categories: Arts & Entertainment