Roberta Flack Has ALS and Can No Longer Sing

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Roberta Flack (Photo via PBS)

Singer Roberta Flack, the first artist to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in consecutive years, has been diagnosed with ALS and is no longer able to sing. The news arrived today (Nov. 14, 2022) from her manager, Suzanne Koga, on the eve of the premiere of the documentary, Roberta. The movie bows on Nov. 17 at the DOCNYC film festival. The beloved singer, 85, scored with a pair of #1 singles, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Killing Me Softly” in 1972 and 1973. Both went on to win Record of the Year honors. The documentary will debut on television as part of PBS’ American Masters series in 2023.

The news of Flack’s health noted that “it is impossible for her to sing and not easy to speak,” adding, “but it will take a lot more than ALS to silence this icon.”

American Masters: Roberta Flack , directed by Antonino D’Ambrosio, presents the music icon who transformed popular culture, in her own words. With exclusive access to Flack’s archives of film, performances, interviews, home movies, photos, hit songs and unreleased music, the film documents how Flack’s musical virtuosity was inseparable from her lifelong commitment to civil rights. American Masters: Roberta Flack debuts on U.S. television on January 24 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), pbs.org/americanmasters and the PBS Video App.

From the July 27, 2022 film announcement: American Masters: Roberta Flack provides an intimate look into Flack’s artistry, life and triumphs over racism and sexism within and outside of the recording industry. Flack’s story is illuminated through interviews with Reverend Jesse Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Yoko Ono, Angela Davis, Peabo Bryson, Valerie Simpson, and more.

Flack was born on February 10, 1937, and became a piano prodigy at an early age. She began studying classical piano at age 9 and was awarded a full music scholarship to Howard University at the age of 15. In 1968, moonlighting from her job as a music teacher with a regular gig at a Washington, DC, nightclub, her singular talent caught the eye of jazz great Les McCann, who arranged an audition for Flack with Atlantic Records, which led to the recording of her debut album, First Take. “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face,” a song from First Take, was selected by Clint Eastwood for his directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, and it would win Flack a Grammy Award.

With his shoestring $1 million dollar film production budget Eastwood couldn’t afford to pay much. He offered $2,000 and she accepted.

Related: Our story on Play Misty For Me

Throughout her extraordinary career, Flack established hit-making mentorships with Donny Hathaway, Luther Vandross and Bryson. Flack’s career has spanned decades and produced numerous other hit songs, including another #1, “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” and “Where Is the Love,” a duet with Donny Hathaway that topped the R&B chart. The film chronicles how, throughout her pioneering career, Flack used her powerful platform to sing about the Black experience in America. She battled opinions of her mixed-race marriage, confronted blatant racism within the recording industry and created space for Black women to produce their own music. She released her latest album, Running, at age 80 in 2018, and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2020 Grammy Awards.

Flack will publish an autobiographical, lyrical picture book, The Green Piano: How Little Me Found Music, on Jan. 10, 2023.

“I have long dreamed of telling my story to children about that first green piano that my father got for me from the junkyard in the hope that they would be inspired to reach for their dreams,” Flack said in the announcement. “I want them to know that dreams can come true with persistence, encouragement from family and friends, and most of all belief in yourself.”

Launched in 1986 on PBS, American Masters has earned 28 Emmy Awards — including 10 for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series and five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special — 14 Peabodys, an Oscar, three Grammys, and many other honors.

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