Roberta Flack's first piano came from a junkyard – five Grammys would follow
At 85, Roberta Flack is still telling stories. For some five decades, Flack captivated audiences around the world with her soulful, intimate voice. She won five Grammys, including a lifetime achievement award, and inspired generations of musicians including Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys. But the musician can no longer sing or speak; in November, she announced she has ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a neurological disease.
Recently, Flack teamed up with writer Tonya Bolden and illustrator Hayden Goodman to publish a book for children: The Green Piano: How Little Me Found Music.
Green might not have been her color of choice, according to her longtime manager, but 9-year-old Roberta was thrilled with her first piano. She'd been dreaming of having one of her very own since she was four.
"Dreamed of my own piano when I tap-tap-tapped out tunes on tabletops, windowsills."
All that tapping took place in Flack's childhood home in Asheville, N.C. Her parents were musical — dad played piano and harmonica; mom played organ and piano in church. They could see that little Roberta had promise as a musician.
"At age three, maybe four, there was me at the keys of that church piano picking out hymns we would sing like Precious Lord, Take My Hand."
Later the family moved to Arlington, Va.
One day, when Roberta's dad was walking home from work, he spotted an "old, ratty, beat-up, weather-worn, faded" upright piano in a junkyard.
"And he asked the junkyard owner 'Can I have it?' And the man let him have it," says Flack's co-writer, Tonya Bolden. "He got it home and he and his wife cleaned it and tuned and painted it a beautiful grassy green."
Young Roberta was so excited she "couldn't wait for the paint to dry."
Because of her ALS, Flack was unable to be interviewed for this story.
Bolden says it was important to the singer that The Green Piano give credit to the people who helped her along the way, starting with her parents.
"They were extraordinary, ordinary people," says Bolden, "At one point her father was a cook. Another time, a waiter. One time the mother was a maid, and later a baker. .. Later, her father became a builder. But they were people of humble means. They were people of music."
In the book we learn that classical was Roberta Flack's first love, something she talked about with NPR in 2012: "My real ambition was to be a concert pianist and to play Schumann and Bach and Chopin — the Romantics. Those were my guys," she told NPR's Scott Simon.
When she was just 15 years old, Flack received a full music scholarship to Howard University. In the early 1960s, she was teaching in public schools by day and moonlighting as a singer and pianist by night. But by the end of the decade, she had to quit the classroom. Her soulful, intimate recordings were selling millions of albums around the world. With international touring and recording, music became a full-time career.
"She's just always been a teacher, a healer, a comforter," says pianist Davell Crawford. Flack mentored the New Orleans' artist and helped him get settled in New York when Hurricane Katrina forced him to leave his home.
He says Flack has always been interested in inspiring kids, particularly young Black girls.
"She had a way out with music. She had a way out with education," says Crawford, "I know she wanted other kids and other children to have ways out. She wanted them to be skilled in the arts. She wanted them to find an education."
Roberta Flack has wanted to write a children's book for some 20 years, says Suzanne Koga, her longtime manager. She says the singer loves teaching almost as much as she loves music.
"She always wanted to help kids the way that she was helped herself," says Koga, "and part of that was to write a book and share with them her experience. Who would ever think that a person like Roberta Flack would have found her voice in a junkyard piano that her father painted green?"
In the author's note at the end of her new children's book, Flack tells young readers to "Find your own 'green piano' and practice relentlessly until you find your voice, and a way to put that beautiful music into the world."
The young readers in the audio version of our story on The Green Piano were Leeha Pham and Naiella Gnegbo.
The audio and web versions were edited by Rose Friedman. The audio story was produced by Isabella Gomez Sarmiento.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
A previous web version of this story misstated Naiella Gnegbo's name as Naiella Beall.