September’s Woman of Ward 6 is Roberta Flack, a famous singer-songwriter who got her start at Capitol Hill’s Mr. Henry’s Restaurant. She’s most known for her recording of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” which actor/director Clint Eastwood featured in the movie “Play Misty for Me.” It became Billboard’s top song of 1972. Other well-known recordings include “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” “Where is the Love,” and “The Closer I Get to you.”
Flack was born in 1937 in Black Mountain, N.C., and raised in Arlington, Va. Growing up, she often accompanied the choir of Lomax African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church by playing hymns and spirituals on piano, but she also enjoyed going to the Baptist church down the street to listen to contemporary gospel music, such as that performed by Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke.
During her early teens, she so excelled at classical piano that Howard University awarded her a full music scholarship. She entered Howard at 15, making her one of the youngest students ever to enroll there. She eventually changed her major from piano to voice, and became an assistant conductor for the university choir. She graduated Howard at age 19 and began graduate studies in music, but the sudden death of her father forced her to take a job teaching music and English in Farmville, N.C.
A few years later, Flack returned to Washington, DC, and taught at Browne Junior High and Rabault Junior High. She also taught private piano lessons out of her home on Euclid St., N.W. Her music career began to take shape on evenings and weekends in DC area night spots.
She began singing professionally after being hired to perform at Mr. Henry’s Restaurant (601 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) on Capitol Hill in 1968. The atmosphere in Mr. Henry’s was welcoming and the club turned into a showcase for the young music teacher. Her voice mesmerized locals and word spread. A-list entertainers who were appearing in town would come in late at night to hear her sing. Frequent visitors included Ramsey Lewis.
“She told me if I could give her work three nights a week,” said restaurant owner Henry Yaffe, “she would quit teaching.” He did and so she did. She performed five nights a week, three sets per night.
To meet Flack’s standards, Yaffe transformed the apartment above the bar into the Roberta Flack Room.
“I got the oak paneling from the old Dodge Hotel near Union Station,” Yaffe said. “I put in heavy upholstered chairs, sort of a conservative style from the 50’s and an acoustical system designed especially for Roberta. She was very demanding. She was a perfectionist.”
Les McCann, a jazz pianist and vocalist, discovered Flack singing and playing jazz at Mr. Henry’s. “Her voice touched, tapped, trapped and kicked every emotion I’ve ever known,” he said. “I laughed, cried and screamed for more … she alone had the voice.” He quickly arranged for an audition for her with Atlantic Records. In November 1968, she recorded 39 song demos in less than 10 hours. Three months later, Atlantic reportedly recorded her debut album “First Take” in only 10 hours. Flack later said these studio sessions were a “very naïve and beautiful approach … I was comfortable with the music because I had worked on all these songs for all the years I had worked at Mr. Henry’s.”
Flack is active as humanitarian and mentor. She founded the Roberta Flack School of Music at the Hyde Leadership Charter School in the Bronx, providing an innovative and inspiring music education program to under-served students free of charge.
In 2018, she retired from touring and continues to make special appearances. She received a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020. You can read more about Roberta Flack at www.robertaflack.com.
The Women of Ward 6 Initiative is a non-partisan recognition of Ward 6’s women. In partnership with the National Woman’s Party, Capitol Hill Restoration Society and the Hill Rag, the Ward 6 Dems initiative will culminate this year, which is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
Marci Hilt grew up on a small-scale grain, poultry and dairy farm in Northwest Ohio. She is a retired communications coordinator and press secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. She currently writes and edits EMMCA MATTERS and is treasurer of the Ward 6 Democrats.