Before Roberta Flack left Washington for New York City, recorded hits like “Killing Me Softly With His Song” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and won four Grammys, she was the nightly entertainment at Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill.
The Arlington-raised singer grew up playing piano—for which she won a full scholarship to Howard University at just 15 years old. She started singing soon after and went on to teach music in District public schools. Now 77, Flack recently reminisced with Washingtonian about her DC years.
You were awarded a piano scholarship at Howard when you were very young. What was that like?
I skipped two grades, which is why I started college at 15. I was emotionally so young. DC was huge and tremendously interesting to that young girl. I remember the brilliant students and professors, and what I was exposed to as a young artist shaped and changed me completely.
But then you changed your focus to singing. In 1968, Henry Yaffe offered you a gig at his new Capitol Hill nightclub.
I performed five nights a week, three sets per night, at Mr. Henry’s on Pennsylvania Avenue.
I’ve read that Yaffe remodeled an apartment above the bar into a performance space for you. Is that true? What kind of changes did he make?
He redid the club for me. He put in the well-known church-pew seating upstairs. One of the times I performed at the Kennedy Center, I went by Mr. Henry’s. My sign is still there hanging somewhere: “Roberta Flack Trio, Tuesday through Saturday.”
What do you remember about the night that the soul-jazz musician Les McCann came to the club and “discovered” you? How old were you?
I was 29. I was performing at a benefit for the Inner City Ghetto Children’s Library Fund. Les came to see me. I was the new girl everyone in town was talking about. He loved what he heard, and he arranged for me to audition with Atlantic Records. I played over 40 songs in three hours at that audition. Then within a few months, I was in the studio recording my first album, First Take.
What was the clientele like at Mr. Henry’s then? Did a lot of politicians come in? Famous people?
Everyone came in at one time or another. I remember Burt Bacharach, Carmen McRae, Bill Cosby, Ramsey Lewis, Dionne Warwick, and Johnny Mathis. I remember the entire cast of the musical Promises, Promises came in one night—the place was jammed!
You performed in DC a few years ago with the National Symphony. Do you visit regularly? Do you miss it?
I love the National Symphony Orchestra, my hometown orchestra. The Kennedy Center is my home. I feel emotional about everything that I have played, heard, sung, and experienced there.
What about Mr. Henry’s? Do you ever go back?
I was there recently. I love the crabcakes.
This article appears in the June 2017 issue of Washingtonian.