MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Roberta Flack's voice has mesmerized audiences around the world for decades.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KILLING ME SOFTLY WITH HIS SONG")
ROBERTA FLACK: (Singing) Strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with this words, killing me softly with his song, killing me softly...
KELLY: In November, the five-time Grammy winner announced she has ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. And though she can no longer sing and talking is difficult, she has just published the story of her childhood. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports on Flack's new picture book "The Green Piano: How Little Me Found Music."
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Yes, Roberta Flack's first piano was green, but 9-year-old Roberta didn't care. She'd been dreaming of having her very own piano since she was 4.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) ...Dreamed of that piano when I tap, tap, tapped out tunes on tabletops, windowsills.
BLAIR: Those tabletops and windowsills were in Flack's childhood home in Asheville, N.C. Her dad played piano and harmonica. Her mom played organ in church. They could see that little Roberta had promise as a musician.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) At age 3, maybe 4, it was me at the keys of that church piano, picking out hymns we sang like "Precious Lord, Take My Hand."
BLAIR: Later, the family moved to Arlington, Va. One day, when Roberta's dad was walking home from work, he spotted an old, upright piano in a junkyard.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) Old, ratty, beat-up, weather-worn, faded thing, its ivories terribly stained. And it stank. But Daddy, he saw treasure.
TONYA BOLDEN: And he asked the junkyard owner, can I have it? And the man let him have it.
BLAIR: Tonya Bolden co-wrote "The Green Piano" with Roberta Flack.
BOLDEN: They got it home. And then he and his wife cleaned it, and he tuned it and painted it a beautiful grassy green.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERTA FLACK AND DONNY HATHAWAY SONG, "MOOD")
BLAIR: This is Roberta Flack from an album she recorded in 1972. Because of her ALS, she was unable to be interviewed. 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.
BOLDEN: They were extraordinary, ordinary people. You know, at one point her father was a cook, another time a waiter. One time the mother was a maid and later a baker. And at one point later, her father became a builder. But they were people of humble means. But they were people of music.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERTA FLACK SONG, "TRADE WINDS")
BLAIR: In the story, we learn that classical was Flack's first love, as she told NPR in 2012.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
FLACK: My real ambition was to be a concert pianist and to play Schumann and Bach and, you know, Chopin - the Romantics. Those were my guys.
BLAIR: At age 15, Flack received a full music scholarship to Howard University - 15. 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 quit the classroom. Her soulful, intimate recordings were selling millions of albums around the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FIRST TIME EVER I SAW YOUR FACE")
FLACK: (Singing) The first time ever I saw your face.
BLAIR: Roberta Flack has inspired generations of musicians - Lauryn Hill, India Arie, Alicia Keys. Long after her days as a schoolteacher, she continued teaching and mentoring young musicians.
SUZANNE KOGA: She always wanted to help kids the way that she was helped herself.
BLAIR: Suzanne Koga has been Roberta Flack's manager for more than 30 years.
KOGA: Part of that was to write a book and share with them her experience of, you know, who would ever think that a person like Roberta Flack would have found her voice in a junkyard piano that her father painted green?
BLAIR: In the author's note at the end of her new children's book, Roberta Flack tells young readers to, quote, "find your own green piano and a way to put that beautiful music into the world."
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRADE WINDS")
FLACK: (Singing) Children both rich and poor, they're searching for the truth.
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