Roberta Flack receives Honorary Doctorate from Berklee College of Music

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(BOSTON) America’s foremost institution of popular music education, Berklee College of Music, paid loving tribute to legendary singer, songwriter, and pianist Roberta Flack on May 13 with an honorary Doctor of Music degree at the school’s annual commencement ceremony. It was preceded by a commencement concert the night before, titled “Tonight I Celebrate My Love for You” – after Flack’s 1983 duet with Peabo Bryson that reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was a #4 chart single in the UK – during which scores of singers and instrumentalists from the 2023 Berklee graduating class performed seven of the best-known and most-loved songs from Roberta’s timeless catalog.

Introduced at the commencement ceremony by Dr. David Bogen, Provost and Executive VP for Academic Affairs, who shared, “When a rare artist like Roberta Flack comes along, blending and transcending genres, it’s hard not to marvel at what can look like a circuitous roadmap, where origins and destinations are indiscernible. Folk, R&B, soul, classical, jazz, Roberta’s voice with smolder and grace, both unites and defies these categories. As diverse as that range of musical expression is, her goal has always been simple: ‘My main interest is in telling my story through a song.’“

Hailed as “an elegant and legendary vocal superstar” (in an Amazon.com editorial review) whose “career demands a new way of thinking about the word ‘genius,’” as the headline of an NPR article noted, Flack was unable to attend the concert and commencement as she continues to undergo treatment for a recent diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She did enjoy the ceremony and concert on a live feed at her home (see links below), and said she “especially enjoyed the concert because it’s the students of Berklee College performing my beloved songs!”

The honorary doctorate was accepted on Roberta’s behalf by her former backup singer for many years, Gabrielle Goodman, who subsequently became a Berklee professor. Goodman then traveled to New York City on May 25 to present Flack with her PhD certificate in person. Cynthia Betheune, Berklee’s Senior Director of Conference Services and Events, also traveled to present Dr. Flack with her Music degree.

At the commencement ceremony, Goodman said, “working with [Roberta] was an educational process. I’m glad to be a recipient of that knowledge that I’ve gained from her, and I’m also able to share it with my students here at Berklee and with everyone that I work with.”

Goodman continued speaking to the graduates, reading a written statement from Flack that in part noted, “I am deeply honored to have this honorary doctorate bestowed upon me. …Each of you are leaving with dreams, goals, skills, and wisdom that you have earned in your time at Berklee. …This is only the beginning for you and with your personal experience, you will grow with conviction, strength, and talent as you share with us what is in your heart. Never stop learning. Never stop growing. Use what you have and share yourselves with the world. …you are prepared for everything that lies ahead of you.”

The honor was an especially “sweet moment,” shared Roberta, as education played a pivotal role in her life and has been a prime focus of her charitable and community endeavors. She was one of the youngest students ever to attend Howard University in Washington, DC, among the nation’s most esteemed Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), enrolling at age 15 on a full music education scholarship. The honorary doctorate is even sweeter for Flack as she had to drop out of postgraduate degree studies at Howard when her father died and return to be with her family in her native North Carolina, taking a job teaching music and English.

In her commencement address, Flack wrote, “opening young minds to possibility was some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.”

She then returned to the DC area where she worked as a junior high teacher and gave private piano lessons at her home by day while performing at night in music clubs and bistros. Roberta’s residency at the famed Capitol Hill jazz nightclub, Mr. Henry’s, became one of Washington’s regular toast of the town entertainment events, drawing in politicians, power brokers, celebrities and avid music fans to pack the house. After jazz star Les McCann saw Flack perform there, he urged his label Atlantic Records to sign her to a recording deal. They agreed, and signed her to the Atlantic label where she recorded for more than four decades.

Her contract with the influential and major record company vaulted Roberta to rarified musical stature as one of the preeminent and most influential and successful pop singers of all time over a 40-year-plus run on the label. She has sold more than eight million albums and 10 million singles worldwide. In addition to her GRAMMY wins for Record of the Year two years in a row (an achievement only recently matched by Billie Eilish), Flack also won two Best Pop Vocal honors and a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020 alongside nine GRAMMY nominations. Among her many other honors is being inducted into the New York based all-genre Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Roberta paid her success forward by establishing in 2006 the Roberta Flack School of Music at the Hyde Leadership Charter School in The Bronx, which provided free music education to underprivileged students. Three years ago, the Roberta Flack Foundation granted scholarships to deserving young musical talents and supported other youth-oriented educational programs and endeavors. Musical education is also a theme in her first children’s book, “The Green Piano: How Little Me Found Music,” published by Penguin Random House earlier this year, which recounts how her father bought her a used piano when Flack started playing at nine years old and its role in elevating her to global fame.

Flack’s honorary Berklee Doctorate puts her in the esteemed company of such musical artists as Duke Ellington (the first recipient in 1971), Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones (a 1951 Berklee graduate) Celine Dion, B.B. King, Joni Mitchell, Chaka Khan, esperanza spalding (Berklee class of 2005), Willie Nelson, Missy Elliott, Ringo Starr, Gloria Estefan, and John Legend. Other 2023 PhD honorees are contemporary R&B star Usher, and Ghanian kora virtuoso and educator Sona Jobarteh.

The timeless classic songs from Flack’s catalog performed and arranged at the concert by Berklee graduates hailing from far-flung locations around the globe were “Where Is the Love” (a GRAMMY-nominated #5 Hot 100 duet with Donny Hathaway), “Feel Like Making Love” (a #1 pop, soul and easy listening hit that earned two GRAMMY nominations), “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (which enjoyed a six week run at #1 on the US pop charts and won her second Record of The Year GRAMMY), “Killing Me Softly with His Song” (another #1 that won her Song of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance GRAMMY awards), “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love,” Les McCann’s jazz classic “Compared to What” (a staple of her DC club shows she later recorded), “When Will I Learn” and “Gone Away.”

Saluted as an artist who is “classy, urbane, reserved, smooth and sophisticated” by All Music, Flack continues to remain active with her creative and philanthropic endeavors despite the challenges of her medical conditions. The Berklee PhD is yet another honor that underscores her distinction as a musical artist for the ages.

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