Legendary Grammy winner Roberta Flack has been diagnosed with ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, her publicist revealed on Monday.
According to a statement from Flack’s manager, Suzanne Koga, the disease “has made it impossible to sing and not easy to speak” for Flack. However, the statement asserted confidently that “it will take a lot more than ALS to silence this icon.”
ALS, short for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a degenerative disease which causes motor neurons to die, thereby affecting voluntary muscle movement. The disease forced Lou Gehrig to retire from baseball in 1939 at just 36. Gehrig, the beloved former first baseman for the New York Yankees and the man who made the disease a household name, died just two years later.
Flack, 85, has had several medical challenges in recent years. In 2016, she suffered a stroke, the residual effects of which caused her to be rushed to the hospital in the middle of a performance at the Apollo Theater in 2018. She also endured a bout of COVID-19 last January.
Flack rose to stardom fifty years ago with mega hits like “Killing Me Softly with His Song” and “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” the latter of which was featured in Clint Eastwood’s 1971 classic thriller “Play Misty for Me.” Both hits led to a Grammy for Record of the Year, one in 1973 and one in 1974. Flack was the first artist to win back-to-back Record of the Year Grammy Awards.
Though ALS will likely prevent Flack from performing in public ever again, she still wants to remain active in public life. Flack, who is also a classically trained pianist who earned a full-ride to Howard University at just 15, “plans to stay active in her musical and creative pursuits” through her foundation, the statement said.
The announcement of the diagnosis comes just as “Roberta,” a feature-length documentary about Flack, is set to debut at the DOC NYC film festival this Thursday. PBS will then air the documentary in January.
Flack also has a children’s book — co-authored by Tonya Bolden and entitled “The Green Piano: How Little Me Found Music” — scheduled to publish that month as well.
“I have long dreamed of telling my story to children about that first green piano that my father got for me from the junkyard in the hope that they would be inspired to reach for their dreams,” Flack was quoted as saying about the forthcoming book. “I want them to know that dreams can come true with persistence, encouragement from family and friends, and most of all belief in yourself.”