Roberta Flack Announces ALS Diagnosis, Which Has “Made It Impossible to Sing”

Roberta Flack

Roberta Flack performing at the 52nd Grammy Awards. (Getty Images)

“But it will take a lot more than ALS to silence this icon.”

The legendary vocalist Roberta Flack revealed this week that she has been diagnosed with ALS, a rare neurological disease that has largely robbed her of her voice. 

The 85-year-old’s manager said in a news release that amyotrophic lateral sclerosis “has made it impossible to sing and not easy to speak,” the Associated Press reports — but she added that “it will take a lot more than ALS to silence this icon.”

Flack has won five Grammys, including a lifetime achievement distinction and two awards in 1974 for her biggest release, “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” That hit, which turns 50 next year, was famously covered by the Fugees in 1996, and the staying power of both versions speak to the virtuoso’s appeal as an artist ahead of her time.

The statement didn’t say how long Flack has been living with the condition, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Approximately 5,000 people are diagnosed with ALS each year, and at present there is no cure. (But the search for one — and the current options for treatment — is deeply important to our very own Katie Couric, who’s working as an executive producer on a moving upcoming documentary about her friend Brian Wallach, who has the disease himself.)

The disease causes brain cells controlling basic muscle function to die off, which in turn leads the muscles of an ALS patient to atrophy. A common symptom is the gradual weakening of muscles in the mouth and throat, which can make it hard to speak or swallow, according to the ALS association

Despite her diagnosis, the statement says Flack “plans to stay active in her musical and creative pursuits. Her fortitude and joyful embrace of music that lifted her from modest circumstances to the international spotlight remain vibrant and inspired.”

Roberta, a documentary about the artist’s life and career, is set to debut this week at the DOCNYC film festival. It’ll also air on PBS in January as part of the station’s American Masters series. 

Flack is also publishing a children’s book, which she co-wrote, called The Green Piano: How Little Me Found Music. The picture book, which will be released in January, recounts Flack’s childhood in North Carolina and how her remarkable career all began with an old piano her father found in a junkyard, repaired, and painted green.