April 13, 2010

Big Yellow Taxi Submarine Disaster Averted!

April 12, 2010, 7:30 AM

Roberta Flack Meets a Big Yellow Taxi

Off the Rails
One rainy day last month, Roberta Flack, the smooth voice of 1970s soul ballads, stepped out of her recording studio in Chelsea, hailed a yellow taxi and threw a suitcase of CDs into the back seat. Arriving at the Dakota, her longtime home, Ms. Flack got out and hurried past the wrought-iron entrance gate, seeking cover from the downpour.
Then: “Panic! Panic! Panic!” Ms. Flack recalled on the telephone the other day. “I left the suitcase in the cab!”
In an instant, Ms. Flack had joined the ranks of world-class musicians (most famously the cellist Yo-Yo Ma) forced to grapple with a quintessential nightmare of New York transit. More than a year’s worth of work, including much of a new compilation of Beatles covers — tentative title: “Let It Be Roberta” — had disappeared to points unknown.
“It was priceless,” Ms. Flack, 73, said a few weeks after the episode. (The trauma still sounded fresh.) “I’ve been working on this album for a while. I had packed all of the stuff that had been finished, stuff that had not been finished, things I was thinking of approaching, things I was not thinking of approaching ever.”
The tracks, culled from hundreds of takes, would have taken ages to reassemble, and no artist wants unreleased masters running around in public. Flustered but focused, Ms. Flack marched upstairs to her apartment, which is on the same floor as John Lennon’s old place, and dialed up the city. At first, it did not go so well.
“I called 311 and got really no decent response,” Ms. Flack said. “They connected to me to some people who hung up on me. I said, I’m going down to the Taxi and Limousine Commission before they close.”
It was nearly 4 p.m., so the singer raced to 40 Rector Street, the commission’s downtown headquarters, where her plea received a warm reception. “They said, ‘Let’s find this guy,’ ” she said. “It was a very pleasant experience.”
Crucially, Ms. Flack had saved her receipt. The cab — medallion number 3D19, according to the singer — was located; its driver, Janardan Satish, was about to clock off his shift, but he drove to Rector Street instead. In the back seat, untouched: the suitcase.
“It was a wonderful thing,” Ms. Flack said. “I gave him a big, a huge tip. And he brought me back to the Dakota, and I paid him for that ride, and gave him a big, big, huge tip.”
How do you forget a precious suitcase in the first place?
“I got one of those big gargantuan cabs,” Ms. Flack explained. “The driver was very nice and he put it in the very back of the cab, and I got into the front part of the cab. When I got out, I was so anxious to get inside because it was raining.”
And, her mind was still focused on her singing. “I wasn’t thinking about anything but ‘Yesterday,’ ” she said, one of the tracks she would like to include on the album, which is due out late this year. She laughed. “And I’m still not happy with it!”