The first time ever we saw her face was at Mr. Henry's restaurant and nightclub on Capitol Hill. That was in 1968, and Roberta Flack, the Washington schoolteacher and sometime singer who was given a career-starting break by restaurateur Henry Yaffe nearly 20 years ago, returned last night and dedicated her first hit -- "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" -- to him, in honor of his 70th birthday.
About 125 people paid $100 each to say happy birthday to Mr. Henry and to hear Flack, composer Marvin Hamlisch and a group of Washington performers in an informal, affectionate friends-only affair at Mr. Henry's Adams-Morgan restaurant.
"Mr. Henry, what's your first name, anyway?" Hamlisch asked jokingly during his brief (but very Las Vegas) set. "Mister," came the answer from the jovial Yaffe. Hamlisch feigned offense at being asked to play "Happy Birthday," a song he didn't compose, and performed the tune in the styles of Bach and Mozart, then played a suite of his music from the musical "A Chorus Line."
Flack flew her quartet in from Macon, Ga., for the event, and performed an incandescent set, including "Killing Me Softly" and quietly fiery versions of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Imagine," inviting Washington performers Julia Nixon, Donal Leace and Wayne Davis -- and the audience -- to join in gospel-style on the coda. Flack sang an emotional "The Way We Were" to Yaffe, who chimed in ebulliently on the line "If we had the chance to do it all again ..."
Also on the bill and benefiting from the club's studio-quality sound were other Washington performers who seem headed for stardom, many of whom were given a hand up by Yaffe. They included local favorite Betty, the witty a cappella pop trio; Mr. Henry's mainstays Julia & Company; up-and-coming soul singer Keith McGirt; and singer Lavinia Carrol, who got the crowd moving with a rousingly gospely version of "Dry Bones."
The evening, a benefit for the Whitman-Walker Clinic, began with a vivid tribute to Yaffe by the venerable stripper Faith Dane and ended with a 20-foot, sparkler-crowned birthday cake atop the club's piano.