4 time Grammy Award recipient, Chapman Roberts, has been in show business for over 50 years and is still going strong. He was the original vocal arranger for Smokey Joe’s Café and boasts an extensive and impressive background.
Roberts started his career as part of the cast of the original Broadway production of Hair and has appeared on- and off-Broadway in Salvation, Hello Dolly, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Fantasticks.
He has recorded with Gregory Hines, Horace Silver, Weather Report and B.B. King. His vocal arrangements were used in eight original Broadway and West End cast albums of shows that garnered 25 Tony nominations.
His vocal arrangements and musical direction have also been utilized in such Broadway and West End successes of Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, Eubie, Bubbling Brown Sugar, Your Arms Too Short to Box With God, Blues in the Night, Five Guys Named Moe’ and Avenue X.
His off-Broadway endeavors include Three Mo Tenors. On film, Roberts appeared in Year of the Comet and Solomon and Sheba.
Courtesy of Chapman Roberts
Roberts’ served as a special event musical director and supervisor for President Jimmy Carter; Ronald Reagan’s Kennedy Center Honors; Mrs. Lyndon Johnson; The Inaugural gala of Gov. Ann Richards of Texas; India’s Jazz Yatra Festival; Lincoln Center; Manhattan Plaza; the Kool Jazz Festival and St. Peter’s Jazz Church in New York City. He has also worked with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Henry Mancini, Al Green, Patti LaBelle, Bette Midler’s Harlettes, Eubie Blake, Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Willy Nelson, Foreigner, the Manhattans, Leslie Uggams, Ruth Brown, Freda Payne, Eartha Kitt, Della Reese, Lena Horne, Savion Glover, Paul Simon, The Public Theatre, the Metropolitan Opera Guild, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Richard Allen Center for Culture and Art, the Morgan State Choir, the Harlem Gospel Singers, “American Idol” and President Barack Obama.
On the producing side he was on Fela!, Stick Fly, Mountain Top and The Trip to Bountiful. He also conceived and produced Black Stars of the Great White Way.
The Gospel According to Broadway, was a Chapman Roberts concept chronicling 300 years of African-American sacred music, was recognized in 2007 with a recording by the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Michael Terry Singers USA and the London Community Gospel Choirs.
T2C: When did you first move into Manhattan Plaza and how did you get into the building?
Chapman Roberts: I met Father Rodney Kirk at a concert for Mahalia Jackson at St. John The Divine. Rodney told me about Manhattan Plaza. When I retired, I moved back into the city. That was 15 years ago.
T2C: What are your fondest memories of living in the plaza?
Chapman Roberts: It is the care that is given by the staff and the administration. It is their hearts and the spirits that surround these buildings. It was designed to be a safe haven for the artist and it is precisely that.
T2C: Where you there during the AIDS crisis? Tell us about that time.
Chapman Roberts: When I heard about it, I directed benefit shows for AIDS victims. We would raise $30 000 a night at the Westside Arts. They would give us the space and Broadway actors would volunteer their time. At each benefit we would raise $30 – 40k, all going to The Actors Fund.
T2C: Who have you gotten close to in the building?
Chapman Roberts: Yolande Bavan, an actress from Sri Lanka who was with me in Salvation. She is a jazz singer. Sipho Kunene a South African percussionist who was with Harry Belafonte for years, Natalie Carter, a singer and an actress of film and TV. Sue Mingus, Terria Joseph, Peter Link who wrote Salvation lived here for a long time. Jeffrey Thompson who was in the orginal Eubie. Manhattan Plaza is full of residents who include: Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Basset, Norm Lewis, Maurice Hines, Donald Faison, Pauletta (Mrs Denzel) Washington, and a host of other “Black Stars of The Great White Way”.
T2C: What have been the biggest changes to the neighborhood and your business?
Chapman Roberts: That Theatre Row has truly achieved all of its aspirations. We can walk out of our door and there is an artistic awareness in the neighbor that exists only in pockets in the village. We are a village within a city. We are surrounded by each other and you never know of who you might see in the elevator. Jessie Norman’s photographer lived in the building so we use to see her. Chita Rivera’s family lives here. It is not uncommon to see tux’s worn by musicians going to concerts with their instruments strapped to their backs. There are rehearsal rooms you can sign up for. People are always rehearsing in The Duke Ellington Room. We are members of a large extended family.
T2C: What does living in the building allowed you to accomplish?
Chapman Roberts: It allows me to stand in the window and look out to the old Biltmore Theatre and see where I made my debut in Hair. Now it is MCC. I am on the 31st floor with an unobstructed view of the Theatre District. I am directly in front of the old New York Times building. That clock is my time piece. I can see the spire where the ball drops and from 9th to Central Park. I can see the old Madison Square Gardens, which is now New World Stages. I can see the hills of New Jersey, Weehawken, and all the other towns there. I see the ships arrive and where the plane crashed in 2015.
T2C: How does living in the building make you feel?
Chapman Roberts: Superior and lucky. A sense of elevated privilege, a sense of grandness that evokes emotions, gives inspiration. That contributes unobstructed energy that can free flow so you can receive it.
T2C: What would you change from your time living in Manhattan Plaza?
Chapman Roberts: I can’t think of anything I would change. I took a cabin in the hills of Guadalupe, where it was three miles to anything. I was invited to a home to eat and there in the home was a painting of all of Manhattan Plaza’s neighbors. This was their idea of nirvana and I was living it.
T2C: What is your fondest memory of New York?
Chapman Roberts: Appearing in Hello, Dolly! with Pearl Bailey and Cab Callaway. When I first came to New York I had standing room to see this show. When I saw Charles Nelson Reilly perform, I mumbled I want to do that. The people I was with laughed, because it was inconceivable that a black man could be cast in this show. Later on when I was in Salvation, one day I see an elegant woman step out of a cab in a autumn haze mink coat. I knew the color because my mother had one. I go into the theatre and it was Pearl Bailey who wanted to take the cast out for a Chinese dinner. I declined and went to lay down. Later on Pearl Bailey arrives at my dressing room with a brown paper bag and said, I’m going to take you to Broadway and your going to be my Cornelius. Days later after four days of rehearsals I was performing the role. As I was singing “It Only Takes a Moment” I saw in the balcony, where I had had this dream so long ago, myself, in both past and present. When I finished Mary Louise looked at me in awe, Cab Callaway told me I sang very pretty and the conductor applauded. I don’t know what I sang to this day.
T2C: What would you like us to know that we haven’t asked you?
Chapman Roberts: Put yourself in the position of all those not working on Broadway, because of this virus. Their shows have ben slammed down and thrown in their faces, the house has gone to black, they had to empty their dressing rooms and go back to the apartments they can no longer afford. The diiference is we here at Manhattan Plaza have found refuge. We are living the MP dream, because it was designed for times like these. Now the artist can still survive, so we can go onto create and to delve into our creative deposit. We almost never have resources or outlets available to us, which is the story of our lives. But with shutting down of the Great White Way going to black, in this virus/ plague Manhattan Plaza becomes urgently relevant in a new way and more than ever before.
The documentary Miracle on 42nd Street, is available on Amazon and will soon be available to stream.