Howard A. Roberts, a composer, conductor and musician whose wide-ranging activities included theater and TV work as a musical director, died March 10 in Chatsworth, Calif., of complications related to diabetes. He was 86.
Roberts was musical director of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and the Donald McKayle Dance companies and was musical director for Harry Belafonte. As an actor and singer, he created the role of Robbins in the 1952 international company of “Porgy and Bess” starring Leontyne Price, William Warfield and Cab Calloway. He was the first African American tenor soloist for the Robert Shaw Chorale.
Early performing experiences included playing trumpet in the bands of Lionel Hampton and Lucky Millinder and as both trumpet player and musical director for Cab Calloway.
In New York in the 1950s and 1960s he performed as a singer and actor in “Shinbone Alley” and “Carmen Jones.”
On Broadway, Mr. Roberts was musical director and conductor for the Tony Award-winning musical “Raisin,” the 1976 revival of “Guys and Dolls,” “Comin’ Uptown,” “The Wiz” and “Trumpets of the Lord” and was choral arranger for “The Great White Hope.”
TV credits as musical director or conductor include “The Strolling ’20s,” “Belafonte at the O’Keefe Center” and variety series “The Leslie Uggams Show” on CBS; and “The Duke Ellington Special” and “Alvin Ailey: Memories and Visions” on PBS. He drew Emmy nominations for 1972’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and 1983’s “In Performance at the White House,” both on PBS. His compositions include original scores for television, including “Cindy” on ABC, “Ten Blocks on the Camino Real” and “Black New World” on PBS, as well as the original score for the feature film “Lord Shango.”
Roberts produced recordings at Columbia Records for Tony Bennett, Diahann Carroll, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Rhetta Hughes, Bobby Scott, Barbra Streisand and Simon Estes. He also worked as arranger and/or conductor on recordings for Estes, as well as Lena Horne, Michel Legrand, Galt McDermott, the Roy Meriwether Trio, Billy Taylor, Pat Williams and the Broadway cast albums for “Raisin” and “Guys and Dolls.” He conceived, produced and conducted albums under his own name with the Howard Roberts Chorale: “Dream a Little Dream of Me” on Kapp Records and “Let My People Go: Black Spirituals/African Drums” on Columbia Records.
Roberts’ collaboration with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater began in 1958, including his creation of the musical score for the company’s signature ballet “Revelations” in 1960. He spent 15 years as musical director and conductor for the company.
Roberts composed the full-length musical theater piece “The Sun Do Move”; the score for the European tour of James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner”; the original musical “Blackbirds”; “Harlem Sweet” (from the works of Langston Hughes); “Black New World”; and the original score for the AMAS Repertory Theater production and of Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity.”
Born in Burlington, N.J., Roberts grew up in Cleveland. Roberts received his post-secondary education at Baldwin-Wallace College and Case Western Reserve U. and received his Bachelors of Music and Masters of Music from the Cleveland Institute of Music.
He was a member of AFTRA, the American Federation of Musicians and Actors Equity. He was also a member of the National Assn. of Negro Musicians.
Roberts’ wife of 47 years, singer-actress Doris Galiber, died in 2001. He is survived by a daughter, Kim Roberts Hedgpeth, national executive director of AFTRA;
a son, Brian; and two grandchildren.
A funeral service is scheduled for Saturday, March 19, at 10 a.m., at the Angelus Funeral Home in Los Angeles, to be followed by a memorial service in New York City at a date to be determined in late March.