Killing Me Softly....With This Song
Updated: May 26, 2019
I love the music of the 70s - it was the period of much of my childhood, and early teens. The popular song really evolved during this decade, with some of the greatest melodies and lyrics being written. When I perform I often include a cover song, and my favourite is from the 70s. It’s “Killing me softly with his song”, and it has an interesting story.
Norman Gimbel collaborated with Charles Fox; he had also worked with Lalo Schifrin of "Mission Impossible" fame. Both Gimbel and Schifrin had the idea of writing a musical together, and Schifrin thought of using the novel Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar which he passed on to Gimbel. The book was never made into a musical, but there is a passage where the main characterer describes himself as sitting in a bar listening to an American pianist friend 'kill us softly with some blues. Gimbel made a note of the idea for use at a future time with a bracket around word 'blues' and substituted the word 'song' instead.
According to Lori Lieberman, the artist who performed the original recording in 1971, the song came about from a poem she wrote after experiencing a strong reaction to the song "Empty Chairs," written, composed, and recorded by Don McLean. She then related this information to Gimbel, who took her feelings and put them into words. Then, Gimbel passed the words on to Charles Fox, who set them to music.
Don McLean said he didn’t know the song described him and, when asked about it, said “I’m absolutely amazed. I’ve heard both Lori’s and Roberta’s version and I must say I’m very humbled about the whole thing. You can’t help but feel that way about a song written and performed as well as this one is.”
Fox has denied that Lieberman had input into the song's creation, saying: "We [i.e. Gimbel and Fox] wrote the song and [Lieberman] heard it and said it reminded her of how she felt at [a Don McLean] concert. Don McLean didn't inspire Norman or me to write the song but even Don McLean thinks he's the inspiration for the song according to his official website!"
Don McLean supported Lieberman both on his website and at a concert he invited her to attend in 2010. However, it was not until a number of articles from the early 1970s came to light, all of them vindicating Lieberman, that the matter was resolved. In an article on 5 April, 1973 in the Daily News, Norman Gimbel was quoted as saying: "She [Lori Lieberman] told us about this strong experience she had listening to McLean ("I felt all flushed with fever / Embarrassed by the crowd / I felt he had found my letters / And read each one out loud / I prayed that he would finish / But he just kept right on…"). I had a notion this might make a good song so the three of us discussed it. We talked it over several times, just as we did for the rest of the numbers we wrote for this album and we all felt it had possibilities".
Probably the most well-known version of the song is the one recorded by Roberta Flack, which became a hit in 1973. Many other recordings followed, by artists such as Perry Como, the Jacksons, Johnny Mathis, Bobby Goldsboro, Anne Murray, Shirley Bassey, Luther Vandross, Amii Stewart, and John Holt who did a reggae version. The song was covered throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s - the most well-known later version was released in 1996 when the Fugees took it to the top of the charts in Britain, selling 1.36 million copies.
Just to prove that the song hasn’t gone out of fashion, I’ve recorded this video of my take on it – see if it passes muster! You can also view it on YouTube - https://youtu.be/KzAKFIq2HjM