Killing Me Softly original
From the Killing Me Softly original to two hit covers
Composer Charles Fox and lyricist Norman Gimbel wrote “Killing Me Softly with His Song” in collaboration with Lori Lieberman. Lieberman found her inspiration for the song after seeing Don McLean perform at a concert in 1971. She released the “Killing Me Softly” original in 1972, but it didn’t chart. And in later years Fox and Gimbel downplayed her contribution to the song. A year later, Roberta Flack’s Grammy-winning version of “Killing Me Softly” came out. Then in 1996, the Fugees released another hit version of the song.
The Gimbel/Fox/Lieberman songwriting team
Aspiring musician Lieberman met Fox and Gimbel in 1971. Fox and Gimbel were already veterans, and would soon go on to writing theme songs for well-known television programs like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. Lieberman was 19 years old and a beginner in the music industry. The three bonded over their common Jewish heritage and Scorpio star signs. They pooled songwriting ideas, and Lieberman signed a contract for Fox and Gimbel to manage her music career in exchange for 20% of her income. At the same time, married-man Gimbel commenced an affair with Lieberman, who was 24 years his junior. The affair remained a secret for many years.
Don McLean inspiration
In late 1971, Lieberman saw McLean perform at the Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles. “American Pie” was doing well on the charts, but Lieberman was more affected by another song, “Empty Chairs”.
I saw him at the Troubadour in LA last year. (‘And there he was this young boy, a stranger to my eyes.’) I had heard about him from some friends but up to then all I knew about him really was what others had told me. But I was moved by his performance, by the way he developed his numbers, he got right through to me. (‘Strumming my pain with his fingers, killing me softly with his song, telling my whole life with his words.’)”Lori Lieberman
Lieberman jotted some lines of poetry on a napkin as McLean performed. Her friend, Michele Willens, who attended the concert with Lieberman, confirmed this. Later, Lieberman told Gimbel about the concert and read him the notes she took on the napkin. What she read reminded him of a possible song title he’d written down, a title containing the words “killing” and “softly”. Gimbel wrote the “Killing Me Softly” lyrics for Fox to set to music. But it was Lieberman’s notes that inspired Gimbel.
Her conversation fed me, inspired me, gave me some language and a choice of words.”Norman Gimbel, 1973
Gimbel and Fox even wrote an introduction about the song’s origins at the McLean concert for Lieberman to deliver whenever she performed the “Killing Me Softly” original live.
A controlling relationship
Lieberman was a lot younger than Gimbel and Fox, and a lot less experienced in the music industry. However, she soon started to find the duo very controlling. Around 1976, the songwriting team’s relationship turned sour. Lieberman asked to be freed from her contract. Gimbel and Fox sued Lieberman for breach of contract and prevented her from recording independently.
They said I owed them $27,000, and at the time that was more money than I had ever seen. They prevented me from recording for three-and-a-half years. Every time I got close to a deal a letter followed saying, ‘She cannot record with you unless you pay us back.’ That was right in the prime of my career.”Lori Lieberman
Downplaying Lori Lieberman’s contribution
Although they’d always confirmed Lieberman’s contribution to the “Killing Me Softly” original, by the time the Fugees version came out Gimbel and Fox changed their story and downplayed Lieberman’s role. Then in 2008, Gimbel threated McLean with a lawsuit, demanding he remove the assertion on his website that he was Lieberman’s inspiration for the song. McLean responded by showing Gimbel his original words, published in 1973.
Lori is only 20 and she really is a very private person. She 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 kept just 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 with the rest of the numbers we wrote for the album and we all felt it had possibilities.”Norman Gimbel, 1973
In 2020, Lieberman spoke about how she never sought payment for co-writing the “Killing Me Softly” original or even a songwriting credit. She just wanted the world to know about the song’s correct origins.
I feel my integrity is on the line, a lot of people publicly are saying now, ‘We’ll never know the truth,’ and oh gosh, I don’t know why they changed it. I never asked for a penny, for anything, I just wanted the correct story to be told.”Lori Lieberman
Lori Lieberman’s legacy
It would be 20 years before Lieberman returned to recording music, although she continued to write songs while raising her family.
In the “Killing Me Softly” original, Lieberman sings in a voice that sounds decidedly mature for her young age. There is a longish instrumental introduction that isn’t heard in Flack’s cover. The accompanying guitar and piano are lovely. I found Lieberman’s “Killing Me Softly” original more folk when compared with Flack’s soul version.
Last week I had the pleasure of meeting the brilliant and lovely singer, songwriter Lori Lieberman (Killing Me Softly). A long time coming and very moving for both of us.”Roberta Flack, Facebook, October 2019
Roberta Flack discovers the Killing Me Softly original
Flack first heard the “Killing Me Softly” original on an aeroplane. She checked the in-flight audio program for the song’s title.
The title, of course, smacked me in the face. I immediately pulled out some scratch paper, made musical staves [then] play[ed] the song at least eight to ten times jotting down the melody that I heard. When I landed, I immediately called Quincy [Jones] at his house and asked him how to meet Charles Fox. Two days later I had the music.”Roberta Flack
Performing and recording Killing Me Softly
A few months later, Flack opened for Marvin Gaye at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. For the encore Gaye asked Flack to sing something in addition to the song she’d already selected.
I said well, I got this song I’ve been working on called ‘Killing Me Softly…’ and he said ‘Do it, baby.’ And I did it and the audience went crazy, and he walked over to me and put his arm around me and said, ‘Baby, don’t ever do that song again live until you record it.'”Roberta Flack
Flack worked in the studio on “Killing Me Softly” for three months. She played around with different chord structures until she got the sound just right. Unlike Lieberman’s version, she choose to end the song on a major chord.
Roberta Flack’s successful cover
Flack’s recording of “Killing Me Softly” featured as the opening track on her 1973 album, also titled Killing Me Softly. The song became a number-one hit in the US and Canada. The number three Billboard song for all of 1973, “Killing Me Softly” spent five non-consecutive weeks at number one in February and March, longer than any other song that year. “Killing Me Softly” won Flack the 1974 Grammy for Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Gimbel and Fox won the Grammy for Song of the Year.
“Killing Me Softly” ranked number 360 on Rolling Stone‘s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. In 1996, a house remix of Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” reached number one on the US dance chart. Three years later the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Fox suggested that Flack’s version of “Killing Me Softly” enjoyed more success than Lieberman’s because it was “faster and she gave it a strong backbeat that wasn’t in the original”.
My classical background made it possible for me to try a number of things with [the song’s arrangement]. I changed parts of the chord structure and chose to end on a major chord. [The song] wasn’t written that way.”Roberta Flack
Unlike Lieberman’s original version, Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” opens right away with her vocals. The start of the song has a hymn feeling to it before transitioning into more of a soul sound. Flack sings effortlessly and it is obvious why this song is such an enduring hit.
The Fugees covered “Killing Me Softly” for their second and final studio album, 1996’s The Score. Lauryn Hill sang lead vocals. The group originally wanted to change the song’s lyrics to be anti-drugs and anti-poverty but Gimbel and Fox refused. It would have been interesting to hear these reworked lyrics.
The Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly” reached number two in the US. It was 1996’s top-selling single in the UK. In 1997, the song won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. In 2008, the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly” ranked number 25 on VH1’s “100 Greatest Songs of Hip Hop” and number 44 on their “100 Greatest Songs of the 90s”.
The accompanying music video, directed by Aswad Ayinde and based on Hill’s ideas, featured Flack. Despite never coming out commercially, it won the MTV Video Music Award for Best R&B Video.
The Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly” features a bass reggae drop, a synth sitar sound and rapping by Wyclef. While Hill Fugees’ sings in a similar style to Flack, the overall song has more of a modern R&B edge.
It’s a shame Lieberman’s “Killing Me Softly” original didn’t do as well as the other two versions. In its own way, it’s equally good. It seems like Lieberman was taken advantage of by Gimbel and Fox. I wonder if her version of the song would have had more success had the three enjoyed a fairer working relationship.