Killing Me Softly with His Song
"Killing Me Softly with His Song" is a song composed by Charles Fox with lyrics by Norman Gimbel. The lyrics were written in collaboration with Lori Lieberman after she was inspired by a Don McLean performance in late 1971. Lieberman released her version of the song in 1972, but it did not chart. In 1973 it became a number-one hit in the United States and Canada for Roberta Flack, also reaching number six in the UK Singles Chart. The song has been covered by many artists; the version by Flack won the 1974 Grammy for Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, the version by Fugees won the 1997 Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
After decades of confirming Lieberman's important contribution to the song, Fox and Gimbel changed their version of the origin story, to downplay Lieberman's role. Gimbel threatened McLean with a lawsuit in 2008, to remove words from his website saying that McLean was the inspiration for "Killing Me Softly," but McLean dismissed the threat by showing Gimbel his own words confirming the inspiration, published in 1973.
Lori Lieberman version
Aspiring musician Lori Lieberman was 19 years old in 1971 when she was introduced to veteran songwriter Norman Gimbel and composer Charles Fox; the two men signed her to a management contract in which they would write her songs and manage her career, and take 20% of her income. The three shared a common Jewish heritage and Scorpio astrological signs, and they began to pool songwriting ideas. Gimbel also began an affair with Lieberman, even though he was 24 years older and married. They kept the affair a secret for years.
In November 1971, Lieberman, now 20, went out with her friend Michele Willens to see Don McLean perform at the Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles. McLean's hit song "American Pie" was rising in the charts, but Lieberman was strongly affected by McLean singing another song: "Empty Chairs". This song spurred her to write poetic notes on a paper napkin while he was performing the song. Willens confirms that Lieberman was "scribbling notes" on a napkin as soon as McLean began singing the song. After the concert, Lieberman phoned Gimbel to read him her napkin notes and share her experience of a singer reaching deep inside her world with his song. Lieberman's description reminded Gimbel of a song title that was already in his idea notebook, a title that contained "killing" and "softly". Gimbel expanded on Lieberman's notes, fleshing them out into song lyrics. Gimbel said in 1973 that "Her conversation fed me, inspired me, gave me some language and a choice of words." Gimbel passed these lyrics to Fox, who set them to music.
Lieberman recorded the song in late 1971 and released it as a single in 1972, produced by Gimbel and Fox. This version did not chart. Lieberman promoted the album by touring, and she always introduced the song "Killing Me Softly" by describing its origin in the McLean performance. Gimbel and Fox even wrote out for her this introduction of the song so that she could deliver it consistently at each performance. In 1973 in her first appearance on national television, Lieberman described this same origin story on The Mike Douglas Show after performing the song. When Lieberman toured through Canada in 1974 to promote her second album, Billboard magazine carried a public relations piece from Capitol Records about the three-way "song-producing team" of Lieberman/Gimbel/Fox, including a description of the Don McLean performance inspiring the song "Killing Me Softly". Gimbel was quoted saying that he relied on Lieberman to inspire his songwriting creativity since he had passed the most creative days of his youth: "Now I need a reason to write, and Lori is one of the best reasons a lyricwriter could have."
Don McLean said in 1973 that he was surprised to find out that the song described his singing. "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."
In the 1970s both Gimbel and Fox were in agreement with Lieberman about the song's origin at a McLean concert. Sean Derek, who worked for Gimbel and Fox as an assistant in the 1970s, confirmed that the two men would tell the McLean origin story "all the time". However, Gimbel and Fox changed their stories around 1997, to reduce or dismiss Lieberman's contribution.
In 1976, the Lieberman/Gimbel/Fox songwriting team turned sour. Gimbel had divorced his wife three years earlier, but Lieberman eventually stopped the sexual relationship she had with Gimbel because he "had become emotionally abusive, controlling and unfaithful." She asked to be freed of her contract. Gimbel and Fox directed their lawyers to demand $27,000 from Lieberman to pay expenses, and to demand another $250,000 of her future income. Lieberman's lawyer, Frederic Ansis, recalled later that Gimbel and Fox could have been "nice guys" like other managers in the industry who released their unsuccessful artists, but they chose the other route.
By 1997, Lieberman had long severed her ties to Gimbel, but she reconnected with Fox, who attended a concert of hers. Lieberman was interviewed by The New York Times about her recent songwriting work. In this interview she said that when she was young, Gimbel and Fox had been "very, very controlling. I felt like I was pushed on stage, and I was singing other people's material, although that material was based on my private diaries. I felt victimized for most of my early career." Fox never spoke to her again after this revelation.
In 2008, Gimbel demanded that McLean remove text from his website, the text saying that McLean was the inspiration for "Killing Me Softly". McLean did not remove the text; instead, McLean's lawyer sent Gimbel a copy of a 1973 New York Daily News article in which Gimbel is quoted and seems to agree with Lieberman's account. In the article, Lieberman is asked how the song came about and what its inspiration was.
"Don McLean," she said simply. "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.")
Gimbel's contribution supports Lieberman's stance:
"Lori is only 20 and she really is a very private person," he said. "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."
Lieberman then adds:
"Norman had a phrase he liked, 'killing me softly with his blues'", Lori went on to explain. "But I didn't feel the word "blues" was quite what the effect was. It wasn't contemporary enough, somehow. We talked about it a while and finally decided on the word "song" instead. It seemed right then when we did it."
Fox published a memoir in 2010, Killing Me Softly, My Life in Music, which contained nothing about the McLean performance inspiring the song, and downplayed Lieberman's role in the songwriting team. When Dan MacIntosh of Songfacts asked Fox in 2010 about the McLean origin story, Fox said, "I think it's called an urban legend. It really didn't happen that way." He described Gimbel and himself writing the song, then playing it for Lieberman later, who was reminded of McLean's singing. Fox said that "somehow the words got changed around so that we wrote it based on Don McLean..."
Gimbel described in 2010 how he had been introduced to the Argentinian-born composer Lalo Schifrin (then of Mission: Impossible fame) and began writing songs to a number of Schifrin's films. Both Gimbel and Schifrin made a suggestion to write a Broadway musical together, and Schifrin gave Gimbel an Argentinean novel—Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar—to read as a possible idea. The book was never made into a musical, but in chapter two, the narrator describes himself as sitting in a bar listening to an American pianist friend "kill us softly with some blues". Gimbel put the phrase in his notebook of song ideas for use at a future time.
Lieberman released a song in 2011 called "Cup of Girl" with lyrics about being used by someone who would "rifle through her diary" to write songs about her, who was dishonest, promiscuous and took advantage of her. Lieberman says that Gimbel contacted her after the song was published, sending angry emails, but Lieberman deleted the emails instead of responding to them. Gimbel died in 2018.
In 2020, Lieberman said she was not seeking money or official songwriting credit, she just wanted the world to know the correct origin of the song.
Roberta Flack version
|"Killing Me Softly with His Song"|
One of A-side labels of U.S. vinyl single
|Single by Roberta Flack|
|from the album Killing Me Softly|
|B-side||"Just Like a Woman"|
|Released||January 22, 1973|
|Recorded||November 17, 1972|
|Studio||Atlantic, New York City|
|Roberta Flack singles chronology|
German single picture sleeve
Lieberman was the first to record the song in late 1971, releasing it in early 1972. Helen Reddy has said she was sent the song, but "the demo... sat on my turntable for months without being played because I didn't like the title".
Roberta Flack first heard the song on an airplane, when the Lieberman original was featured on the in-flight audio program. After scanning the listing of available audio selections, Flack would recall: "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." Shortly afterwards Flack rehearsed the song with her band in the Tuff Gong Studios in Kingston, Jamaica, but did not then record it.
In September 1972, Flack was opening for Marvin Gaye at the Greek Theater; after performing her prepared encore song, Flack was advised by Gaye to sing an additional song. Flack later said, "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.'"
Released in January 1973, Flack's version spent a total of five non-consecutive weeks at number one in February and March, more weeks than any other record in 1973, being bumped to number 2 by The O'Jays' "Love Train" after four straight weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. Billboard ranked it as the No. 3 song for 1973. In April 1973, Canadian singer Anne Murray included her version of "Killing Me Softly" on her album titled Danny's Song.
Charles Fox suggested that Flack's version was more successful than Lieberman's because Flack's "version was faster and she gave it a strong backbeat that wasn't in the original". According to Flack: "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." The single appeared as the opening track of her Killing Me Softly album, issued in August 1973.
In 1999 Flack's version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It ranked number 360 on Rolling Stone's list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and number 82 on Billboard's greatest songs of all time.
|Australia (Kent Music Report)||1|
|Austria (Ö3 Austria Top 40)||19|
|Canada (RPM) Top Singles||1|
|Canada (RPM) Adult Contemporary||1|
|Netherlands (Dutch Top 40)||3|
|Switzerland (Schweizer Hitparade)||32|
|UK Singles (The Official Charts Company)||6|
|US Billboard Hot 100||1|
|US Hot R&B Singles||2|
|US Easy Listening||2|
|West Germany (Official German Charts)||30|
|US Billboard Hot 100||102|
|"Killing Me Softly"|
|Single by Fugees|
|from the album The Score|
|Released||May 31, 1996|
|Fugees singles chronology|
The hip-hop group Fugees covered the Flack version of the song (titled "Killing Me Softly") on their album, The Score (1996), with Lauryn Hill singing the lead vocals. The Fugees version became a hit, reaching number two on the U.S. airplay chart. The song topped the charts in the United Kingdom, where it became the country's biggest-selling single of 1996. It has since sold 1.36 million copies in Britain. The Fugees recording won the 1997 Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal and their video earned the MTV Video Music Award for Best R&B Video.
This version sampled the 1990 song, "Bonita Applebum" by A Tribe Called Quest from their debut album, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. A Tribe Called Quest had sampled the riff from the song, "Memory Band" from the psychedelic soul band, Rotary Connection, and their 1967 eponymous debut album. The Fugees single was so successful that the track was "deleted", thus no longer being supplied to retailers whilst the track was still in the top 20, in an effort to draw attention to their next single, "Ready or Not". Propelled by the success of the Fugees track, the 1972 recording by Roberta Flack was remixed in 1998 with the vocalist adding some new vocal flourishes: this version topped the Hot Dance Club Play chart. Since then, Flack and the Fugees have performed the song together. In 2008, "Killing Me Softly" was ranked number 25 on VH1's 100 Greatest Songs of Hip Hop and number 44 on its list of the "100 Greatest Songs of the '90s".
"Killing Me Softly" was the last song the Fugees recorded for The Score, after member Pras made the suggestion to cover it. They wanted to "see how we can create break beats. And of course, we all love A Tribe Called Quest and we went in like 'Okay, let's cut that sample.'" They then added a bass reggae drop. Initially, the Fugees wanted to change the lyrics of the song to make it anti-drugs and anti-poverty but the songwriters, Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox, refused.
The Fugees' version features "percussive rhythms" with "a synth sitar sound, Wyclef's blurted chants, Hill's vocal melisma on the scatted bridge, and a bombastic drum-loop track".
In January 1997, Spin described the song as "an instant classic, pumped out of every passing car from coast to coast, with Lauryn Hill's timeless voice never losing its poignant kick". Celebrating the album's 20th anniversary in February 2016, Billboard reviewed the song, saying: "It's a lovely cover that maintains the spirit of the original while taking the material in new directions."
Bounty Killer remix
- "Killing Me Softly" (Album Version W/Out Intro) – 4:03
- "Killing Me Softly" (Album Instrumental) – 4:03
- "Cowboys" (Album Version) – 3:35
- "Nappy Heads" (Remix) – 3:49
- "Killing Me Softly" (Album Version With Intro) – 4:16
- "Fu-Gee-La" (Refugee Camp Global Mix) – 4:15
- "Vocab" (Refugees Hip Hop Mix) – 4:07
- "Vocab" (Salaam's Acoustic Remix) – 5:54
Sales and certifications
|Australia (ARIA)||3× Platinum||210,000^|
|Austria (IFPI Austria)||Platinum||50,000*|
|Germany (BVMI)||2× Platinum||1,000,000^|
|Netherlands (NVPI)||2× Platinum||150,000^|
|New Zealand (RMNZ)||Platinum||10,000*|
|Norway (IFPI Norway)||Platinum|
|Switzerland (IFPI Switzerland)||Gold||25,000^|
|United Kingdom (BPI)||2× Platinum||1,200,000^|
*sales figures based on certification alone
- List of number-one singles in Australia during the 1970s
- List of RPM number-one singles of 1973
- List of number-one singles in 1973 (New Zealand)
- List of Hot 100 number-one singles of 1973 (U.S.)
- List of number-one singles in Australia during the 1990s
- List of number-one hits of 1996 (Austria)
- List of Dutch Top 40 number-one singles of 1996
- List of European number-one hits of 1996
- List of number-one hits of 1996 (France)
- List of number-one singles of 1996 (Ireland)
- List of number-one singles in 1996 (New Zealand)
- List of number-one singles from the 1990s (UK)
- List of number-one dance singles of 1996 (U.S.)
- List of Mainstream Top 40 number-one hits of 1996 (U.S.)
- List of Billboard Rhythmic number-one songs of the 1990s
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