Killing Me Softly with His Song

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"Killing Me Softly with His Song" is a song composed by Charles Fox with lyrics by Norman Gimbel. The song was written in collaboration with Lori Lieberman, who recorded the song in late 1971. In 1973 it became a number-one hit, in US and Canada, for Roberta Flack, also reaching number six in the UK Singles Chart. The song has since been covered by numerous artists, including a version by the Fugees that won the 1997 Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.

Lori Lieberman version, disputed origins[edit]

Norman Gimbel came to California in the mid-1960s. He was introduced to the Argentinean-born composer Lalo Schifrin (then of Mission: Impossible fame) and began writing songs to a number of Schifrin's films.[1] 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".[1][2] Gimbel put the phrase in his "idea book" for use at a future time with a parenthesis around the word "blues" and substituted the word "song" instead.[3]

According to Lori Lieberman, who performed the original recording in 1971, the song was born of a poem she wrote after experiencing a strong reaction to the Don McLean song "Empty Chairs."[4][5] She then related this information to Gimbel, who took her feelings and put them into words. Then Gimbel passed the words to Fox, who set them to music.[6]

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."

Nevertheless, Fox has repudiated Lieberman's having input into the song's creation, saying: "We [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."[7]

Don McLean validated Lieberman both on his website and from the stage of a concert which he invited her to attend in 2010. However, the matter only reached an unequivocal conclusion when contemporaneous articles from the early 1970s were exhumed, all of them vindicating Lieberman. In an April 5, 1973 article in the Daily News, Norman Gimbel was quoted as follows: "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".[8]

Roberta Flack version[edit]

"Killing Me Softly with His Song"
Killing Me Softly with His Song by Roberta Flack US vinyl.png
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 21, 1973
Format 7" single
Recorded November 17, 1972
Genre Soul
Length 4:46
Label Atlantic
Writer(s)
Producer(s) Joel Dorn
Certification Gold
Roberta Flack singles chronology
"Where Is the Love"
(1972)
"Killing Me Softly with His Song"
(1973)
"Jesse"
(1973)
Alternative release
German vinyl single

Lieberman was the first to record the song in late 1971, releasing it in early 1972.[9] 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."[10]

Roberta Flack first heard the song on an airline, 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.[11]

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 – "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.""[12]

Released in January 1973, Flack's version spent a total of five non-consecutive weeks, more weeks than any other record in 1973, at #1, in February and March, 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.[13]

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."[7] 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."[14] Flack plays electric piano on the track. The bass is played by Ron Carter, the guitar by Hugh McCracken and the drums by Ray Lucas.[citation needed] The single appeared as the opening track of the album of the same name, issued in August 1973.

Flack won the 1973 Grammy Award for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, for the single, with Gimbel and Fox earning the Song of the Year Grammy.

In 1996 a house remix of Flack's version went to number one on the US dance chart.[15]

In 1999 Flack's version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.[16] 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.[17]

Chart performance[edit]

Weekly[edit]

Chart (1973) Peak
position
Austria (Ö3 Austria Top 40)[18] 19
Canada (RPM)[19] 1
Germany (Official German Charts)[20] 30
Ireland (IRMA) 10
Netherlands (Dutch Top 40)[21] 3
Norway (VG-lista)[22] 4
Switzerland (Schweizer Hitparade)[23] 32
UK Singles (The Official Charts Company)[24] 6
US Billboard Hot 100[25] 1
US Hot R&B Singles[25] 2
US Hot Adult Contemporary Singles[25] 2

All-time[edit]

Chart Position
US Billboard Hot 100[26] 92
Preceded by
"Crocodile Rock" by Elton John
Billboard Hot 100 number-one single
February 24, 1973 (four weeks)
Succeeded by
"Love Train" by The O'Jays
Preceded by
"Love Train" by The O'Jays
Billboard Hot 100 number-one single
March 31, 1973 (one week)
Succeeded by
"The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" by Vicki Lawrence

Fugees version[edit]

"Killing Me Softly"
Kmsoftlyfugees.jpg
Single by Fugees
from the album The Score
Released May 31, 1996
Format CD single
Recorded 1995
Genre Hip hop soul
Length
  • 4:58 (album version)
  • 4:16 (radio edit)
  • 4:00 (radio edit: without intro)
Label Ruffhouse
Producer(s)
Fugees singles chronology
"Fu-Gee-La"
(1996)
"Killing Me Softly"
(1996)
"Ready or Not"
(1996)

Hip hop group Fugees covered the song (as simply "Killing Me Softly") on their 1996 album The Score, with Lauryn Hill singing the lead vocals. Their 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.[27] 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.[28]

This version sampled the 1990 song "Bonita Applebum" by A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) from their debut album People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. ATCQ themselves had sampled the riff from the song "Memory Band" from psychedelic soul band Rotary Connection's 1967 eponymous debut album. The Fugees single was so successful that the track was 'deleted' and thus no longer supplied to retailers whilst the track was still in the top 20 so that attention could be drawn to the next single, "Ready or Not". Propelled by the success of the Fugees track, the 1972 recording by Roberta Flack was remixed in 1996 with the vocalist adding some new vocal flourishes: this version topped the Hot Dance Club Play chart. Flack and the Fugees have performed the song together since then.[29] In 2008, "Killing Me Softly" was ranked number 25 on VH1's 100 Greatest Songs of Hip Hop and #44 on its list of the "100 Greatest Songs of the '90s."

Background[edit]

"Killing Me Softly" was the last song the Fugees recorded for The Score, after member Pras Michael 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.[30] Initially, the Fugees wanted to change the lyrics of the song to make it about anti-drugs and anti-poverty but the songwriters Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox refused.[31]

Composition[edit]

The Fugees' version features "percussive rhythms" with "a synth sitar sound, Wyclef's blurted chants, Hill's vocal melisma on the scatted bridage, and a bombastic drum-loop track."[32]

Critical reception[edit]

In January 1997, Spin called the song "an instant classic, pumped out of every passing car from coast to coast, with Lauryn Hill's timeless voice never losing its poignant kick".[33] 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."[34]

Music video[edit]

The video, directed by Aswad Ayinde[35] and based on Lauryn Hill's ideas, never came out commercially in America.[36] It features Roberta Flack.[32][37]

Bounty Killer remix[edit]

The Fugees recorded a dancehall version with Bounty Killer who was rapping and Hill singing a rewritten chorus. However, they did not receive permission to release it on The Score.[29]

Track listing[edit]

UK CD1
  1. "Killing Me Softly" (Album Version W/Out Intro) – 4:03
  2. "Killing Me Softly" (Album Instrumental) – 4:03
  3. "Cowboys" (Album Version) – 3:35
  4. "Nappy Heads" (Remix) – 3:49
UK CD2
  1. "Killing Me Softly" (Album Version With Intro) – 4:16
  2. "Fu-Gee-La" (Refugee Camp Global Mix) – 4:15
  3. "Vocab" (Refugees Hip Hop Mix) – 4:07
  4. "Vocab" (Salaam's Acoustic Remix) – 5:54

Chart performance[edit]

Chart (1996–97) Peak
position
Australia (ARIA)[38] 1
Austria (Ö3 Austria Top 40)[39] 1
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)[40] 1
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Wallonia)[41] 1
Canada (RPM)[42] 6
Denmark (IFPI) 1
Europe (Eurochart Hot 100) 1
Finland (Suomen virallinen lista)[43] 1
France (SNEP)[44] 1
Germany (Official German Charts)[45] 1
Ireland (IRMA) 1
Italy (FIMI) 1
Netherlands (Dutch Top 40)[46] 1
New Zealand (Recorded Music NZ)[47] 1
Norway (VG-lista)[48] 1
Spain (AFYVE)[49] 8
Sweden (Sverigetopplistan)[50] 1
Switzerland (Schweizer Hitparade)[51] 1
UK Singles (Official Charts Company)[52] 1
US Adult Contemporary (Billboard)[53] 30
US Adult Top 40 (Billboard)[54] 20
US Dance Club Songs (Billboard)[55] 48
US Mainstream Top 40 (Billboard)[56] 1
US Radio Songs (Billboard)[57] 2
Preceded by
"Three Lions" by Baddiel and Skinner and The Lightning Seeds
UK Singles Chart Number 1 single
June 2, 1996 – June 30, 1996
(four weeks)
Succeeded by
"Three Lions" by Baddiel and Skinner and The Lightning Seeds
Preceded by
"Three Lions" by Baddiel and Skinner and The Lightning Seeds
UK Singles Chart Number 1 single
July 7, 1996 – July 13, 1996
(one week)
Succeeded by
"Forever Love" by Gary Barlow

Other versions and usage in media[edit]

In 1988 Al B Sure covered "Killing Me Softly" on his debut album In Effect Mode.

In 1975, an instrumental version of "Killing Me Softly" served as the main musical theme of the film The Drowning Pool, starring Paul Newman. Charles Fox received credit as composer and conductor.

In the 2002 film About a Boy, starring Hugh Grant, the song features in the climactic scene, sung "live on stage" by two of the lead characters.

A Eurodance version was covered by Brazilian singer Regina Saraiva in 1996. This version became a club hit across Europe.[citation needed]

Bassist Marcus Miller covered the song live on two of his albums

  • The Ozell Tapes: The Official Bootleg (2003),[58]
  • Master of All Trades (2007) with special guest Roberta Flack.

Charts on which "Killing Me Softly" reached number one[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Davis, Sheila (1984). The Craft of Lyric Writing. Writers Digest Books. p. 13. ISBN 0-89879-149-9. Retrieved 22 September 2010. 
  2. ^ Cortázar, Julio (1966). Hopscotch. Pantheon Books. p. 15. ISBN 0-394-75284-8. 
  3. ^ "The "Killing Me Softly" Story". Don-mclean.com. 21 January 2009. Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  4. ^ January 21, 2009 (2009-01-21). "The "Killing Me Softly" Story". Don-mclean.com. Retrieved 2016-10-08. 
  5. ^ Lori Lieberman - Killing Me Softly (The Story Behind) on YouTube
  6. ^ Billboard Magazine, June 22, 1974. p. 53
  7. ^ a b Daeida February 2012. p. 11
  8. ^ O'Haire, Patricia “A Killer of a Song,” Daily News
  9. ^ Cad, Saint. "Top 10 Famous Songs With Unknown Originals". listverse.com. Retrieved 21 June 2013. 
  10. ^ Reddy, Helen. The Woman I Am. Penguin Group, New York, NY. ISBN 1-58542-489-7. p. 158
  11. ^ Fox, Charles. Killing Me Softly: My Life In Music. Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD. ISBN 978-0-8108-6991-2. (2010) p. X
  12. ^ "Roberta Flack Recalls Debuting "Killing Me Softly" At The Greek Theatre With Marvin Gaye « 94.7 The WAVE – Smooth R&B". 947thewave.radio.com. 27 April 2011. Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  13. ^ Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1973
  14. ^ Cresswell, Toby. 1001 Songs. Hardie Grant Books, Pahran, Aus. ISBN 978-1-74066-458-5. (2005) p. 388
  15. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2004). Hot Dance/Disco: 1974-2003. Record Research. p. 100. 
  16. ^ "GRAMMY Hall Of Fame". GRAMMY.org. Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  17. ^ [1] Archived 29 December 2012 at the Wayback Machine.
  18. ^ "Austriancharts.at – Roberta Flack – Killing Me Softly with His Song" (in German). Ö3 Austria Top 40.
  19. ^ "Item Display - RPM - Library and Archives Canada". Collectionscanada.gc.ca. Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  20. ^ "Musicline.de – Roberta Flack Single-Chartverfolgung" (in German). Media Control Charts. PhonoNet GmbH.
  21. ^ "Nederlandse Top 40 – Roberta Flack search results" (in Dutch) Dutch Top 40.
  22. ^ "Norwegiancharts.com – Roberta Flack – Killing Me Softly with His Song". VG-lista.
  23. ^ "Swisscharts.com – Roberta Flack – Killing Me Softly with His Song". Swiss Singles Chart.
  24. ^ "Killing Me Softly With His Song". Official UK Charts Co. Retrieved 26 April 2016. 
  25. ^ a b c Purple Rain > Charts & Awards > Billboard Singles at AllMusic. Retrieved 4 October 2011.
  26. ^ Bronson, Fred (August 2, 2013). Hot 100 55th Anniversary: The All-Time Top 100 Songs. Billboard.com. Retrieved November 7, 2013.
  27. ^ Ami Sedghi (4 November 2012). "UK's million-selling singles: the full list". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 November 2012. 
  28. ^ "The Year in Music - Band of the Year". Spin. Camouflage Associates: 54. January 1997. 
  29. ^ a b Various Mojo Magazine (November 1, 2007). The Mojo Collection: 4th Edition. Canongate Books. p. 626. Retrieved August 9, 2016. 
  30. ^ "Fugees Producer Jerry Wonder Talks About The 16th Anniversary of "The Score"". Complex. February 14, 2012. Retrieved August 9, 2016. 
  31. ^ Iandoli, Kathy (February 22, 2016). "Inside Fugees' The Score, 20 Years Later, With Its Collaborators". Pitchfork. Retrieved August 9, 2016. 
  32. ^ a b Weisbard, Eric (2007). Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music. Duke University Press. p. 194. Retrieved August 9, 2016. 
  33. ^ "The Year in Music - Band of the Year". Spin: 54. January 1997. Retrieved August 9, 2016. 
  34. ^ Partridge, Kenneth (February 13, 2016). "Fugees' 'The Score' at 20: Classic Track-by-Track Album Review". Billboard. Retrieved August 9, 2016. 
  35. ^ Tardio, Andres (July 29, 2013). "The Fugees' "Killing Me Softly" Video Director Sentenced To 50 Years In Prison For Sexual Assault". HipHopDX. Retrieved August 9, 2016. 
  36. ^ Coleman, Brian (March 12, 2009). Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies. New York: Random House Publishing Group. p. 218. Retrieved August 9, 2016. 
  37. ^ Fox, Charles (2010). Killing Me Softly: My Life in Music. Scarecrow Press. p. x. Retrieved August 10, 2016. 
  38. ^ "Australian-charts.com – Fugees – Killing Me Softly". ARIA Top 50 Singles.
  39. ^ "Austriancharts.at – Fugees – Killing Me Softly" (in German). Ö3 Austria Top 40.
  40. ^ "Ultratop.be – Fugees – Killing Me Softly" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50.
  41. ^ "Ultratop.be – Fugees – Killing Me Softly" (in French). Ultratop 50.
  42. ^ "Item Display - RPM - Library and Archives Canada". Collectionscanada.gc.ca. Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  43. ^ "Fugees: Killing Me Softly" (in Finnish). Musiikkituottajat – IFPI Finland.
  44. ^ "Lescharts.com – Fugees – Killing Me Softly (With His Song)" (in French). Les classement single.
  45. ^ "Musicline.de – Fugees Single-Chartverfolgung" (in German). Media Control Charts. PhonoNet GmbH.
  46. ^ "Nederlandse Top 40 – Fugees search results" (in Dutch) Dutch Top 40.
  47. ^ "Charts.org.nz – Fugees – Killing Me Softly". Top 40 Singles.
  48. ^ "Norwegiancharts.com – Fugees – Killing Me Softly". VG-lista.
  49. ^ Salaverri, Fernando (September 2005). Sólo éxitos: año a año, 1959–2002 (1st ed.). Spain: Fundación Autor-SGAE. ISBN 84-8048-639-2. 
  50. ^ "Swedishcharts.com – Fugees – Killing Me Softly (With His Song)". Singles Top 100.
  51. ^ "Swisscharts.com – Fugees – Killing Me Softly". Swiss Singles Chart.
  52. ^ "Fugees: Artist Chart History" Official Charts Company.
  53. ^ "Fugees – Chart history" Billboard Adult Contemporary for Fugees.
  54. ^ "Fugees – Chart history" Billboard Adult Pop Songs for Fugees.
  55. ^ "Fugees – Chart history" Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs for Fugees.
  56. ^ "Fugees – Chart history" Billboard Pop Songs for Fugees.
  57. ^ "Fugees – Chart history" Billboard Radio Songs for Fugees.
  58. ^ "The Ozell Tapes: The Official Bootleg overview". Allmusic.com. 

External links[edit]