The 'Killing Me Softly' story
I heard he sang a good song
I heard he had a style
And so I came to see him
To listen for a while....
Most people would be able to recognise that verse right away. Anyone within earshot of a radio or a jukebox over the last few months couldn’t miss hearing Roberta flack’s beautiful version of it, done with style and taste and just the right amount of world-weariness. She does it so well that any listener would think the song had been written just for her. But, oh, how wrong they would be!
The words were written by Norman Gimbel and set to music by Charles Fox, tailored specifically for the gentle unaffected voice of a young folk singer from the West Coast named Lori Leiberman. And what’s more the feelings described in it were Lori’s true feelings; the story is hers and the mood and thoughts were hers too. Even the first recording of the song was hers, though it was not until Roberta Flack cut her version that it became an international hit.
Lori was talking about it the other day. She’s happy the song has caught on, of course, but she’ll be less than human if she didn’t wish it was her version that made it so big.
The song is a strange plaintive one, a ballad in the dictionary definition of a ballad: ” a narrative composition in verse of strongly marked rythym, suitable for singing.” and I asked Lori how it came about – what or more specifically who was the inspiration for it, and her answer was so right. I wondered why I hadn’t realized it before.
“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.”)
Norman Gimbel picked up the story. “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.”
“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.”
It must have been. Capitol Records like it to so much they released it as a single as well as on the album. Billboard liked the album so much they selected Lori as their Star Awards artist.
Don McLean would like to meet her too. He didn’t know the song described him, and when asked about it, he 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.”
Lori you may have picked the wrong man. That certainly doesn’t sound like someone who’d kill you, however softly, with his song, now, does it?
Extracted from the Daily News, April 5, 1973
Lori Lieberman sings Killing Me Softly in July 2009