"Killing Me Softly With His Song" - The Woman Behind The Song With The Release of Her 19th Album,
"Killing Me Softly With His Song" first appeared on Lori Lieberman's debut self-titled album and was later recorded by Roberta Flack. This year Flack will make a rare public appearance at the GRAMMY Awards where she will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award celebrating her outstanding contributions of artistic significance to the field of recording which includes her GRAMMY Award winning performance of "Killing Me Softly With His Song." Flack's recording topped the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks and won three GRAMMY Awards: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. The Fugees recorded the song in 1996 where it topped the charts internationally.
The song, one of the greatest successes of Flack's career, remarkably grew from a poem on a napkin written by acclaimed singer-songwriter Lori Lieberman. It was in 1971 at the Troubadour, where Lieberman saw Don McLean singing. His performance of "Empty Chairs" touched her soul and it inspired her to express her feelings by writing a poem on a napkin that night. The tear-stained note included the lines "I felt like everyone was looking at me, like he was reading pages from my diary."
When she got back to her apartment later, she called her producer/manager/lyricist and romantic interest Norman Gimbel, and read the poem to him. At the time, Lieberman was signed to an all-encompassing contract with Fox/Gimbel Productions, who would act as her producers, managers, publishers, and songwriters - much the way that Dionne Warwick was signed to Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Gimbel already had the title, "Killing Me Softly with his Blues" that he had taken from a novel and had jotted down in his notebook of ideas, and he thought Lieberman's poem and the title would go well together.
Over the next few days Gimbel and Lieberman spoke on the phone to make sure the lyric was just right and honestly reflected her experience. In a 1973 New York Daily News interview, Gimbel said "She told us about this strong experience she had listening to McLean. I had a notion this might make a good song... 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." The lyric was set to music by his partner, Charles Fox. The three of them - Fox, Gimbel, and Lieberman - worked together on the song. Lieberman was instrumental not only lyrically but structurally, as Gimbel and Fox had wanted to add another song within that song, which would have changed the essence of the composition; Lieberman talked them out of it.
She recorded "Killing Me Softly With His Song" on her self-titled debut album for Capitol Records, but shockingly she was not credited as a songwriter. This was no accident. Lieberman, a young woman romantically involved with a manager who was twice her age, did not think to ask for the money or the credit she deserved. Gimbel often reassured her that all of her business was being handled appropriately and there was no need for concern.
In 1972, Lieberman was the featured artist on American Airlines in-flight music programming, and Flack fortuitously heard the original recording of "Killing Me Softly With His Song." Flack recently told the Wall Street Journal, "I probably heard it four times on the flight. The lyrics were haunting and the chord changes were lush. I could feel the song and knew I could tell the song's story my way. Parts of the song reminded me of my life, of the pain that comes with loving someone deeply, of feeling moved by music, which is the universal language. More than anything, music makes us feel."
As the song grew in success, Gimbel and Fox did interviews discrediting Lieberman's version of events, though her contribution was obvious.
Lieberman released four albums on Capitol Records and had just embarked on a four-year extension to her production/management contract with Fox/Gimbel when the personal relationship with Gimbel began to deteriorate. When Lieberman asked to be released from her contract, attorneys for Fox/Gimbel demanded monies from touring costs which prevented her from recording independently for four years.
For the most part, Lieberman stayed out of the music business for 15 years and returned in 1994 with an award-winning album, A Thousand Dreams, that featured her own compositions. In total, she has recorded 19 albums. Her most recent release, The Girl and the Cat, highlights Lieberman's compositions and orchestrations for the renown Dutch string ensemble, The Matangi Quartet, who performed with her at her 2019 concert at Carnegie Hall.
The 13-song album highlights her composing and orchestrating skills. Hailed as "a masterpiece" by Heaven Magazine, and an album choice in Hi Fi Magazine. The Girl and the Cat touches on a range of subjects from substance abuse of a daughter, to a widow's 9/11 memoir, an empowering anthem to women, a sister's reckoning, and love found and lost.
Although the success of "Killing Me Softly With His Song" was a significant event in the lives and careers of both women, Lori Lieberman and Roberta Flack had never met until this past year. While Lieberman was in New York City in October 2019 for a performance at the famed Carnegie Hall, she visited Flack's home to finally meet the singer. Says Lieberman, "After so long, it was very meaningful for me. to finally have the chance to meet the woman who carried my song to the world."
"It was so wonderful to meet Lori and all that I expected it to be," says Flack, "Lori comes across as a star. She is a Star!"
The Girl and the Cat features 11 new Lieberman originals and two covers. Most significantly, included is her recording of the Don McLean song "Empty Chairs."
The story of her genesis regarding the writing of "Killing Me Softly With His Song" comes full circle this spring when Lieberman returns to the Troubadour in Los Angeles on April 14 to celebrate her newest work and to perform some of the songs from her 19 albums. And mostly to celebrate the girl she was and the woman she has become. On her own terms.
For further information: www.lorilieberman.com