This is the 36th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
In the second chapter of Julio Cortázar’s novel “Hopscotch”, the narrator described sitting in a bar listening to a pianist try to “kill us softly with some blues.” Lyricist Norman Gimbel read that phrase and put that in his idea notebook as a possibility to use in the future.
He did, the result being “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” which was arranged by composer Charles Fox and performed by singer Lori Lieberman on her 1972 self-titled album.
The song detailed the narrator’s experience of being moved by a singer’s live performance:
He sang as if he knew me, in all my dark despair
And then, he looked right through me as if I wasn’t there
But he was there, a stranger singing clear and strong
Strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song, killing me softly with his song
Telling my whole life with his words, killing me softly with his song
But who contributed to the song (and who inspired it) has been debated.
According to Lieberman, Gimbel wrote the song based on Lieberman’s description of being deeply moved at a Don McLean concert. Among those words were “killing me softly with his blues,” from Cortázar’s novel. Lieberman was apprehensive about “blues,” and after some discussion, that was changed to “song.” Fox then took Gimbel’s words and set them to music.
Fox dismissed that, saying in the February 2012 issue of DAEIDA Magazine, “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.”
Gimbel has also rejected Lieberman’s recollections, but in doing so, he contradicted himself. In a 1973 Daily News article, Gimbel said, “She [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.”
Who wrote it or what inspired it only became an issue because the song’s cover versions became famous. The first big cover of the song came from singer Roberta Flack, who first heard Lieberman’s version on a plane in an in-flight audio program:
“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.”
Flack held off on actually recording it, but when she performed it when touring with Marvin Gaye, the crowd loved it. Gaye told her, “Don’t ever do that song again live until you record it.”
So she recorded it, releasing it in January 1973. It spent five non-consecutive weeks at Number One. Flack won the 1973 Grammy Award for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, and Gimbel and Fox received the Song of the Year Grammy. Fox has suggested that Flack had more success with the song because her version was “faster and she gave it a strong backbeat that wasn’t in the original.”
Over the next few years, “Killing Me Softly With His Song” was covered several times. And by some pretty big names, too. Thing is, a good number of them sounded pretty similar. There was Johnny Mathis’ version…
…and Anne Murray’s version…
…and Shirley Bassey’s version over soft guitar…
…and Perry Como’s version over soaring strings…
…and this pretty similar version by Andy Williams…
…and this version by Engelbert Humperdinck…
Well, you get the idea. These were serviceable versions by adept singers, but the arrangements felt similar and very little changed, except for a piano variation here, a minor guitar note here. Which is fine, as Fox’s arrangement was a good one. But none of these versions stood out in a way to separate itself from the long shadow cast by Flack’s version. The most notable changes were that Como, Williams, and Humperdinck changed the gender of the singer. Any one of them would have fit in perfectly at a ’70s prom.
This is not to say that these covers were cookie cutter duplicates or that none of the versions strayed creatively.
Ray Conniff and The Singers’s pretty “There Was a Girl/Killing Me Softly With His Song” added a second song, “There Was a Girl.” Much like Anne Murray’s and Glen Campbell’s medley of “I Say A Little Prayer” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “There Was a Girl/Killing Me Softly With His Song” was a call and response between two singers. The male sang the parts of “There Was a Girl” between lines of “Killing Me Softly With His Song” sung by a woman.
Guitarist Charlie Byrd, apparently one of the few dudes comfortable with leaving “his” in the song’s title, recorded an instrumental version for his 1974 album “Byrd by the Sea.” The track included the Brazilian bossa nova and Latin jazz touches for which he would be remembered. On paper, it might seem odd to have an instrumental version of a song that had been written about a singer, but Byrd played in such a way that you could tell he was moved and inspired. He didn’t need words to convey what his guitar could say more effectively.
Bobby Vinton, perhaps best known for his cover of Tony Bennett’s “Blue Velvet,” released a version of “Killing Me Softly With Her Song” on “The Bobby Vinton Show,” an album of songs from his TV variety show. Its peppy instrumental track, combined with Vinton’s vocals, separated it from some of the more subdued versions that came out around the same time.
Brenda Lee, whom we last discussed when reviewing “Always On My Mind,” added horns, electric guitars, and some country twang to her version “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” The additions were subtle, but enough to separate it from the other versions by big names.
Japanese jazz singer Kimiko Kasai recorded an R&B version for her 1984 album, “Love Talk.” Channeling the funk and soul of Rose Royce, Kasai played up the line “Killin’ me softly” and added an infectious “Killin’ me, killin’ me, killin’ me, killin’ me.” It wasn’t exactly dance club material, but it had more swagger to it than previous versions.
Speaking of “swagger,” Mina had injected a whole lot of it into her version of “Into The Groove” that we recently reviewed. In comparison, her “Killing Me Softly With His Song” sounded muted and dialed back. It wasn’t meek, of course, but it didn’t fully showcase the potential of Mina’s soprano voice and three-octave range.
R&B singer Al B. Sure! included “Killing Me Softly” on his debut album, “In Effect Mode.” Like the new jack swing Sure! would be associated with, the track had R&B vocals over a dance-pop synth track. Like many singers before him, Sure! changed the gender of the singer so that he wouldn’t be singing about a talented singer who was a man. God forbid!
Sing Des’Ree of “You Gotta Be” fame recorded a scaled-back “Killing Me Softly With His Song” on her 1992 single, “Why Should I Love You.” Singing over nothing but a soft piano track, Des’Ree sang as if she was picturing a singer who had moved her long ago. I’d love to know who, because she delivered those lyrics with a tenderness that couldn’t be faked.
R&B singer-songwriter Luther Vandross released “Songs, an album of covers, in 1994. The album spanned a variety of source materials, featuring songs by Aretha Franklin, Lionel Richie, and Barbra Streisand, among others. As was true with most songs Vandross recorded, Vandross sang “Killing Me Softly” if it had deeper, spiritual meaning. Unlike many of the male singers who sang this song before him, Vandross left the male pronouns in place.
These different versions had varying degrees of success. Some, like the version by Sure!, had charted, though many didn’t. But Flack’s 1973 had remained the song’s standard-bearer all these years until 1996. That was the year The Fugees’ version was released, and unless you just haven’t heard any radio in the last 20 years, then you’ve most certainly heard this next version. Multiple times.
The Fugees had recorded “Killing Me Softly” at the suggestion of group member Pras Michael. It was the last track recorded for the group’s “The Score.” Initially, the group wanted to change the lyrics to highlight the problems of drugs and poverty, but Gimbel and Fox did not grant them permission.
Recast as a hip-hop song, The Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly” featured Lauryn Hill’s mesmerizing vocals and Wyclef Jean’s chants over a sample of A Tribe Called Quest’s 1990 song “Bonita Applebum,” which had in turn sampled Rotary Connection’s 1967 song “Memory Band.” The Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly” hit Number One in more than a dozen countries, with Spin dubbing it “an instant classic, pumped out of every passing car from coast to coast, with Lauryn Hill’s timeless voice never losing its poignant kick.”
That song helped introduce The Fugees to the world, including Flack. In an interview marking the 20th anniversary of “The Score,” Flack said,
“‘The Score’ came on us like a mighty wind, and I was totally blown away by the power of the group—their musicality, their political message, and their creativity… I feel that the meaning of the song changes depending upon the singer, depending upon the listener. They gave the song a new meaning and exposed it to a new generation. They invented a new version of the song, using some musical ideas from my version. I was surprised they picked that song to be included with the others on that album, as it didn’t have the political emphasis, but then again it depends on the frame of reference from which you listen, right?”
It would be hard to follow The Fugees’ version, and no version of “Killing Me Softly” has been as successful or ubiquitous as that one. But there have been some versions that were interesting.
Recorded in 1993 but not released until the late ’90s, Swedish singer Nils Landgren’s album “Ballads” was a collection jazz versions of well-known songs. Landgren’s smooth voice is always pleasant to hear, but it was the horn part in this version that really stood out.
Gay vocal group Captain Smartypants, an ensemble associated with The Seattle Men’s Chorus, recorded a version of “Killing Me Softly” for its 2004 album, “Undercover.” The song was a weird blend of a cappella vocal tricks, barbershop quartet singing styles, and Latin-flavored instrumentals. It’s a weird combination on paper, but by the end of the second listen, I was on board.
Singer-songwriter Colbie Caillat, of “Bubbly” fame, recorded a cover of “Killing Me Softly” as part of an iTunes session in 2010. The only instrumentation was a piano, and a soft one at that, such that Caillat’s slow and deliberate delivery stood out.
Nancy Sinatra’s 2013 album “Shifting Gears” was a collection of previously unissued recordings of ballads. Sinatra said she ordered the tracks so that they would tell the story of a love affair. Her version of “Killing Me Softly with His Song” is the seventh song on the album, sandwiched between covers of “I Can See Clearly Now” and “Play Me.” Her voice was pretty, and it was a perfectly fine version of the song, but it was not as interesting on its own as it was when compared to the other songs on the album.
According to SecondHandSongs, there are more than 160 versions of “Killing Me Softly.” There are versions in Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, Italian, Swedish, and Finnish. That makes sense, because the song’s message of feeling moved by a song is a universal one. And that so many musicians would record versions also makes sense, because it’s a song about the moving power of songs and singers. Of course singers would gravitate to that in the same way that journalists gravitated toward “Spotlight.” It’s affirming to see your craft portrayed as noble and affecting.
The Fugees’ reinterpretation introduced the song to a new generation who might not have been familiar with Flack’s version. I certainly hadn’t heard of Flack or her version until hearing it mentioned in connection with The Fugees’ version. I hadn’t heard any version until hearing the one by The Fugees. That probably had a lot to do with the fact that it was all over MTV and at the time, I was an MTV-obsessed 14-year-old.
We saw a similar situation when we reviewed “Always On My Mind.” Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, and The Pet Shop Boys each had successes with the song, with each version introducing the song to a new generation and a new type of audience. In the eyes of pop culture, it’s hard to say who owns “Always On My Mind” because as it stands, Presley, Nelson, and The Pet Shop Boys share joint custody. Original “Always On My Mind” singer Gwen McCrae isn’t even factored into the discussion.
Similarly, Lori Lieberman has more or less but left out of the discussion of “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” In part that’s because many people haven’t heard her folk version and have presumed Flack’s version to be the original. Any resentment or jealousy that Lieberman had over the success of Flack’s or The Fugees’ version seems to be in the past.
In recent interviews, specifically the one above, Lieberman has called Flack’s additions to the song “brilliant,” and said that the newer versions of the song have allowed her to sing the song now with a compassion for who she was when the song was first released. Regardless of which version is the most famous, she participated in the song’s creation, and for that, she seems proud.