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 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.
The Roberta Flack version
Lieberman was the first to record Fox and Gimbel’s 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 a flight from Los Angeles to New York City on which 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 – “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 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.
Charles Fox suggested that the reason Flack’s version was more successful than Lieberman’s was 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.” 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. The single appeared as the opening track of the album of same name on August 1, 1973.
Flack later 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 charts.
In 1999 Flack’s version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It also ranked #360 on Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and #82 on Billboard’s Greatest Songs of all time.