In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
A fun thing about pop music history: Everybody lies. There is a financial incentive to lying. Because of the way songwriting credits work, you can still get paid for a song decades after it was first recorded. So if you wrote the song, it is in your financial interest to take credit for it. If you didn’t write the song, it is still in your financial interest to take credit for it. And because of that, it can be hard to figure out who really did the work of writing any particular song. Such is the case with Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” a song about a song, one that’s been disputed for decades.
Roberta Flack heard “Killing Me Softly With His Song” on an airplane. A young folk singer named Lori Lieberman had recorded the song in 1972, and Lieberman’s version was part of an in-flight audio program. Flack liked the song, and she liked the title. She worked on a cover version, playing around with the arrangement and the beat. One night at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, Flack was opening for Marvin Gaye, and she sang her version of the song. Gaye told her that she needed to go and record that thing right away.
So Roberta Flack didn’t write “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” Instead, the credited writers are Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, a pair of veteran songwriters who were also responsible for things like the Happy Days theme song and the Laverne & Shirley theme song. But Lori Lieberman also claims that she had something to do with writing the song. She says that she went to see “American Pie” auteur Don McLean play at the Troubadour, and she was so overcome, especially when he was singing his song “Empty Chairs,” she scrawled some poetic notes down on a napkin. In Lieberman’s version of the story, she took those notes to Gimbel, and he structured them into proper lyrics.
But Gimbel claims that he’d encountered the phrase “kill us softly with some blues” in an Argentine novel, and he’d turned that into a song. (Fox wrote the music.) When Gimbel and Fox brought the song to Lieberman — this, again, is according to Gimbel and Fox — she loved it, and said that the song reminded her of how she felt when she went to see Don McLean. So according to Gimbel and Fox, Don McLean didn’t actually have anything to do with “Killing Me Softly With His Song.”
McLean, of course, likes Lieberman’s version of the story better. And on the day that Norman Gimbel died this past December, McLean wrote a Facebook post about how Gimbel was a piece of shit who was trying to take advantage of other people’s work: “Let me say I don’t need any Love Boat theme song writer to enhance my reputation.” (Norman Gimbel didn’t write the theme to The Love Boat. That was Fox and Paul Williams.) And that’s how songwriting credit can go beyond the question of royalties. It’s where it can go straight to the core of someone’s being. Don McLean didn’t write “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” and yet hates the idea that he didn’t inspire it — that he’s not the one whose song was killing somebody softly — that he was willing to trash a dead fellow songwriter while the guy’s body was still warm.
So: Who wrote “Killing Me Softly”? Who deserves credit? And does it matter? Did aging professional songwriters conspire to deny credit to a young woman who was just starting out in the business? Was she trying to claim credit for the song she sang but didn’t write? Would “Killing Me Softly” have meant as much if Lori Lieberman hadn’t sung it with a soft sincerity that Gimbel and Fox certainly couldn’t have conjured by themselves? What about Roberta Flack? She changed up the whole arrangement, and turned it into soft, lilting soul-jazz. Should she get some credit for effectively reworking the song? And if Roberta Flack, the one who made the song famous, wasn’t singing about Don McLean, then why is McLean still jumping into the conversation, decades later? It’s an open question, one that involves ego and money and the kind of contractual fuckery that makes the music business, at its worst, so repulsive.
And yet “Killing Me Softly” is a song that effectively captures the magic of what music can do when it’s at its best. The narrator goes to see a musician, and she feels the sweet agony of hearing all her secrets spilled out into the world. She’s watching someone who doesn’t know her and yet who seems to know her intimately: “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.” (Personally, I don’t think Norman Gimbel could’ve written those lines.) It’s a hymn about what music can do to us, how it can reduce and deconstruct and rebuild us.
Flack was coming off of the huge, earthshaking success of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” That was a breathtaking display of feeling and technique working together. There’s plenty of feeling in her version of “Killing Me Softly,” but there’s more technique. Flack’s voice is a silky, internal quaver, one closer to Billie Holiday than Aretha Franklin. Flack plays the electric piano on the song herself, and her jazz-reared backing band, including bassist Ron Carter, plays it as a high-minded noodle. The beat underneath her is a light shuffle, and it comes a bit too close the cocktail-bar fare for my tastes. But it never compromises the central loveliness.
The problem, at least for me, might that Roberta Flack’s version doesn’t sound quite right without the “Bonita Applebum” sitar riff and Wyclef Jean’s babbled ad-libs. The Fugees — or, really, Lauryn Hill — covered “Killing Me Softly With His Song” in 1996, and their version was so huge, so pervasive, and so lovely that — again, at least for me — it became the definitive version of the song. (For arcane Billboard-rules-related reasons that we’ll get into when this column reaches the ’90s, the Fugees’ version of “Killing Me Softly With His Song” never charted on the Hot 100. It did get to #1 on the Mainstream Top 40 chart, though.)
The Fugees wanted to change the lyrics of “Killing Me Softly,” to turn it into a song about societal ills. Gimbel and Fox wouldn’t give the OK for any lyrical changes, though. They did Lauryn Hill a favor. She ended up covering the song straight-up, and she sang the living shit out of it. Hill’s take on the song has all the graceful fluidity of Flack’s version, but she also gives it a vengeful intensity. In Hill’s hands, it’s a song with something at stake. But in the Roberta Flack version, “Killing Me Softly With His Song” is simply a pretty song about being swept away by a different song. It is, at the very least, a song worth fighting over.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Killing Me Softly With His Song” cover that new jack swing king Al B. Sure! included on his 1988 album In Effect Mode:
(Al B. Sure’s highest-charting single is 1988’s “Nite And Day,” which peaked at #7. It’s an 8.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Fugees and Roberta Flack performing “Killing Me Softly With His Song” together at the 1996 MTV Movie Awards:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene in the 2002 movie About A Boy where Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult sing “Killing Me Softly With His Song”:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell’s old-timey instrumental “Duelling Banjos” — a song that appears in the movie Deliverance as an improvised duet between a disabled and possibly inbred backwoods kid and a clueless Atlanta yuppie — peaked at #2 behind “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” It’s an 8.