Killing Her Softly With Their Song

Recently I wrote a short article about Don McLean’s number one classic, “American Pie.”

While composing that story, I was reminded of another #1, “Killing Me Softly” by Roberta Flack, which topped the charts in 1973.

It occurred to me that “Killing Me Softly” was written about or inspired by a performance by Don McLean. So, I set out to get the facts as straight as possible.

It is widely reported on the web that “Killing Me Softly” was written about (or inspired by) a Don McLean concert witnessed by Roberta Flack. This is not the case.

It is also widely (and apparently correctly) documented that the singer Lori Lieberman inspired the song, not Roberta Flack.

Here is the press release on this subject from Lori Lieberman’s website:

Press Release: “The Killing Me Softly Connection”

In 1973 Don played a show at LA’s Troubadour Club. Singing “Empty Chairs” inspired Lori Lieberman to write the song “Killing Me Softly” on a napkin. “I was actually blasé about going,” says Lieberman. “I didn’t know who he was, but from the moment he walked on stage, I was spellbound. I felt as if he knew me and his songs were about my life. I felt like he sang into my soul.”

Originally called Killing Me Softly With His Blues, Lori’s poem inspired songwriters Norman Gimbel & Charles Fox to write the song for her. It was released on her debut album in 1971.

Hearing it on an airline’s inflight music programme Roberta Flack upon landing investigated the song and contacted Gimbel & Fox. She offered to record it & in 1973 it became a No 1 for her. Lieberman to this day is never given credit for lyrics and her version. McLean said he had no idea the song was about him. “Someone called me and said a song had been written about me and it was No. 1,” McLean recalled. “It was an honor and a delight, and I give Lieberman the credit. My songs have always come from my personal thoughts and experiences, so it’s overwhelming when someone is moved and touched by them like Lori was.” The song was also released by The Fugees in 1997.


Here is where the mystery comes into play.

Granted, I am not privy to all the details of this matter. Perhaps some kind of deal was struck between Ms. Lieberman and the credited composers, Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox (both veteran songwriters with huge resumes), and/or the publisher(s) of the song.

But the statement in the Press Release from Lori Lieberman’s website (“Lieberman to this day is never given credit for lyrics and her version.”) is disconcerting.

I wrote to to try to get a clarification. Here is what I wrote:

“I have read that the Fox/Gimbel penned song “Killing Me Softly” was inspired by Ms. Lieberman’s poem Killing Me Softly With His Blues, written about Don McLean. This seems to be fairly well documented…My question is, why in the world wasn’t Ms. Lieberman credited as co-writer of the song? In Nashville, this would never happen. The guy or gal with THE IDEA is just as important, or even more so, than the word and tunesmiths.”

I have not received a reply.

Here’s the troubling part. This isn’t a case where someone tells a songwriter, “hey I saw this guy performing down at the Bluebird and he was just killing me.” And then the songwriter goes and writes a song about a memorable performer or performance. Lori Leiberman actually wrote a poem (LYRICS) called “Killing Me Softly With His Blues.” It is PRECISELY that line, “Killing Me Softly” that is the basis of the world-wide hit song. In fact, “Killing Me Softly” has become a pop culture cliche, not unlike “Hit the Road Jack,” or countless other sayings that have been popularized by songs. (Except in this case Lieberman may have been the originator of the expression!) “Killing Me Softly” is a standard and to this observer it appears that Lieberman at least CO-AUTHORED it.

I don’t get it. FORTUNES have been made with “Killing Me Softly.” And Lori Lieberman gets credited for “introducing” the song (having been the first to record it)…? BIG WHOOP. GREAT songs are treasures, figuratively and literally.

“Killing Me Softly” was a huge hit. Roberta Flack’s 1973 version was #1 TWICE, getting knocked off the top spot by The O’Jays’ “Love Train” but then returning to #1 again after “Love Train.”

The song has been performed and/or recorded by giants of the record industry including Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin as well as many others, and even translated into a number of foreign languages. It was a #2 Hip-Hop remake in 1996 for The Fugees featuring Lauryn Hill. It was prominently featured in the 2002 major motion picture About A Boy. “Killing Me Softly” is one of those “career-making” songs.

So, as a student of songwriting and the music business, as an educator who tries to dispel myths and inspire creative young people to make a go of it in music and the arts…and as one who professes that success is really all about THE IDEA: songwriting, filmmaking, ENTERTAINMENT…I just don’t get this one. Someone, please ‘splain it to me.