Songs with Earlier Histories Than the Hit Version

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Killing Me Softly with His Song

First recorded by Lori Lieberman (1972).
Hit versions by Roberta Flack (US #1/MOR #2/R&B #2/UK #6/CAN #1/AUS #1/IRE #3 1973), The Fugees (US #2/R&B #1/MOR #30/UK #1/CAN #6/AUS #1/IRE #1/GER #1/FRA #1 1996).

From the wiki: “Written by Charlie Fox, Norman Gimbel and Lori Lieberman, ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’ has a contentious and disputed origin.

“Lori Lieberman, the artist who performed the first recording in 1972, claims the song was born of a poem she wrote after experiencing a strong reaction to the song ‘Empty Chairs,’ written, composed, and recorded by Don McLean.

“On the other hand, Charlie Fox has disputed Lieberman having any input into the song’s creation, saying: ‘We [i.e. himself and lyricist Norman Gimbel (‘Girl from Ipanema‘, ‘So Nice (Summer Samba)‘) 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 [Gimbel] or me to write the song but even Don McLean thinks he’s the inspiration for the song according to his official website!’ Instead, the song, Fox claims, has its origin in a novel.

“According to Gimbel, he was introduced to Argentinean-born composer Lalo Schifrin (‘Theme to Mission: Impossible‘) and began writing songs to a number of Schifrin’s films. It was later suggested that both Gimbel and Schifrin write a Broadway musical together, with Schifrin giving Gimbel an Argentinean novel to read as a possible idea. The book was never made into a musical, but in one of the chapters, the principal character describes himself as sitting alone in a bar drinking and listening to an American pianist ‘killing me softly with his blues.’ Gimbel put the idea in his ‘idea’ book for use at a future time with a parenthesis around the word ‘blues’ and the word ‘song’ substituted instead.

“However, shortly after Lieberman returned from living overseas (her father was a chemical engineer and the family migrated between California and Switzerland during her childhood due to his work) to America to study in her late teens, Lieberman was signed to a production, recording and publishing deal struck between Capitol Records and songwriters Fox and Gimbel. Lieberman’s contributions to the songwriting process were occasionally credited during this period of her career, most notably on ‘My Lover Do You Know’ which appeared on her first album, 1972’s Lori Lieberman, and which was singled out for praise by Billboard magazine.

“It was later uncovered that Gimbel, himself, had stated, when interviewed by the New York Daily News in the April 5, 1973 issue that, ‘She [Lori Lieberman] told us about this strong experience she had listening to [Don] 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 [Lori Lieberman] album and we all felt it had possibilities.’

“Released as a single in 1972, Lieberman’s recording never appeared on any national charts, eclipsed by Roberta Flack’s arrangement that was released on January 22, 1973.

“Flack had first heard the song while flying from New York City to Los Angeles, listening to an in-flight audio program on which the Lieberman original was included. 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.’

“Hip hop group The Fugees covered the song on their 1996 album The Score, with Lauryn Hill singing the lead vocals. Their version, with the shortened title ‘Killing Me Softly’, became a hit, reaching #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song went to #1 in the United Kingdom, where it became the country’s biggest-selling single of 1996.”

Roberta Flack, “Killing Me Softly with His Song” (1973):

The Fugees, “Killing Me Softly” (1996):