(Credit: CMS Associates/John Levy)

The Story Behind The Song: How Roberta Flack changed the world with ‘Killing Me Softly’

Roberta Flack remains one of the most erudite singers of the present age, notable for her jazz, R&B, soul and folk music. She was trained in classical music which was evident in a lot of her compositions, wherein she used her knowledge of the classics and incorporated them into the melody of her songs. Her classical approach towards contemporary music often resulted in many critics deeming her works as boring or too calculated or not having enough life in them. However, musicality was a very important part of the songs she produced, and it was how she dealt with the music in her own unique way, one aspect that separated her from most of her contemporaries of the time.

Some of her singles which she is famously known for, included, ‘The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face’, ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’, ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’, ‘Where Is the Love’, and so on. Among these, ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’ was a cover of a song originally performed by American singer-songwriter Lori Lieberman, released in 1972. Lieberman’s version was unsuccessful in reaching the charts, and it was Roberta Flack’s 1973 version of ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’ that managed to gain wide acclaim and that, in the process, also brought out the original song by Lieberman in front of the entire world.

But behind this song was a story of a young female musician struggling to find the space where both her voice as well as her ideas would be respected and not expropriated whenever it best suited the purposes of the others. Lori Lieberman was at a Don McLean show where McLean was performing his song ‘Empty Chairs’. This inspired Lieberman to come up with the initial thought behind the song ‘Killing Me Softly’. She took down her ideas on a paper napkin and took it back to Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox, who were her manager and songwriter. She laid down the idea in front of the two – Gimbel came up with the final lyrics and Fox set them to tune.

When Lieberman released the song in 1972, though, it did not chart. But Lieberman made sure to tell the story behind the song every time she performed it on tour or in shows. The story was agreed upon by McLean and Fox as well. However, around 1996, the relationship amongst the Lieberman/Fox/Gimbel team turned sour after which, Lieberman wanted to be freed of her contract. As a result, a huge case was fought in court and Fox, and Gimbel managed to take nearly $277,000 off Lieberman as compensation.

Gimbel and Fox then demanded that McLean (who was aware that Lieberman took inspiration from him to compose the song) take down the information about him being the original inspiration for the song from his website. McLean refused to do so, citing Gimbel’s own words to prove that he was in fact, the inspiration, as Gimbel had one agreed upon, too. The entire event turned out badly, and in the end, it was Lieberman who simply said that she was neither seeking money nor looking for the credits as a songwriter; she simply wanted the world to know the true origin of the song. Roberta Flack heard the song on an aeroplane ride, made some changes on the spot and decided to record it, and it became one of her most celebrated singles of all time.

Because of her background in classical music, Flack was able to experiment and implement various changes to the song, making it befitting of her own style of music. She added background vocals and harmonies to the song and picked up the tempo, by incorporating the emphatic beats of the drums. She played around with the rhythm, often going off-beat only to return to the point of conjunction, which really lifted the vibe of the song as a whole, a factor that the original by Lieberman was lacking. 

The single would go on to be featured in Flack’s 1973 album Killing Me Softly and Flack’s rendition of the song, recorded in 1972 and released in 1973, won the Grammy Award for the Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1974. Roberta Flack’s version gave the song an edge that was ambitious yet controlled, which was perhaps what caught the attention of the wider audience in the first place.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Delivering curated content