|Anatomy of a Song "Killing Me Softly With His Song"
How an Argentine novel and a looping playlist on a flight to L.A. helped this 1973 hit come together
In 1973, just as folk and soul were becoming more romantic and intimate, Roberta Flack released "Killing Me
Softy With His Song."
Inspired by singer Lori Lieberman's original a year earlier, Ms. Flack's recording for Atlantic Records went
to No. 1 for five weeks on Billboard's pop chart. She won two Grammys for the song, which also won song of
the year and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
In this edition of "the Buzz' the song's composer, Charles Fox, Ms. Lieberman and Ms. Flack talked about
the hits' evolution. . .
When I was 18, I spent two years in Paris studying composition with Nadia Boulanger. By the early 1960s,
I was a New York pianist with a background in classical, jazz and Latin music. Then in 1967, I composed and
scored the music for my first movie, "The Incident," a film noir, "Barbarella" followed and, in 1969, producer
Stanley Jaffe asked me to come out to Hollywood to score the Paramount film "Goodbye, Columbus." That's
when I saw my life coming together as a composer.
In 1969 I met lyricist Norman Gimbel while working on the score for the movie "Pufnstuf," based on the
childrens TV series. Norman and I hit it off. By 1971, we wanted to develop songs for a female singer and
get the songs recorded, the way Burt Bacharach and Hal David did with Dionne Warwick. We went to clubs
and auditioned quite a few. Then someone recommended Lori Lieberman. We heard her and loved her sound. She had a beautiful alto voice. Norman and I
started writing for her.
Lori recorded song demos, and we made a deal with Capitol to produce four albums. We soon had nine songs in the can for the first one. Capitol was
enthusiastic but wanted a 10th song. Norman came over to my house in Encino. As I sat at my grand piano, Norman stood in the piano's curve facing me. He
skimmed through his notebook of ideas. At some point, he looked up and said, "What about this - Kill us softly with some blues?" Norman said the line came from
an Argentine novel called "Hopscotch," buy Julio Cortazar. I liked the "Kill us softly" part, but "with some blues" sounded dated. By '71, pop music had entered the
folk-rock era of singer-songwriters like James Taylor, Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell. Norman thought for a second and agreed. What about, "Killing me softly with
his song'?" I liked it.. Norman went home to Beverly Hills . A few hours later, he called with song's words. I wrote them all down. As I wrote, Norman's lyrics guided
my melody and harmony. But I was also writing for Lori. I could hear her singing the song in my ear. So, I wrote the music as an introspective ballad. About a half
hour later I was done.
Hearing Don McLean perform his song,"Empty Chairs," affected me deeply. I wrote a poem about how I felt right then and there. Later that night, called Norman
and read him my poem. He thought it would match one of the titles he had written in his notebook of ideas. Over the course of the next two days, Norman asked me
many questions about my experience. I answered them to help get the lyric just right. I've always been proud to be instrumental in the creation of "Killing Me Softly."
I wanted nothing other than to be acknowledged for my part in the inception of this beautiful song.
We recorded the song in 1972 at United Western Studios in Hollywood. Lori played guitar in concert, but not on the song's recording or the album. For that I
contracted studio guitarists. When we turned in the album, Capitol thought "Killing Me Softly" should be a single. To promote the album, Capitol programmed the
song on American Airlines. Back then, airlines had different music channels - rock, classical, pop. Their playllists were loops. Passengers couldn't skip songs or
go back. You had to listen all the way through before the playlist repeated.
In 1972, I was on a flight from New York to Los Angeles and was listening to the plane's music channels. That's where I first heard Lori Lieberman's version of
"Killing Me Softly." I probably heard it four times on the flight. The lyrics were haunting and the chord changes were lush. I could feel the song and knew I could tell
the song's story my way. Parts of the song reminded me of my life, of the pain that comes with loving someone deeply, of feeling moved by music, which is the
universal language. More than anything, music makes us feel. As I listened, I jotted down the lyrics on a napkin. I also wrote down the music lines and make notes
on how I was going to arrange the song.
Back then, I was working on several projects at Paramount. I had on office on the studio lot and spent a lot of time in their music library. One day, as i walked
through the library, someone said I had a phone call. When I picked up the receiver, Roberta Flack was on the other end. Roberta said, "We haven't met but I'm
going to sing your song. I was floored. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face' had just won two Grammys. Norman and I heard that Roberta had performed "Killing
Me Softly" during a concert run in L.A. Norman and I went to hear her. I could hear that she was developing the song her own way. She sounded beautiful, but it
wasn't yet the record that became a big hit.
In the studio, I gave my arrangement a 2/4 feel and took it a little faster than the original. I wanted a groove that deepened the song's meaning. The groove is the
heartbeat of a song. Grady Tate played drums and Ralph MacDonald was on percussion. I decided to open the song with the chorus rather than the first verse.
"Strumming my pain with his fingers" was such a strong line. The rest of the chorus was powerful and set the song's tone.
I arranged my background singers like a choir. I grew up in the church. The harmonies never left me. They deeply influence all my music. I also decided to play
electric piano rather than an acoustic piano. It has more soothing sound at times. I felt it expressed what I felt in a way that an acoustic piano could not.
If you listen carefully, you realize that the song is based on circles. It never ends. I chose to end the song on a major 6th chord instead of a 7th. To the ear, the
6th ends the cycle and the song.
Roberta's record became my first big hit. Many years later, in 2004, when I was being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Roberta agreed to present me
with my award. Earlier in the day, after rehearsal, she and I were alone in the hotel ballroom. I said to her, "Roberta, how lucky for me that you found the song.'
Roberta, who's a very beautiful, spiritual person, said, "No Charles, the song found me."
One of the breakthrough songs of the 70's. Listen to Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly With His Song"