'Killing Me Softly With His Song' is a Roberta Flack tune, right? Of course, there's that other version of it, the one by the Fugees, isn't there? And the composers of the song are Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox. This is the received wisdom that completely overlooks the vital contribution of enduring singer/songwriter Lori Lieberman, who has been making albums for forty years, gradually acquiring a devoted following. Later this month, she performs in England for the first time since her early seventies appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test. Lieberman sang 'Killing Me Softly...' before anyone else. Many argue that she sang it best. Not only that, the song was written about her own feelings and recollections. More on that later. While lesser talents have often eclipsed her in terms of fame, Lieberman's eleven or so albums form a highly impressive legacy by anyone's standards. As a devotee, from time to time I've scoured the internet, looking for the definitive Lori Lieberman interview. Unable to find it, earlier this month, while I convalesced with a broken back (more on that another time), wondering how I'd ever recover my once-buoyant career in journalism, I decided to conduct it myself.
Two years ago, Lieberman became a major label artist for the first time since the 1970s when V2/Universal took on the job of distributing her work in Europe, and - at 61 - is empowered in a manner quite at odds with the exploitation she experienced at the outset of her career. At 19 years old, following a childhood split between Geneva and Los Angeles, Lieberman was signed to an unusual production deal with songwriters Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel (the latter became her boyfriend). The two composers wrote songs from the narrative viewpoint of a young woman and - to ensure the material sounded authentic - Lieberman's diaries, recollections and poetry were used by lyricist Gimbel as the source material for the most of the output. Lieberman herself went largely uncredited.
During the making of her first album, she attended a Don McLean concert. She recalls, "When he sang 'Empty Chairs', I felt exposed - as though he were singing about me and my life. It felt as though he was singing straight to me. As the audience filtered out of the club, I wrote a poem on a napkin. Later that evening, I called Norman Gimbel, who'd come up with the title 'Killing Me Softly With His Blues', taken from a book. I told him about the experience I'd had. I read the poem to him and over the next few days he asked me where I'd been sitting, what I'd been feeling. The lyric was born. Together, we went to Charles Fox's home and worked on the song. At one point, we toyed with the idea of inserting another song in the middle, sort of like 'MacArthur Park'. I lobbied to take it out, the melody was altered to suit my range, and the song was complete". But not before 'with his blues' had been supplanted by the elegant and more universal, 'with his song'.
It became her debut single and its prominence was to be its undoing. It was featured as in-flight entertainment and caught the ear of Roberta Flack who swiftly recorded her own version, with lavish, pop production by Joel Dorn and far greater emphasis on the chorus. Just as Lieberman's gentle, understated original was climbing the charts, it was superseded by Flack's interpretation. A few years and five albums later, Lieberman left the music industry.
Returning in the mid-1990s, she has been gathering momentum ever since. Two years ago, though, events nearly threw her off course. Gimbel and Fox began telling interviewers that her contribution to 'Killing Me Softly With His Song' was just an urban myth - that she'd had no involvement in its composition whatsoever. An understandably hurt Lieberman struggled to take it in. "I did not ask for credit, for money. I even forgave them for the lawsuit [Gimbel/Fox sued Lieberman for leaving her contract] and named my youngest son, William Charles, after Charles Fox. Forty years later, they decided to change the story. They say they wrote the song, played it for me, and I related to it. It makes no sense".
Eventually, articles and footage from the archives came to her rescue. Among them is a piece from 1973 in The Daily News in which Norman Gimbel talks at length about Lieberman's contribution to the song. And then there is a TV appearance that further confirms it.
Lieberman can take comfort in having been vindicated. She has made peace with the song. "I truly did not have any idea that it would endure the way it has. There were actually other tracks on my first album that I liked more. Just shows you what I know! But today I love the song. And I have great compassion for the girl I was then and the woman I am today. It is the greatest gift in the world to have been part of 'Killing Me Softly', even with its challenges. It continues to test me and for that I'm most grateful".
Lori Lieberman is performing on 28th February at The Green Note, London and on 1 March at The Forge, Basingstoke. Tickets available at www.lorilieberman.com
The full version of this interview can be read at charlesdonovan.com
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