Weekly Basslines #178: Killing Me Softly With His Song (Roberta Flack)

Legend or truth: a song and it's story!

This could be a newspaper headline and in fact I felt a little like a journalist when I researched the internet about a song I was going to transcribe. A student of mine (Herbert from Kaiserslautern) requested this bassline of Roberta Flack's famous tune "Killing Me Softly With His Song".

The song was released as a single in January 1973 and is the opening track of the album with the same name (released in August, 1973). The bass on this track is played by Jazz-Great Ron Carter. The song and the record won the 1973 Grammy Award for Record of the year and Song of the year.

But Roberta's release wasn't the first recorded version of the song written by the songwriting team of Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel. And that's where the rumour starts. It's said that the song was inspired by the singer/songwriter Don McLean. A young folksinger named Lori Lieberman saw a concert of Don McLean at the Troubadour theater in Los Angeles and wrote a poem about her feelings. She showed that poem to Norman Gimpel and Charles Fox, who were writing songs for her new album and made it into a song for her.

But Charles Fox later explained in an interview:
"I think it's called an urban legend. It really didn't happen that way. Norman Gimbel and I wrote that song for a young artist whose name was Lori Lieberman. Norman had a book that he would put titles of songs, song ideas and lyrics or something that struck him at different times. And he pulled out the book and he was looking through it, and he says, 'Hey, what about a song title, 'Killing Me Softly With His Blues'?' Well, the 'killing me softly' part sounded very interesting, 'with his blues' sounded old fashioned in 1972 when we wrote it. So he thought for a while and he said, 'What about 'killing me softly with his song'? That has a unique twist to it.' So we discussed what it could be, and obviously it's about a song - listening to the song and being moved by the words. It's like the words are speaking to what that person's life is. Anyway, Norman went home and wrote an extraordinary lyric and called me later in the afternoon. I jotted it down over the phone. I sat down and the music just flowed right along with the words. And we got together the next morning and made a couple of adjustments with it and we played it for Lori, and she loved it, she said it reminds her of being at a Don McLean concert. So in her act, when she would appear, she would say that. And somehow the words got changed around so that we wrote it based on Don McLean, and even Don McLean I think has it on his Web site. But he doesn't know. You know, he only knows what the legend is."

 So Lori Lieberman was the first to record the song in 1971.

Roberta Flack told the story how she came across this song in an interview with The New Musical Express:

"I got on a flight from L.A. to New York, and on the plane was in-flight entertainment -- eight different channels of music you could listen to on a personal headset. I ran down the list of song titles on this one channel and got to 'Killing Me Softly with His Song.' I though, 'Hmm, that's different,' and instantly plugged in. I said, 'I'm gonna wait for that,' and sat back and waited for it to come on. And when I heard it, I freaked. I absolutely freaked. When I got to New York, I went to the hotel and called Quincy Jones. I said, 'Tell me how to find the guys who wrote this song -- Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel.'

Flack then recorded the song, but made some changes on the chord structure and ended the song with a major instead of a minor chord.


Here's the original version by Lori Lieberman:

In 1996 The Fugees did a Hip-Hop-Version of the song:

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