In September 1972, Roberta Flack was opening for Marvin Gaye at the Greek Theatre in L.A. After performing her prepared encore song, Flack was advised by Gaye to sing an additional song. Flack later said:
“I said well, I got this song I’ve been working on called ‘Killing Me Softly…’ and he said: ‘Do it, baby.’ And I did it and the audience went crazy, and he walked over to me and put his arm around me and said: ‘Baby, don’t ever do that song again live until you record it.'”
The song was released in January 1973, spending a total of five consecutive weeks at Number One in February and March, more weeks than any other record in 1973.
The song was written by the songwriting team of Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, and first recorded by Lori Lieberman in 1972. Gimbel and Fox wrote the theme songs to the television shows Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley among other hits. They are the only credited songwriters on Killing Me Softly With His Song, but Leiberman has also claimed credit.
Legend has it that the song was inspired by Don McLean, the singer/songwriter famous for the hit American Pie. After being mesmerized by one of his concerts at the Troubadour in L.A., Lieberman described what she saw to Gimbel and Fox, who were writing songs for her new album, and they wrote the song for her.
Flack heard Lieberman’s version on an in-flight tape while flying from L.A. to NYC. She loved the title and lyrics and decided to record it herself. She worked on the song in the studio for three months, playing around with various chord structures until she got it just right.
McLean said he had no idea the song was about him: ”Someone called me and said a song had been written about me and it was Number One.”
Flack’s version was probably more successful than the original because it is faster (if that seems possible) and she gave it a strong backbeat. Flack:
“My classical background made it possible for me to try a number of things with the song’s arrangement. I changed parts of the chord structure and chose to end on a major chord.”
Flack plays electric piano on the track.
Flack won the 1974 Grammy Award for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, for the single. Gimbel and Fox won the Song Of The Year Grammy. Flack’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face won Record of the Year the previous year, making her the first artist to win the award in consecutive years.
In 1996, a house remix of Flack’s version went to number one on the US Dance Chart. A version by The Fugees, won the Grammy for Best R&B Performance in 1997.
In 1999, Flack’s original version was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame.
I listened to Flack’s recording over and over in my dorm room in Boston 45 years ago, working myself into a stupor of melancholia. Now, I simply hear it as lush and beautiful. Oh, Flack’s voice is so soulful.