Killing Me Softly With His Song – Roberta Flack
Number one in New Zealand 27 April – 11 May, & 18 – 24 May 1973
1971 and 1972 were big years for Don Mclean. His single American Pie went to number one most places, and the follow up single Vincent was almost as successful. He toured the world and made it down to New Zealand in 1973. Ray Columbus wrote a gushing review about his Auckland concert. In fact his concerts in the early 1970s seem to have had a tremendous effect on people. One of those people effected was Lori Lieberman a young lady who attended a Mclean concert in Los Angeles and was quite overcome.
“I was going through some difficult things at the time, and what he was singing about made me think, ’Whoa! This person knows me! How could he know me so well?’ ” Lieberman says.“I went home and wrote a poem and showed it to the two men I was working with at the time”: songwriters Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox, who decided her heartfelt words weren’t lyrics yet.
“Never having written a song,” she says, “I didn’t know how to put my poem into lyric form. Norman was able to do that. The finished lyrics are Norman’s, but he was very careful to make sure that all of the feelings were coming from me.” His biggest change was her title, originally “Killing Me Softly With His Blues.”
The song that really got to Lori was called Empty Chairs. No, I’ve never heard of it either. Let’s be nosey and see what was going on in Lori’s life at the time:
Morning comes and morning goes with no regret
And evening brings the memories I can’t forget
Empty rooms that echo as I climb the stairs
And empty clothes that drape and fall on empty chairs
And I wonder if you know
That I never understood
That although you said you’d go
Until you did I never thought you would
You will note that Lori didn’t actually write this song. I like how this is spun on her website:
Lori Lieberman has remained in the spotlight since the early seventies, gleaning the respect of an industry and a devoted base of fans. As the one responsible for such hits as “Killing Me Softly With His Song” she has consistently recorded album after album…
Things to love in this biographical snapshot:
“Spotlight”. Really? They might want to up the watts on that bulb.
The word “glean”. Ouch.
The euphimistic “as the one responsible”. Nicely gets around the fact she didn’t actually write a song.
The use of the plural “hits” followed by a list of… one hit (for someone else).
Anyway, Lori provided the inspiration for the songwriters and recorded the song originally. Here is her version.
Roberta Flack heard the song on the inflight entertainment system of a TWA plane and thought she could “do something with it”. No kidding. Flack’s version is classy. Not really that different from the original at all, but about twice as good. She received the 1974 Grammy Record of the Year Award for her version. Her version of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face received the same award in 1973. Not that awards mean anything, the list of other award winners from 1990 to 1994 is pretty dispiriting reading:
- Wind Beneath My Wings – Bette Midler
- Another Day in Paradise – Phil Collins
- Unforgettable – Natalie Cole
- Tears in Heaven – Eric Clapton
- I Will Always Love You – Whitney Housten
I very much like The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. I think it is an example of popular music almost approaching the sound of sacred music. Part of it is simply the heartbeat pulse of the bass which gives the performance a feeling of a sombre, hushed procession, but mainly it is in Flack’s astonishingly moving, and sincere singing. Honestly, I am listening to her sing this song as I write and the closest musical feeling I can equate it with is listening to a soprano voice ring out in a pure arc of sound across the spaces of a cold, empty church.
Of course, it helps if you have something beautiful to sing:
The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the empty skies, my love.
That’s pretty hard to beat in pop lyrics about love.
Unfortunately I don’t have much time for Flack’s later work which became smoother, and silkier and to me sounds a lot less sincere. Still, you can’t argue with her Grammy winners. The beginning of Killing Me Softly is very well constructed. It begins with Flack alone singing “strumming my pain with his fingers”, the next line adds another voice (“…singing my life with his words…”) and the final lines of the opening add a faraway, echoed vocal line below the dominant vocal (“…killing me softly with his song…”). When the music proper starts the bass, guitar, drum and vocal are all slotted together beautifully: a quiet repeating riff on the guitar, a snare click and triangle ping, a little hammer-on bass line and that dreamy voice cruising across the background. It’s a wonderful sound, and a great song.
It’s a real shame about what came next at the top of the New Zealand singles charts in 1973.