Killing me softly again…
The item on Killing Me Softly With His Song in The Originals Vol. 30, posted on Friday, restated the most commonly repeated story about the genesis of the song; that is, original singer Lori Lieberman had written a poem about seeing Don McLean in concert, which lyricist Norman Gimbel adapted to form the lyrics for the song. Lieberman has repeated the story in interviews, but Norman Gimbel dismisses it. He contacted me to set the record straight. Here then are Gimbel’s verbatim recollection of how the lyrics for Killing Me Softly, which were accompanied by Charles Fox’s melody, came to be:
“Famed composer Lalo Shifrin (Mission Impossible theme) and I were writing some songs for one of his films. We discussed writing a full musical for the theater together. He suggested a particular novel that I read as source material. In the book the author described his character as walking into a bar and having a drink and listening to the piano player who was killing him softly with his blues. I made note of the line in my ‘idea book’ and years later, after Charles Fox and got a recording deal for Ms. Leiberman at Capitol Records, had to write 10 songs for her first album. I retrieved the line and changed the word ‘blues’ to to ‘song’.”
It is fair to say that Gimbel is none too pleased with Lori Lieberman’s version.
Gimbel’s career has been impressive. A member of the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame since 1984, he wrote the English lyrics for Girl From Ipanema and Sway (Dean Martin), co-wrote the songs for two Broadway hits (Whoop-Up and Conquering Hero) and several songs for movies, working with the likes of Shifrin, Bill Conti, Elmer Bernstein, Dave Grusin, Quincy Jones, Michel Columbier, Pat Williams, Maurice Jarre and so on. Among these movie composers was Charles Fox, with whom Gimbel went on to form a productive partnership.
With Fox he wrote a series of TV themes, including Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Paper Chase, Wonder Woman, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and Angie. They won an Emmy for their theme for the 1970 film version of the children’s series H.R. Pufnstuf. He won a Best Original Song Oscar, after two previous nominations, in 1980 for “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae, with music by David Shire, and at 81 remains active in songwriting today.
His songs have been recorded by some of the most accomplished singers in pop. It’s fair to presume that few singers have managed to create as bad versions of them as did German Helge Schneider with his 2007 teutonic remake of Killing Me Softly With His Song. He is a comedian but also a musician; it’s impossible to tell whether or not he is having us on. File under “Worst cover recordings ever” (thanks to Teena for inflicting this upon me).
And to pay tribute to Norman Gimbel, here’s the full version of the song which forms part of the collective soundtrack of a generation of Americans, a US #5 in 1976: