I grew up listening to lots of my dad's music on records, tapes, and reel-to-reel. He had spent lots of hours taping music that he borrowed at the music lending library while stationed in Vietnam and had moved the music around the world a few times. That meant my musical education was heavy on Motown, the British Invasion, what was on the charts during the Vietnam War, and on folk music. (All of it was a welcome counterbalance to the 'there's a tear in my beer' country music that he loved to play on the radio in the car and at home. It was also more interesting than the pop on the airwaves for much of the 1980s.)
Anyhow, I still remember the day that I pulled Don McLean's "American Pie" album out of its sleeve for the first time. And I can hum the songs before and after Roberta Flack's cover of "Killing Me Softly" on my dad's tapes. But I didn't realize that there was a connection between the two until today.
While listening to Don McLean's "Vincent" this morning, I glanced at McLean's bio on last.fm. It turns out that that "Killing Me Softly" is based on a poem called "Killing Me Softly with His Blues" written about McLean.
The Greatest Songs Ever! Killing Me Softly
“One time! Two times!” rapped the Fugees, and how right they were! For this Don McLean–inspired weepie had already passed through two artists before the Fugees — and, later, Hugh Grant — got their hands on it!
By Johnny Black
Blender, April 2003
“KILLING ME SOFTLY With His Song” might be pop’s most misunderstood tune of all time. It’s surrounded by so many myths, it makes Aesop’s fables look like reality TV. Millions of pop fans know that Roberta Flack wrote the song about Don McLean – killing her softly with his song “American Pie” – and that the Fugees made it a smash more than 20 years later.
Interesting, but not true. Yes, Flack took this classic lovelorn weepie to number 1 in February 1973. But she didn’t write it.
“When Roberta’s version came out,” McLean recalls, “somebody called me and said, ’Do you know there’s a song about you that’s number 1?’ I said, ’What – are you kidding?’ And they said, “The girl who originally recorded it had it written for her after she saw you at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. She went on TV and talked about it.”
The girl was an L.A. folkie named Lori Lieberman. “I thought [McLean] was just incredible,” she says. “He was singing songs that I felt pertained to my life.” But it wasn’t “American Pie” that got her scribbling – it was a lesser-known album track called “Empty Chairs.”
“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.”
Although Lieberman’s recording didn’t set the world on fire, it did become a track on TWA’s in-flight entertainment set, and that’s where fate stepped in. “I was flying from Los Angeles to New York,” Roberta Flack has said. “Looking at the in-flight magazine, I saw the picture of this little girl, Lori Lieberman, and the title of the song.
Before I heard the song, I thought it had an awfully good title, and when I heard it, I loved it. By the time I got to New York I knew I had to do that song, and I knew I’d be able to add something to it.”
Quincy Jones, Flack’s producer, contacted Gimbel and Fox and began transforming the song. “My classical background made it possible for me to try a number of things with it,” Flack has said. “I changed parts of the chord structure and chose to end on a major chord. It wasn’t written that way.”
Her revised arrangement rocketed to number 1 in 1973 and earned a Grammy double-whammy: Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal.
More than two decades later, the song was still in regular radio rotation, and a New Jersey rap trio was hitting the charts with its 1994 debut album, Blunted on Reality.
“My mom was a Roberta Flack fan, so I grew up with her music,” Fugees vocalist Lauryn Hill said at the time. “One day, me and [Fugee] Pras [Michel] were in the car. The song came on the radio, and we both decided that song was it. One of our goals is to reunite the youths with musicality. It’s about soul.”
The Fugees had to jump through hoops to get permission to record it. Like Gimbel, Fox and Flack before them, they had a couple of changes they wanted to make. They had rewritten the lyric to become an antidrug, antipoverty theme called “Killing Him Softly,” but Gimbel and Fox refused to play ball, forcing the Fugees to stamp their identity on its sound and not on its lyrics.
The Fugees recorded the song cheaply, in band member Wyclef Jean’s rudimentary home studio, the Booga Basement, and the song hit the streets on March 9, 1996, as a track on the Fugees’ second album, The Score. By May 5, “Killing Me Softly” had become a runaway smash, leaping up the rap airplay chart before exploding onto mainstream radio.
Among the song’s millions of fans was a certain Welshman-about-Vegas. “I loved what Wyclef did with the Fugees, especially ’Killing Me Softly,’ ” Tom Jones said at the time. “He stripped it down and turned it into something different from the original.”
The Fugees’ smartest move, though, wasn’t musical but commercial: They decided not to release the song as a single, forcing fans to buy their entire album. The song helped The Score go multiplatinum and garnered both the Best R&B Performance by a Group and Rap Album of the Year Grammies for the Fugees in 1997.
“Killing Me Softly” also enjoyed a brief jolt in last year’s movie About a Boy, in which young British actor Nicholas Hoult warbles it – a cappella – before hundreds of jeering schoolmates. Things are looking pretty grim until Hugh Grant materializes with a guitar to salvage a shred of their dignity.
Hoult and Grant’s interpretation, needless to say, didn’t chart. But Roberta Flack’s and the Fugees’ versions have racked up an astonishing 5 million performances, propelling “Killing Me Softly” to number 11 in the BMI list of the Top 100 songs of all time. Not bad for one night’s work at the Troubadour.