The “Killing Me Softly” Story

Norman Gimbel passed away today. I never got to meet him and I’m quite sure I would not want to. A few years ago I received the nastiest phone call from this guy who claimed I was trying, on my own, with no reason, to claim his song “Killing Me Softly With His Song “ was written with me in mind. He was abusive and obnoxious and I thought he must be off his meds.

He followed this call up with a legal letter making libellous assertions and threats. I sent his lawyer the following article and he shut his nasty mouth. I never heard another word. This article is the true story. Both writers and Lori Lieberman are supporting the version of events that Lori has related. I was caught in the middle and had no idea all this bullshit was going on behind the scenes. Let me say I don’t need any “Love Boat “ theme song writer to enhance my reputation.

Don McLean

December 29, 2018

kill

Daily News, April 5th 1973
Most people would be able to recognise that verse right away. Anyone within earshot of a radio or a jukebox over the last few months couldn’t miss hearing roberta flack’s beautiful version of it, done with style and taste and just the right amount of world-weariness. She does it so well that any listener would think the song had been written just for her. But, oh, how wrong they would be!

The words were written by Norman Gimbel and set to music by Charles Fox, tailored specifically for the gentle unaffected voice of a young folk singer from the West Coast named Lori Leiberman. And what’s more the feelings described in it were Lori’s true feelings; the story is hers and the mood and thoughts were hers too. Even the first recording of the song was hers, though it was not until Roberta Flack cut her version that it became and international hit.

Lori was talking about it the other day. She’s happy the song has caught on, of course, but she’ll be less than human if she didn’t wish it was her version that made it so big.

The song is a strange plaintive one, a ballad in the dictionary definition of a ballad: ” a narrative composition in verse of strongly marked rythym, suitable for singing.” and I asked Lori how it came about – what or more specifically who was the inspiration for it, and her answer was so right. I wondered why I hadn’t realized it before.

“Don McLean,” she said simply. “I saw him at the Troubadour in LA last year. (“And there he was this young boy / A stranger to my eyes”) I had heard about him from some friends but up to then all I knew about him really was what others had told me. But I was moved by his performance, by the way he developed his numbers, he got right through to me. (“Strumming my pain with his fingers / Killing me softly with his sond/ Telling my whole life with his words.”)

Norman Gimbel picked up the story. “Lori is only 20 and she really is a very private person,” he said. “She told us about this strong experience she had listening to McLean” (“I felt all flushed with fever / Embarassed by the crowd / I felt he had found my letters / And read each one out loud / I prayed that he would finish / But he kept just right on…”)

“I had a notion this might make a good song so the three of us discussed it. We talked it over several times, just as we did with the rest of the numbers we wrote for the album and we all felt it ahad possibilities.”

“Norman had a phrase he liked, ‘killing me softly with his blues'”, Lori went on to explain. “But I didn’t feel the word “blues” was quite what the effect was. It wasn’t contemporary enough, somehow. We talked about it a while and finally decided on the word “song” instead. It seemed right then when we did it.”

It must have been. Capitol Records like it to so much they released it as a single as well as on the album. Billboard liked the album so much they selected Lori as their Star Awards artist.

Don McLean would like to meet her too. He didn’t know the song described him, and when asked about it, he said “I’m absolutely amazed. I’ve heard both Lori’s and Roberta’s version and I must say I’m very humbled about the whole thing. You can’t help but feel that way about a song written and performed as well as this one is.”

Lori you may have picked the wrong man. That certainly doesn’t sound like someone who’d kill you, however softly, with his song, now, does it?

23 Comments

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  1. I remember meeting Lori L. at “The Other Side” in Venice. We are the same age and hit it off. This was 1970 or 1971 and she told me that she wrote the song for Don McClean.

  2. Herbert Gart passed last year of a heart attack. He use to be Don’s Manager long ago when American Pie became a hit. I just wanted to share this information in case Don views his website and didn’t know. Herbert was my uncle I met Don in Ohio when I was kid at his concert at the Front Row and he gave me some records for my Birthday Backstage. Great Guy and very generous. I miss those days.

  3. No mention of Empty Chairs? I’d heard that it was Don singing that particular song that inspired Lieberman and ultimately led to Killing Me Softly.

  4. If someone said ….. Greatest song ever written ….. my first reaction would be “American Pie”…… yes I know we could debate this to death ….. I’m just sayin

  5. I have always loved Lori Lieberman’s version of this song. In the early ’70s, WNEW-FM in NY played it over and over — mostly on the Jonathan Schwartz show, and I think on “the Night Bird” Allison Steele’s show. It was a winner then and still is. Roberta Flack’s version is fine, but it’s Lori who really nailed it. Also listen to her “The Feeling’s Good,” another winner…

  6. I have just watched a Japaneses TV program introducing the story and I thought it is right coincident or synchronicity. Great lyrics.

  7. “I’ve heard this story before. I recently read Charles Fox’s autobiography, Killing Me Softly. Roberta Flack wrote the foreword. Not surprisingly, he wrote several pages about this song. There’s not one word about Don. Of course, Mr. Fox did write the music. Lori was supposed to be their Dionne Warwick. It’s a great song, and describes Don’s work to a T.”

  8. “Never knew this story that I can recall, and I definitely never heard the original Lori Leiberman version. Now I’d like to find the Spanish poem with the line that Gimbel picked up from it.”

  9. “Does anyone remember seeing Don McLean in concert at a little restaurant called Antonino’s on South Craig Street in Pittsburgh? It must have been sometime in the 1978 – 1983 range. Don McLean, btw, was the inspiration for a poem by Lori Lieberman which was later rewritten as “”Killing Me Softly With His Song”” and recorded by Roberta Flack in 1973. (Antonino’s was on the same block as Ali Baba Restaurant, which is still there and is my all-time favorite Lebanese-style eatery and which we frequent on special occasions whenever we visit Pittsburgh.)”

  10. “Aquí esta la historia de este poema, que me encanta porque así es como el arte de una artista verdadero puede tocarnos tan profundamente como para generar mas poesía y más música como las ondas de una gota de agua”

  11. I saw Don McLean at a local junior college back in the 1970’s. He truly was mesmerizing. It was one of the greatest concert experiences of my life. I can totally relate to Lori’s song. Don McLean is amazing.

  12. My 4-year old son is singing American Pie all the time. My mom introduced the song to him. It brings back great memories of growing up. Now he can do the same. I hope everything is going well for you and yours. Thank you for the wonderful song.

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