True confession: I’ve loved this song for the majority of my life but did not know until today that it was originally recorded by someone else. I guess I always assumed Roberta Flack wasn’t actually credited for writing it because that was the case with many R&B/soul artists at the time, but I had no idea there was an earlier version. The original recording was released by singer/songwriter Lori Lieberman the previous year. Lieberman collaborated on it with Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, all three of whom are best known for writing “Killing Me Softly,” among others barely worth mentioning. The full story involves a sordid May-December love affair, severing of ties, lawsuits and every crazy thing you can imagine.
I should have known something was up long ago, when I found out that the object of the song--the person killing the singer softly with his song--is Don McLean. I don’t think anyone would fault me to point out that being touched by a Don McLean performance to the point where you write an enduring, classic tune about it is an obtusely white thing to do. I can honestly say that this has lowkey bothered me for YEARS. I just couldn’t picture Roberta Flack swooning over Don McLean that would inspire her to write the words “I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd. I felt he found my letters and read each one out loud.” It just wasn’t right.
Evidently the Don McLean song that inspired “Killing Me Softly” is called “Empty Chairs,” not one (I though) I’d ever heard before. It sounds to me so tonally similar to “Vincent,” a song with which I have an intensely personal relationship*, I kept wanting him to transition to “now I understand what you tried to say to me, how you suffered for your sanity” and when he inevitably didn’t, I felt disappointed and vaguely nauseated. This song doesn’t stand out to me at all and borderline sucks.
*I think I’ve mentioned before that absent from my childhood is the experience of going through my parents’ old record collections and discovering old stuff that they love or once loved listening to, gaining an early musical education from those dusty old records. My parents were nomads before I was born, persistently bouncing around the pacific until they stopped in the late 1970s. They didn’t keep any of their stuff from when they were kids or in their teens or even their 20s. The closest I could get were old cassettes they kept from their Peace Corps days, which were most often dubbed mix-tapes made by close friends and family. They lacked the cohesion and colorful artwork that my peers’ parents’ old LPs would have, so I never “got into” my parent’s “record collections.” One vintage prerecorded cassette that survived moves and purges was a copy of Don McLean’s American Pie album so old that it didn’t come in the flip-style cassette case I was used to. Rather, it was like a hard-plastic cassingle-style sleeve-case. It was weird. Anyway, I listened to that album, which I now see included “Empty Chairs,” but more importantly included “Vincent,” which I’d never heard before listening to the album. I believe I was not yet taking art history yet, but was cultivating an early interest in post-impressionist art (still probably my favorite pre-modern period). I heard “Vincent” for the first time, burst intensely into tears, and listened to it like five more times. Years later, I found out that NOFX covered “Vincent,” which is one of my favorite things Fat Mike has ever done. I could not include either version on my top 100 because it is too embarrassing to even consider where it might fit, though it probably deserves a spot.
Evidently, Roberta Flack was sort of on the fence about recording “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” arguably one of two or three songs she’s now best known for. At the risk of summarizing the entire Wikipedia article in this post, I must also share the detail that Roberta Flack first heard the original version on an airplane as part of the in-flight audio program. You may or may not be old enough to remember these. I used to listen to them despite having at least a portable cassette player during every flight in which I needed to be occupied. It was fun for me, whose control-freak parents didn’t allow me to switch away from the adult-contemporary or NPR stations in the car and doing so on the airplane felt fun and random, yet predictable enough since the in-flight literature lists all songs they will play. I recall very early in high school hearing “Stand” by REM over and over on one such flight. So anyway, Roberta Flack was making preparations to record it but for some reason never did. Then, when opening for Marvin Gaye for lack of any other material for an encore, played “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” the crowd went wild, and Marvin Gaye advised her not to play the song again until she recorded it.
You might guess that I became enamored with “Killing Me Softly with His Song” following the Fugees’ 1996 cover version but that is not true! I remember my mom loving this song. All along I’ve assumed that the version of “Killing” I knew from my youth was the Roberta Flack version, but evidently there’s an Anne Murray version, which may very well be the one my mom listened to. That’s disappointing. I listened to it for the first time ever/in many enough years so that it didn’t sound familiar. It sucks. It’s over-arranged and the vocal performance pales (no pun intended) in comparison. That’s right, a Canadian adult contemporary artist can’t drum up as much soul as Roberta Flack. I’m taking a stand. I do like that cover by the Fugees, though and appreciated when it came along and enjoyed a second life. Another semi-contemporary moment-in-the-sun worth mentioning if not going into is a very sweet moment in the 2002 major motion picture About a Boy, which I love in spite of myself.
I don’t feel like I need to talk about why I love this song so much. I kind of feel like it’s similar to “What’s Going On?” Like, what is there to say? Everyone loves this song. I will say that the power of this song for me isn’t a play between the music and lyrics. I’m normally big on lyrics and the songwriter’s headspace, how that plays with the arrangement and the melody, but “Killing Me Softly with His Song” is just ok from that perspective. It’s thematically the same song as “Superstar” by the Carpenters. What I love best about this song is the melody of the verses as it transitions into the chorus. This song is 90% chorus, but the verses are where the meat is for me. Take verse 3 (please):
He sang as if he knew me in all my dark despair
And then he looked right through me as if I wasn't there
But he just came to singing, singing clear and strong
You can kind of see what I mean. “In all my dark despair” sounds like an angsty teenage girl wrote it (which is basically true). The first line ends mid-range. The second one is high and strong and the third, which feeds into the chorus is a nonsense line but is delivered so forcefully, the performance takes on a life of its own and in one single shot, demonstrates the general magic of music.