Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Lori Lieberman "Killing Me Softly" with nostalgia

    “It might have been.” 

     There are dozens and dozens of singers who have an odd type of fame: they recorded a sure-fire hit song, only to be ignored. A "cover version" became a smash instead, and worse, was declared "the definitive version." 

    Probably the most famous example is “Killing Me Softly With His Song” which was a worldwide hit for smokey soul singer Roberta Flack. It was originally recorded by AND written for a blue-eyed folkie blond named Lori Lieberman.   

    Too bad nobody knows who Lori Lieberman is. Or Norman Gimbel. Gimbel (still around at 90) wrote the lyrics. A professional who studied his craft with Frank Loesser, he developed an unusual niche in adapting foreign melodies for female vocalists. It took a pretty sensitive guy to find the female point of view to make a pretty melody a hit for an Astrud Gilberto or Claudine Longet. A Brazilian tune became "How Insensitive" and a French one, "I Will Wait For You." Nana Mouskouri had a hit with "Only Love." Yes, this Jewish guy from Brooklyn scored a lot of International hits.

      Gimbel also worked with composer Charles Fox to craft original tunes for movies, for artists in search of a hit, or for a young performer who showed promise. Lori Lieberman was in the latter category. She was signed to Capitol; sort of their answer to Judy Collins. All sshe needed was a rock-pop ballad to bring her the kind of success Judy was having, as well as guys such as James Taylor and Cat Stevens.

    Norman spent some time with Lori, getting to know her interests and personality, and the kind of things she might want to sing about. She mentioned an emotional experience watching Don McLean perform at L.A.'s The Troubadour. It was a club that featured the best of the solo artists, including Phil Ochs and Joni Mitchell. 

      “It was an awful place, a tough club with tough audiences,” Don recalls. His song “Empty Chairs,” may not have thrilled some of the hipper people in the audience, but it moved Lori Lieberman. There are some very ripe lines in it: “I feel a trembling tingle of a sleepless night…Gypsy moths dance around a candle flame...Moonlight used to bathe the contours of your face while chestnut hair fell all around the pillow case. …I never knew how much I needed you. Never thought you’d leave until you went.”    

        After Lori described the moment, Gimbel "had a notion this might make a good song, so...we talked it over several times, just as we did the rest of the numbers we wrote for the album, and we all felt it had possibilities.” It was Norman who came up with a phrase that seemed to poetically capture Lori's emotion: “Killing me softly with his blues.” Lori wasn’t sold on “blues.” After all, McLean wasn't a blues artist. The phrase was changed, and"Killing Me Softly With His Song" became the single Capitol chose as Lori's big break. 
         It won a “Song of the Year” Grammy in 1973 for Gimbel and Fox, but not for the Lieberman version. The hit was on Atlantic, from Roberta Flack. “She was very creative with it,” Lori says now. Back then, the disappointment was too much. It seemed that record execs quickly cooled to her, and when one of them kept her waiting for hours, she walked out of the building and never returned. 

         Lieberman returned to show business years later as a cabaret act, doing the kind of songs best suited to her. She used her notoriety as the original "Killing Me Softly" singer to open some doors. Enough time had passed, so that some simply remembered the song and not necessarily who it was that made it a hit. In 2011 she recorded an album called “Courage.” A YouTube interview supporting the album was headlined, "Lori Lieberman Comes to Terms with Killing Me Softly." Some 10,000 people have viewed it.   

     There's another video on YouTube that some might be amused to see. It's Don McLean performing "Empty Chairs" with Lori Lieberman in the audience. The camera has a few shots of Lori as she smiles, acknowledging Don's story of how his performance inspired a hit song, first recorded by her. 

      When asked about the song, Don doesn't take sides. He claims to appreciate both the Lori Lieberman and the Roberta Flack versions:  “I’m absolutely amazed…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 Lieberman
Killing Me Softly with His Song   Instant download or listen on line. No Zinfart passwords, malware or spyware anywhere.


joe v berlin said...

That's a good piece of writing.

Ill Folks said...

Thanks, I appreciate it. I went back to re-read it, and corrected a few bad bits of typing! Like, "Nice" is now "niche."