Killing her Softly – the Trials and Triumphs of Lori Lieberman
February 15, 2013
While Roberta Flack collected three Grammys in 1973 for ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song’ (Record of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Performance, and Song of the Year), a pretty, blonde Californian twenty-one-year-old was also in attendance, watching the ceremony unfold with decidedly mixed feelings. At one point, Flack waved across the room at the slender, slightly forlorn figure of the young girl, who did her very best to look cheerful and pleased for Flack’s success. Today, look at the composer credits for the enduring hit, and you’ll see the names Gimbel and Fox. But the song wouldn’t exist without the input of singer/songwriter Lori Lieberman, who not only provided its genesis, but also recorded it first, in 1972, on her debut album for Capitol Records.
Lieberman, who is about to return to England for her first performances since an early-seventies appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, has had a long-lasting, bittersweet relationship with the song that slipped out of her grasp and became the career-defining hit for another performer. After a childhood split between Los Angeles and Geneva, she was signed to Capitol at the age of 19. “A girlfriend and I had been writing songs, and I performed in small clubs and at political rallies, while working for George McGovern’s campaign offices,” says the 61-year-old, who still radiates an unaffected, youthful girlishness, despite having swapped her long, golden mane for a neat bob. “One day, I came home to find a message from Norman Gimbel who had got my number from a mutual friend.” Gimbel was, at this point, already a name, having written the lyrics to ‘Girl From Ipanema’. “We met and he introduced me to his partner, Charles Fox. They were looking for a singer they could write for, manage, produce and publish, and they signed me.” A four-song demo led to the deal with Capitol.
Over the course of four albums, Gimbel and Fox wrote scores of songs from the narrative viewpoint of a young woman. For most of the material, lyricist Gimbel used Lieberman’s diaries, poems and recollections, writing material about growing up in Switzerland, overcoming adolescent alienation, first loves and youthful break-ups. The songs were invariably pretty fusions of folk, pop and jazz; orchestrated ballads with long melodic lines that suited Lieberman’s expressive, semi-classical approach to singing. She shared the qualities of Judy Collins’s voice, but with a more pronounced sensuality and a unique ability to convey yearning and sorrow. From the very first album in 1972, Lieberman felt overawed by her circumstances. “I was a very shy and protected young girl from Switzerland. Being part of the machinery was both exciting and daunting. My family was in the throes of divorce and chaos and suddenly I was a product. There were amazing opportunities – billboards, articles, press parties, schedules – but also a feeling of being swept along, viewed and categorised as ‘long haired singer with guitar’.
During the making of her first album, Lieberman attended a Don McLean concert at the Troubadour. “When he sang ‘Empty Chairs’, I felt exposed – as though he were singing about me and my life. It felt as though he was singing straight to me.” Unknowingly, Lieberman was about to create music history. “As the audience filtered out of the club, I wrote a poem on a napkin. Later that evening, I called Norman Gimbel, who’d come up with the title ‘Killing Me Softly With His Blues’, taken from a book. I told him about the experience I’d had. I read the poem to him and over the next few days he asked me where I’d been sitting, what I’d been feeling. The lyric was born. Together, we went to Charles Fox’s home and worked on the song. At one point, we toyed with the idea of inserting another song in the middle, sort of like ‘MacArthur Park’. I lobbied to take it out, the melody was altered to suit my range, and the song was complete”. But not before ‘with his blues’ had been supplanted by the elegant and more universal, ‘with his song’.
The album came out to positive notices, the machinery stepped up several gears, and the single started to make a dent in radio. But the prominence of Lieberman’s debut single was to be its undoing. It caught the ear of Roberta Flack when it was featured as in-flight entertainment, and she swiftly recorded her own version. With a more lavish pop arrangement and robust production by Joel Dorn, Flack’s version placed far more emphasis on the chorus, opening with it and then repeating it to an eventual ad-libbed fade out. The improvisational-sounding ‘La-la-la-las’, so memorable in Flack’s recording, had not been part of Lieberman’s understated, gentle interpretation. Lieberman recalls the first time she heard the rival disc. “I felt completely disconnected from it. In fact, I had such a lousy idea of what would or wouldn’t sell that I thought it would come and go. Today, I can hear the wonderfulness of her recording but at the time I thought it had lost some of its honesty and purity. Now I hear her inventiveness – she really expanded it in a way I would never have thought of. But it bugged me that some of the lyrics were changed.” Lieberman says that success of the song, in its Flack incarnation, did cause her some sadness but that this was something she only admitted to herself, twenty years later, on a therapist’s couch.
Lieberman made two more albums for Capitol, Becoming (1973) and A Piece Of Time (1974) both of them helmed by Gimbel, by now her boyfriend, and Fox. “One day, the head of A&R, Al Khoury, pulled the three of us aside and told us very candidly that he believed in me as a singer, and would pay to have any other producer come on board. While Fox-Gimbel and I could continue to write the songs, the production wasn’t to his satisfaction. I felt so loyal to Gimbel and Fox. I quickly answered, ‘No, we’re together on this, and thank you very much but we’ll stay the way we are’.” Lieberman adds ruefully, “It was perhaps the defining moment of my career and it cost me the Capitol deal.”
Lieberman’s fourth album, Straw Colored Girl, appeared on EMI and was only significantly distributed in the Netherlands, where she’d built a following. It was the final Gimbel-Fox production before matters deteriorated. Her romantic relationship with Norman Gimbel came to a bad end and Lieberman fled her contract. Shortly thereafter she was sued by Gimbel and Fox for leaving the agreement prematurely. The years that followed were not happy ones. “No record company would touch me with legal troubles at my heels”.
In 1978, she got another shot at the big time, with an album almost entirely self-composed and loosely conceptual. On Letting Go, which appeared on Millennium (a division of the disco powerhouse, Casablanca), almost every song was an unflinching, romantic post-mortem. Rarely has a breaking heart been so painstakingly documented. Lieberman had found her own voice. “It was the first time I was looked at as a writer. Jimmy Ienner, the head of Millennium, believed in me. He said, ‘You can do this, you can write your own songs and say what you need to say’. It was liberating, moving and pivotal in my life. He provided me with a springboard and once I began to write…well, I’ve never stopped’.
The times, however, were not in sync with her. “The music business was changing from singer-songwriter to disco. Donna Summer gave way to Quarterflash and Mr. Mister and my musical identity was truly tested. One awful meeting led to another until the day I walked into a publisher’s office,” says Lieberman, recalling the moment she called it quits. “I had never met him before and he was on the phone when I walked in. He put his hand up as if to say ‘hold on’, and then kept talking about his dinner plans. I looked at my watch and gave him five minutes. Then I got up, with him still on the phone, and walked out and got in my car. I remember thinking, ‘I’m done’. And I was.” With a mischievous laugh, she adds, “The same publisher is now a realtor and has friend-requested me on Facebook. Ha! I think I’ll keep him waiting before I confirm or ignore!”
Lieberman dabbled in television work, penning songs for the spin-off TV series Fame in the early 1980s, before retreating to her personal life in Malibu. “I was married and lucky enough to begin a new chapter – raising three children, tending to horses and dogs. For the first time, my life had true value”.
According to some accounts, Lieberman’s first career in music had left such a nasty taste in her mouth that, for a time, she couldn’t face attending concerts. But a chance encounter with a neighbour was to change all that. In the early nineties, Joseph Cali – who had played Joey in Saturday Night Fever – met Lieberman and remembered who she’d once been. He coaxed her out of anonymity and in 1995 her first album in 17 years, A Thousand Dreams came out on the independent Pope label. It featured a new recording of ‘Killing Me Softly…’ and, in an extraordinary echo of the past, one year later The Fugees had an enormous hit with their bracing reinterpretation, while Lieberman’s slipped under the radar, embraced only by her cult following. Nevertheless, success of a kind ensued. A Thousand Dreams and its follow-up were recorded live and marketed to the audiophile community. Lieberman found herself shifting a healthy 20,000 copies per album and being hailed as a ‘sales champ’ by Gene Pope, the label’s founder. Joseph Cali became Lieberman’s third husband and when the Pope label folded, he helped her to release further albums on her own label, Drive On Records.
By 2009, thanks to her enduring reputation in the Netherlands, she became a major label artist for the first time since 1975. Takes Courage (2010) and Bend Like Steel (2011) came out in Europe on the V2 Benelux label, part of Universal. Her forthcoming album, Bricks Against The Glass will be released by Drive On Records in America and on Universal in Europe. Lieberman explains, “I had toured in the Netherlands a fair amount during my Capitol days, and had a lovely fan base. But I thought I’d been long forgotten. When I began to record again, they came out of the woodwork to find me. It was incredible – I’d see them at concerts, communicate with them…they were still there for me, cheering me on”. She is visibly moved at the memory.
But as her profile has grown, with the funding and support of a major, the past has come back to bite Lieberman. Two years ago, rumours began to spread online, indicating that Lieberman had had no involvement in the creation of ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song’. It turned out that they were being circulated by Gimbel and Fox, and they rapidly proliferated from site to site. The composers claimed that they had written the song with no input from Lieberman and that her contribution went no further than singing. “It was very painful,” she says. “I have never claimed to have written the song, but they were now saying that my involvement in it was just an urban myth”.
At first, Lieberman struggled as Gimbel and Fox continued to erase her from the song’s backstory. But then, articles and interviews from the archives came to her rescue. In one feature, which appeared in The Daily News on April 5, 1973, Norman Gimbel was quoted as saying, “She [Lori Lieberman] told us about this strong experience she had listening to McLean…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 for the rest of the numbers we wrote for this album and we all felt it had possibilities”. And in recently recovered TV footage from the early seventies, a nineteen-year-old Lieberman talks about going to the club and writing the poem before relaying her experience to Gimbel (the composers were backstage in the green room at the time).
Despite the vindication, Lieberman spent some time reeling. “Forty years later, they decided to change the story. They say they wrote the song, played it for me, and I related to it. But anyone who was there – my dear friend and writer, Michele Willens, who took me to see Don McLean, Don himself, all the press, all the TV shows, and concerts – everyone can attest to it. It makes no sense”. Looking back, Lieberman can recall early warnings of this revisionism. “Gimbel said to me years ago that he didn’t know what it was about that Don McLean concert that had moved him so much – but he wasn’t even there!”
What hurts her the most is the lingering suggestion that she is dishonest as well as the attempt to airbrush her from the picture. “I did not ask for credit, for money. I even forgave them for the lawsuit and named my youngest son, William Charles, after Charles Fox. In a single act of kindness and validation, Don McLean introduced me from the stage last year when he invited me to his concert. He told the story of the song. And he sang ‘Empty Chairs’ to me once again. He invited me to appear in his documentary, American Troubadour, wherein I read my poem from long ago, and it meant the world to me”.
Attempting to put the episode to bed, Lieberman composed a song ‘Cup of Girl’ which appeared on her last album. Though the lyric is coded, it recalls her years at Capitol Records and portrays Gimbel as a shadowy, Svengali-esque figure, intent on exploiting and corrupting the young singer. Using the third person, Lieberman sings, “take her little shirt off…scrape away integrity, meddle with her sanity…rifle through her diary, write some words about her family…you broke this cup of girl, but greed just makes you fatter”.
“It was a difficult period in my life. My relationship with Gimbel was dramatic, consuming and out of control. I was physically fragile, constantly sick – now it makes perfect sense. I had very little sense of my own boundaries – or anyone else’s for that matter. I made some awful choices based on fear, intimidation, naivety, and inexperience. ‘Cup of Girl’ is the most revealing song I’ve ever written.”
Some of the anguish has been allayed by the unexpected momentum of her second recording career. “The truth is out there,” she says. “I don’t read what they [Gimbel/Fox] say anymore. I don’t pay attention to the darkness of whatever Gimbel feels he needs to say. It just doesn’t matter anymore. To me, it’s over. I take responsibility for my own choices. It’s all I can do, and my life is filled with great things”.
While she can relax about her forthcoming dates in the Netherlands, where she commands concert hall audiences, she is more nervous about her two UK dates, one in London, the other in Basingstoke. “I’m excited to return. I remember being on TV with Russ Ballard. It was hosted by Bob Harris. It will be cool to relate to an audience I haven’t seen in years.”
As the survivor of a contract that often left her feeling bewildered, overwhelmed and exploited, Lieberman has advice for anyone setting out on a similar path. “I’m a living cautionary tale! I would advise a good lawyer, a strong belief in oneself (good luck with that). Listen to your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, examine it and don’t say ‘yes’ too quickly. Don’t sign on a dotted line without guidance. Say, ‘Let me get back to you once I’ve thought about it’. Impulsive acts can be the pivotal moments of a lifetime”.
Lieberman is putting the finishing touches to her new album and taking stock of her unusual place in music history – not a household name, but well-respected and successful enough to keep going. “Here I am, forty years on, still able to sing and write. While I was recording, a photo of Joni Mitchell stared at me from my wall. I looked into that photo last night and thought, ‘Thank you, Joni, for helping me to find my way’. It’s such a blessed gift that there are people still listening”.
The title of the new album – Bricks Against The Glass – suggests riot, protest, civil unrest. But Lieberman reveals that hers are riots of an internal nature. “I’ve put all my pieces on a tray like a neatly fit puzzle, tossed them in the air and rearranged them. That’s what this album is all about”.
Many artists are persistently stalked by one element of their past. Carly Simon will always be asked about ‘You’re So Vain’. Carole King will continue to be followed around by the shadow of Tapestry, no matter the merits of her other albums. And Lieberman will always be pursued by ‘Killing Me Softly’. She has long since made peace with the song that encapsulates the successes and failures, the near misses and the triumphs that she has experienced. “I truly did not have any idea that the song would endure the way it has. There were actually other tracks on my first album that I liked more. Just shows you what I know! But today I love the song. And I have great compassion for the girl I was then and the woman I am today. It is the greatest gift in the world to have been part of ‘Killing Me Softly’, even with its challenges. It continues to test me and for that I’m most grateful”.
Lori Lieberman is performing on 28th February at The Green Note, London and on 1st March at The Forge, Basingstoke. Tickets available at www.lorilieberman.com
May 2013 Postscript:
The acclaimed writer, Sean Derek, has shared her recollections concerning the true origins of ‘Killing Me Softly…’
Sean Derek writes:
“For quite some time I’ve tried to ignore this controversy, given my admiration for both sides and my preference to remain anonymous. However, I just can’t sit silent any longer knowing the truth about how it really happened.
I had the privilege to work for Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel in the 70’s. I can’t say I knew Charlie well, but I did become good friends with Norman.
Back in those days, while I was working for Fox-Gimbel Productions, Norman and Charlie eagerly promoted the fact that Killing Me Softly was inspired by Lori and the poem she wrote after seeing Don McLean perform live. Aside from it being absolutely true, it was great press for their song. At the time, no one doubted or questioned it, because if you listen to the lyrics, it is clearly from a woman’s point of view.
All of us that were there, now wonder why Norman and Charlie would suddenly change the story. Sadly, the only answer any of us can come up with: They are afraid that Lori has a legal claim as co-author, which would mean finally having to share a piece of an extremely lucrative pie.
I know Lori Lieberman; she doesn’t worship the almighty dollar as so many of us do. She genuinely loves creating music and has always been very proud to be the inspiration for what has become a timeless classic. She should be proud, without her there would be no Killing Me Softly.
Very sincerely, a firsthand witness,