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Killing me softly again…

August 9th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

The item on Killing Me Softly With His Song in The Originals Vol. 30, posted on Friday, restated the most commonly repeated story about the genesis of the song; that is, original singer Lori Lieberman had written a poem about seeing Don McLean in concert, which lyricist Norman Gimbel adapted to form the lyrics for the song. Lieberman has repeated the story in interviews, but Norman Gimbel dismisses it. He contacted me to set the record straight. Here then are Gimbel’s verbatim recollection of how the lyrics for Killing Me Softly, which were accompanied by Charles Fox’s melody, came to be:


Norman Gimbel, co-writer of Killing Me Softly With His Song

“Famed composer Lalo Shifrin (Mission Impossible theme) and I were writing some songs for one of his films. We discussed writing a full musical for the theater together. He suggested a particular novel that I read as source material. In the book the author described his character as walking into a bar and having a drink and listening to the piano player who was killing him softly with his blues. I made note of the line in my ‘idea book’ and years later, after Charles Fox and got a recording deal for Ms. Leiberman at Capitol Records, had to write 10 songs for her first album.  I retrieved the line and changed the word ‘blues’ to to ‘song’.”

It is fair to say that Gimbel is none too pleased with Lori Lieberman’s version.

Gimbel’s career has been impressive. A member of the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame since 1984, he wrote the English lyrics for Girl From Ipanema and Sway (Dean Martin), co-wrote the songs for two Broadway hits (Whoop-Up and Conquering Hero), and several songs for movies, working with the likes of Shifrin, Bill Conti, Elmer Bernstein, Dave Grusin, Quincy Jones, Michel Columbier, Pat Williams, Maurice Jarre and so on. Among these movie composers was Charles Fox, with whom Gimbel went on to form a productive partnership.

With Fox he wrote a series of TV themes, including Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Paper Chase, Wonder Woman, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and Angie. They won an Emmy for their theme for the 1970 film version of the children’s series H.R. Pufnstuf.  He won a Best Original Song Oscar, after two previous nominations,  in 1980 for “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae, with music by David Shire, and at 81 remains active in songwriting today.

His songs have been recorded by some of the most accomplished singers in pop. It’s fair to presume that few singers have managed to create as bad versions of them as did German Helge Schneider with his 2007 teutonic remake of Killing Me Softly With His Song. He is a comedian but also a musician; it’s impossible to tell whether or not he is having us on. File under “Worst cover recordings ever”.

  1. August 9th, 2009 at 14:20 | #1

    The Lieberman version of how “Killing Me Softly With His Song” came to be seems to be one that is pretty entrenched.

    Either way, it’s a lovely song.

  2. jb
    August 9th, 2009 at 14:37 | #2

    The phrase “killing me softly with his song” always seemed to me like a poetic invention rather than a description of something that actually happened in the real world. That’s not to say I spotted Lieberman’s story as a fraud, only that it never rang true. Although based on Gimbel’s description, I guess I’m wrong about its “ring.”

  3. caithiseach
    August 9th, 2009 at 17:15 | #3

    It would be nice to have the book title so we could put the Lori Story to rest once and for all.

  4. August 9th, 2009 at 19:44 | #4

    interesting story from the other side, sounds plausible…
    And you’re just as bad for inflicting Helge upon the rest of your readers :)

  5. Dane
    August 10th, 2009 at 23:02 | #5

    He wrote “Happy Days” theme song *and* Killing Me Softly? Thank you, Mr. Gimbel.

  6. August 11th, 2009 at 04:46 | #6

    It’s always a trip when someone we write about gets in touch, isn’t it? Glad to know the real story. (And I agree with caithiseach: It would be nice to know the title of the book.)

  7. August 11th, 2009 at 07:43 | #7

    Yeah, it’s quite nice when subjects get in touch. I was more pleased though that the lead singer of The Persuasions commented on the last Originals post, thanking me for posting their a capella version of He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.

  8. Plastik44
    August 21st, 2009 at 18:00 | #8

    Great that you posted `Hushabye´ by the Mystics. A real Doo Wop classic.

  9. J. X. McKie
    December 12th, 2020 at 20:18 | #9

    This didn’t age well. Short version: Gimbel threatened Don McLean with legal action for posting Liebermann’s version of the story. McLean was able to produce 1973 interviews with Gimbel corroborating Liebermann’s version. Here’s McLean’s FB post on the occasion of Gimbel’s death:


  10. amdwhah
    December 12th, 2020 at 23:32 | #10

    Thanks for that. Gimbel’s email to me did not suggest that he was a particularly attractive personality. And I’m still afraid he’ll put a lawyer on me for saying that.

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