On December 19, 2018, acclaimed Oscar and Grammy-winning songwriter, Norman Gimbel died. He was the versatile lyricist of standards that varied in genre from the bossa nova to folk-rock to jazz-tinged movie-theme ballads. The range of his subjects was wide, covering the male gaze of desire, enduring romanticism, tributes to the heroic individual. I was saddened by his death. I had met him in my fitful singer-songwriter days when I was plugging my mellow cassettes in Los Angeles at the height of the late 70’s disco reign. That story of a young, impressionable woman who operated on musical instinct and single-minded ideals is intertwined with another story, orbiting around the inception, composition and recording of one of Norman Gimbel’s and his long-time writing partner, Charles Fox’s biggest hits, ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’.
I had been performing in Toronto since my preteen years, having made my professional singing debut under the pseudonym, Carol Lipson, on CBC Radio at the age of 13. Music was the only future I could envision. Some ten years later, I landed at Norman Gimbel’s front door in Beverly Hills on a winter evening through a series of bold leaps and missteps in my pursuit of a recording career. A fan of Norman Gimbel’s and Charles Fox’s songs, I had written Norman Gimbel about my admiration of their music and partnership with Lori Lieberman on Capital Records, and he had responded to me, his curiosity piqued. That he should have been open enough to do so strikes me as remarkable.
I recall speaking to him on the phone shortly after landing in Los Angeles in a breathless, euphoric state. He first addressed me as the angry lady from Canada, commiserating with me on some disparaging comment I had made about the music business in my letter. I liked being revealed in a way I hadn’t perceived. There were hints of seduction, which I longingly veered towards and shyly averted; there were shared confidences that strangers elicit. We traded the names of musicians we both knew. A date was set. I was invited to his condominium later that week.
During that short time together, I would learn, among other things, how impenetrable the music circle in Los Angeles was. Our meeting was at once exhilarating and devastating and perhaps within the charged dynamic between us, I even sensed a potential for love.
Norman told me that in finding and working with Lori, Charles and he were hoping to forge the kind of partnership Bacharach and David had enjoyed with Dionne Warwick. Warwick’s signature vocals of the groundbreaking Bacharach David songbook conveyed the maturity and distinct recording quality of a singer in her prime. While the Lieberman/Gimbel/Fox albums had an arresting authenticity, their artful melodies and lyrics resisting the constraints of pop radio, their merger would not achieve the synergistic fit of Bacharach/David and Warwick.
Tracks from the 1972 Lori Lieberman and the 1974 A Piece of Time albums, however, made their mark through a number of artists: the exceptional ‘I Got a Name’ was recorded by Jim Croce and posthumously released; ‘And the Feeling’s Good’ was soulfully performed by Jose Feliciano; and of course, ‘Killing Me Softly with his Song’ was stunningly reconceived by Roberta Flack, captivating a global audience. (She had first heard the song on an airplane and sought out the composer, Charles Fox, for permission to record it).
Lori’s versions were singular. In her rich folk voice, she caressed the minor cadences of Charles Fox’s haunting melodies. We had one of those combined television/stereo sets that served as part of our ornate living room furniture, and I would sit listening cross-legged on our polyester fiber green carpet till the skin on my thighs and palms burned, holding the albums close, studying the photographs, inhabiting the clipped narratives that lived in those songs. I loved: ‘I Got a Name’; ‘House Full of Women’ (from the Becoming Album, 1973); and above all, I loved ‘Legacy’, a song about carrying the weight of a secretive yet palpable familial past, about straddling the line between dreaming child and wakeful woman.
Over time, though, something left me wanting. Lori’s rendition of Norman Gimbel’s lyrics was ethereal more often than grounded in the meaning of the words. She seemed not fully committed to interpreting the lyrics, to singing them rhythmically. Perhaps these features could be attributed to Lori’s youth; perhaps she was overly coached and lost agency; or maybe she was doing what my late singing teacher, Gloria Ferrer, called listening to the sound of her voice. Lori’s instrument was seamlessly beautiful, pitch-perfect, plaintive, and pure in tone, but in that soothing wave of sound, her phrasing could be predictable. Charles Fox, while a wonderful composer and arranger, may have contributed to the effect of sameness through the lack of dynamics in the mixes. All the while, Gimbel’s lyrics revealed with craft, nuance, and poetry the private realm of a young girl’s thoughts, fears, and hopes.
Gimbel and Fox were Lori’s songwriters, producers, and managers…there was arguably a Svengali-like quality to the partnership. Norman Gimbel, romantically involved with Lori, tapped into her life, mined his sensibility and hers, and built a repertoire of fine songs from that myriad of sources. Was there too much appropriation? Did Norman write on Lori’s behalf with her full and free volition? And here we come to the longstanding conflict and debate about the genesis of Killing Me Softly and the authorship of the lyrics.
As Norman relayed to me in part, and as he repeatedly stated publicly, the title, the thumbprint of the song, emanated from the fiction of an Argentinean writer, Julio Cortazar, who described sitting at a bar when a piano player killed [him] softly with his blues. That gold nugget of an oxymoron enticed Norman Gimbel, so he stored the title, for which there is no copyright, for a later time. And the time came in Lori’s project, time to frame what would be a classic song with a slightly altered version: ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’ spurred on by Lori Lieberman’s experience as an audience member at a Don McLean club concert.
One fateful evening, Lori heard and astutely attended to McLean’s lyrics and voice in the song, ‘Empty Chairs’, and from Charles Donovan’s account published in the Huffington Post in 2013, Lori retells how she “felt exposed – as though [Don] were singing about me and my life. It felt as though he was singing straight to me. 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.” Lori, then, relayed her transitional experience to Norman Gimbel who prompted her for narrative details. Lori was, without question, the muse of the song, but did she write the alliterative phrase “felt all flushed with fever” to connote the embarrassment of feeling exposed? Did she use “strumming” in that unusual way to illustrate the emotion evoked through an instrumentalist’s fingers? She referred to a self-penned poem. What diction choices did she make?
Without reading that poem, it is difficult to know with certainty which lines Lori Lieberman wrote in her journal and shared with Norman Gimbel and which lines were shaped and reconstructed by him. Because – in the end it is the turn of phrase, the order of the words as they sit side-by-side that matter – if the lyricist draws from an experience and turns that experience into a memorable lyric. I believe that Norman Gimbel achieved these feats for Lori Lieberman. Could Norman have given Lori credit for the inception and development of the song? Quite possibly – yes – but that would have required a certain generosity and a rethinking of the partnership, the investment, and the album concept.
There is a gritty 1973 You Tube video of a Lori Lieberman guest spot on the Michael Douglas Show. On it she speaks graciously about the collaboration, citing the Don McLean story as a key trigger while affording full writing credit to Gimbel and Fox. This was Lori’s first television appearance and hers was a public declaration of the debt of gratitude she owed to the two established writers and of the growth she looked forward to in her writing. (She had written one track, ‘My Lover Do You Know’, on her debut album, eventually developing into an adept and prolific lyricist in her own right). Hope was on the wing then and relations were good.
However, by the time the albums stopped, her ties to the writers had broken (the personal one with Norman ending; the music partnership becoming litigious). When Norman Gimbel, Charles Fox, and Roberta Flack walked away with their respective Grammy statues in 1973, I wonder if the sense of having been controlled, of having been faded out of the song didn’t take its toll on Lori Lieberman. Opposing stories of the song’s creation have been published over the years with surprising continuity (inclusive of Don McLean’s support of Lori Lieberman), fueled on the part of those directly involved by deflated ego, disappointment, and perceived injustice.
That evening in Norman’s apartment, some forty years ago, as he opened the door to greet me, he remarked on the physical similarity between Lori and myself. (I hadn’t seen a resemblance up to that point, but the thought appealed to me). Once introductions and pleasantries had been made and we were seated, he motioned that he would listen to what music I brought, playing the conciliatory host. I fumbled in my purse for my cassette tape and handed it to him. On it were two originals, a laid-back groove ballad, ‘Too Many Times,’ a Latin-infused song called, ‘Make Me Believe’, and a slow remake of the Beatles’, ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’. After hearing the originals, Norman recalled that he too wrote many pretty songs that never surfaced. He lowered his head as he spoke and closed his fists. I was surprised a world-renowned songwriter equated our experience. Still, no matter the measure of his success, dashed efforts and rejected works of merit could embitter.
He complimented my vocals for what he characterized as a genuine sense of drama and for the likeness in quality to “that girl from New York, Laura Nyro.” I was flattered. Grateful. Then, he paused and added matter-of-factly, “But she was startling.” He had to know the impact his words would have on me. No, I had not at sixteen years of age written, ‘And When I Die’ or ‘Wedding Bell Blues’ or ‘Stoney End’. What a meteoric gift was Laura Nyro’s. My talent was not startling…possibly good and getting better. His critique stung, but its truth was undeniable if less than constructive. I responded, a bruised and dazed fighter in the ring, with yet another shot.
Audacious, I added that I had written a lyric, ‘Right Around the Bend’, to a Joe Sample instrumental track I loved. In this way, I was setting myself up to do the kind of work Norman Gimbel had been doing with great success for years. He was amenable, and so I played that track too. Norman listened intently, stood up and walked around to the front of his desk. He liked the lyric. He told me he knew Joe Sample and picked up the phone receiver. He began to dial, and then mid-stream, held the receiver in limbo. He half-smiled. It was a little sly, his smile, signaling an unspoken price, but along with that, there was a mix of self-protectiveness and a boyish dash of vulnerability. And my first thought was – then, it is a good lyric, isn’t it?
He had over the course of mere minutes flattened and humbled me and indirectly acknowledged my talent.
Everything happened quickly…he had a console piano in his living room. I wanted to shift gears, perform something from his body of work for Lori, the impetus for his meeting me. I wanted to share my love for his songs to please him and so played and sang, ‘And the Feeling’s Good’, the way I had arranged it for piano bars. This was a culminating moment because I was singing his work and singing it with joy when a shock of intimacy and what I might call love and recognition seemed to flash in his dark eyes. After singing, I withdrew my hands from the keys, resting them on my lap, flushed like the girl in the Robert Flack hit song.
Odd that I remember each move, as if it had been choreographed, since I barely kept my balance. I was awkward at best. He collected himself. Our time suddenly at an end, its energy spent, he drove me back to where I was staying. He said it was the responsible thing to do. I said little of consequence; my hand grazed his shoulder, and he flinched before I got out of the car, which sped away. I telephoned one last time while in Los Angeles, and he was aloof and abrupt. Afterwards, back in Canada, I imagined myself in love and began writing him letters as if a connection could be rekindled somehow. The correspondence, likely touching at the outset, grew increasingly invasive in the face of his continued silence – until he stopped my obsession with a stamped postmark that read: No Longer Resides at this Address. I can hardly relay this without a feverish shade of rose crossing my face.
Over the last two decades, I cultivated new facets outside the music industry, completing a doctoral degree, and establishing an academic career at a SUNY college in upstate New York. I have long been interested in developing students’ writing voices and understanding the process they undergo. And so, I have read and been intrigued by the contested accounts of the song and its birth, and I think of how Killing Me Softly became one of the great popular songs of the twentieth century because of a convergence of forces, which is true to the complex nature of all writing. Without the original title by the Argentinian fiction writer, without Lori’s experience at the club, and Norman’s transformation of that lived experience, without Charles Fox’s great melody, there would have been no song. And without Roberta Flack’s musical gifts, her wistful background vocals, the backbeat, the delicate soulfulness of her singing that embodied the very dichotomy of the song, there would have been no hit record.
The success of ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’ is due to a collaboration of artists – from its birth to its composition to the release of the black vinyl record, the red and green Atlantic insignia spinning around the turntable. And with the 90’s remake by Lauryn Hill and the Fugees, which introduced the song to a new generation, the song’s durability and timelessness was sealed.
As for the exchange between Norman Gimbel and myself, it is a short, spirited memory I have held no less dear because of its dark undercurrents. Our encounter sprung from a hit song and its kindred stories, part of a legacy I have come to call my own, never fully realized, albeit, but aspiring just the same.
Carol Lipszyc’s book of short stories on children and adolescents in the Holocaust, The Saviour Shoes and Other Stories, (2014) and her book of poetry, Singing Me Home, (2010) were published by Inanna. Her edited anthology of eighty poems on the heart, The Heart Is Improvisational, was published by Guernica Editions (2017). Her website is: www.carollipszyc.com