“Killing Me Softly” — Roberta Flack / The Fugees / Lori Lieberman

This weekend, Lauryn Hill is at Glastonbury after what can only be described as an extended period of artistic silence on her part.

The official reason for her appearance is that 2019 is the 21st anniversary of her groundbreaking debut solo album “The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill” being released.

I think she probably just fancied getting out of the house after so long.

If you weren’t around at the time, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” was quite a phenomenon in 1998. It won five Grammys that year, garnered boatloads of critical acclaim and went on to sell somewhere north of 20 million copies around the world, making it one of the most successful albums in music history.

And that’s not even the only groundbreaking album Lauryn Hill has been involved with over the years.

A couple of years earlier, in 1996, Lauryn Hill was the lead singer in The Fugees whose album “The Score” was also a Grammy-winning critical success, and one of the best-selling albums of its time.

“The Score” pretty much set the scene for 21st century hip-hop, with ace production work from The Fugees themselves (Lauryn Hill, Pras Michael and Wyclef Jean) plus a range of collaborators, including Salaam Remi who would later produce Amy Winehouse’s wonderful songs alongside Mark Ronson.

So, one way or another, Lauryn Hill has been involved in more than her fair share of music history over the years.

“The Score” included The Fugees’s cover of the old Roberta Flack song…as I thought of it at the time…“Killing Me Softly”. This was also the first time I was conscious of hearing Lauryn Hill’s voice.

Roberta Flack’s version of “Killing Me Softly” was a Billboard Number One in 1973 and a UK Number Six. It became one of those songs which is so closely identified with a particular singer that you couldn’t imagine anyone else ever taking the song on and the result being anything other than a second-rate version of their iconic performance.

Until Lauryn Hill came along…

The writing of “Killing Me Softly” was, for many years, credited to Charles Fox, who wrote the music, and Norman Gimbel, who wrote the lyrics.

That’s not perhaps the world’s best-known songwriting team, but I can guarantee you’ve heard their work many times. Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel composed a range of film scores and TV theme tunes including the title songs for ‘Happy Days’ and ‘Laverne and Shirley’.

However there was some controversy about crediting Fox and Gimbel with writing “Killing Me Softly”. Its origins were hotly disputed for many years.

What now seems to be pretty much settled is that a young, folk singer named Lori Lieberman went to a Don Maclean concert and was so touched by his performance that she wrote a poem about it, expressing how much his words and performance meant to her.

A little while later, when she was working with Fox and Gimbel on her own record, Lori Lieberman showed them the poem she’d written.

Shortly after Fox and Gimbel wrote a beautiful song, which became a worldwide hit, based on that poem but denied her a songwriting credit.

Quite how much that funnelled through to them in songwriting royalties over the years for writing such a popular song probably doesn’t bear thinking about.

Even after the release of Lori Lieberman’s own version of “Killing Me Softly” in the early 1970s, Fox and Gimbel flatly denied her involvement in the creative process.

At least until some time later when some newspaper articles from the early 1970s were discovered in which Fox and Gimbel are quoted as entirely endorsing the version of events Lori Lieberman had been claiming for years. That’s not a good look, however you explain it.

To this day, Lori Lieberman still doesn’t have a formal songwriting credit, but at least her story has been vindicated…and I’m sure one way or another some of the songwriting royalties have at last found their way to her bank account.

Lori Lieberman’s version of today’s song was modestly popular, performed in a folky Joni Mitchell/Judy Collins style. Her voice is lovely…soft and intimate and really conveying a sense of the emotions involved…which might not be too surprising given that her own experiences, as written down in her poem at the time, were the original inspiration for “Killing Me Softly”

Until Roberta Flack got hold of “Killing Me Softly”, it was just a nice, folky song which had been a modest hit. But thankfully it was a modest hit that somehow Roberta Flack heard while on an aeroplane journey.

She immediately tracked down Fox and Gimbel for permission to record it and her cover of Lori Lieberman’s song went to the top of the charts around the world and won both the performer and songwriting team their respective Grammys for that year.

And there, for most songs, the story would end.

An iconic version of a beautiful song that was a Number One hit around the world. A song that meant so much to so many people, bringing back memories of some particularly emotional moments in their lives.

Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” acquired the status of, say, Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York”…you couldn’t ever imagine anyone else recording it and the results being anything other than a pale imitation of their original genius.

But…and I know you’re probably ahead of me here…roll the clock forward to 1996 and another version of Fox and Gimbel’s (and, arguably, Lieberman’s) song topped the charts around the world.

If anything, The Fugees’ version of “Killing Me Softly” sold even more copies than in its 1970s incarnation and won the song another Grammy for their performance.

At first, I wasn’t all that keen on The Fugees’ version.

Mainly because the original…or what I thought was the original, as I was unaware of Lori Lieberman’s version back then…was such an iconic song.

And also because the music video, which never seemed to be off MTV in those days, irritated me. It still does.

But then I started hearing The Fugees’ version of “Killing Me Softly” on the radio, and the quality of their performance shone through.

The genius of The Fugees’ version is that, while it is still recognisably the same song as Roberta Flack’s…and indeed Lori Lieberman’s…version, their treatment is entirely different. In the over-used words of X-Factor judges around the world, they “make it their own”.

Lauryn Hill’s vocal on The Fugees’ version is truly spectacular, although a million miles away from both Lori Lieberman’s folky original and Roberta Flack’s soul-infused treatment.

Only an exceptional singer can hold a tune, and hold the listener’s attention, entirely on their own. For the first minute and a half, or thereabouts, all you hear on The Fugees’ version of “Killing Me Softly” are some drums in the background and Lauryn Hill’s vocal, which carries the song all by itself.

To do that, you’ve got to be good…really good. You can hear soul in there, you can hear attitude, you can hear a tough life on the streets, you can hear a hard outer shell with a frightened little girl inside pretending to be strong. The first minute-and-a-half of Lauryn Hill’s vocal is a performance masterclass.

That said, both Lori Lieberman’s and Roberta Flack’s versions are also vocal masterclasses all of their own.

I can’t immediately think of another song which has been a hit in three such different versions, with three entirely different but equally brilliant (in their own style) vocal performances.

No wonder “Killing Me Softly” picked up so many Grammys over the years…

And we haven’t even considered the lyrics yet… putting aside for a moment the precise details of who originally wrote them…

I felt all flushed with fever
Embarrassed by the crowd
I felt he found my letters
And read each one out loud
I prayed that he would finish
But he kept right on
Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song

Regardless of their provenance, these are some of the most beautiful and tender song lyrics ever written, from a song jam-packed with beautiful and tender lyrics.

Although not the most well-known version of “Killing Me Softly”, Lori Lieberman’s original is truly beautiful too. You can find that tender, beautiful and actually quite vulnerable version here… https://youtu.be/WxY47jh9owA

When you listen to Lori Lieberman’s version, you’ll understand right away why at least a decent chunk of the lyrics were probably written by her. It’s such a personal moment, sharing what a young woman felt inside after attending a concert which moved her emotions in a way they’d never been moved before.

The very well known version…and until The Fugees came along…arguably the definitive version of “Killing Me Softly” by Roberta Flack is here… https://youtu.be/qw380nL67nE

And The Fugees’ hit version, with lead vocals by Lauryn Hill, is below.

However the music video for their version still irritates me. So the video below is of a live version of “Killing Me Softly” which rather improbably brings together both The Fugees and Roberta Flack for a romp through their most famous song.

The live performance isn’t quite the same as the studio recording. There’s live drums, rather than a drum machine, and Wyclef Jean provides some electric piano to help the song along a little.

But you can still hear the immense quality of Lauryn Hill’s vocals…if anything they’re even more impressive for a live performance.

However, let’s just say the dance moves are perhaps rather less brilliant than the singing on this one…

Let’s hope it isn’t another 21 years before we hear Lauryn Hill’s vocals on a hit record again.

In the meantime, here’s The Fugees performing live with Roberta Flack and “Killing Me Softly”…

If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/1MAqR81Tz28IIqMJ2KUDAO

Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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